By Ellen Carter, School Counselor
This piece was originally written last fall about the “Rejection Boot Camp” workshop given by Rachel Simmons; we are publishing it now as Ms. Simmons is about to return to our campus.
Rachel Simmons came to our school today to teach a “Rejection Boot Camp” workshop for upper schoolers at SBS. The focus of today was on debunking myths of perfectionism in our culture and helping students make personal goals. Students were encouraged to unearth the various ways in which societal expectations are created that effectively pull them into corners of self-doubt and fear of failure. We talked about what it really means to “be brave” and take risks, however small, in one’s life. Simmons emphasized the need for connection, not necessarily doing it on one’s own, but actually collaborating and seeking support. Students were encouraged to think about not only the brave acts in their lives and the healthy risks that they might take, but the aftermath and how they might respond to various failures that are bound to occur when we risk stepping outside our comfort zones. This workshop is about making goals, taking risks, and advancing with small, manageable steps towards reaching one’s goals. It is also about naming what is important to you, unearthing your authentic thoughts, desires, fears, and taking steps towards realizing something that is important to you and carrying it out.
When I paused to think about my own goals, I found that I struggled to think about and express what was authentically important to me. I hadn’t thought about that in a while as I have been barely swimming in the depths of raising children, working and managing to keep a household together, somewhat. I began thinking about authenticity and knowing what one knows, and knowing what one is feeling, thinking, believing. I remember as a young person when writing papers for school, I struggled immensely trying to figure out what the teacher “wanted,” what would garner the best grade, what was needed to excel and succeed. This approach to writing was torturous. The idea of finding an authentic voice and unapologetically naming what I knew never occurred to me, I was too busy trying to “get it right” and keep on the track of good grades, succeeding and staying “at the top.”
I remember the profound sigh of relief when I pursued a Masters degree in Education many years later at Harvard Graduate School of Education and took a course on the psychology of adolescents with Carol Gilligan. Prior to giving us our first written assignment, Professor Gilligan asked the class to write authentically. “I want to know what you think, I want to recognize you in your words,” she urged. There was no pretense of academic distance or trying to guess what the teacher wanted. Rather, we were encouraged to be authentic and write what we knew and thought. It was a revelation. I never had had a teacher ask that of me. And soon began the journey of discovering who I was, what I felt, how I thought. I was encouraged to be original and creative and be nothing more than who I was.
Twenty years later, working in an all girls’ school as a school counselor, I still remember those words of Carol Gilligan and think of her as I work with young women and girls. How do we encourage young people to take healthy risks, to make goals that are authentically theirs, to try new things and invite multiple failures until they get it right? Perhaps simply naming this process of inviting mistakes is the beginning. In the classroom where I teach a course on Mindfulness, Resilience and Building Community, I am often reminding the girls to pause and reflect on what they think and feel and how they might want to express their ideas and experiences. We often don’t get it right the first time, and the students spend many moments in the classroom using words, art and movement to more deeply understand themselves and their relationship to others. We explore the deeper implications of friendship: what elements make it beautiful and what are the messy complications?
We are a culture that celebrates perfectionism and success, and yet the real beauty of life comes in the chaotic, creative moments where we don’t know and we are just becoming. How do we express anger and hurt to our friends and still hold onto the relationship? Girls often refrain from expressing these more complicated feelings, for fear that by showing their anger or disappointment, they will lose the friendship and therefore be alone and isolated. Rather than risk being alone, girls are willing to put up with a less than satisfying friendship, choosing to skate the surface of a relationship. Girls are often surprised at the profound sense of connection that arrives after a complicated but thoughtful exploration with a friend or group of friends about what they truly think and feel. We all feel this, don’t we — the sense of being human and real when we take the risk to be authentic. How can I better encourage teachers and students to push up against the pressures that greet them as they are working on papers, relationships, college applications, complicated math problems, history papers? The clarity and peace that arrives after the not knowing and the mess-ups is a lovely thing.
Perhaps one way to begin is in the present, writing what I know, making authentic observations and simply modeling being myself in this path we call living our lives.