This is a note I originally posted on my Facebook page (mainly for my students). A lot of people I had been talking to seemed to be facing some kind of struggle, so I wrote these thoughts to encourage all of us to be more empathetic and caring as well as to be more open to being cared for.
These days, a lot of people I talk to, especially students, are struggling with different things—some are suffering from poor self-esteen and low self confidence, some have lost their sense of direction, some are experiencing conflicts with friends or family members, some are running into problems with their studies, some are finding it difficult to adapt to to new classes or to university life, some are frustrated by having to deal with annoying peers (and teachers!), some are coping with their entire life being turned upside down. It seems that all of us are struggling with something, but what can we do? How can we handle our own problems and how can we help those around us? These are just some of my thoughts:
1. Be aware of your strengths and qualities
A lot of us focus on our shortcomings and forget about our strengths. A lot of people I have been talking to seem to be looking down on themselves; they’ve lost confidence; they seem a little lost. When I look at them, I see amazing people with wonderful characters, great talents and caring hearts. I wish they could see themselves through my eyes.
I am often like this too. I will dwell on my failures, the things that have gone wrong. Maybe this kind of negativity is emphasized in a school environment; everyone (students AND teachers) is constantly getting evaluated, compared and criticized. This person is smarter, that person is more beautiful, this person is more sociable, that person works harder.
This problem can be exacerbated by social media. When using Instagram or Facebook, we can worry needlessly about getting likes or compare the popularity of our posts and photos with those of our peers. We can become envious of the rich and exciting lives our friends are leading and fail to recognize that when many people post on social media, they are are carefully curating a particular self-image.
We need to stop comparing ourselves to others so much and be able to appreciate our own qualities a little more.
2. Try to put things into perspective
Sometimes we let little setbacks get to us. We overthink things. We dwell on the negative. As a friend of mine recently wrote to me, if we take things too seriously, too negatively, we are in danger of getting lost. We need to try to keep some sort of perspective. Is the thing we are struggling with that important? Is it worth worrying about that much?
Looking back at some of the things that were ‘end-of-my-world’ incidents, break-ups and problems when I was in secondary school, I realize now that they barely made the faintest of ripples in my life as whole.
Can you put things into perspective? If you didn’t do well in an exam, for example, is it causing you too much worry? The marks themselves are not that important as they only serve as a rough indicator of your progress. They don’t count for much and no one—no university, no future employer—will be interested in knowing how you did in an exam you took when you were 14 years old. It may be kind of difficult to see that now—because now it is the disastrous mark that you are staring at. You need to just try to figure out what caused you to slip up this time and work on ways to improve. If you can’t figure it out on your own, you can ask your teachers and friends for advice. (Note: I work in a school that puts a lot of emphasis on academic achievement and this note was written after and exam period, so this is why I am focusing on tests here, but the same message applies to things like family and relationship problems as well.
3. Don’t force your sense of perspective on others
Sometimes a friend may tell you about something that is really causing him/her to worry or suffer, and you might think they are overreacting. You might want to just say, “Ah, yeah, that’s not really so important; don’t sweat it.” Maybe the setback or problem seems inconsequential, but the worry and pain is still real. We need to recognize that and respect it.
This is something I have had to learn over time. As a teacher (supposedly a grown up), maybe I have had more life experiences—and that affects my sense of perspective. A first, I had to tell myself not to force my sense of perspective on others. I remember when I first started teaching, a student handed me a letter. The letter started with “I need to share my secret with you. This causes me so much pain and humiliation. I can’t tell any of my friends about it.” I was really wondering what horrible secret was about to revealed. However, when I got to that part—”My parents are divorced. I come from a single parent family”—my initial reaction was “What? Just that? That’s nothing! hat’s the big problem?” I needed to remind myself that while it may not be a big problem for me, it was a huge weight on her, so I needed to respond accordingly and respect the strength and depth of her feelings.
Now I think I can do this more naturally. If someone comes to me with a problem, I will understand that for that person it is a real and serious problem. So yeah, although I think test results are not that important, if your are worried about them, that worry is real.
4. Try not to cause harm
Maybe if we tease this girl about her weight or that boy about his haircut, we can make a couple of our friends laugh for a few seconds. Maybe we can even feel better about ourselves for a while as we cut someone down just a little to build ourselves up. But for the person being teased, they can dwell on that little criticism for a long time. It gets added to the pile of insults received. Over time, that pile can grow larger and larger until it starts to smother and suffocate those being teased, pressing them down, crushing their self-esteem. ls pushing someone down like that really worth those few seconds of laughter?
A related problem in almost every school or class is ostracism. One student may just not fit in and for whatever reason, an unwritten rule comes into existence: it is uncool to talk to this person, and if you talk to this person we might just start excluding you, too. Why can’t we just be more tolerant of differences? Why can’t we be more empathetic?
5. Reach out to others
Even a friendly smile or a ‘meaningless’ conversation can do a lot to help people by letting them feel that little bit of warmth, that little spark of human connection. Can we reach out a little more?
Like most people, I have gone through unhappy times; however, during those times, there were little things that helped a lot. For example, there was one girl (Ellen) who would greet me with the warmest hello and most amazing smile. Maybe this was just her way of greeting everyone or maybe she was genuinely happy to say hi to me, but those brief seconds of sunshine every weekday helped a lot. I guess she didn’t think she was doing anything special, but her actions did make a difference.
Then there were MSN chats with people like Kiki and Takki. It wasn’t that the chats were always meaningful—if I remember correctly, topics ranged from boys, school and family to gothic lolita, J-pop music and Pullips (spooky little big-eyed dolls)—but it was a kind of cheerful and regular contact that also helped ease me through each day.
So what is my point? Well, most of the time, we aren’t fully aware of someone else’s problems, and even if we are, we might think there is nothing we can do to help. However, sometimes the smallest action—a smile, a joke, a story, a word of encouragement—can help in some way. We can try harder to reach out to others; try to make a connection, try to give a little light to others. We have more power to make a difference than we think.
6. Let others reach you
One way to cope with getting hurt is to build a wall around yourself and not let others in. In a way, we become safe within that little fortress we have built. No one can reach us; therefore, no one can hurt us. But then when we encounter difficulties, we have to carry the burden on our own. No one can really help because no one really knows what is going on.
And safe within our walls, don’t we start to stagnate and then harden?
There are people who will care about us if we let them. We don’t have to handle everything on our own. But that means we have to tear down the walls and let others reach us. It makes us vulnerable; we can get hurt more easily. But in the end, I think it will make us stronger. Don’t be afraid to reach out; don’t be afraid to let others in.
This summer I read a book by Jay Asher called Th1rteen R3asons. The novel tells the story of a teenage girl, Hannah Baker, who has committed suicide and has sent an audiotape to the thirteen people, including the narrator, that she holds responsible. On the tape, she explains how they contributed. However, the novel makes it clear that she is also responsible for her problems and, ultimately, for her decision; she dwelt on everything negative, failing to see anything good in her life and, more importantly, she closed herself off to others. There were people there for her; she just didn’t give them a chance.
7. Be willing to let some things be and let some things go
Let me add one more point inspired by a friend’s comment on this note. It might best be summed up by the serenity prayer.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
Some things are simply not under our control. Not everything that is broken can be fixed.
I recently lost a friendship. I kept thinking, “If only I can find just the right words, I might be able to save this.” Eventually, I had to accept that there was nothing more I could do.
I am not saying we should give up whenever we face a difficult problem, but we do need to know that some things are out of our power to change. Sometimes, we just have to acknowledge that and try to move on.
We are all struggling in our own ways; we are not alone, so let’s try to get though everything together.
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