These next two posts are the most difficult pieces of writing I’ve ever made public. Definitely the most personal (which is saying a lot!! lol….).
The fact that this was so difficult to write is kind of weird, because these posts are entirely positive. (I mean, there’ll be some negative stuff in here probably, but the overall point is entirely positive.) I want to share with you what is perhaps the most beautiful inheritance of wisdom that has passed through the generations of my family, and it’s one of the things I’m both proudest of and most grateful for in my life. I thank my mom directly for this. And it’s one of the lovely, lovely qualities I now see flourishing in my kids.
This follows directly from the last post, in which we were talking about “Feeling Seen”, the importance of social connections, social validation, and things like that. Because it was my mom, and my grandparents, who taught me, through how they lived their lives, how deep “Feeling Seen” can go.
Mom has always exemplified, in the mundane, everyday interactions in her daily life, the value of straightforward, overt, genuine Friendliness. Even when it’s a little awkward with a stranger, even when “the ice hasn’t been broken yet,” if you put yourself out there, if you treat everybody like your neighbour and GENUINELY are interested in them as people, spend a few seconds, or a few minutes, talking with them, being real with them, then you will find that a magical world coalesces around you.
But I am….afraid….in a way, to talk about this. (Yes, ironic, I know; after all, the whole point of these posts is the value of trusting, sharing and connecting with people! But still, it’s triggering AF to be honest with you.)
It’s not something specific that I’m afraid of, or a set of fear-based cognitions, like “I have these fear-based thoughts or expectations about this.” It’s just an inchoate feeling of unease, triggered by sharing positive things.
I guess it’s the feeling of vulnerability, when you are in a domain in which there are “past wounds”. And yes, definitely, there are “past wounds” when it comes to sharing positive things about myself with people. That was long ago strangled out of me, and ever since then, I have found it much easier to intellectually explore and write about “negative” things, difficult things, even shame and trauma and things like that, than positive, self-loving things. This was a HUGE struggle in therapy, because anytime my therapist would get gentle with me and ask me if I could extend compassion to myself, or say, put my hand over my heart, or give myself a hug for comfort, or feel empathy for what “that child went through”, and things like that — I would literally get angry and say “Fuck no, I’m not doing that. That is fucking stupid, and I’m not doing it.”
(My therapist is a damn saint.)
Of course, many, many people feel some degree of discomfort with their strengths, with receiving praise or compliments from others, with “standing out”, and certainly with self-promotion.
After all, who wants to be one of those full-of-yourself people who’s always talking about how great they are, and just bores the hell out of everyone around them?
(I’m sure those people don’t even want to be those people. They very likely are trying hard to connect, and for whatever myriad possible reasons, this is what comes out when they try to relate to people. So…I’m pursuing this long aside here, to point out that even when there is the apparent “full-of-yourself” person, such as “those people” to whom I was alluding, it’s almost always the case that when you get to know that person and their circumstances and history, they aren’t actually that way deep down inside. Like everybody else, they are coping, the best they know how.)
(NOTE: What are called “personality disorders?” Yeah….those are tough in their extreme forms. Like, you get entangled with a really hardcore, extreme, unrepentant Narcissist? Then honestly, I think “boundaries” are the only way to go, and I’m sorry to say that; I hope such people can receive the care and healing they obviously need. But priority #1 is prevent yourself from getting harmed. And sometimes that does simply override everything else. However, in the discussion that’s to come here, I’m going to talk about “people in general”, which includes most people with so-called personality disorders in my opinion. Keeping in mind, yes, there are exceptions to things like ‘universal friendliness’….)
Child Abuse: When the line between “helping someone improve” and “tearing them down”, gets erased
The virtues of humility, respect, courtesy, not boasting or being prideful, are virtually universal (particularly if you exclude the recent strange phenomenon of hyper-individualism that has gripped ‘certain parts’ of the world). For the most part, humans have valued being self-effacing, kind, compassionate, and sensitive to others, moreso than, you know, being a selfish dick.
Parents inculcate these virtues in us more or less effectively, but they do, probably universally, try. After all, no parent wants a kid who won’t listen or show respect to others, right? All kids have to face the fact that they are not the centre of the world. Because, that’s life! And also, it’s socially functional, because generally speaking, being arrogant, full of yourself, lacking empathy for others because you “should be” the most important one in the room, etc., doesn’t bode well for your life of relationships, love….friendship. You know, kinda sorta important things like that….
