“I would rather do anything than take the timed-tests for my online class. When I had to take a quiz on Sunday, I suddenly noticed the garage needed to be cleaned and I hadn’t bought the kid’s Easter baskets. I’m just so distractable.”
I had just asked Diane, a highly successful career woman and mother in her mid-40’s, how her college course was going.
Having known Diane for three years, I knew that distractable she was not. Anxious? Sure. Avoidant? Absolutely. But distractable? No way.
“What about that test are you avoiding, Diane?” I let the question linger without offering my unnecessary interpretation.
She paused, taken off-guard momentarily. I watched as she reached for the tissues and tears formed in her eyes.
“When I was little, I could never do those goddamn math worksheets. I remember being in fourth grade, sitting at my desk struggling while everyone else was already done. I was so scared to ask for help because the teacher would just look at me like I was an idiot.”
“Even when you sit down to do a test now decades later, you still feel like you’re back there, in fourth grade, consumed by your-”
“Shame.” Diane finished my sentence. “If I don’t do well on these college tests, my secret is back out. That I’m an idiot.”
“That’s definitely a fourth grader talking. The other fourth graders probably threw that word around a lot. But now, as an adult, how would you describe that little girl?”
“An idiot.” Diane smirked.
I smiled back at her, knowing better than to believe she wasn’t understanding my point. “How did you think of your son when he struggled similarly?”
“Christopher? He’s just very sensitive. He felt every pressure, every mood, every dissatisfaction in that classroom and felt suffocated by it…” She trailed off.
“Funny how you could give Christopher lots of understanding and empathy and no expectation of perfection, but you can’t do that for yourself now. What would you say to that little scared and sensitive girl way back then, that little girl who feels like an idiot and feels like everyone, including the teacher and her parents, know it?”
“I’d tell her I love her sensitivity and how much she feels… And if she does her best on school tests, that’s all that matters. And some kids will be mean, but that’s not about you. And there will be this thing called Facebook someday where you can see that Billy Jenkins- the boy who used to tease you- got bald and sweeps floors at Bargain Bonanza in 2015.”
“On the compassion quiz, you get a B. I had to dock you for that last part. And see? You’re still standing despite the cold reality of academic imperfection.” I smiled.
“I know, I know.” Diane paused.
After some pensive silence, tears welled up in her eyes again. “Those years were just so miserable. If only I had someone give me a big hug and tell me that stuff…”
“Sometimes we get so caught up in academics as a measure of a person’s worth and source of shame. And then ironically, if people stopped applying so much pressure, grades would improve. Remember when Christopher was struggling in school and we talked about this? Neurological studies let us know that people don’t learn, understand, and think rationally when they are under emotional duress.”
“I remember. That one therapist said Christopher had ADHD, but when you tested hin, he came up as anxious not ADHD. Kinda like his mom.”*
“And you might already know this, Diane, but I want that little fourth-grader girl to also know this: The distress that most often gets in the way learning and understanding is SHAME. It isn’t the fact that your mom and dad were fighting a lot or the kid next to you in math class was too loud. It was the automatic feeling of “less-than” and “abandonment” in the presence of hostility. It wasn’t that Billy Jenkins teased your hand-me-down coat at the bus stop- It was your nagging feeling of overall inadequacy and expectation of rejection. It wasn’t the fact that your teacher corrected your mistake aloud- It was the fear that getting a lower grade made you a worthless idiot…”
“So I need to unshame that little girl? Sounds like heavy stuff. Can’t I just keep cleaning the garage over and over and avoiding my tests?”
“Sure, but you know it’s not just the tests. Unchecked shame fuels anxiety, keeps people isolated, and keeps people up at night. Remember when you peeled away the layers of the split second thoughts that raced through your mind at night, and they all ended up being fears about you not being good enough? Shame activates the brain in a hyper-alert yet completely inefficient and ineffective state. So….”
“So I might wanna work on it.”
“Yup,” I smiled. The same way you did it with your son. You were the voice in his head, reminding him that he was “enough” despite his struggles. You have it in you to do the same to yourself.”
During the next session, she brought out a dog-eared picture of a little girl in pig-tails, and started talking to her: “I accept all of you- your sensitivity and the way your brain works…”
Just something to think about, says the therapist who just read this book on accepting your limitations and being proud of yourself for trying your best and apologizing when necessary and also this book which talks about the neurological processes of guilt, shame, and anxiety and how to identify, reject, and transcend these emotions.
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*Research shows that “higher order” (more rational/frontal cortex) brain functioning PLUMMETS during times of “low-road” (emotional stress, amygdala etc.) brain activation. (Do you know how many times anxiety/environmental-and-internal-distress has been misdiagnosed as ADHD or learning disorders? It happens A LOT. There are even long term studies that constant stress manifests in structural changes in the brains of children that look a lot like ADHD. )
We also know that different people have different thresholds for the kind of distress that shuts down their rational thinking- and thanks to John Gottman and other researchers, we know males typically become more-easily physiologically fired-up and therefore unable to think rationally/understand/learn during distress than females. People often use the term”highly sensitive person” to describe people with a lower threshold of distress/stimulation tolerance who over-empathize and lack boundaries. Another type of “highly sensitive” person copes with what feels intolerable by putting up walls and stomping away. (Men are more likely to stonewall and feign detachment, but are often more upset than women according to physiologically readings.)
And, btw, when people aren’t able to learn and understand, it’s not just their academic functioning suffers. Their relationships are marked with assumptions, misunderstandings, personalization, and hot-headedness, and their self-concepts get flushed down the toilet. And their anxiety worsens.