I ended my post yesterday with that, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
During one of my many cries yesterday, I was on the phone with the dude, who is basically the best person ever, my best friend, and my absolute favorite. I was telling him about my day and about my students seeing me cry, and I mentioned that I’d said to one class – many of whom were talking when they shouldn’t have been – that I needed them to help me because I didn’t have the ability to ask them nicely, even though I wanted to. And they were immediately silent. I have never seen a collection of teenagers be so quiet and focused so quickly. It was incredible.
The dude thought for a second, and then he said that he thought it was a good thing to let them see how I was carrying myself when things weren’t ok, that they were learning from me that there’s another way to deal with sadness and heartache and anxiety.
Our conversation moved on, but I’ve been thinking about that. A lot of the time, I’m thinking about how to model responsibility and decision-making, critical thinking and empathy. I’m thinking about showing my students how to set boundaries and stick to them, and how to manage their time so that they don’t feel stressed. But I forget that it’s ok to show them – and I should show them – how to manage vulnerability and anger and sadness. That I can still be an authority figure when I’m vulnerable, and that in a lot of ways that’s actually the best thing I can do for both my students and my classroom environment.
One of my students saw me yesterday as I was leaving to get lunch, and had only stopped crying a few minutes before. She asked if I was ok, and I said “no, I’m not, but thank you for asking.” 20 minutes later, I heard a knock at my classroom door, and when I opened it, she asked me very quietly if I was feeling better. This is a student who is very headstrong, easily distracted, and popular. And here she was, showing this wonderful level of empathy that I might never have seen if I had told her I was fine. I couldn’t really appreciate it at the time because anxiety has this way of hijacking you and becoming all-consuming. And then after that, you’re so drained that you can’t really think about anything. But I’m starting to appreciate it now, and I intend to thank her tomorrow.
I took today off work because I’ve learned that fighting my anxiety by forcing myself to go to work/social stuff – sometimes even therapy – is not the right thing to do. Sometimes I need to just be. I struggle with that a lot, and I talk about that in therapy a lot. How it’s really hard for me to let someone else take care of things; how it’s really hard for me to let someone else take care of me. For me, that is the ultimate vulnerability and it is so, so hard. I grew up with a mom who is compassionate and giving and who always put me and my sister first, even if it meant she went without the new coat she needed or a book to lose herself in. She gave us everything she had, and from my kid’s perspective, did it all without complaining or getting angry with us for asking for the toy we’d already been told we couldn’t have for the upteenth time. As an adult, I realize that she must have cried and been angry and called her parents when she felt like she couldn’t handle things – and she’s shared with me some of those times and what led to her decision to stop hiding her anxiety from her children.
I admire my mom for trying to protect me and my sister from stress and disappointment, and I love her for it, too. My anxiety is teaching me that that’s literally not going to be possible for me to do with my own kids. If I ever have a panic attack around them, or a string of days like I have this week, I won’t be able to hide it because of my physical symptoms. And, actually, I don’t think I want to – partly because that will make it worse, but also partly because I think the dude and my mom are right: young people need to see that adults can get sad and scared, and they need to see how we handle it. It blows my mind to think that in the midst of feeling so shitty yesterday, I was actually teaching my students that it’s ok to not be ok, and how to have empathy for another person.
I’m reminded of that moment in Inside Out when Sadness comforts Bing Bong. (Best. Movie. EVER.)
She can practice empathy because she knows what sadness feels like, and Joy realizes that Sadness is a necessary – and even helpful – part of life. We can’t practice empathy and compassion unless we know what it feels like to be sad and lonely (and angry and scared and so on), and when we hide those emotions from others, we reinforce the loneliness we feel. If I want my students – and someday, my kids – to have a strong sense of empathy, I have to teach them that not being ok is ok, and I have to give them opportunities to practice their empathy and compassion. That means that I have to be willing to let them practice on me.
It’s hard to admit that you’re not ok. To be honest, I didn’t even really want to tell any of my friends about this blog because I didn’t want to admit that I’m dealing with something that, on bad days, feels like a futile, uphill battle. I wanted to just take care of it myself. But people can’t show you empathy – which is what you really want when you feel shitty – until you admit that maybe you’re not 100% ok right now. Empathy and vulnerability are inextricably tied, and it is nearly impossible to experience one without the other. Even if the vulnerability isn’t public, it’s still there.
So, tomorrow, when my students ask if I’m ok, I’m going to answer honestly. I’m not sure what that answer will be, but that’s ok.