In which I confront those who think they know my best interests better than me.
My novel is a love story. It is also a meditation on what it takes to build a functional relationship in the aftermath of significant trauma. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t at least partially inspired by my own experiences with abuse and mental illness.
This week I’ve been challenged to write that inspiration story. It will be used to help the program admins get to know me and match me with the right developmental editor. I can get behind this–100%. But I was also expected to share that story in a way that is very public, very out of my control, and just doesn’t feel safe. I can’t get behind that.
Last year, I went through 5 weeks of training on trauma-informed teaching practices, and I’ve been using those practices in my classes ever since. So one of the things I think about a lot, especially when it comes to group/education situations, is agency. One of the greatest ways to support learners is by giving them agency–the ability to be in charge of their own needs and participation–and allowing them to develop trust and comfort at their own pace.
Unfortunately, the expectation of immediate, unearned trust is deeply ingrained in our educational structures-—not because that’s what’s best for students, but because it is easier and more comfortable for those in charge. If you’ve ever had to stand in front of a group of people, ask them for some sort of response, and instead get nothing more than yawning blank stares, you understand the impulse to just call someone out to fill the silence. “Hey you, what do you think? What do you have to say? Help me out. Don’t leave me hanging.”
The thing is, that expectation, which too often becomes a demand for uninhibited participation, is not reasonable for a lot of us. Depending on who you ask, anywhere from 25% to 50% of people are introverts, which means they may be quiet, reserved with their thoughts and feelings, and prefer more intimate communication-—with just one person or a small group—-over speaking in large group settings. At least until they’ve established trust and a sense of safety.
But most traditional classrooms train us to set aside our natural tendencies in favor of pleasing authorities. They train us to disregard or dismiss instincts that are meant to protect us. Over time we can lose confidence in ourselves, we don’t honor our own needs, and we put ourselves in danger. All in the name of public displays of aptitude.
As I mentioned, I’m a trained trauma-informed educator. And still, in the face of (seemingly) monolithic institutions and/or (perceived) authority figures, I easily succumb to this self-doubt and desire to please. I’m wont to choke on my own reservations before risking the perception that I’m difficult, uncooperative, or confrontational.
Thankfully I have an amazing therapist and an incredible partner, and with their help I’ve come to realize that feeling comfortable, feeling safe, is never trivial-—even when that is inconvenient for someone else or challenges some established norm. So today, when I had this nagging feeling in my gut that said, “This thing we’re being asked to do-—the way we are being asked & expected to participate–it doesn’t feel right,” I listened to it. I didn’t ignore it. I didn’t try to convince it that everything was fine (okay, maybe a little). Instead, I challenged the practice that felt uncomfortable—-a practice I believe impinges unnecessarily on my agency. And when my challenge met resistance, I refused to accept the condescending answer: “No, everything will be fine, you just don’t understand.” Instead, I pressed back, advocated for my needs, and ultimately arrived at an uncomplicated and unimposing solution that makes me feel safe.
That’s all I needed, and it’s not too much to ask.