So parents are out there, parenting, trying to teach their kids to listen, to have respect, to not be full of themselves. However, when these lessons are given in an environment of abuse, then it’s not a matter of the child learning respect, or humility or to be self-effacing.
No, in an environment of abuse, these “virtue lessons” become a matter of the child learning that they are, “in fact,” less worthy than others. They may even “learn” that they are filthy, stupid, disgusting, embarrassing to the family, and the reason why everyone is unhappy. Personally? I learned all of those things, until I believed them. Abusers can be pretty darn creative, and tenacious when it comes to wearing down the child whose love and trust IS the abuser’s narcissistic Supply.
When this happens, you internalize shame. We often think of shame in terms of people who over-apologize, who give up easily when they make mistakes, who blame themselves for everything, and who tend to withdraw and isolate themselves. And yes, all of these things are true. Shame sucks ass.
But what is less easy to see is how shame holds people back from success and growth, from tapping into their strengths, from believing in themselves, from taking chances and trusting people, and most certainly from engaging in any form of “self promotion”, the kinds of things that the go-getters of the world always seem to be doing.
[[[No wonder we call it “shameless self-promotion”…. Ever think about that? And how, if extreme self-promotion is COMPLETELY shameless, then when you’re at the opposite end of the spectrum, COMPLETELY shameful, then even very minor “putting yourself out there”, would be triggering. …. Mind=blown…..]]]
The net result is, the person with a lot of Shame gets triggered by and struggles with BOTH “negative” experiences (failure, rejection, criticism, betrayal, blame), AND classically “positive” experiences (getting praise, having someone express love to you, succeeding at something, getting accolades, feeling strong).
So yes, I have to admit, as a beginning here, I am feeling extremely vulnerable in sharing what I’m about to describe as “my Mom’s Intergenerational Wisdom”. But I do believe there is real Wisdom here and that sharing this has true value.
So in good faith, and with a warm heart, we’re going to “get a little personal” here….
* * * * *
Sunrise with my friend, “G”
I was in my early 30s, right at the end of grad school, and my good friend of the time, “G”, said to me one morning while we were leaning against his car, in a little dirt area with some trees around, watching the sunrise — “I feel like I still don’t know you. Nobody does. We’re all your friends, but you are still behind something that you don’t let us see past.”
(or something like that — not like I remember his exact words….but….that was what he said basically.)
My response was surprise….at first. I said that I didn’t understand what he meant, because I felt close to all of them, and spent tons of time with them, and talked about all kinds of shit, and ideas, and everything……
But then I had to face the fact that he was right. He didn’t really know me. I was fun to hang out with. But whatever had created those dark holes in my eyes that my friends could all see, I kept to myself.
Becoming a father and a professor
Becoming a father was a big turning point for me, in terms of my emotional openness with people, and it coincided with becoming a professor. All of a sudden I confronted the sheer emotional intensity and intimacy of bonding with my children, the “sudden maturation” experience of stepping into being a father, plus the identity-shift of stepping into a role in which dozens, and hundreds, and literally thousands of people exchange ideas with you and have deep conversations and exciting moments of epiphany and “holy shit that blows my mind!!”
This 1-2 combo punch of parenting & ‘professing’, was the knock-out blow to me being able to hide and keep my public self and my private self separate. This was — a real growth experience. I was used to living in such a way that “Dan” moved through the world as he needed to in order to function, and then, in private, destroyed himself until he had to come back into the light of everyday functioning again. And this double life was, I understand now, quite a brilliant solution to the dilemma of how to function without completely dissociating. It was like I could function quite well for “sprints”, and then work out the pent-up distress of doing so, with self-harm. Woohoo! Then the next day comes — repeat cycle. And heck, you gotta respect coping strategies, even such obviously not-so-great ones, when they got you through childhood, adolescence, university, and grad school. Clearly, they are serving important functions.
But now this schism was becoming near-impossible to maintain. I couldn’t “hold back” at home behind some persona-mask, because I was “Daddy”, and I was sure as hell going to pour every bit of love in my heart into my parenting. So yes, becoming a parent was a massive Authenticity step forward.
