by Lou Solomon, dated February 8, 2011
Deep within the experience of being human is the fear of not being good enough. If we have the misfortune of being labeled as inferior in any way, we can take it as proof and run with it for years, never suspecting it’s all a big lie.
I work with amazing one-of-a-kind people. I am always surprised and sometimes stunned by how many of them have been given damaging information. Recently a client shared with me that as she was growing up, she was told that she was uncoordinated and clumsy. There was nothing clumsy about this executive, but she had been fighting for most of her career to avoid the spotlight where people were sure to see the truth about her awkwardness.
We can create realities for people with our words. We give people burdens to carry or we privilege them with encouragement. Everyone will tell you that they know this is true, but not everyone lives like they know it. It’s so easy to speak without thinking.
You may not recognize the name of Jane Elliott, but you may have heard about the social exercise she conducted with her class of Iowan third-graders over 40 years ago after Martin Luther King was assassinated. Elliott explained to her all-white class the nature and purpose of the exercise. To make prejudice tangible, she divided them into two groups: blue-eyed and brown-eyed. One day students were told it was their day to be inferior because they were in the brown-eyed group, while students in the blue-eyed group were told they were special. The roles were reversed the following day.
Each time, the students who were told they were the special and superior sat up proudly. There was a quickening around their performance. They became stronger, smarter–and more judgmental of their classmates in the “less-than” group. Students who were labeled as inferior put their heads down in despair. They described themselves as sad, bad and stupid. Their performance scores were cut in half.
Elliott allowed a producer of documentaries, Bill Peters, to film the class. The cameramen who accompanied Peters cried as they watched the children crumble under the prejudice and verbal abuse. The documentary A Class Divided: Then and Now, would eventually win an Emmy for PBS as a stunning indictment of the power of words and the expectations that accompany labels.
My client is part of the nearly 90 percent of Americans who say they have been affected by harmful language and labeling at some point in their lives. Here are the ones I hear from clients most often: I don’t have any good stories; I’m not creative; I’m not good at public speaking; I’m not the one who should be at the front of the room; I can’t communicate my thoughts clearly; I don’t have a strong presence.
We all can trace the seed of damaging information back to the person who said, “You’re no good at this.” At the same time we remember the teacher, parent, boss, friend or coach who told us, “You can do it.” Encouragement is a basic privilege that every individual deserves to help release them into high performance–in business and life.
Big lies can last a lifetime. If you’ve been running with some crazy information that supports the idea that you’re not good enough, check it out with dear friends, trusted colleagues and family. If you’ve got some encouragement to spare, look around for someone in your life who could use a little.
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