The world teaches us to feel shame and embarrassment. If we don’t fit in perfectly with whatever group of people we are around, we get treated differently. Especially during childhood, this can be very damaging to your sense of self-confidence and can cause you to make compromises about doing things that you enjoy or that interest you. Growing up, I enjoyed a pretty wild variety of things that caused me not to fit perfectly into any one box. Because of this, I never got fully assimilated into any of the groups of people I hung out with. The folks I played Pokémon and Magic the Gathering with didn’t get along with the guys on my football team. My theatrical friends from drama class did not seem to mesh well with my fellow computer nerds. The popular kids looked at me strangely when I paired my Abercrombie & Fitch jacket with a t-shirt from Hot Topic. Every group of people seemed to want the folks in that group to fit within a certain cookie-cutter mold and any sort of deviation from that idea of who the people in the group are supposed to be was alienating.
It was for these reasons that I learned to adapt my personality based on the group I was with. This has served me well as an adult, as most of my early career was in sales, and having the EQ to empathize with people, communicate effectively regardless of your differences, and defuse conflict is a huge advantage in this line of work. For a long time, though, it caused me to hide certain aspects of myself from certain people for fear of them rejecting me. Writing public posts like this one makes me feel vulnerable and exposed, as I do not know who might be reading and what they might think.
Throughout my adult life, I have actively worked to focus less on what others think of me, and more on doing what is important to me and what feels right. I have taken large strides to that end. I’ve embraced my hobbies and beliefs and wear them as a badge of pride. Specifically over the past 3 years or so, I have become more confident in myself being able to provide advice and guidance to others when I believe I can add value. Even with all of that progress, though, I still have moments of self-doubt.
My wife and I took our kids to a wedding in South Carolina over the weekend. My son, who will be 9 months old in a couple of weeks, is very much a creature of habit. Around 7-8PM, he is ready for bed. Being ready for bed does not mean he wants to be asleep. It means he wants to be in a bed and down for the night. During the daytime, if he gets sleepy, he has no problem napping in the car or wherever, but his bedtime is sacred to him.
The evening before the wedding, we attended a rehearsal dinner at the venue the wedding was to be held at, which was roughly an hour from my grandmother’s house where we were staying. We had a great time at the rehearsal dinner, and my son was happy and excited to be there the entire night. He got to meet lots of new people, received a ton of attention, and was his usual happy self. We loaded up to leave just after 8PM, and by this time, we could tell he was just about over it. It was past his bed time, and while he had enjoyed himself, he was ready to be down for the night.
We were only on the road for a few minutes when he started screaming. He really doesn’t cry very much, and he has two different versions of crying: angry and sad. The angry cry is where we started the evening. He seemed to be letting us know he was not okay with being put in the car seat and needed us to get him out right away. Over the course of the next 10-15 minutes of driving, his angry cry turned sad. He isn’t talking yet, but he can say “Ma Ma” and “Da” to let us know he is talking to us. The edge of his crying softened as he transitioned from angry to sad and he started to call for us in between cries. It’s heartbreaking to hear, but stopping to get him out would only soothe him until we put him back in his seat, and we had to get back.
After about 30 minutes of continuous crying, with us trying to give him toys to keep his attention, trying to talk to him, giving him snacks, and anything else we could think of, I decided to try to sing to him. I like to sing, but I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. I have no rhythm, a bad ear for pitch and timbre, and my voice breaks up if I try to move outside of a very small range of notes. I’m aware of all this, so despite the fact that I like to sing, I hate to do it in front of other people because I’m afraid of what they’ll think. I feel this way even in front of my wife, who I trust completely and who I share my most vulnerable moments with.
After a minute or so of singing, his crying got much quieter and he seemed to be calming down. I continued to sing a random assortment of songs until he got completely quiet. I thought that maybe he had given up and gone to sleep, but when I stopped singing, he started to cry again. I continued to sing for most of the rest of the trip home. While I was singing, I caught myself feeling very self-conscious because my wife was listening. Normally in these moments, I transition from my actual singing voice to some silly variation, which I guess is a defense mechanism. It’s me saying “I know I don’t have a good singing voice, so here’s an intentionally silly voice so that when you judge me, you’ll know I was singing badly on purpose.” I forced myself to keep singing normally, though, because my songs were helping keep my son relaxed and asleep.
When we got back to my grandmother’s house, we carried the kids in. My daughter had fallen asleep almost immediately when we got into the car, and somehow had slept through all of my son’s crying and screaming. When we carried my son in, he was soundly asleep and stayed asleep in his car seat for 30-45 minutes while my wife and daughter got ready for bed, and he only woke up when we got him out of the car seat to put him to bed. He went right back to sleep after we got him settled in.
After everyone else was in bed, I was up for a while and spent some time reflecting on that experience. It felt good to have been able to calm him down when nothing else had worked. Despite the irrational fears I had of singing in front of my wife, I hadn’t felt any judgment from her, and in fact, felt encouraged by some of the nice things she had to say. I understand that my calling is not to sing professionally, and I don’t think I’m going to be getting invited to sing the national anthem before the big game, but I also shouldn’t feel ashamed to sing.
As my son and daughter grow up, they’re going to have things that they are naturally interested in doing. Society will discourage them from continuing to do many of those things. I need to watch closely for the things that my kids are passionate about and find ways to encourage them to fully explore those passions. People who create things and excel at the highest level of their field do so because they pushed through plateaus, self-doubt, and societal pressure to fit in until they got to the point of affirmation. Once that happens, the pressure shifts to support, and people begin to look to you with admiration. Most people never get to that point of affirmation, though, because they give up or never even try.
- How can you effectively land the message that other people’s opinions should carry little to no weight with a child who is still trying to form their own identity?
- How do you see the pressure being put on your child when a lot of it is happening while you aren’t around? For example, at school, at a friend’s house, at church, etc.
- How do you keep yourself from pulling the lever too far in the other direction and becoming overbearing, which could suck the joy out of the thing they were passionate about?
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