This week I invite you to join me in reflecting on our own sense of who we are. From my experiences with young people, adults and my own family interactions, I reflect that the most common theme that regularly pops up is ‘who am I?’ I am drawn to the fact that we are the sum total of our genetic makeup and our experiences in life and through the 28 years of advising young people it seems as a culture, that we have moved more and more towards the ‘constant comparative method’ of valuing ourselves through checking out in some way with others. I feel sure that this is one of the most fundamental paths to mental ill health – we almost ignore our genetic heritage and place ourselves in total vulnerability by allowing others to provide our experiences and to ‘grade them’. Yes, I include schooling in this. I’ll explain…..
I have met young students who, in my opinion bring light into the room, they are quirky, think at a tangent, have a wicked sense of humour and quickly grasp my approach to discovering who they are and what they bring to this world. They bring an infectious energy and remind me why I love my work so much. Yet these same young people are relating stories of bullying; teachers telling them off and quite often frustrated parents who for some reason (constant comparison) think that they have somehow failed their offspring.
I have met adults, who can barely take up the space on the sofa without feeling that they somehow don’t deserve to be listened to. I find it heart breaking and the place to start is often with learning self-compassion. Forgiving ourselves for getting caught up in the constant comparative method of westernised life. We then begin the journey of learning what is helpful in our life pursuit and what is unhelpful, slowly moulding behaviours and experiences that really do bring a sense of “I am enough”.
I have met parents who despair because school reports are ‘bad’, they are told their child is not behaving correctly etc. etc. Once again, learning to step beyond this and to choose “is this helpful or unhelpful for our family life and the future of my child?” is somewhat empowering and liberating.
What do I mean by the constant comparison method? Jennifer McCrea offers a useful blog that I think goes some way to explaining my understanding. She writes:
“I suspect I’m not alone in still occasionally getting lost in the narrative that the approval of others is a necessary ingredient in life. We believe trying to impress each other — society, especially the people we think we need most — is our best strategy to all things good: safety, security, love, happiness and success……”
“…..we too often walk around asking (often subconsciously) a stream of questions to monitor our position in relation others: What did he/she think of me? Did he/think I was smart, successful, attractive enough? Why did I say THAT? If I’d only said THIS instead. Why didn’t he/she return my text? Did I do something wrong? On and on it goes.
It is a constant scanning to try to determine where we stand. Are we gaining or losing ground? If we believe we are gaining, we feel great. If we believe we are losing, we feel lost and very easily move into manipulation mode to try to regain some sense of illusory control: little strategies we’ve perfected over the years to attempt to gain admiration and approval. The real irony, though, is that this constant struggle to win love and approval or to ensure we don’t lose it, blocks the actual experience of it.”
When we become parents, we tend to do this not just for ourselves but also for our children, the stress and distress this can cause mounts up and the whole family becomes a place of lowered energy, sadness and even depression. Jennifer’s last sentence above, “the real irony” points us back to some kind of relief – if we settle into our own experiences, learn to communicate at a deeper connected level with our partners and children, we can begin to discover our own and their Raison d’Être. Our ‘who am I? becomes an I am.
We are unique and yet our socialisation shifts us towards sameness, of course we want our children to ‘fit in’ at school but just sometimes it is their uniqueness that will change the culture of a class, or even the whole school. Think bigger – Greta Thunberg disobeyed her school rules of attendance and has had an impact on the world stage. I am not advocating anarchy but a more subtle how helpful is this for me/my child in this particular context.
How do we encourage our children to experience ‘enoughness’? Again, Jennifer writes in her latest blog about ‘offering’, what do we bring?
“Knowing and honouring your offering imbues life with a sense of meaning, a sense of direction.
In indigenous cultures, part of the work of the Elders is to help each child recognize his/her unique offering. Observing a baby with patience. With stillness. What is the baby naturally drawn to? What is it innately interested in? What calms it? What makes it laugh with joy? What causes it pain and sorrow? What gifts come easily to it?
Our current western culture doesn’t recognize this enough. We too often fill our babies with stimuli and rules and fears and expectations. We don’t look through the eyes of divine love that says we are each here to make a gift of our unique offering.”
Perhaps this week, just catch those moments when we may be employing the constant comparative method; feeling lack and check out how useful is this for me/my family in this moment? As Jennifer concludes:
“Enoughness isn’t determined by others. It’s entirely our own to define and own”.