Have you ever had the situation happen to you when you witnessed another teacher yell at child or treat them roughly? You knew that it was wrong. It really didn’t feel right, and you wanted to say something…. However, when you wanted to challenge the behaviour you just couldn’t do it. Something stopped you.
Or perhaps you are a student or in a team meeting and you have brilliant idea that you would like to share or a question that you would like to ask… You know that you should speak up and ask the question or share your idea, but something stopped you.
Have any of these situations happened to you? Has this lack of courage made you reflect inwards and caused you to criticise yourself for not speaking up when it counted?
I know that in the past when this has happened to me, I would get very upset and angry with myself. I would use this as a way to berate myself and tell myself what a useless person/teacher/leader/mother I was. I would use this as evidence to prove that I couldn’t do anything right and how powerless I was as a person.
Later in my teaching journey and my life apprenticeship I became really curious as to “why?”
I wanted to know why myself and countless other good people out there are afraid to speak up. Is this something that you have been curious about too?
What is Stopping us?
There are a number of things at play here, that really run a lot deeper than you would initially think.
Firstly, there is our innate desire to belong and to be part something much larger than ourselves. Our biological make-up, our urges, our hormones are all programmed for survival. In order for us to survive as a human being we need to connect with other human beings – we depend on each other for survival. Relationships and connectedness are vital to our well-being and physiologically we will do anything to belong. This drive is so strong that we see this in our young children, our teens and ourselves and we are often misguided in our thinking that in order to belong we must to “fit-in”.
Ironically this fear of not “fitting in” and rejection stops us from stepping up to challenge behaviours that we know aren’t right and is a barrier to vulnerability which is the prerequisite for courage and meaningful connection with other human beings.
Secondly, we are a product of our experiences and cultural programming. This starts from when we are infants and continues through our experiences and our relationships with our parents, extended family, our teachers at school, our peers and significant relationships with others. Even if the messages were subtle or implied, they can become our inner voice and our core beliefs from which we operate.
Our natural propensity for to think disobediently is constrained by something silent and controlling. It grew up with you and stands attentively just behind your shoulder. It is your social editor. It got into bed with you last night and accompanied you on your way to work this morning. It is the cautioning voice that says “no” to your ideas because they might sound silly, or they might not work or they might be unstable, or they might make you look like a fool. Your social editor has phenomenal power and causes you to function at levels far below your potential. It trains you to approach problems complicitly. In the pursuit of social integration, it teaches you not to stand out and shuts down initiatives that potentially might lead to disruption. It also suggests that you are not empowered to change things.Welby Ings – Disobedient Teaching (2017)
Vestiges of Childhood
I was really inspired by a video I watched on Linkin by communications consultant, Jessica Chen. In her video she speaks about how the Asian culture of being an obedient child can unknowingly disadvantage people from being successful in the workplace as adults. Her reasoning is that as children they are programmed to obey and not to speak up.
This really made me think about my upbringing, and although I am not Asian, how this “programming” has helped or hindered me in my career. I am sure that is true in many cultures and over many generations. This is even more challenging for many women, because as girls many of us were discouraged from taking risks and instead we were tacitly encouraged towards perfection.
Perhaps like me you were part of the “seen and not heard” generation of children – when it was frowned upon to be part of “adult conversation” or to have any opinion other than that of your parents and your teachers?
Perhaps you were ‘disciplined’ for challenging the status quo or for being disobedient?
Perhaps you had a dis-empowering experience with a teacher or with the education system when you were a child, and this is being triggered when you have a confrontation with a colleague in your setting?
When I reflected on this I realised that this, is something to think about when I am responding as a parent, a teacher, a leader and as a friend.
I have reflected deeply about what the implications are for us as teachers and parents of future generations of adults?
Do we spend our time (knowingly or unknowingly) telling children to “grow up” or to “shut up”?
Do we brush aside feelings with, “you’re okay” when children clearly aren’t?
Do we demand absolute obedience without considering the child’s mana in our request?
Are we holding up a mirror to our own behaviour and walking the talk?
Are we unwittingly perpetuating this cycle of teaching children that their thoughts, ideas and opinions don’t matter?
Are we sending mixed messages to our children about obeying and not challenging, but then expecting them to go against this programming and challenge bullying and other discriminatory behaviour that they may encounter?
“Grow up, ” we say. “Stop crying,” we plead. “Be quiet,” we scream. “Do as you’re told,” we demand. And then we wonder why there are so many adults that can’t find the courage to speak, or feel, or create. Maybe there are so many wild souls in cages because we put them there.Brooke Hampton
Let me share my own experiences as a child and how this has affected me in my adult and professional life:
I grew up in a strict religious household with my father as the pastor of our local church. There was a distinct message growing up that we needed to be an example of our faith to others. Now I am not wanting to throw my parents under the bus here – as an adult looking back I can see that my parents’ intentions where not to harm me and they were just living from what they were taught from their parents. However, what they didn’t mean to happen and what did happen, was that I took this as a message that I had to be perfect. That I couldn’t make mistakes and that just being myself was not good enough. I grew up with the perception that someone was always watching, and I lived in fear of disappointing others especially my parents.
