I used to teach a parenting class to a group of people that were trying to get their kids back from Child Protective Services. I met a lot of interesting folks doing that, but there is one that sticks in my mind more than any other. His name was Les. Les was with his “girlfriend,” a lady that was married and had a kid with someone else. It was never completely clear exactly what the relationship was between Les and this woman.
However the details were arranged, Les was in the class for moral support for her; he didn’t have to be there. Les was interesting visually, he appeared to be about 40 years old but he dressed like an 18 year old skate boarder. He wore big baggy skater shorts, skater vans and a straight billed ball cap. The baseball cap had a slight twist to the right. The thing that stood out, I suppose is that he was intentionally dressed that way, considering his age.
Les was quick to speak and during introductions he said, “I’m just a dumb hick from Louisiana.” A lot of times when someone says something like that, he or she is being self deprecating for the sake of being funny. Les wasn’t. He believed that he was a “dumb hick” wholeheartedly. He believed it and he kept reminding us throughout the six week class.
I can only imagine what Les’ life had been like to that point. Someone somewhere must have really committed to convincing him that he was a dumb hick and that he wouldn’t amount to much. Les’ demeanor, clothes, strange relationship with this woman and constant affirmation of his dumb hickiness all helped to verify his opinion of himself.
His manner however, betrayed his self image. Les was insightful, sensitive and a leader in the group. Many of the people in the group complained about the system and how it is “out to get them,” Les talked about personal responsibility, growth and succeeding.
As a therapist, more often than not, I don’t get to witness the fruits of my work. For people that I might help, change happens over time and usually after the fact. I might get a nice letter or have someone pay me a visit, but usually people just take whatever new skills they might have developed and move on with their lives.
That being said, there have been a handful of moments in my career in which I witnessed a major shift as it happened. I saw this happen with Les. There was a game that was played in the class in which the participants had to navigate through a 9 by 9 grid of 12 inch squares taped on the floor. The path through the grid was predetermined and noted on a piece of paper that only the administrator of the game could see. If a correct square was stepped on, there was silence, if an incorrect square was stepped on the administrator made a beep sound. If there was any talking, the administrator would beep as well. This made it particularly difficult because the team might think they stepped on an incorrect square if there was a beep for talking. If a beep sound was made for any reason, the grid had to be started over. The goal was to discover the path and get everyone through the grid without verbal communication.
I have done this exercise with various groups through the years with all different kinds of people. I once did it with a graduate counseling class and it took them 45 minutes to figure it out. It can be difficult and frustrating. In fact, with this parenting class, I was given the honor of running the exercise because people sometimes get very hostile with the leader. The two women I did the class with were too chicken to do it.
As the class began trying to navigate the grid a couple of go-getters jumped into the challenge while the wall flowers stepped back to watch and avoid any potential embarrassment. Les was one of the go-getters; he was first to try in fact. Les stepped onto the first tile only to hear the beeeeeeep, of rejection. Then he went back to the start and tried again…
Beeeeeep, and again…
Silence… and a big smile; Les figured it out.
Then Les encouraged the wall flowers to get involved, and they did. Soon with Les leading the charge the class was about halfway through the maze. It became clear that it was difficult to remember the path to the first half of the grid because several people were stepping on the wrong spaces, getting beeped and having to start over. Les grabbed pens and paper from the top of the tables and began to mark the spaces that were already tried, tested and approved. From this point it was a matter of seconds until the path was discovered and Les led his team through it. It was an amazing display of insight and leadership considering it was coming from a dumb hick from Louisiana.
Les was grinning from ear to ear and he clearly enjoyed the success he had orchestrated. As we talked about the challenges of the game and the importance of communication (the point of the grid exercise), Les said his patented hick thing. I stopped the discussion and challenged him.
I asked, “Les you talk a lot about being a dumb hick, is that how you see your self?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“Can I tell you what I see after only knowing you for a few weeks?” I inquired.
“Sure,” he said hesitantly.
I told him, “I see a man that single handedly lead a team of twenty people through a complicated maze that he had never seen before. He did it in 23 minutes,” I added, “Which is twice as fast as a graduate level counseling class that I did the same exercise with. I see a leader and a pretty smart guy that took charge and got it done. You may be hick from Louisiana but I don’t see a ‘dumb’ in there at all.”
It is probably my imagination looking back on it, but I think that I actually smelled smoke and heard the gears in his head grind to a halt and then restart in a new way the with affirmation from a near stranger that he was competent. I think that he probably somehow suspected that he might be, but was conditioned to think less of himself. Les probably came from a long line of people that believed that they were dumb hicks. They might have even been dumb hicks, who knows? I’ll bet that somewhere along the way someone noticed that he was a little different. I can imagine that the dumb hicks around him worked double time to knock him down.
Not all family heirlooms are tangible or valuable but they can be just as hard to let go of. I don’t know what happened to Les after that class, but I hope he found a relationship that was a little less dynamic and had something to offer him. I hope that the one little light bulb that popped on in his head that day was just the first of many. I hope that he moved forward.
Is the picture you paint of yourself in line with who you really are today? is it possible that your need to defend your negatively biased self image is holding you back from what you are capable of becoming today? I see a lot of people that already are where they want to be, but don’t realize it. Are you?