(This post is dedicated to my friend Jeanette, because it’s her birthday today.)
Man, I have been so burnt at work lately, that when I got home last night, I just wanted to do a short and pithy post, and then start some serious weekend chilling.
So the plan was: Post, then coast.
But I wanted to post something that felt important to me. And the phrase “We are neither as unimportant or important as we fear” — or some variation thereof — is one that has been haunting me, in a good way, for about a year.
(I don’t like the idea of being “haunted,” usually. For years and years, I was afraid of ghosts, until my bf cured me of that by saying this to me one day: “Ann. You realize that there are no ghosts, don’t you?”)
Last year, when I was working on a book, the phrase “You are neither as important or unimportant as you fear” popped into my head. I made it the title of a chapter, which I started writing and stopped writing last year. And I’m not happy with that chapter. I don’t think I’ve explained that phrase well enough, or even embellished my attempts at explaining it with particularly engaging or useful examples.
Hmmmm. I’m realizing something right now. Self judgment seems to be in the house, in a more powerful way than usual.
That last paragraph reminded me of how I was last night, when I was in the “Coast” portion of the “Post, then coast” plan. I was talking to my bf at dinner, thinking about my experiences at work, considering stories to tell him, and having these kinds of thoughts:
“I could tell him this story. Nope. Don’t know how to make that interesting and engaging. How about this thing that happened? Nope. Don’t know how to tell it well. That other thing that happened with so-and-so? Nah. Don’t know how to shape that story, either.”
I told my bf last night about how I was struggling with this, as I tried to tell him one story, feeling frustrated with how inadequately I was telling that one, too. I had so much trouble last night, translating my experience — which had felt interesting and important while I was living it — into a story that somebody else could appreciate and understand.
And that struggle can relate to any kind of communication, can’t it? Whether we’re blogging, writing a book, talking to somebody (whether we’re in the role of friend, family member, acquaintance, or professional) — how do we translate our inner experience into something of value, that can be received and understood by the other person? It takes effort, doesn’t it?
So, lately, I haven’t been feeling like I have the wherewithal, the energy, or the skill to shape my experiences into interesting stories. And sharing stories is so vital — as a way to grow personally and to connect with others.
I wrote about this importance of telling and sharing stories, in another chapter from that book — one that I’m satisfied enough with, thank goodness!– called, “You Might as Well be The Hero of Your Own Story” (posted here), While that chapter includes the pain of not feeling like the hero of your own story, I don’t think I included anything about that other kind of pain — when you struggle in the shaping and sharing of your stories.
Well, I’m realizing that I’m engaging in several cognitive distortions right now, including this one:
All-or-Nothing thinking (also known as “Black-and-White thinking”).
Things are either all good or all bad, people are either perfect or failures, something new will either fix everything or be worthless. There is no middle ground; we place people and situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray, or allowing for complexities. Watch out for absolute words like “always”, “never,” “totally,” etc. as indications of this kind of distortion.
I’m engaging in All-or-Nothing thinking when I’m thinking that either I can or cannot tell stories. I’m engaging in All-or-Nothing thinking when I’m deciding that the stories– or the chapter I’ve written — are either good enough to share or they are not. This kind of All-or-Nothing judging about the stories I have to tell — what I want to communicate — is getting in the way of my trying to connect and to share what’s important to me.
So I’m going to try challenge this distortion, right now, by sharing that Not-Good-Enough chapter — which I wrote about a year ago. I’m going to copy it from my Google Document — suppressing urges to re-write and also losing my investment in the outcome (that is, what you might think about it).
Feel free to read this, skim it, or skip it entirely (past the copyright symbol), to a birthday greeting to my friend, Jeanette.
Another F***ing Opportunity for Growth:
You are neither as important or as unimportant as you fear
When I was in Social Work school, I went to a presentation about suicide prevention. One of the presenters, who had years of experience working at a crisis prevention center said to the audience of students, “During an initial assessment, you might worry about asking if somebody is suicidal, for fear of making them feel worse. Don’t worry so much about saying the wrong thing! Believe me, you’re not going to have that much of an impact on somebody in crisis. You’re not that important.”
After the presentation, I was walking out with one of my classmates. She had an expression on her face which I’d seen before on fellow students (and in the mirror). With an I’m-so-exhausted-trying to learn-something-that-is-so-hard-and-pays-so-little look, she said, “If I’m not going to be important to patients, why the hell am I doing this?” I could see her point, as well as what the presenter was trying to tell us. I thought for a minute and told her this: This is the way I look at it. Every connection is important.”
What I might have said — instead — is the title of this chapter: We are neither as unimportant or as important as we fear.
