8th Grade EnglishBy Michael Barmak, Copyright 2004
December 31, 2006
Have you ever wondered what keeps you from being all you can be? This thoughtful article might give you a clue regarding decisions you may have made to hold yourself back. In this article, Inner Bonding facilitator Michael Barmak reveals the decisions that kept him limited.
When the flood was over and things dried out, I made a trip to my mother's basement to see if I could salvage any of my childhood belongings. Among my Camp Wingo yearbooks, high school prom pictures and pen pal letters, I discovered my 8th grade English vocabulary notebook.
As I read through the words, I found 'parsimonious', 'altruistic', 'cogent', 'espirit de corps' and 'egotistical' in my April 15th entry. Suddenly I felt a wave of nausea and I was transported back to a spring day in Mr. Schmidt's English class.
As usual, there were five new vocabulary words written on construction paper taped high on the walls. The words had been chosen either by Mr. Schmidt or suggested by students. On this day, as was his custom, Mr. Schmidt asked us to read aloud the new words and guess their meanings. As soon as someone supplied the definition for egotistical, one of my classmates yelled out, "That's Barmak." Everybody laughed and then there was silence. I had just learned that Uranium -238 has a half-life of more than 4.5 billion years. I was sure that this kind of silence was similar and that I was doomed for eternity.
Mr. Schmidt was not shaken. The only time I had ever seen him fazed was when a word fell from the wall. He'd stop whatever he was doing, go to the supply closet, pull out a stepladder and carefully tape the word back up. In this moment he looked at me and then turned to the rest of the class and forcefully said, "Maybe Mr. Barmak has something to be conceited about."
Another silence. Even more deafening than the first. I should have felt vindicated by Mr. Schmidt's response but teachers are supposed to stand up for their students. Why wasn't anyone else taking my side? Was this what they meant by the silent majority? Did the rest of my class also think I was egotistical? Was this why I had such difficulty making friends?
I walked out of class by myself. This only increased the shame and loneliness I felt.
Over the next couple of days, I debated whether my classmate was right. I mentally listed my accomplishments so far that year: letters in basketball and soccer, first trombone in the school band and a spot in Regional Band. I was ranked 5th in my grade for overall physical fitness, awarded certificates of academic achievement in three of my classes and had received three class superlatives.
I admit, I felt pretty puffed up about these achievements but had my talent gone to my head? Did I really think my successes made me better than everyone else? And as for Mr. Schmidt, well, even he didn't say I wasn't conceited, only that I might have the goods to back it up.
I naturally excelled in sports, the arts and academics but my talents were meaningless if I came across as superior. I had finally hit on the cause for my loneliness: I was shining my light too bright.
I decided then and there to start down playing my abilities. Like the device inside U-Haul trucks that won't allow the vehicles to go faster than 55 mph, I consciously decided not to develop my talents beyond a certain level. While playing trombone, I began having a problem with my embouchure (lip placement) on the mouthpiece and was unable to play for more than a couple of minutes before my lips became fatigued. Rather than learn how to correct this so that I could excel further, I accepted my limitation.
I also didn't take on anything that would set me apart from my classmates. When I was accepted into an exclusive private school in a nearby town, I refused to attend.
However, my strategy didn't work. I continued to feel disconnected from people throughout my junior high, high school and college years. My one and only girlfriend during that time finally broke up with me, accusing me of having "chronic potential." Looking back, I now realize that by not expressing my essence, I only added to my loneliness.
Just as the roiling flood waters had ebbed, my initial wave of nausea shifted to sadness and frustration. I was about to toss the notebook into the trash when my eye caught the first word on the following day: empathy. I wondered if Mr. Schmidt had planned it that way. Had he been able to see inside my wounded heart?
Later that day, I went to my office and wrote "empathy" on a piece of paper. I taped it on the wall above my desk. Just as I finished placing the word on the wall, my first client, John arrived.
During his session, John was extremely critical. When I tried to help him explore his perfectionism, he laughed at me and mocked the diplomas and certifications I had hanging on my wall. He accused me of thinking I knew what was best for him and stated that he was wasting his time in therapy.
We sat in silence while I wondered what to do. I felt like I was thirteen years old again, back in English class, reliving the laughter and the pain of that April 15th day.
That's when I saw Mr. Schmidt's word, "empathy," on my wall. I immediately moved into compassion for myself and reaffirmed my worth and my professional abilities. I looked at my client and knew that I didn't have control over his choice to approve or disapprove of me. I didn't have this power in 8th grade and I never would.
I spoke my truth. I told John that it didn't feel good when he laughed at me. Then I told him that he must have good reasons for being so angry. My unconditional acceptance helped him feel the safety he didn't know how to create on an inner level and this allowed him to open up to his feelings of low self-worth.
After John left, I felt grateful for Mr. Schmidt and a deeper respect for the transformational power of words. I began thinking of my other clients and what words might help each one of them move out of a stuck place.
I also thought about how far I had come since that spring day back in 8th grade. Then I remembered another Schmidt word: auspicious. I added that word to my wall next.
Now that's loving.
Michael Barmak, CSW, LCSW is an Inner Bonding Facilitator in private practice. He works with individuals and couples in person and on the phone and can be reached at 908-276-8191 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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