In my life as an English professor, this was a common scenario:
- A student enters my class with some serious, or repetitive, grammatical issues.
- Whatever the issue was, I’d encourage them to work on it. As budget cuts grew worse, I’d procure and then loan out my own grammar books. I’d stay late to talk to the student. I’d meet with them outside of office hours.
- I’d let the student know that really–if we’re being technical–their issues with grammar needed a semester in an intensive grammar class before proceeding with ours.
- “I know, I know–my grammar is bad,” the students would say. “I’m working on it. But don’t drop me. I want to be in this class.”
- So, okay, fine. I never wanted to discourage anyone. I’d remind the student that they were not to get help from another person–you can’t have someone copy-edit your papers for you, in an English class where the skill being developed is the ability to write and edit your own work–and we’d move on.
- Paper #1 comes and goes. The grade is not a passing grade. We have another conversation. “I know, I know, my grammar is bad…” They still admit they have issues, and I’m not (yet) the enemy.
- Paper #2 comes and goes. The grade is, again, not great. Uh-oh.
The pattern played out predictably. It was (usually) only a matter of time before:
the student would go from admitting that they had issues with grammar, to suddenly attacking me. I was the unfair one; I was the enemy. Even if I could point out 20+ grammatical issues just in the first paragraph alone, I was the bitch who was so mean and awful and unfair.
The first few times this happened, it would eat me up–I was devastated that I’d tried so hard to help, and hadn’t succeeded. I’d mentally review all that I’d done to try and help, and then the NEXT time this situation would present itself, I’d work EXTRA hard to make SURE that the student knew that –while I would not pass sub-par work–I was committed to helping.
One semester, I did this for a group of 3-4 students who had somehow made it to the college’s most advanced English class with serious issues (e.g., “She write about feminist article.”)
We had a night class that ended pretty late. I’d stay even later to help, getting home at 11:30, almost midnight–all unpaid time–even though I had an early morning class to teach the next day.
They were still failing their papers. The issues with grammar were far too intense to possibly remedy in one semester.
Guess what happened that semester? When that group realized they weren’t going to pass, they went to my department chair and said that I discriminated against students who spoke English as their second language.
It was infuriating. I had stayed late all those nights! Didn’t they “get” that I wasn’t paid for those hours? I had loaned my own books. I had found and photocopied extra handouts. On their papers, I had spent more time noting grammatical errors, so that they’d know exactly what to focus on.
What’s more–until they were “officially” failing the class, they had AGREED with me that their grammatical abilities were sub-par.
Were they kidding me?
And then–finally, I “got it.”
When the Pain Sets In
The thing is, when the pain sets in, most people will do almost anything to “get it off of” themselves. Almost no one grows up with adults who model taking responsibility for their own lives.
Also? Denial rules in this culture. There’s the denial that there’s a problem in the first place, and then there’s the denial that taking any different steps (i.e., dropping my class and taking a more appropriate class, which would be both humbling and inconvenient) would be a better option.
Most people’s thinking–whether we’re talking about improving grammar or showing up powerfully in a relationship or anything else–tends to be, “I’m sure that if I just keep trying hard doing this thing I’m doing, if I just work hard enough, things will go my way.”
What was that that AA says about the definition of insanity? Oh, yes–it’s doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.
We all do it. I do it. You do it. It’s just what we do, until we don’t.
Irritating and Liberating
So…now what? Just let the students get pissed at me, over and over?
Uh, pretty much.
There arrived a certain point where I just had to accept that people are going to do what they’re going to do, and see what they’re going to see, and act how they’re going to act, and sometimes, they’re going to do that EVEN IF I try really, really hard to not get them to do it, whether by being supportive or tip-toeing around or not speaking the truth…or anything else.
At first, that thought seems irritating. Sometimes, especially after that particularly difficult semester, I’d think, “It’s not even my responsibility to help students with grammar, beyond the basics in the course outline. If I’m just going to have complaints lodged, why bother?”
But then–if you really turn it over–it’s liberating to release, to simply have acceptance.
People just get to do what they’re going to do. I (you) don’t need to try so hard to keep them from doing whatever they’re just going to do, anyway.
I have no control–none, whatsoever. People take things personally. People deny what’s right in front of their faces. That’s not my responsibility.
What is my responsibility? My personal integrity–the kind of integrity that drove me to stay late and go the extra mile because that’s what the situation called for. I know what these students are up against, and they’ve had a shitty education so far, and the three teachers before me passed them instead of really helping those students, and I don’t need to pass the buck, like those teachers did.
Is it fun, to stay late? To watch students shift from admitting they have a problem, to making me the problem?
No. But if they’re going to do that, that’s just what they’re going to do. In the meantime, I need to do what I know is the right thing, and as a professor, that has meant digging deep and continuing to go above and beyond my formal job description.
I can only be in charge of me. You can only be in charge of you.
It Comes To This
You can’t control anyone else’s behavior. We are under the illusion that we can, that if we say and do the right things someone else will follow along–but we can’t.
So what’s integrity, for YOU? Not for them–for you? If you’re taking total responsibility for your life, what’s that look like?
I get it–the compulsion to note where someone else is wrong, is strong, especially when you know that even an objective observer would say that you’d done your best and that the other party was wrong.
