Years ago, I was in a workshop lead by a teacher who I knew to be going through a tough time, personally. She was talking about how we are who we are, and how we do a disservice to ourselves when we try to be people we are not. I listened, thinking, “Totally helpful. We all have our different personalities. It’s good to be authentic to who we are.”
And then, she said this to the room:
“You can’t just decide to change your life, and then have a different life. You can’t just decide to be a happy person, and then be a happy person. You need to accept who you actually are.”
She said this at a moment in my own life when I had realized, just months before, that my own unhappiness had been the result of thinking that I just “wasn’t a very happy person,” and there wasn’t much to be done about it.
She said this at a moment when I truly understood that I’d spent years being so unhappy because I’d believed—mistakenly—that my unhappiness was innate, and that there was no way I could just “decide to change my life, and have a different life.”
In other words, she was saying this at a moment in my own life when I understood with perfect clarity that she was wrong. You could decide to change your life, and have a different life. You could decide to be a happy person, and then be a happy person. Accepting who you actually are—accepting your personality—is helpful. But happiness isn’t your personality. Happiness is a function of being a living human being, and personality is whatever characteristics accompany us on the journey of our lives. Happiness is an emotion, and I’d argue, fundamental to our purpose on this earth. Personality is where we fall on a spectrum—am I more feisty and extroverted, or more contained and introverted, or maybe even a feisty introvert? Personality might influence what we choose for ourselves, to get happy. Do you choose connecting with others to feel happier, or cozying up alone with a stack of books? Cuz that’s your personality.
You can decide to change your life, and have a different life. You can decide you want to be a happy person, and then be a happy person. And if you are unhappy, telling yourself “I need to accept who I am” and thinking that that’s some kind of evolved perspective?
No. It’s not an evolved perspective. It’s just going to keep you stuck in being unhappy, longer. I knew that from personal experience.
This teacher was sharing from her vantage point and her experience. Months before my own realizations, I might have believed her (and I mighta felt a little more hopeless, because even though I thought my unhappiness was just “who I was” and that I needed to accept it, I really-really-really wished I was one of the happy people).
I had the context of knowing more about the difficulties this teacher happened to be walking through at the time that she delivered the workshop. I don’t know that the other workshop participants did. And that’s why I gotta tell you…it’s important to choose your teachers, wisely, because they can only ever take you as far as they themselves are willing to go.
Choose Your Teachers With Care
They could be teaching you about writing thesis statements, coordinating dance steps, or even teaching you about matters of the heart—how to love yourself, find your courage, or follow your dreams.
It doesn’t really matter what they’re teaching; what matters is that they are open about their limits as teachers. Your teachers can only take you as far as they are willing to go, themselves. If they have a capacity to vision beyond what they’ve directly experienced? Great, that still counts. But if they’re saying, “Nope, sorry, nothing more to be done here, this is the line and this is the limit,” then understand that what you learn from them will only take you right to that line, and to that limit.
The best teachers will take care not to speak in absolutes and not to take on the tone of an all-knowing authority, because they understand that nearly all students come into the learning environment conditioned to give authority over to whomever is in the teacher role. I’ve seen some teachers try to get around this by peppering their lessons with, “Well, you have to decide for yourself; don’t take my word for it,” but then they go into speaking with absolutes (“You can’t just decide to change your life, and then have a different life.”)
Just because you issued the disclaimer, doesn’t mean the tendency for students to ascribe authority to a teacher, has disappeared.
Now, I realize that so far I’ve been making some statements that sound like absolutes, so this is a good time to clarify that when it comes to someone teaching about what’s possible, what capacity someone has, what might shift or change? That’s where absolute statements of limitation, aren’t helpful. So when it comes to a teacher discussing how to move into a way of being that you very much want to create for yourself? Pay attention to whether they tell you a story of limitation, or of possibility.
The best teachers are the most honest teachers, and they will go out of their way to tell you: We humans are always evolving, and I can’t give you anything that you don’t already have. I can only ever create a container through teaching, for you to find your own way. My way might not be your way. Nothing I say is the gospel. Take what you like, and leave the rest. I could be wrong. See if this feels true, for you.
Holding the Humanity of the Teacher
Confession: I’ve been the teacher who spoke in absolutes, who later realized…oy. I was totally wrong. Or I was “right” from my own perspective, but the person I was trying to help needed something different, and the way I presented the information as an objective truth didn’t give that person room to experiment with alternatives.
Those moments are humbling.
These days, I endeavour to teach from a place of sharing what (I think) I know, and giving the context of my experience, so that the person knows why I’m saying it that way. What that could look like is something along the lines of, “I’ve been going through a really difficult time in my personal life, and lately I’ve been thinking about how to accept that. It’s felt as though I can’t just decide to change my life, and have a different life; I can’t just decide to be a happy person, and become a happy person. I’m open to that shifting, even if both feel very true. Right now, I’m trying on just accepting the unhappiness that I feel. If you’ve been in the same place, perhaps try that on, yourself. See if it feels right. And if it doesn’t, try on deciding to be a happy person, and see if that feels right.”
That’s a way to allow for the truth of what someone feels, while making room for…
Care taken to allow for infinite options.
We’ve got to hold the humanity of the teacher. No teacher is perfect. The teacher who lead this workshop ages ago had plenty of other insights that were helpful. Just not this one—the one that showed me the limits of where she was willing to go. It was clear to me that as I was walking on these new, shaky legs of being happier and letting go of old patterns, just because I’d decided to, I needed to surround myself with others who were as convinced of my capacity for change, as I was. I needed to be aware of the teachers I was bringing into my consciousness, and what they were offering me.
Choose your teachers, with care. Hold the humanity of the teacher. Take what you like from the teachings, and leave the rest.