I love Brene Brown. She’s my author girlfriend.
Brene Brown is a research professor and author and a really brave woman. She’s into exploring our emotions, thoughts and behaviors and getting real about how we make up stories about ourselves and others that point us down dangerously dishonest paths. She talks about shame and blame and how those experiences impact the way we see ourselves and our roles and identities.
I’m reading her book, Rising Strong, and it got me thinking about shame. And wondering if shame has impacted me. I don’t feel ashamed, typically. I mean, if I do something wrong, like overreact to an employee’s mistake or freak out on my daughter over some small misstep, I do feel ashamed, and seek forgiveness and to make amends. But I move on quickly and generally think of myself as worthy of love and care. But as I was reading about how shame exists in schools, and how there is an impact on creativity and learning, I began to get flooded with memories of experiences where teachers said things that I experienced as shame. Some examples:
Kindergarten. I was playing a game of musical chairs with my class, and I got pushed out of the circle of kids walking around the chairs. I tried to get back in but the other kids reacted as though I was “cutting.” My teacher saw me out of the circle and crossly demanded I get back in. The kids still wouldn’t let me in and I started to cry out of frustration. She marched over and told me to quit acting like a crybaby. I distinctly recall filing that information away: Don’t cry. It makes people think you’re a baby.
Second grade. We were talking about movies and how what we see in a movie is the end product, but there is so much that goes into making it. We were discussing how they might have to shoot a scene where a family is eating at a table and they may have to shoot the scene 20 times. I raised my hand to ask a question about it, and inexplicably my teacher said “Yes, Jessica, we know, the actors have to pretend to eat while they’re shooting.” I gleaned in that moment that my teacher thought I was a know-it-all. I also learned in that moment that people make assumptions about what you say before you say it and they can be wrong. I have kept those two pieces of information close at hand ever since. I often worry that people think that I think I know everything and I frame my communication accordingly, occasionally saying things like “this probably isn’t right but…” I know this is dumb, and I only do it when I’m operating out of insecurity. But it happens from time to time, and it’s fascinating to trace it back to that day, almost 30 years ago.
Fourth grade. I sat at a table with three other students and one was a boy I was friends with. He accidentally kicked me under the table, I looked up, and he said “sorry” and we smiled at each other. From the front of the room I heard “If Jessica and Josh would stop playing footsie, we could get on with the lesson.” I was so embarrassed and frustrated. First of all, we weren’t doing anything wrong. Secondly, it was a sweet moment. But instead, it became shameful. I “learned” that teachers disapproved of girls and boys interacting and I took on that position, finding myself judging girls that did anything that resembled flirting with boys for the next couple of years.
Sixth grade. I wore lipstick to school and my teacher called me up and told me it was inappropriate. I am happy to report I completely ignored this and continued to wear it. In 8th grade, I stepped it up to red lipstick and haven’t looked back.
It was right around sixth grade where I realized it was possible to know things teachers don’t know. Like the time I used the word “stature” in a book report and my teacher marked it wrong because he assumed I meant statue (which wouldn’t have made sense.) I am so grateful that I broke out of the false reality that adults always know more and know better. I began making more keen judgments, regarding who was worthy of my respect and admiration. Just being older than me didn’t get you that entitlement anymore. I wasn’t being disrespectful; outwardly, I extended the requisite obedience and compliance regardless of how little I actually respected a teacher. However, I had a very active thought life in my brain regarding whether these educators knew what they were talking about or not. This probably ventured a little too close to “superiority complex” land, but, overall, I believe I was deeply empowered by this new awareness that things are not always what they seem, that adults have major shortcomings, and that I didn’t have to accept what was fed to me, mindlessly.
Like everything else, you can put teachers along a standard bell curve. Like everyone else, I’m grateful to have come across a few genuine, intelligent, insightful, caring teachers. Those people impacted me in a positive way much like the few truly bad apples impacted me in a negative way.
The important part, however, is that we go back, examine these stories, consider what we gleaned from them and decide if it’s useful or not. We can CHOOSE how much these experiences impact us. If we heard from a teacher 30 years ago that we were stupid, and we have operated out of that belief, isn’t it time to go back and consider how valid that one person’s perspective at that specific point in time was? And this doesn’t apply to just teachers.
Your first boyfriend thought your feet were ugly. Are you still hiding them under a towel at the beach? Your mom thought the ten pounds you gained freshman year would ruin your life – was she right? Do you still see her disapproving face when presented with an Oreo? Did your camp counselor tease you for how you walk? Do you find yourself adjusting your gait if you think others are watching?
We have to challenge these stories we subconsciously tell ourselves. These stories that tally up our value and loveableness. The fact is, from my perspective, you were created by God. And He created you with loving intention. Just because your feet, hips or walk don’t meet the weird, current, temporary standard of perfection that 21st century America has decided for you, doesn’t mean you’re somehow less worthy than those who do. You have to decide what the standard is. If you want to stick with society’s standards, go for it. But remember, it’s contrived by flawed people like my impatient Kindergarten teacher. What matters is what you think, and what God thinks. And you can invite as many caring, safe, loving people into your life, to speak into these things as you want. But you can decide how much weight their opinion holds. And you don’t have to be a slave to anyone’s standards. Challenge those ideas you’ve been operating out of. Because they could be dead wrong. And you can be free of them.
Rising Strong is an excellent book. It’s incredibly challenging if you’ve never thought about this stuff before. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for 18 or so years, and it is still bringing up new challenges for me, regarding how willing I am to reckon with and rumble with and allow the revolution of my thoughts and feelings to take place. Emotional honesty and vulnerability are so, so hard. We all want to hide, to pretend we’re fine, to act like the choices of others don’t hurt us. We want to run from the tough emotions. We want to dismiss them and move on. But there is beauty in the uncertain, sticky, icky places of hard emotions.
Today, Cass went to see if the boy across the street would like to play. For a few months, they played almost daily and couldn’t get enough of each other. Recently he has stopped coming over and when she’s gone to see him, he’s been about to leave for an activity, or not feeling well. Today, he just flat out said he didn’t want to play. She was devastated! She came back, quite dejected. My instinct was to change the subject and get her engaged in something before this turned into a howling, negative mess. But since Rising Strong was literally in my lap, I paused. I invited her over to sit by me. I asked her some questions about how she was feeling. And when she started to cry, sharing that she feels like he just doesn’t like her, I wanted to run – literally wanted to run away from this hard feeling of a 7 year old boy rejecting my daughter. I wanted to run or yell at someone – his mother maybe? Yeah, I could yell at her for raising such an insensitive little brat who would hurt my little girl in this atrocious way by refusing to play with her. She’s better than him, anyway. He’s out of his league, by far. Why was she even wasting her time with him? I’m going to have a party and invite the entire neighborhood and purposely exclude them.
Oh my gosh. We go to such weird, dark places in pain, don’t we? But I hung in there. I stayed with her. I held her through some tears. Asked some more questions. Assured her that she is loved and a fun playmate. We sat quietly for a long time. I prayed silently, asking God to bless the moment, to bring some light. After a while, she slithered off my lap and ran off to play on her own. I caught a glimpse of her resilience and thanked God for it, because I know almost no characteristic is more valuable than the one that helps you bounce back. And it is often developed by experiencing loss or disappointment, being surrounded by a support system, and learning that “it’s ok.” We created a foothold today, with this tiny loss. We crammed strong metal into the rock face and tested it. It held. The rock face is high. But those footholds make all the difference.
Brene Brown for the win.