In doing group work, I constantly encounter people underestimating and overestimating their impact on others, and I see how this gets in the way of their engaging completely and authentically with each other.
Here’s an important aspect of group therapy work: People usually replicate in a therapy group how they feel and act with other people in their lives. The group becomes kind of a microcosm, a more controlled sampling of how people are interpersonally. Because most of us, at times, feel like we don’t matter to others, naturally a member of a group will feel unimportant at times.
Sometimes these “less-than” feelings can result in a member leaving the group. Or sometimes a member can leave for other reasons. But here’s something I see constantly: Members, when they leave, often believe they won’t be missed. They will choose to leave without saying goodbye. (Even though I will use all possible powers of persuasion to ask them to come and say goodbye. See “Goodbyes are important”.) No matter what the absent member thinks, the group misses them, every time. The person leaves a hole. And the person has left, so they don’t know. We can’t tell them!
I try to communicate this to group members. I sometimes let people know after a first meeting, “You are already important to the group, whether or not you believe that.” Also before a person starts participating in a group, I ask him or her to agree to this: “When you are finished with group, please come to a final meeting to say goodbye, honoring your and the group’s importance.”
Conversely, people can overvalue their own impact on others, and walk on eggshells, for fear of hurting the other person. We can fear that we have the power to create great harm, just by saying the wrong thing. Or if we make a mistake, we can believe that we’ve hurt a person more than we have. We can feel guilt about our imperfections and what we have or haven’t done, and withdraw from people.
That was what that crisis team presenter, at the beginning of this chapter, was trying to tell me and my fellow students. Your words don’t have that much power. You don’t have to always say the right thing. Other people aren’t as fragile — as damaged by your mistakes — as you might fear. People are resilient, and they have others in their lives to temper any effect you might have. Think about all the times people have hurt your feelings or said the wrong thing! You’ve survived all of these.
Again, I see this fear of importance — of the ability to harm others — in groups. People new to group work often constrict and edit themselves, for fear of saying “the wrong thing.” They may squelch any “negative” feelings (like impatience, anger, or uneasiness) they experience towards somebody else, for fear of insulting that person. And if they do say something — often inadvertently — that hurts somebody else, they take that as proof that they were right to be careful. Maybe they should be even more careful from now on! This can put a real crimp in honest, authentic communication.
So here’s something I tell people in group, all the time: You are responsible ONLY for your own feelings and actions. Even though what you say or do will have an effect on others, you are not responsible for what other people feel, say, or do. While this may sound like I’m saying, “Go ahead and be mean to each other! It doesn’t matter!” that’s not it. What I am saying is this: we can only control ourselves, not others. And if we’re too careful about hurting other people (which usually involves mind-reading, anyway), we run the risk of being inauthentic, as well as building up resentments towards others.
I also see this issue of importance play out in people’s experience of self-consciousness. I’m on kind of a rampage about self-consciousness these days, because I see it wreaking negative effects on me and some people I love. I see self-consciousness (a particular kind of self-judgment, I suppose) making people “play small”, “lay low,” and restrict their actions, for fear of how things might appear or look.
When we’re adolescents, and our self-consciousness is in full bloom, we might hear this from other people:
“Don’t worry so much about what other people think. You’re not that important to them. They’re hardly noticing you.”
But that doesn’t feel so good, does it? I mean, we want to be noticed, don’t we? We want to matter!
But then, we might feel shame about wanting to be noticed and feel like a fool for thinking that maybe we mattered to other people. Being noticed is probably better than being invisible, isn’t it?
I think about this when I’m walking around, singing out loud (something I love to do and which I’ve been indulging in more lately). When I’m challenging my own self-consciousness, it helps me to think about the title of this chapter. People may notice me when I’m doing something that looks goofy. They may think, “That’s weird.” They may glance, judge, and then instantly forget about it. They may not notice me at all. Knowing I’m not as important or unimportant as I fear, frees me up to sing out loud, walking around in the world, without caring what others think.
So figuring out our own importance to others is complicated, difficult to know (because we’re not mind readers), and seemingly endless. It can engage shame, self-consciousness, narcissism, hopes, and fear.
But it’s neither as important or as unimportant as we fear.
© 2013 Ann Koplow
Phew! I’m glad I posted that here. That helped me, for sure.
Now for the birthday greeting to my friend Jeanette. This is a YouTube video of a Pat Metheny song that we’ve both loved for years — “Are You Going With Me?” (in a version that’s relatively new to us).
Thank you for answering the question “Are you going with me?” with a “Yes!” for all these years.
And dear reader?
Thanks for going with me here, too.