It’s just an illusion that focusing attention over there is going to get you anywhere. When we aren’t busy monitoring someone else’s behavior, deciding how they “should have” acted, a hell of a lot of energy gets freed up.
So–irritating or liberating? What will you choose?
Laurie Wagner goes deep. She’s not afraid to make eye contact. She’s not only fearless around hearing your truth, she’s going to help you cultivate it.
This video interview is just a little longer than ten minutes, and it’s for people who are ready to step into telling the truth.
Laurie tells the truth through her writing, and she has an upcoming e-course. People like superhero Andrea Scher, coach Rachel W. Cole, and others will tell you that her work is the real deal–that her writing courses are not just a bunch of flimsy writing exercises.
This interview particularly touches on the writing process as a vehicle for telling true stories–real stories–raw stories–and how there’s a connection between what we choose to express on paper and how we get more courageous around expressing what’s in our hearts.
For more on Laurie, head to http://www.27powers.org. Her class, Telling True Stories, begins on April 9th!
I’m pretty big on taking personal responsibility. Some people in life have trouble apologizing–if I see that I’ve done wrong, I’m happy to apologize. Step right up, Swoboda is here, and she’s ready to make amends.
I’ve joked (though I’m somewhat serious) that, given how many mistakes I’ve made in this lifetime, it’s a good thing I’m not too humble to apologize. In fact, it’s one of my best qualities.
Here’s my hurdle, though–perhaps it’s yours, too: I find it more challenging to apologize when I don’t trust that the recipient is going to receive it with compassion and take a moment to own their part, as well.
Everyone has a part
Yes, that’s right–everyone. It wouldn’t be “conflict” if everyone didn’t have some kind of part to play in it.
Offering an apology, to me, often feels like a sense of relief. I’ve done wrong, and I want to make right. My heart is right there on my sleeve, and I’m vulnerable and naked (emotionally, of course) and wanting connection (alright, people, get your minds out of the gutter…).
But, ugh–that relief is short-lived if I offer the apology and see a hardening of the eyes, a tight purse of the lips, a lift of the nose into the air, perhaps a disgusted-sounding “Well, thank you!” that carries a tone of, “Damn straight–it’s about time you apologized, bitch. You OWED me that.”
Yeah. I don’t do so well with that.
Have I done it before, to someone else? Given them the “you really screwed up” cold shoulder when they apologized? Of course.
My most powerful relationships have been those where someone was mature enough to say, gently, “I notice that it doesn’t feel like my apology was really received. Is this really cleaned up?”
That kind of love and compassion has afforded me the second chance that (secretly, way down deep) I was hoping for.
Humility Is Good
The thing is, no one wants to feel like a shit-head who messed everything up, even when we were the one acting like a shit-head who messed everything up.
And since, 99.9% of the time, there’s always something that both parties can take some kind of responsibility for--somewhere along the way!–I’ll share with you something powerful that I’ve noticed…
…when someone apologizes to me, it’s really helpful if I’ll get my Ego off of making sure that they delivered an apology for their wrongs, and instead place my energy on owning my part, too.
It creates the very best kind of win-win, because honestly–it can’t truly feel good to sit there holding a grudge after someone apologized, anyway.
So why not drop it? Why not let them off the hook? Why not take this opportunity to practice love in the form of not making them the shit-head who screwed everything up?
And then–then there are those times when you’re the one offering the apology, and you’re on the receiving end. Someone wants you to feel like a shit-head. End of story.
First, take a moment to do this (privately): BLECCH!!!
I mean, really get it out there, because that sort of behavior leaves a nasty taste in one’s mouth, and I’m not going to give you any hippy-dippy affirmations to try and pretend otherwise.
Now you get this chance to practice being an adult.
As Cheri Huber says, “Almost no one wants to grow up.”
The challenge is this: someone needs to. You could watch two parties argue with one another and dub whiny, kid-like voices onto everything that they say, and you’d see quickly enough that there are two triggered little kids bitching at one another (“Well you said…” and “No, you said that first!” and “But it wasn’t FAIR when…”).
What’s behind the mean-ness that would drive someone to make you feel like a shit-head when you’re trying to make things right? The same thing that would drive you to do it to someone else–you’re still hurt. You’re not yet open to the apology.
Perhaps there’s a fear of a loss of power. There’s definitely a fear of a loss of some maintained identity (“It would mean I was a ‘weak person’ if I accepted an apology for what she did!”). Perhaps there’s some future tripping (“If I accept this apology, she’ll just do it all over again!”).
Get present to those voices, those Stories, and what they’re telling you. Notice how they’re shaping your experience–how, if you believe them, you have a different experience than if you choose not to believe them.
And then try this: imagine your “opponent” on the inside. Imagine the heaviness, the darkness, the pain of carrying around grudges.
You can’t control them. They control themselves. They will decide whether or not to forgive and let go.
It’s a powerful choice to own your part, apologize and make amends, and then go about the business of practicing for yourself what you want them to practice, with you–letting go.
If you know how bad it feels to hold onto this mucky stuff, then…well, what would love do? And what would love choose for them–and, for you?
(( This week, my e-letter received this blog post + a complementary exercise. My e-letter is like a free weekly e-course, a little oasis of 20 minutes to stop amidst a busy day and examine you, your life, and how to live with courage. Join in. ))