“What people in the world think of you is really none of your business.”
Thank you, Martha Graham. If only that truth was instilled in us at a very early age. Rather, it serves as a reminder when the going gets tough. Too bad, because we might have avoided causing and experiencing a whole hell of a lot of heartache.
Think about it. There is no more productive strategy for breaking someone’s confidence – or having yours broken – than the “people think” strategy. The Knower of All Opinion wields that weapon with entitlement, regardless of… well… regardless of anything. Whether it’s the “I’m just saying what people think” or the “People think you’re…” or the entirely presumptuous “Everyone thinks…,” this razor sharp tool can swiftly and effectively shred an opponent to bits. Believe me; I’ve got scars on top of open wounds on top of scars to prove it. And I imagine I’ve left a few dings myself (I’m so sorry).
Ellie and I were talking the other day about my move to Hawai‘i and my blog, and she said, “People back home think that….” People? What people? Family? Friends? The whole state of Rhode Island? Doesn’t really matter, because whomever they were, I’m imagining them all gathered somewhere in a rage of collective agreement about their disdain for me. In my mind, even though no one can agree on the Beatles or The Rolling Stones, they’re sitting around, talking about me, confirming their consensus about what a complete and utter disappointment I am.
I am dust.
When an emotional issue arises between two people, why must a war be waged? Why rally the troops? Is it that we feel like our battle won’t be won without a battalion? Do we think that our own individual position is not strong enough? Seriously, bringing in what “people think” immediately turns the playing field into a battle field, and that bitch is never level. Never.
Because I love her so much and want to be vulnerable with her, rather than standing firm, Ellie and I managed to stand down our front lines in order to get the the real issue: HER feelings about my move to Hawai‘i and my blogging. Clearly she had talked about these things with other people, but we had to put that aside to be able to talk in all sincerity about us. That‘s a conversation I can have. And we did… a healthy, exploratory, challenging, and real exchange.
I have a distinct memory of the very first time I experienced the “group offense” tactic. In third grade, I was ganged up on. One of the class’s queen bees decided that I was not worthy for some unknown reason, and she rallied her troops by getting them think what she thought they should be thinking. Huh. I don’t think half of them knew what they were supposed to know about me, but there I was, in an open field, defenseless against the attack: not being selected for either team during a game of rounders during recess. The devastation was palpable. When there was nobody left to choose, eye-rolling and dramatic expressions of disappointment over having to take me rendered me powerless against the enemy front. Later, the whispering and side-eyes during lunch spoke volumes, even if the words “Everyone thinks you’re a loser” were not actually spoken.
In case you can’t tell, I remember like it was yesterday. The feelings of being hated and utterly alone left an indelible mark, from which I clearly have never fully recovered. As dramatic as it may sound, feelings of loyalty and trust have been elusive to me, and the supposition that “people” are always whispering behind my back is real. Anyone who knows me well has seen this insecurity manifest itself in myriad ways. It ain’t pretty.
What if the queen and I had had a chance to talk – just her and me – about what I had done to make her feel hurt and so self-protective? We can’t know, but it surely would have helped me avoid a lifetime of dismantled confidence. So why didn’t we get to work it out? Child development notwithstanding, were we even taught to pursue peace and understanding? I, for one, do not recall witnessing empathy and vulnerability, certainly not in a way that was more powerful than the apparent need to protect yourself.
Parenthood gives us the opportunity to overcome and/or proliferate the effects of things we experienced as children, so it’s not surprising that I’ve encouraged Nick and Ellie to be comfortable with – indeed stand up for – exactly who they are. I certainly don’t want them, like me, to spend the better part of their lives feeling shame for just being themselves. Queen bees be damned. Celebrate you. Celebrate your friends, and don’t worry what people think.
Clearly I’m not the only one that encourages their offspring this way, as our children’s generation shows us every day that they are succeeding at just being them. Uncomfortable for us old farts, sure, but awesome nonetheless. Styles are freer (buttless bathing suits), sexuality is embraced (whoever, whenever), time is just a concept (millennials, after all, have to stay “focused” on themselves), and gender is no longer black and white (he… she… it… they… zim… no matter). Heck, black and white is no longer black and white. Truly, everything is dripping with possibility. Evolution is a beautiful thing.
I was raised within a pretty clear set of boundaries about what it meant to be the right kind of person. Look everyone in the eye, speak when spoken to, eat every morsel on your plate, and – by god – write a thank you note promptly if you ever want to receive another gift. It’s just what needed to be done…no ifs, ands, or buts. Doesn’t matter if it’s a lifetime of battling a different instinct; it’ll be worth it in the end because you’ll be good. Well, the neighbors will think you’re good, and that’s what really matters, right?
So we decided to slay that beast and to teach our kids to find beauty in differences (cue heavenly music). Acceptance and curiosity would rule the day, dammit.
How is it, then, that the “people think” tactic – or let’s be real, bullying is still very real? And it is so much worse than what I experienced that fateful day so long ago. Frighteningly worse. Children are actually killing themselves because of it. Even more devastating is that kids are making kids kill themselves over it. WTF? Even though we’ve teed their generation up to not just view but actually believe that the world is their oyster, kids are proving that they still feel the need to be equipped with the heaviest and most destructive artillery.
Where have we gone wrong? When I encourage my kids to accept who they are and to resist anyone or anything that suggests they do otherwise, have I been feeding the People Think Beast? I certainly have instilled in them a commitment to self, sure, but I’ve also guided them to be accepting of others. So why do the battles persist? Is it just nature that those confused and undeveloped third grade egos are wired to prepare us to fight, instinctively setting us up to protect our turfs at all cost?
When Ellie and I explored our version of the issue, she said something that was a punch in the gut. “Your generation works so hard to be the champions of your kids, making everything seem possible, but you don’t do the same thing for each other. You always tear each other down.”
Despite our righteous and brilliant parenting (just ask us), was she saying that our chronic need to gird our loins has been less invisible – and much less as noble – than we might think? Consequently, are we modeling the very behavior we are telling our kids to avoid at all costs?
No wonder they’ve abandoned bathing suits that cover their asses.
Ugh. All I want is for my kids to know trust, to love and feel loved, and to maintain a balanced perspective on their value in this world. I want it… well… because I want to believe it is possible. Apparently, though, desire simply is not enough to turn the tide.
Maybe if we all participate, there would be hope of ending the war. I, for one, am working hard at how to identify when I am feeling insecure or unsure and how to feel strong enough and safe enough to name it. I have to find the willpower to say, “I’m not feeling good enough” rather than resorting to diminishing things around me to falsely place myself back on “top.” Seriously, how hard or risky can it be? I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where I asked someone for help, even if only to listen, and they haven’t at least tried.
I think it boils down to this: 1. increasing capacity for empathy, curiosity, and trust and 2. reducing the instinct to self-protect. A bit of a chicken and egg dilemma, for sure, but something really has to give. As idealistic as it may be, a need to believe that it could be as simple as relying on our humanity for one another to inspire us as peacemakers and not war-wagers.
All I know for sure is that, except in very unique circumstances, speaking for others is risky business and letting others speak for us is even more fraught (remember the game operator?). Being real means taking responsibility for solutions, not fortifying armies. I want to be okay with feeling what I really feel, be curious about what others are feeling, take chances on trusting others, and be a true champion of people.
Then I will have the privilege of knowing exactly what those people really think.
To read more about our Tiny House #1, view a gallery of that completed project’s progress photos, and join me in my musings, take a wander around my website.