The elementary school my son attended held all-school assemblies on Fridays. Pre-kindergarteners through sixth graders, teachers, random staff members, and the director all crowded into the community room.
Parents were welcome as well. After announcements and special presentations, time permitting, students were given the opportunity to perform. Then, kids locked arms and swayed back and forth while everyone sang the school song.
I remember one assembly when three little fourth-grade girls got up on stage and sang “Firework,” by Katy Perry. They were really into it. They sang with their whole hearts. It was touching and adorable.
When I looked around the room, I noticed that some of the adults looked uncomfortable, which seemed odd to me, considering that this particular school is all about celebrating and encouraging children to share themselves.
Why was it that, even at a school which supports kids in the best possible ways, fully expressed kids triggered discomfort in some of the adults?
Most of us were fully self-expressed humans when we were little kids. Childhood was experienced as freedom. We sang at the tops of our lungs. We danced around with our arms flung wide. We mostly didn’t care what others thought about us.
We dreamed up possibilities about everything, and we had no doubt that anything we imagined could come true.
Then we grew up a little more. Endless directions from adults about staying safe, acting right, behaving, being quiet, and on and on shut us down. We stopped volunteering to sing our hearts out at assemblies. We stood back. We began to hide and to dream smaller dreams.
Bit by bit, we were molded, then we molded ourselves into fine, upstanding citizens. There’s nothing wrong with being a fine, upstanding citizen, unless it means that your true self has been squashed in the process of growing up.
I did that, squashed myself. I was just that kind of little girl, the one twirling round and round with my arms flung wide…until I was told that my dress flew up too high when I twirled and my panties showed and that wasn’t ladylike so stop it.
I was a curious kid. I asked lots and lots of questions, about everything, until people got annoyed and stopped answering. All the way up into middle school, I loved learning new things and asking questions. Then things got scary and I stopped because I’d gotten the message that what I was doing was too much for the grownups in my life, and my classmates didn’t think it was cool to ask so many questions.
I started looking around and seeing what being cool meant and trying it out for myself. I used to play in the street with the boys, but then I learned that girls were supposed to play with other girls, so I stopped. On and on it went.
All the verbal and non-verbal messages I got and kids get from adults about how to be right and better and fit in finally made it through and I squashed myself flat. It took me a long time to realize that’s what had happened.
Growing up is like walking a tightrope. There are so many rules all around that can obscure our inner compass. It doesn’t help when rules contradict other rules. How could we, as kids, navigate those mixed messages, all the while staying tuned to our own special knowing about our true selves?
Be kind to others, but set boundaries. Don’t talk to strangers, but don’t leave anyone out. Share, but stand up for yourself. And don’t break the rules or there will be consequences, but which rules? Rules can pile up so high it’s hard to choose a direction, much less take a deep breath.
Somewhere in there, amid the jumble of rules, amid the necessity of having rules, we manage to grow up. Kids need adults to guide them and yet because we are each individual, the adults who guide won’t have all the answers kids need. We are all fallible. We grow up fallible, raised by fallible people. We do our best, in growing up and in raising others.
We do our best, and we arrive here grown up, yet not finished. We search for meaning. We reach for awareness. We explore thoughts and excavate beliefs. The courage to do this searching and sorting leads us to identify the truth of who we are and to remember our original, wholeheartedly expressive selves.
Who are you when you take off the rules? What comes alive when you dare to feel past the habits those rules instilled? Who are you when you open wide and really get into sharing with your whole heart?
On a practical level, a tool called “thought modeling” can help with peeling off layers of thoughts, rules and beliefs to expose a more true you. Here’s an example of how it works.
When you feel some sadness or some other sort of painful feeling, ask yourself: What happened to make me feel this way? Write just the facts of what happened, without any emotion or drama added.
Next, ask what you made that thing that happened mean? Write just one thought, rule or belief down.
Next, ask yourself how that thought, rule or belief feels? Write down the feeling. Then ask, when you think about this thought and you feel that feeling, what kinds of things do you do?
Write down the actions you take. And finally, when you’re thinking about this rule or thought that makes you feel this way and take these certain actions, what result do you get? Write the result down.
This is how it would look in a Thought Model:
Fact of what happened: A person stared at me.
I made it mean this Thought: He thinks I’m strange.
This makes me Feel: Alone.
How I Act with this feeling: Hide. Act small. Do not be myself.
The Result I get with all of these combined: I’m strange because I’m not being myself.
We can use this same Thought Model to remove painful thoughts and then replace with new, better feeling thoughts.
Revealing painful thoughts, beliefs and rules and changing them can free your life, day by day. It happened once, as you were growing up and your thoughts changed based on rules.
It can happen again as you rediscover and grow your true self into the life you want.
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