Lately the word ‘enough’ has been in my consciousness. Sometimes on the periphery and sometimes right in front of my face. As I grew up, ‘enough’ became a very loaded word –had I done enough, was my best good enough, was I good enough? It all boiled down to performing – meeting the expectations of someone else, measuring up.
I’ve been considering issues of performance. I have spent most of my life, it seems, dealing with performance issues. All children innately want to please the significant adults in their world. This is, in part, because children look to the adults in their lives to provide them with food and clothing and a safe place to be. None of us wants to have a life fraught with fear and contention, anger and tears, insecurity and judgement. As children, we look for approval – for the assurance that we are loved and cared for and cared about. So as we grow, we develop the habits of mind and of being and believing which we hope will insure that we are and will continue to be safe and loved.
As I was growing up in the family dynamic that was my home, I learned what aspects of my being were noteworthy and valued and what aspects of mySelf were to be contained, controlled, constrained and, if possible, jettisoned. I was ‘the intelligent one’. Marks were important. Success on tests and exams was important. I remember coming home with my grade 8 report card and, rather than my parents (especially my father) celebrating the 13 A’s I received, all I heard about was the one B. Why did I get a B? What was I going to do to change that? And I knew that I hadn’t measured up. I remember grade 9. I found out when I was in my early twenties that I had had an ulcer which had healed over. I knew exactly when it had developed – grade 9: new school, new teachers, following my sisters into the same school, trying to fit in. And when I decided, finally, to do what I needed to do and I quit university when I was 18, I remember my father telling me that “This house is only big enough for so many people.” I had quit. That meant I had not lived up to his expectations. That meant I had failed. That meant that I was not good enough. That meant that I was to be removed from the family.
I should note that I did finally get a university degree. However, my first year working toward a Bachelor of Music in Music Education was filled with fear. I did choose not to live at home and I chose to pay for the entire year myself. That way, if I failed the year, it was my money that was involved – not my father’s. But, I remember pacing in the backyard at home on the day I was to register. I felt sick to my stomach. Since I had quit when I did when I was 18, I was told by the university administration, in no uncertain terms, that if I were to be unsuccessful in my first year in the Faculty of Music, I would not be allowed to re-register at U of T. That fear of failure lived with me for that entire year. But, I did get my degree and I did become a professional – a teacher. In that, I lived up to my parents’ expectations of me.
I went out to work. And I tried very hard to be what was expected of me – the good and biddable employee. I was never late and rarely away. I once phoned one of my sisters, also a teacher, to get her permission to call in sick. I couldn’t do that without someone’s approval of my decision. I had learned, by then, that I could not make a decision without someone else’s ‘stamp of approval’. A performance issue, to be sure. I was polite and diligent. I strived to be the best employee possible. Again – a performance issue. Measure up and I would be valued and know that I was worthy. Question decisions made by administration, say ‘No’, buck the system in anyway and I found myself under scrutiny. If I asserted mySelf, more often than not I would be taken to task. And I learned what was expected of me to be ‘good enough’.
Some of the strongest memories I have of my teaching career and dealing with administrator’s expectations are of my first principal looking at the work I had done to meet his specifications and his saying “How do I [meaning him] know that it is going to work?” My second principal thanked me for the work I had done to resurrect the instrumental music programme at his school, but he told me I would not be hired on full time for the next year because he believed that, since I was a pianist and not an instrumentalist, I would not be able to continue to develop the programme in the way which he wanted. My third principal informed me that “I [meaning him] know what good teaching is.” His implication was that since I [me] didn’t measure up to all of his expectations, I was not a good teacher.
Like most kids, I took music lessons. I had the same teacher as one of my sisters. The teacher always compared us – why couldn’t I be like my sister? And I took piano exams and played in recitals and competed in Kiwanis. And I didn’t like any of it – the performing part of it all. Somehow, in striving to play perfectly – all the right notes in the right time with the correct fingering and dynamics and phrasing – I lost the music. I was so afraid of being judged and found wanting that I lost the joy of music. I still remember my last piano exam at the Faculty of Music – the end of 19 years of lessons. I remember that I could see, in my mind’s eye, the first two pages of the Beethoven Sonata I was playing. But I couldn’t see any more of it. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t finish the piece. I have never forgotten the feeling I had as I left the examination. I had failed. I was not good enough.
And now I sing. Talk about putting myself in the line of fire about performing. I am the instrument! I remember auditioning for one singing teacher who told me that I was not going to be accepted into his studio. I didn’t want to become a performer and, in addition, I was too fat. I was not worthy of his time and teaching. I cried as I walked all the way back home. I remember, too, my first lesson with another teacher. He asked me what my goal was and when I told him that I wanted to complete the grade 10 voice exam, he told me that (at that time) my voice was “not a grade 10 voice”. And I cried as I drove all the way home.
I also sang in Kiwanis and have completed voice exams. This when I have never enjoyed the experience! Still doing what was expected of me in old paradigms. Still performing.
The end result of all of this is that I have spent so much of my life looking to others for their approval and approbation. I have not celebrated myself and my successes. I have not felt that I had the right to do that. I have not felt that I was ‘enough’.
The word ‘enough’ has been a part of my life and my thought process. It has permeated my life choices. It (or some form of it) has infused my self-talk. When I think of my conversations with myself, I am aware of the language of judgment which permeates those conversations – do more, get better and other such words. I find it sad, as I sit here, to know that I was always scrupulous in how I spoke to my students. All I ever asked of them is that they give everything their best effort. I didn’t ‘red pen’ their writing. I talked to them about their work. My classroom was always a safe place for my students to try, to ask questions, to question me. I never forgot the power of my words and their potential to shape my students in ways I would never see. But I have not been as kind and caring to myself.
And two days ago, my current singing teacher said something which has been with me as I’ve thought about me and ‘performing’ and ‘measuring up’ and ‘enough’. His point is that I am not unsure or tentative when I speak or when I laugh. I have a personal presence and power. I do not speak or move in any way which is uncertain. It’s only when I sing that I loose that sense of mySelf. It affects how I stand and breathe and initiate sound. I’ve thought about this since that lesson. Do I do this? Where else in my life have I done this? Do I continue to do this? Is it only at my lessons where I feel that I have to measure up to my teacher’s expectations? The answers don’t really matter – yes or no – so what? Being awake and aware is what matters. Knowing that I am safe to be ME everywhere in my world is what matters.
And the image that has been with me since Tuesday is that I am SAFE. I CAN BE the empress – naked and center stage. I can continue to say and sing mySelf into MY LIFE.
That makes such a difference.