During the last three months we have explored the lessons learned from infants and puppies ("Lessons Learned from Infants and Puppies," March issue). In the initial article an overview of the lessons was given: the importance of down time, asking for what you want, and being yourself. In April we talked in detail about slowing down in a fast-paced culture. Last month we discussed asking for what you want. In this final article of the series we will talk about ways to express your most authentic self.
Right now you may be thinking, "I always express who I am." In one sense that is true. In each moment you can only be who you are at the time. Most of us, however, play a series of roles and put on various masks or faces to meet the situations in which we find ourselves.
It takes introspection, time, and courage to discover and learn to act in congruency with who you authentically are. Infants and very young children are not confined by the expectations of family and society. They have no concern about how others perceive them. At the other extreme, adolescents are acutely sensitive to the perceptions of others and desperately want to fit in. Even teenagers who look like they are rebelling are only taking a stand against their parents, school, another group, or significant other. If one observes carefully, it can be seen that their form of rebellion connects them to another group or set of mores.
Being yourself means learning to speak and live your own truth. It means claiming your personal power, and loving and approving of who you are. It does not mean tossing away appropriate behaviors that allow you to effectively participate in society. Adults need to live by the laws of the community and work place. Children and adolescents need to adhere to community rules and fulfill the requirements of being effective students. Both adults and children need to express their thoughts and feelings in a way that respects and leaves others in integrity.
There are a finite number of feelings, thoughts and talents. Each person, however, is born with a specific blueprint of how those thoughts, feelings and talents will be combined and expressed. The blueprint is unique to that individual. No person is the same as another. In a perfect world, each of us would live a life that reflected that unique self. Since we live in an imperfect world, the unique self gets pulled in many directions and encouraged to look and act in a prescribed way. Some of those ways are in antithesis to who we uniquely are. Books by the score are written to assist people in learning to understand and express themselves more fully--to express their "true" self. This article focuses on three ways for adults and children to recognize and more fully live who they were created to be.
There are no wrong or bad thoughts or feelings. You may, though, be afraid of feelings and thoughts that you think are bad. Sometimes if you express those thoughts or feelings to another, they try to take them away from you. This increases your belief that you should not think or feel certain emotions.
Let's imagine a little girl goes to her mom and says, "I hate Mindy. She's mean." The mom might reply, "Oh, you don't really hate her. Maybe Mindy was just having a bad day." The little girl leaves the interaction believing that maybe she isn't feeling what she thinks she is. She doubts herself. In the future, she either pushes those feelings away or doesn't tell anyone about them. A better reply from the mom would be, "I can hear that you are angry at Mindy and that she did something that hurt your feelings." This opens the door for the child to talk about the situation. It lets her know that anger and hurt are honest feelings, and that it is okay to feel them. She willingly recognizes and acknowledges how she feels in certain situations.
Sometimes adults are afraid of their own and their children's feelings because they don't know how to handle them. Adults may be afraid that they will express their intense feelings physically and hurt another. They may have the feelings like anger or hate or lust. It is important to remember that feelings and thoughts are not bad. There are, however, appropriate and inappropriate ways of expressing them. We need to learn and to teach our children how to express strong thoughts and feelings in a way that is respectful to both self and others.
Respect does not mean there will always be agreement. It means that no one will be put down, demeaned, or ridiculed for who they are or what they think. It means that no one will be physically injured.
When you or your child cannot express strong feelings appropriately or when the feelings and thoughts get in the way of relationships, work or school, professional help may be warranted. If the thoughts are of suicide, professional intervention is mandatory.
Setting personal boundaries is an important part of becoming fully one's self. Learning to say NO is part of boundary setting. Traditionally women have a harder time saying NO than men. Teaching your children to say NO respectfully is an important part of parenting. Modeling saying NO is an essential part of the teaching. We are not talking here about the oppositional NO that is a natural part of two-to-four-year-old development. Nor is it the NO that often comes out of the mouths of adolescents. The NO that we're talking about is the NO that says, "I've thought this through carefully, and what you are asking is something I cannot do at this time." Your reasons for saying NO do not need to be defended. It is your personal right.
Moms and dads are often called to provide refreshments, serve on committees, coach sports teams, baby sit other family's children, and care for extended family members. Doing one's share is an important part of family and community life. Too often, though, a few do the work of many. Learning to say NO without feeling guilty is part of being who you are. The person asking may express disappointment or even attempt to make you feel bad for saying NO; however, saying YES when you want to say NO means you will perform the task with resentment. Of course, there are times you must say YES when you don't want to. This can be driving your child to music lessons or caring for a sick family member. When you live your life with integrity, these times don't consume you. When you say YES to look like a good person, you live from others' expectations instead of from your own authentic self. This depletes your energy and diminishes your vibrancy. Learning to discern what you really want to do and like doing, and respectfully saying NO when you need to, leads to greater authenticity and greater joy in life.
Hobbies and talents provide the opportunity to express your creativity. Sometimes parents think it is important for children to engage in the more popular extracurricular activities such as sports. They also might like their children to participate in activities they had enjoyed as children. This is fine if these are the activities that children want to explore. It can be difficult for parents when their children want to participate in less mainstream activities or in activities where they might not be successful.
I know a little boy whose parents are runners. They hoped he would become a runner, too. He is coordinated and quick. He had no interest in running, however. He wanted to dance. Wisely, they enrolled him in a dance class. He enjoyed going to the lessons, and gained in coordination and dexterity just as he would have in running. Most importantly, he was happy. These parents were willing to assist their son in learning to respect his unique self.
It is hard for parents when their child wants to pursue a hobby in which no talent seems evident. They don't want their child to experience failure or disappointment. A young adolescent that I worked with wanted to be an artist. She had no particular talent in drawing or painting. Although hesitant, her mom enrolled her in a community art class for teens. The sensitive teacher provided lessons suited to all levels of ability. While the girl did not demonstrate great skill, she had fun and gained an acceptance of her strengths and weaknesses. Some time later, she took a pottery class. She was an adept potter. Not only did she learn where her talents were, she learned that art comes in many forms.
While it is uncomfortable to see your children be less than successful, it is only through experiencing all levels of success that children learn who they are, what they enjoy, and how they want to express themselves.
Books, tapes, and CDs with stories and songs to help children recognize and discover who they are abound. The TV program MR. ROGER'S NEIGHBORHOOD ran for years. Reruns are now shown regularly. Fred Rogers had a talent for helping children feel good about who they are. Daily he said to his TV audience, "I like you just the way you are."
One of the greatest gifts parents can give their children is the gift of acceptance just the way they are. Parents who assist their children in expressing their unique self through their likes, dislikes, skills, and talents, have children who are happy, content, and whole.