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“Although my message is simple, it’s not easy to convey. But if I can express it, it will be worth a thousand words to say.”

When I was a child, I was frozen. I barely spoke and was consumed with anxiety. There was so much in me that felt locked up, that for reasons I did not know, I could not express. When I tried, it was as though my words got jumbled up, and what was reflected made it clear that my message was not received. I decided it was easier to remain silent.

From the outside in, it appeared as though I was not smart, I did not have opinions or I simply did not care. But in fact, the more I remained silent, the more I keenly observed and deeply contemplated my experiences. As I began to perceive the world very differently from those around me, I lost faith that I would ever be understood.

“I’ve felt misunderstood my whole life. But this is not just my experience. We are all deeply misunderstood.“

When I was in elementary school I was quiet and well-behaved, so I was virtually invisible. As a teacher now, I get this. We have no choice sometimes but to give our attention to the kids that are demanding it the most. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the loud and disruptive kids that seemed so free to express were misunderstood like me. They were just trying harder to be heard.

At age 12, I was sent to an all-girls Catholic school run by a nun that had been cloistered for her adult life. This wasn’t just an ordinary school. It was like entering a time warp back into the early 1900s. Everything was controlled; from the color of the clips I put in my hair, to the precise position I had to sit in.

My first day I learned that no matter how “good” I was, I would not be seen that way. An innocent misunderstanding in class lead to me being demeaned by the “Mistress of Discipline”, and I bawled uncontrollably in front of my peers that didn’t yet know me. Humiliation happens when we shame instead of seeking to understand.

I went more and more into myself. It did not feel safe to share my innermost thoughts and feelings or to tell the truth, even when I knew I’d done nothing wrong.

I survived by learning to play the game. I observed the way my words and actions were perceived and adjusted my behavior to avoid getting “in trouble”. Like most of us do, I molded myself into everyone else’s expectations of me. I became a reflection of how the world saw me and little by little I lost touch with who I was. I even began to misunderstand myself.

Photo by Kelly-Ann Tan on Unsplash

I grew up to become a teacher, and now, being on the other side of things, I finally understand what makes us all feel so misunderstood. From a very early age, we are met with well-intentioned caregivers who think they know who we are and what’s best for us. And if they don’t, they must pretend to, because the world tells them this is their job.

They hear our words, they observe our actions, they make their evaluations and then they tell us who we are with their responses. But most of them can only see us through the lens of how they see themselves. And most of them don’t realize that our best is what’s inside of us, not something that we need to be turned into.

There is nothing more frustrating than when someone close to you thinks they understand you when they don’t. At the core of all of us is the essential desire to be seen, heard and understood. It’s the absence of this that leads us to struggle.

Although no one can fully know what it’s like to be another, learning to understand each other more deeply is the most important thing for us to do. But doing this effectively requires listening from a place of acknowledging that we know nothing, even when we think we know everything.

So often our own beliefs, assumptions, and expectations interfere with our ability to connect to the heart of what someone is trying to express. To truly hear someone, we must be able to set aside our feelings, perceptions, and judgments and sift through their unheard frustrations, which might come out as accusatory and unreasonable at first.

True understanding takes patience. It requires us to suspend everything we think we know and listen from a place of openness. It calls for us not just to understand intellectually, but to connect to how someone feels and consider a different version of truth from our own.

What’s not working for kids today is the same thing that didn’t work for us and the generations before us. Whether it shows up as silence, anxiety, anger, sadness, or “bad” behavior, what kids are really trying to tell us is that they are deeply misunderstood.

When a child is struggling, we tend to get ahead of ourselves by jumping to fix what’s presenting on the surface before addressing what’s going on inside. And in our attempts to “fix”, we send the message that how they think and feel doesn’t matter as much as what we believe is best for them.

What if all we need to do to bring a child into balance is to understand them deeply? Could it be that simple?

For generations, we have been raising kids from the outside in.

We’ve been focused on finding better ways to teach, to motivate and to control, believing that if we do this “right” it will ultimately bring them happiness on the inside.

But ironically, our ways of doing this often take kids away from feeling whole and complete deep in their core, and they spend the rest of their lives trying to fill this emptiness in often unhealthy and destructive ways.

It’s time for us to raise kids from the inside out.

This means that we make connecting, understanding and valuing who a child is on the inside our top priority. It requires us to look beyond the obvious and delve beneath the surface.

This is simple, but simple isn’t always easy.

What makes it challenging, is that to do this, we need to unravel everything we’ve been lead to believe about what is best for kids and address the discomfort that comes with letting go of our perceived control. We must learn how to respond to the very real challenges of the moment in a way that doesn’t just shut kids down.

What I’m suggesting is not just a new theory or strategy. It’s a complete paradigm shift. It has less to do with what we are “doing” and more to do with how we are “being” and where we are putting our focus.

So as I reach my 1,139th word, I realize I’ve said too much. And although this message may bring up more questions than answers, my hope is that it touched you deeply enough to accept it’s simple truth.

This article was originally publish in The Ascent.

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