The other day I was driving my kids to music lessons after school. My son was wondering if his guitar was in the car and I told him “It’s in the back,” pointing over my shoulder with my thumb. We were laughing about something at the time, so I was smiling as I did it. At that moment, something caught my eye and I looked to my right to see an elderly man, standing with a rake over a colossal leaf pile, giving me the thumbs up and mouthing, “Thank you” with a hearty grin in his lips and apple cheeks. My kids saw the whole thing too and as we put the pieces together we simultaneously burst out into laughter. What was a mother’s directions to her son became a compliment to an old man raking leaves. It was one of life’s rare moments of total gift. A misunderstanding just might have made someone’s day. The intention was absolutely impure. Misguided. Misunderstood. And still some good was done in the world at 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon in a small Montana town in Fall.
And my kids and I started thinking, What if we went around just giving the thumbs up to random strangers all day? How would that make the world a better place? Would we have the guts? Could we climb so fully into the word “Unabashed?” We all decided we’d be too shy. It was too invasive. Who are we to deem someone else’s moment thumb’s up-worthy? What do we know? our inner voices hollered, preaching fear like our own personal televangalists, scoffing at us, bullying us, critiquing our every move.
It was my ten year old son who made a case for the thumbs up. “If it were me, I’d love it if someone gave me a random thumbs up.” Leave it to the very young to see past fear and to not yet be under the grips of inner destructive dialogue.
I was so accustomed to my inner verbal abuse that in order to face her, I had to name her. I call her My Evil Twin Sheila; she made her public debut in my book, THIS IS NOT THE STORY YOU THINK IT IS. We all have one and it helps to name it. For a while I thought I needed to make her die a violent death and cast her out to sea in a nailed down coffin. Lately I’ve learned that since I created her, and she’s highly immortal, it might be more productive to not be at war with her. To let her have her moment of chatter, but to smile at her, so afraid and so reactive, a scared little girl who thinks you have to fight to win. And in-so-doing, more and more, I love her into submission.
So I’ve been trying it, the public thumbs up. Why not? There’s no want of word exchange or even reaction. It’s just a simple gesture. Good job. Way to go. Excellent. It’s not just a social experiment on how we give and receive random acts of kindness, it’s about publicly declaring that which is right with the world. You’re taking a bike ride on a Sunday afternoon with your three year old? Thumbs up. You’re walking with your groceries instead of driving. Thumbs up. You’re sitting on a bench talking to a friend. Thumbs UP, man! You’re mowing the lawn in the rain with a smile on your face. You’re my freaking hero!
And it doesn’t have to stop there. We can give ourselves a thumbs up. We just finished folding three loads of laundry? We made homemade chicken stock? We took the time to do a puzzle with our kid? We invited the new guy at work out for lunch? Thumbs up.
Please enjoy the following lovely essay by the wonderful therapist, writer, and wise woman, Stephanie Baffone, who teaches us that we can practice giving ourselves a surprise thumbs up even when our internal dialogue wants to tell us that we’re fools. Let’s be fools, then, unabashed.
Take it, Stephanie:
I am the Ultimate by Stephanie Baffone
When I was in eighth grade, about fourteen years old, I fell in love. Not with some young, strapping, adolescent fresh-faced boy with peach fuzz perched over his top lip.
Not even with a human.
I fell hard and fast for a word. When said out loud, the sound of it made me pass out like a fainting goat. It had an air of pretense, which must have been some sort of psychological projection on my part because I was hardly a pretentious girl. Pretense made me feel inferior but this word, strung together with seven perfect letters relegated me to the likes of a Marcia Brady type-the Marcia who pined away for Davy Jones from the Monkees.
The word was ultimate and when I prefaced it with the, I decided we should declare our love publicly.
“I am The Ultimate,” became the signature phrase I used to announce my triumphant arrival into a room. Arms open wide, forming a big Y over my head, I made a grand entrance one afternoon afterschool when I greeted my Mom in the kitchen.
My Mom came from hearty Irish stock and as my Dad says was, “a real lady.” My father embraced his self-appointed role as God’s laughter lieutenant and gravitates to the spotlight. My Mom, in contrast, preferred to play the part of a spectator. She raised the five of us to embrace humility and while she found us entertaining she went to great lengths to be sure we knew our place.