And becoming a prof, in a different way, was also. Because as a prof, you can’t really hide either. Well, that’s not true; I suppose you could still hide as a prof. But I had decided not to, in no small part because of that sunrise conversation with my friend “G”.
My first real decision as a prof, was to orient my teaching towards things I really cared about. I can’t imagine why people don’t always do that!! What an opportunity!! To spend your career sharing with ‘the next generation’ all the most amazing, mind-blowing things you’ve learned in your life? Passing forward your ‘awesomest’ understanding of the awesome things you find most interesting & meaningful?? And awesome?? What a freaking gift. ….You might even say it’s awesome.
So, when I was first hired at U of T in 2002, I proposed two new courses (Positive Psych & Environmental Psych), and that was my career path right there.
The first time I walked into a classroom as “the professor”, it was SO WEIRD to know that I was supposed to stand up at the front of the room, and a whole bunch of people — adults!! — who I didn’t even know, would be sitting there, looking at me. I had approx 30 hours of these people’s time, 30 hours of virtually uninterrupted, focused time.
* * * * *
And then…..uh oh.
This is a problem
If you’re going to teach people about well being and living a good life, then assuming that you are not an enlightened being yourself who can speak from the depths of their soul about Wisdom, you’ve got a serious challenge facing you. How do you teach people about things that you yourself only partly understand, and only partly live?
IMO, there are three basic paths you can take:
1. Be super-conventional. Find a textbook; stick to it like bugs on a windshield. Read off your Powerpoint slides. Test students on specific details they need to memorize. Have few if any free-wheeling discussions in class; instead either just lecture, or ask questions that are so tailored that you know exactly what the answer is (or at least you think you do.) Keep everything safe, and able to be looked up directly in the textbook anyway….
—— I hated this shit as a student. These classes were so boring, it was like, Why am I even here? This is not “education”. Does this person even understand what they are reading off their own slide, which repeats the textbook anyway? What a fucking waste of time…
[[[I mean, sure, I know teaching is challenging. But….profs have studied stuff for like, a decade or more, before standing up to teach it to people….presumably they have things to say that are more useful or dynamic or deep or ‘sparkly’, than pre-canned material?]]]
2. Be a guru. Talk like you’ve got it all together. Strut in front of that classroom like you have read everything, you know everything, and you’ve practiced everything. Steer conversations carefully towards the lecture topics you know the best, and when asked questions outside your comfort zone, use big words and explain how it’s “really complicated, and we don’t have time to get into it right now….”. Develop your own personal spin and pet theories on everything. Position yourself as having special knowledge. And never let the mask slip.
—— This is remarkably easy to do, as every narcissist knows. And it’s a god-awful way to expose people to the teachings of Wisdom. Because if you’re a fraud, pretending to be a guru, then you’re spreading some toxic shit in the world.
(Yes, “someone” comes immediately to my mind here….)
3. Be real. Know your stuff as a scholar, but be honest about your struggles as a person. Give students as diverse a set of ideas and sources as you can, to catalyze their own exploration. Speak from your heart, and use your own best lived examples that you can speak about with the authenticity of having been there yourself. Tell students outright that you are not a guru. And back that up by sharing your imperfections. if you’re talking about depression, or addiction, or the bumpy road of meditation, or relationships, or whatever, then share. Because what you have lived, is real. It is, in a sense, YOUR gift to pass forward to the world. AND it keeps you from believing you’re wiser than you are, and hopefully helps prevent students from projecting their own idealized views of “wise people” onto you.
(Which some will anyway, so it’s doubly-important not to pretend to be the guru, because ultimately that is not only dishonest, but deeply manipulative.)
So I chose Path #3, to the best of my ability at the time. I know for sure that when I first walked up to that classroom, I had by that time deeply processed what my friend “G” had told me, and I knew that I did not want another chunk of my life to pass in which I stayed closed to people. So, I made a choice that was, at the time, totally inspired, and about which I was also quite terrified. But I did at least have some excellent role models to follow.
