Each day before each class, I stand at my door and shake the hand of each student as they come in the room. Or I try to. Some of them strategically sneak in behind others to avoid teacher cooties, while some wait until I rush into the classroom to deal with Crisis of the Moment, but I do catch most of them with a handshake and a hello.
One day this week, one of my students walked in, shook my hand and said, “You look beautiful today, miss!” I told her I had just thrown my hair up in a clip and barely put on makeup. She responded, “But you DID put on makeup. And jewelry. And you did your hair. That’s effort and you are beautiful!” I thanked her and basked for a moment in her praise, then remembered SHE’S that weird student that everyone tries to avoid sitting near, who wears unfashionably mismatched socks (not to be confused with fashionably mismatched socks and yes, that IS a thing), blurts out strange things in class and is just, well, pretty awkward. With her comment put in mental perspective, I taught my class.
Not four hours later, I was standing at the same door and a student shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “Your hair looks really weird, Miss!” Momentarily taken aback, I looked in the shaded window of my door to make sure my reflection wasn’t enhanced by a carefully tossed piece of paper or other student projectile sticking out of my hair. Satisfied that I actually looked much as I did when I was declared the Miss America of Dueitt Middle School earlier that day, I shrugged off his comment as just another sarcastic comment from THAT KID who always has a smart aleck remark or a carefully muffled rude retort to most things I say. With his comment put in mental perspective, I taught my class.
Yet, this question has been nagging me since that day: Why can I do this with 6th graders, but opinions from others can still swing my mental pendulum off kilter for hours, days or stupidly enough, even come back years later? Admittedly, I come by this somewhat naturally as my mother was raised in a home where what everyone else thought of you mattered way more than what you thought or knew of yourself. It didn’t matter if it was what you wore, how you spoke or how you breathed…how others judged you mattered. While she didn’t bring the full force of this to my upbringing (it was tempered by my father who didn’t care if people thought his was an opinionated jerk as long as they thought he was a principled opinionated jerk with integrity), it still pervaded my upbringing far more than I realized until the last few years.
To this day, I remember bathing suit shopping with my mom in my mid 30’s and trying on a suit that she felt did not cover my 35 year old cellulite enough. “Have you tried a suit with a skirt to cover ‘that’ up?” still rings in my ears almost 15 years later each time I try on something that shows an imperfection. I know my mom, a very loving woman with a fully loaded steamer trunk of her own childhood issues, was trying to help me in the best way she knew how…I really and truly believe that. I know she wasn’t trying to be malicious or hurtful, but I still mentally cling to that comment like it is real and true, while it is, in fact, just an opinion expressed, probably without thought, in a moment of time long ago
I can’t count the number of times in my adult life that I’ve been caught in the paralysis of analysis as I weighed the opinions of others, whether real or perceived, when making a decision. I remember when I was newly separated, I’d talk to so many people with so many opinions that my head would spin. It was almost as though if I could get enough of one opinion, it would tip the invisible scale in my mind and make things ok. Actually, it just left me dazed, emotionally exhausted and frustrated. If only I could burn calories with the mental gymnastics I performed as I turned the comments of others over and over in my head!
I will say that this character defect became very obvious to me when I was getting divorced (yes, the opinion factory worked overtime then too) and I’ve been diligently addressing it since then. Never do I want to get to the point where the opinions of those I love aren’t important to me, but I also don’t want them to be a deciding factor in all that I do. I knew I had made progress when I was looking at houses about 18 months ago. It was a huge goal for me to choose my own house when I bought it without being swayed too much by others’ opinions, including my own young adult children. While they were going to be living with me and I wanted them to be comfortable, I also knew they would eventually have their own homes and I needed to be the person who was happiest with my new home. So, neither of my dear kids walked into the house until after I closed on it.
I do value the thoughts of those around me and I think I’ve learned pretty well how to keep those in the proper perspective. The opinions I’m really trying to root out of my soul are the opinions of those who really don’t care more about me than the next person, or worse, don’t care about me at all. Unfortunately, over the years, I have let those type of opinions eat away at my mental well being and take up residence in the small holes they created. Unfortunately, my most numerous mental residents are often negative opinions rather than the positive ones.
Thankfully, I’ve evicted many of these residents and am slowly learning to keep the mental real estate open for my own thoughts and those that God puts in my head. Now, that’s an opinion that matters! And I know His thoughts, while not always “Atta girl!” are leading me in a positive direction of growth, not negative self criticism and mental gymnastics. Plus, He doesn’t care if my swimsuit has a skirt! Now, if I can only relegate most other opinions to the status of a 6th grader giving me a handshake, I’ll be in good shape!