“What on earth is going on with my heart, as it turns as cold as stone? You know these days I don’t feel anything, unless it cuts me right down to the bone…”
What do you say to the kid who asks you, “what on earth is going on with my heart?” Many (if not all) of us can relate to the sentiments in Gray’s masterpiece, “My Oh My,” a lament on losing touch with the love and thoughts that nurture us as human beings through the journey of life. While it sounds extreme, at times it’s as if our hearts have turned to stone, we’ve forgotten how to feel and our mind that “used to be so sharp” seems to let us down when we really need it.
You don’t have to dig very deep into the song to realise that the real enemy of our heart and mind is often ourselves. It’s the self critic that has the most power to stay stuck in our mind. Just like the negative thoughts in Gray’s song, even though we fight the self critic, trying to tear it up or burn it down, it has the power to “come right back again”, leaving us at Square One.
Self critique often leads us to play it safe, avoid sharing feelings, bottle things up and keep to oneself. Aziz Gazipura describes this phenomenon as the “the persistent fear of not being enough”, suggesting that our unrealistic comparisons everything around us often cause us to feel the way we do and avoid simply engaging with the world. It’s this fear that often stops us from taking the kinds of risks that help us to grow and live life to the fullest. Some people retreat into themselves so they can avoid the terrible self judgements about how awkward they are, what they can’t get right and what other people must think of them.
You also don’t have to dig very deep into the song to realise Gray’s solution: a lot of love. Educators love their students, and we want to lift them up when they’re down. We lay on praise, encouragement and other rewards at every opportunity so that we can validate the people our students want to become. I think that this is what makes education the truly caring profession in the same way that doctors and nurses care for the physical and mental health of their patients.
However, as any educator knows, there are the students we can’t lift, for whatever reason. We can encourage, praise and reward all we like, but the self-critique that lives in their minds and hearts is stronger than anything we can muster. The only real and lasting solution to self-critique is self-compassion. In Kristin Neff’s Self Compassion, the author explains the thinking on why self-acceptance is ultimately more important than self-confidence:
Self-esteem is contingent on success. We basically like ourselves and we judge ourselves positively when we succeed and when we do well. But the second we fail and make a mistake, our self-esteem goes out the window and we do not judge ourselves positively… The problem with self-esteem is it tends to be comparative in nature. Basically, if I have high self-esteem I have to feel special and above average. That basic need to be better than others is based on a logical impossibility. There’s no way everybody can be above average at the same time. We’re losing before we’re even out of the gate.
When working with kids that can’t be lifted through encouragement or praise, the challenge is fairly clear. We need to teach self-compassion. How can we start? Perhaps a few questions and caveats need to be explored:
- In our classrooms, how much of the confidence we instil in our kids is about comparisons? Are these comparisons doing more harm than help?
- Self comparisons – (think “you worked better today than you did yesterday”) can have a place, but personal best isn’t always a good measurement yardstick (just talk to any perfectionist, whose best is never good enough). Personal best is also highly subjective, and for the kid that puts themselves down at every opportunity, having a solid grasp on their personal best is far from easy.
- In a culture of testing, comparisons, discipline and conformity, how can we teach self acceptance?
- What other forms of assessment actually promote self acceptance? Are further opportunities for choice, self expression, reflection and validation necessary?
- Acceptance of the our kids, with all their quirks and difficulties is a good start. What happens when the teacher walks away?
These aren’t easy issues. Maybe we simply need to talk much more about the kinds of thoughts and feelings that Gray expresses so eloquently – as a first step to exploring what self-acceptance might look like for us and those we teach. I suspect, as Gray does, that it is going to take a lot of love to keep our hearts from freezing – so we’d better make a start!