My “have to be perfect” persona and my “need to please” has proved very difficult to shake and I am still challenged by this from time to time. It is only in the past few years since I started this blogging journey, that I have been able to examine the vestiges of my childhood for what they are. I have been able to challenge my need to “fit in” and to be liked and have started inquiring into who I authentically am under all the cultural programming and childhood experiences. This has been an inquiry into how to authentically and truly belong to me.
True Belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group. It’s not fitting in or pretending or selling out because it’s safer. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, to get uncomfortable, and to learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are.Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness (2017)
The Healing Power of Self-Awareness
The great news is that if this is something that you want to change about yourself you can. The first step starts with self-awareness.
- Dig deep – Be curious and courageous and ask yourself why. “Why do I find it hard to speak up and share my ideas?” “Why do I find it difficult to admit that I don’t understand and ask a question?” “Why do I find it painful to challenge behaviour that I find unacceptable?” “Why do I find challenging to speak about what I believe in?” “Why can’t I back myself?” What cultural programming are you fighting against?
- Get real about the payoffs vs the costs – You might be looking at this point and think “There isn’t a payoff”, but there always is. The possible payoffs could be: Keeping yourself safe, controlling the situation, not having to be responsible, and being a victim (powerless to change). In this situation you might need to ask yourself what your payoffs are costing you. Are they costing you your joy, passion and love for teaching or life in general? Perhaps your inability to speak up is causing you to wage an internal war in yourself and you are feeling angry, frustrated, lonely or a little sad. Perhaps this internal struggle is all you speak about with your family and friends and this is impacting the quality of your relationships with others. Perhaps it is costing you, your integrity. It is up to you to decide whether the payoffs outweigh the costs and which you would rather live with.
- Let go of the past – Once you have figured out “why?” and analysed he payoffs vs costs don’t dwell there. You have been living from that “why” for most of your life and it has been holding you back. Acknowledge its presence in your life as part of your life apprenticeship, but don’t use it as a crutch to keep you in victim mode. It will only keep you stuck, and you can’t change what is in the past. Instead forgive and move on. Concentrate on what you have influence over, the present – the here and now.
- Courage vs Comfort – You can’t be courageous and comfortable at the same time. Being courageous requires us to be vulnerable and I don’t know anyone who would consider vulnerability as comfortable. It is up to us as individuals to choose which of these is more important to us. Comfort or Courage, Empathy or Apathy, Authenticity or Fitting In, Compliance or Disruption, Innovation or Stagnation?
- Be aware – Notice how this comes up for you in interactions with others. The key here is not to spiral into harmful, self-deprecating self-talk. Instead focus on strategies that you can use to change your behaviour.
- Take baby steps – Just because you want to start speaking up, it doesn’t mean that you will. Plan to take small steps each day to speak up. Perhaps you might challenge yourself to just be courageous and share your thoughts and ideas just once through-out the day? Or that you will be brave and challenge the bad practice of another teacher when you feel that it is causing harm to a child? Perhaps you will stand up to gossip in the break room? It might seem a bit strange at first – it is not something that has been a reality for you, so it is going to take some getting used to.
- Back yourself and be brave – Part of the reason we don’t speak up is that we are not confident in ourselves and what we have to share. Or we are not clear about what we believe or why we believe this is important. Ask yourself what you believe and why you believe this? Role-play situations where you might need to back yourself and what you would say. If this is embarrassing for you practice in the shower or when you are alone in the car. A common misconception is that we have to be confident before we act – without realising that it is action that makes us confident. Quite often when we are prepared, appear confident and can back up what we are saying, people will respect us for our perspective even if they don’t agree. On occasions when I have had to have a challenging conversation it hasn’t been half as daunting in real-life as it has been in my head leading up to the conversation. The other person might even surprise you and share your opinion.
- Be flexible and stay open to being a learner – Even though you believe in your perspective stay open to other people – they may have valid perspectives that they believe in too. Stay flexible to learning from others. Some people might never agree with you and you might not be able to change that. That is okay, it is not your job to make everyone agree with you. Respect others rights to their thoughts, experiences and opinions – you can’t change others, you can only change yourself. Learn from your interactions with others and let go of things that don’t serve you.
- Be compassionate – This applies to yourself and to others. As with acquiring any new skill, you will make mistakes and that is part of any learning process. But also, be compassionate to others – just as you have your life apprenticeship that has shaped you, so do the other people who you encounter in your life.
So over to you…
What were your childhood experiences and how has your cultural programming shaped who you are and how you are with yourself and other people?
What steps can you take to speak up for what you believe in or to share some of your amazing ideas?
I would love to hear your stories, thoughts and experiences.
Until next time….
Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness – The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. Thorndike Press.
Ings, W. (2017). Disobedient Teaching. Otago University Press.
Chen, J. http://soulcastmedia.com/