Careful the Things You Say...

“Careful the things you say, children will listen…” - Stephen Sondheim

One of the most lasting memories from my childhood was when I got a part in my first community theater show when I was 8. My mom sat me down and very seriously told me that I should not brag about being in this show because it would make other people feel bad (that may not have been the exact wording, but it was something close).

Mom was doing her best to keep me humble and polite.

It worked.

Mom is an excellent mom (and frankly we could use a little more humble and polite in the world these days... but I digress...)

I listened and for several months I didn’t tell a single soul. The week of the production, my 3rd grade teacher found out and made me stand up in front of the class to share my accomplishment.


I cried because I was terrified that I was doing something bad and that I’d get in trouble for bragging.

Of course my mom later hugged me and told me that she didn’t mean I couldn’t tell ANYONE and that of course it was ok to talk about it! Unfortunately, the message that my childhood mind interpreted from this (and that I unwittingly carried with me for most of my life) is that you should always, ALWAYS politely and quietly wait in the wings for life to happen so that you don't offend anyone.

Later, in high school, I made up a quote and scrawled it on a piece of notebook paper and hung it inside my locker. It said, “My life is like an empty chair waiting to be sat upon by a large man named opportunity”. I thought it was funny. I still have it.

Deep down I thought that if I was polite, worked hard and followed all of the rules, I could wait for someone to discover my excellence (because to talk about it myself would be rude). So I waited - believing that my awesome-ness would shine through and everything in my life would turn into sparkly wonderful-ness. (It does not escape my injustice meter/humor radar that it was a MAN named opportunity that I was conditioned to be waiting for... but again I digress...)

I know enough now about history (and women’s history in particular) to understand where Mom's well-meaning lesson on humility came from. In addition, my parents were born during the Great Depression when humility was traded like currency. My mom was also unwittingly taught by her mom to feel ashamed of being a woman and that it was “good manners” to timidly wait for someone to discover your worth. She was in a long line of women who were conditioned to have no societal voice. Fortunately, Mom and other women in my family were powerhouses. Despite most of them not having the ability or means to truly express themselves very far beyond societal expectations, they persevered and pioneered anyway, taking steps where and when they could (Grandma was one of the first women in my family that could legally vote - go Grandma! Mom was an awesome, artistic pillar of our community who balanced work, art and motherhood at a time when it was taboo to do it - thanks Mom!)

Outside of being the fortunate recipient of the strides that my fore-mothers handed down to me, I don't consider myself much of a pioneer. In my opinion, I have spent the majority of my life apologizing for my existence. I, like many women, have lived with the a confusing dichotomy: Being told that I could do anything I wanted, and being surrounded by women who had a voice that they used to make a difference in the world, but simultaneously being conditioned to be passive, polite, know my place and not make waves because it might offend someone. So for me, the childhood misinterpretation of well meaning parental moments somehow outweighed the other messages I was receiving. And so a cycle of polite self-deprication was born.

For my own sanity I have pondered this topic and tried to reconcile how to share myself/art/expression/ideas with my corner of the world without internally feeling like (for lack of a better description) an artistic prostitute. I also seriously wonder how as a parent/grown up/adult person you refrain from unwittingly transferring the self deprecating messages to your kids. How do you keep from saying that one off-handed remark that will sear into their souls and paint the entirety of their adult lives with a dark cloud of self doubt? How do you step outside your ingrained personality traits and your conditioning to create something in the world that you feel compelled to create but not feel like a total fraud doing it? And what does it say about you that you feel compelled to create it to begin with? Are you giving something back? Or are you a self-absorbed attention monger who would be better off keeping your lackluster ideas to yourself? (I know...  OUCH Critical Inner Voices. OUCH.)

I currently don't have the answers to any of these questions.

I could spend plenty of hot air (or web space) being angry at all of the people whose well-meaning messages I misinterpreted or who failed to look past my timidity and push me into the spotlight like Baby June. Really though - what good would that possibly do? Ultimately, I don’t blame anyone else for my inability to speak up for myself but MYSELF.

The long and short of all of this is that I've decided to not make any more apologies for my existence. I can be my own ally and still have manners. I can share what I am capable of without hurting people's feelings. I can choose to share my creativity and not quietly acquiesce so that the world can feel more comfortable. I can encourage other people to do the same. I can encourage my kids to do likewise so that they can be confident, creative people and share something positive while they are a part of this world.

Will I be good at it all the time? Probably not. Will I stop the self deprecating humor that I use to deflect praise in an attempt to make other people feel comfortable? I'll do my best. Will I never doubt myself or worry what people think of me or my creations ever again? Unlikely. Will I never, ever say anything in a well meaning attempt at "good parenting" that will damage my kids or send them into a decades long spiral of self doubt and shame? I hope I don't, but there are no guarantees (sorry kids).

So I will try my darndest to make no more apologies for who I am and I will try really hard not to damage my kids too much (because I know they are listening and I have ZERO control over how they interpret what I am saying...).

And even though I am a little late in the game... I suppose it’s about damn time.

(Oops... sorry for swearing, I hope that didn't offended anyone...)

© 2016 Krysta Bernhardt. All Rights Reserved.