My Academic Heroes
When I became a prof, I had three key “academic heroes”, after whom I decided to model myself, particularly in terms of my approach to the dilemma of how much to maintain the prof-student hierarchy, vs. how much to treat all people like equals. My personal philosophy is heavily in favour of treating everyone like equals (with recognition given to relevant expertise in a situation, of course). So, right from Day 1, I made it a kind of ‘official policy’ to follow in the footsteps of David Suzuki, Howard Zinn, and my wonderful former prof, and friend, James Kay (he taught me complex dynamic systems in grad school, and completely changed my life as a result).
All three of these visionary people used their “professor” status to break down hierarchy in the fundamental, day-to-day ways they dealt with people. There are wonderful stories of all of them (or, with James, my own personal memories!), holding meetings with students out in some park, or over coffee instead of always in the lab, chatting casually with people, knowing their names, relating to them like fellow humans fully on the same level. They would have these groups of students they worked with, slowly evolving as the years went on and students graduate and new ones came in. But around them, this culture evolved, of passionate learning, after-hours take-out dinners in their office or classroom, continuing some awesome conversation for long after “official class-time” was over.
With James Kay, I remember lunches of impassioned debate, a totally fun BBQ in his backyard with his family, other times of working until the late, late evening on some paper together, and great times sitting over a beer talking politics and environmental activism.
And THIS is what I wanted to carry forward. I was so lucky, right near the beginning of my career, to be recruited by a wonderful student, “L”, who, together with a small team and the Sustainability Office at U of T, created “one of those projects” that I’d always dreamed of, one of those passion-driven, long-hours-spent-working-creatively, many-people-involved, change-the-world projects. My colleague, Beth, the head of the Sustainability Office in those years, was exactly the same in her approach to people — friendliness, casualness, but she was tough as nails and respected expertise.
So this was my personal vow, basically, as I was given the status of “Professor”: to treat people with trust, casually rather than formally, and like we’re all just friends anyway, so “let’s drop the Dr. Dolderman and please just call me Dan”.
The outcomes of this?
Incredible. So many wonderful moments of connection. Laughter. Tears. Stories. More tears. More laughter. The opportunity to help or make a difference for somebody, AND to learn from them, multiplied by dozens of people, then hundreds, and hundreds and hundreds.
And in the classroom? The vibe this led to? Again — incredible. The moments of silence, like, awestruck silence, in classrooms and lecture halls are memories I utterly treasure. Even in a “classroom” of 2400 students, we achieved moments of profundity. We also achieved gut-busting laughter where the whole room, myself included, was DYING laughing. Those experiences were magical. I miss them, greatly. Oh my god seriously, some of the very best moments of my life were those classrooms and lecture halls, and office hours and chats on park benches over coffee.
And the students? The Best.
I feel truly blessed, when I go online and look at my Facebook community, and the hundreds, maybe thousands by now, of message threads and email threads that have grown over the years, with hundreds and hundreds of former students. It’s beautiful, and I truly cherish it.
And that’s the difference, fundamentally, right there, between me as a prof, and me in that sunrise parking lot talking to my friend “G”. When you are not-authentic, when you’re not living from your core and you’re not open with people (or even yourself), then sure, you can have fun, you can have friends and good times. But relationships and Community both, grow much stronger and healthier when the people involved are rooted in, and can share, their own Authenticity.
When you are authentic with people, then you can be Seen. You can be validated for who you actually are. The acceptance you receive is for YOU, not some persona you project or role that you play.
But when you are not REALLY being real, you strangle your own lifeblood, because even validation that you receive from people doesn’t actually validate you!! It’s “nice”, but it’s not actually for YOU. And so, whatever “you” that is being hidden, whatever shamed self or hurt self you carry around inside, never gets Seen, never gets accepted, never gets healed.
For me, it just happened to be 2003, as I stepped into being both a parent and a professor, when I was forced to confront my Authenticity. And I have to say, to the best of my own self-awareness at the time, it made all the difference in the world. I genuinely started to feel connected to people for Who I Was.
(Started, being the key word there. This is not to deny that I wasn’t able to take most of this in, and struggled with shame until….well, until now, basically. It has been transitioning that has had the single biggest healing effect of my life. By far. But that’s a story I’ve already told…) 🙂
In Conclusion: Sharing, from your heart? Even though it makes you feel vulnerable?
I deeply believe, this is the way.
* * * * *
Now, what the heck does this have to do with my mom? That’s Part 2. 😉