She canned applesauce every fall from the apples she and my aunt picked at our local orchard and taught us about the birds and the bees without one euphemism. On winter Sunday afternoons, she curled up in the crushed orange velvet recliner in her bedroom and soaked in the sunny spot by the sliding glass door. After reciting her daily rosary, she wandered off into the worlds that lived inside the stack of books resting on her glass-top table.
That fall afternoon, she must have had enough of my shenanigans and found my love affair with the word ultimate no longer tolerable or appropriate.
Still dressed in my Catholic school uniform, I hiked up my skirt and with my white blouse inching up over my belly I hopped up on the countertop and reached for a glass.
“I am The Ultimate,” I repeated; poking around in the cabinet propped up on the laminate, marble countertop.
Just as I found my favorite glass, my Mom tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Steffi, stop saying that.” She lent me her hand to get down. “It’s not very becoming.”
My identical twin sister, sat at the kitchen table, munching on a snack and laughed.
“Mooom! Seriously?!” I slid down from the counter. “I don’t actually think I am the ultimate. I just think that word is funny. It cracks me up.”
“Steffi, I know that but it’s just not funny and it’s certainly not becoming,” she walked over to the stove.
An early exchange like this between a mother and a daughter is a therapist’s playground. Clients internalize experiences with their parental figures that go on to form introjections, defined as “the internalization of the parent figures and their values; leading to the formation of the superego.”
The superego is the place inside us where the critical, punitive voice of our psyches resides. This part of our psyche buddies up with criticism like macaroni does with cheese. Think Laura’s critical voice “Shelia,” as she named and outed in her book.
That short exchange with my Mom, formed a personal introject for me that’s become a real stage five clinger.
I loved my Mom. I knew she believed in me and as daughters go, I think she actually thought I was the ultimate. I harbor no ill feelings toward her for saddling me with this introject. Her lesson on humility that day was taught with a spirit of love and compassion. Bravado, even if only in jest, from her perspective, for her children-had no comedic value.
My mother’s intent aside, what I’ve noticed is that I have a tendency to qualify myself, especially when people encourage me to believe in myself. My knee-jerk reaction is to make a mad dash to my emotional closet and don that pesky reminder that I am NOT the ultimate.
In sharing this story with others over the years what I’ve discovered is how important it is for me (and them too) to let go of the tired, worn-out introjects whose main jobs are to self-sabotage. I’m learning to replace those tired introjects with mantras more psychologically productive.
Recently, I stumbled across a useful exercise for doing just that. “Defeating Your Inner Critic,” was originally posted at QueryTracker.net as help to writers struggling to conquer and quiet their critical voice. This exercise is very effective and is not only useful for quieting the writer’s critical voice but for quieting our critical voice across the board, regardless of what in particular it is yapping about. I use it personally and also professionally in my psychology practice.
If you too are struggling with an old belief that plagues you with self-doubt and tempers belief in yourself, try these exercises. You might just discover that you indeed, are the ultimate.
Stephanie Baffone, LPCMH, NCC is a licensed, board certified mental health therapist and writer in private practice with a specialty in grief and loss, couples counseling and issues related to infertility. Prior to going back into private practice, Stephanie worked as the coordinator of the children’s grief and loss program at the largest hospice in the state of Delaware where she had the distinct privilege of supporting and guiding children whose loved ones were dying from terminal illnesses.
Stephanie is a consultant to other agencies developing programs on grief and loss and is thrilled to be an expert columnist at Savvyauntie.com on the very same issues.
In addition to wife of husband who loves her like you see in the movies she is “Mom” to two dogs and two goats and “Aunt Steph,” (by relation) to thirty-nine nieces and nephews. She is working on a memoir, Doris, Sophia and Me: A Memoir About A Mother Who Didn’t Live Long Enough and A Daughter Who Was Never Born.
Stephanie is a proud graduate of Villanova University, a member of The American Counseling Association, National Board of Certified Counselors, RESOLVE, The American Fertility Association and the American Academy of Bereavement. Stephanie has been featured and used as a trusted source in print, radio and television media including, The Huffington Post, Counseling Today, First for Women Magazine, Blog Talk Radio, CN8 and WHYY.
The consummate Italian hostess, she loves to host visitors at her blog StephanieBaffone.com. (Amelie—can you hyperlink this?) To contact her, email her at Stephanie@StephanieBaffone.com.