Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Funny Thing About Words

As a social work student, I have been exposed to different ideas and theories that stem from psychology. One of them that I have taken interest in is something called self-fulfilling prophesy. Anyone who has recently taken psych 101 probably has a basic understanding of it. Simply put, its the effect words can have on a person. For example, if someone told you something like "you're a bad speller" you might eventually start believing you're a bad speller. You may even start catching yourself misspelling perfectly easy words that you know how to spell. It doesn't only work in negative ways. Someone might tell you "you're a very optimistic person". Later, when dealing with a problem you might think "you know what? I'm an optimistic person. Everything is going to work out."

I know over the years that this effect has worked on me. Both in positive ways and negative ways. And one such moment has been on my mind a lot recently.

Back when I was about 11-ish years old, I was taking piano lessons. I loved (still do, actually) my piano teacher. Before taking piano lessons, she helped tutor me in reading due to a minor learning disability I had. She is one of the kindest, most loving people I know. But, one day she said something that has had a serious effect on me. You see, she was trying to teach me how to use the pedal on the piano. You know, the one that makes your playing sound all smooth and pretty (I'm sure there's a technical term for that but its almost midnight and I'm too lazy to look it up.)? Anyway, I--being the completely clumsy person I am--just couldn't quite get a handle on the whole use of the pedal while moving my fingers, thing. And so, my piano teacher made one offhand comment like "man, I would hate to be the one who has to teach you how to drive a stick shift."

At first, the comment worked positively on me. When I became old enough to get my driving permit, I begged to take lessons from the only private instructor in the area who taught kids how to drive stick shifts. I was determined to prove my piano teacher wrong--not only had I mastered the piano pedal by then but I was going to learn how to drive a standard transmission car, too. And I did learn! Yes, I may have scared my driving instructor a few times but what driving student doesn't?

However, there was a problem. Once I was out of driver's education, I did not drive a stick shift for at least three years. So, when it came time for me to inherit the super nice, stick shift car my mom had been driving before getting a new car, I was a little rusty. I remembered, intellectually, how to drive the standard transmission. And, after a few supervised trips, I started driving it around on my own. I was, though, a little nervous about hill starts.

So, one Saturday morning my mom and I went driving together so she would be with me to practice at some signals with hills... And all I can say is "Dear Future Drivers: Never go driving with your mother until you're completely comfortable!"

Things did not go well. Long story short: I was on a slight hill and... I stalled. My mom tried to give helpful tips. I stalled again. My mom tried more tips, more loudly... I stalled again, and again and again.... And when our light turned red, I was in the middle of the intersection. By this point, my mom was yelling and my nerves were shot. So, we Chinese Fire-drilled in the middle of the road and I jumped into the back seat where I sobbed my eyes out while my mom drove us to safety.

And, with my head in my hands, I reminded myself of what my piano teacher said years before.

And I decide she was right.

I couldn't drive a stick shift car. And I decided I never would again.

For a year, I flat out refused to drive that car. Instead, I let my little brother drive it. A car with leather interior, a six-CD changer, satellite radio, automatic seats, seat heaters, etc. While I drove an old beat-up mini van with AM/FM radio and a jumpy regular CD player.

Now, my little brother is on his mission and my parents gave my mini van away. That stick shift is now my car. Yes, my parents were nice enough to give me a period of time where my mom drove the stick shift and I drove her car during the day but I needed to get back out there and get comfortable with the standard transmission again. I was more than a little frightened. Every time I got behind the wheel of that car, I couldn't help thinking about what my piano teacher said. Every time I stalled, I told myself she was right. I avoided any and all stops where I might roll back a little when I lifted my foot from the break.

But, over the last week, I've gotten to the point where I've been almost comfortable driving it again. Today, my older brother took me out to work on hill starts. Then I made the fatal mistake of driving my parents to dinner. No one, not even in my driver's education course, ever taught me how to down shift. So, I feel slightly out of control of the car when I go from driving fast on the regular road, to driving slow in a parking lot. So... I sort of just keep driving a little too fast because I haven't figured out down shifting yet.

Anyway, my parents dug a little at me for driving too fast in the parking lot. And I explained that, because I was never taught to down shift, I struggle to slow down. And, after a bit of an argument, my dad said something to the effect of "You're 21 years old. You should be able to figure something out on your own."

At first, a got a little teary and thought "yeah, I can't teach myself anything. I'm pathetic."

But later, I just got angry. Because I realized, I totally have taught myself  A TON of stuff. Like, despite a lot of people's help (like my before mentioned piano teacher), I really only got over my learning disabilities because I taught myself to love reading. And then I taught myself to write, too! When I was put on medicine for ADD, I decided I didn't want to take it and I taught myself tricks to help me concentrate in school. I have struggled with anxiety problems since I was probably eight or nine years old. And I never got help for that; I taught myself to get over my silly anxieties. When I went to Germany, my aunt with her four children didn't hold my hand and teach me how everything worked there; I learned on my own. I have gotten nearly straight A's in four semesters of college courses because I taught myself the learning strategies that work best for me.

My dad was wrong--I have figured out plenty of things on my own.

And my piano teacher was wrong--I am perfectly capable of driving a standard transmission car.

There are two morals to this very long, drawn out story:

First, don't let what other people say effect you negatively. Because here's the thing: they really have no idea who you are and what you're capable of doing. Only you know you. I know its hard, but if some one says something that affects you negatively, tell them how it made you feel. (Believe me, I know how hard it is to talk about something like that. I belong to a family who bottles things up and doesn't talk about our feelings. But, trust me, I have learned that its the wrong thing to do. It only hurts yourself and your relationship with others.)

Second, watch what you say to others. I know my piano teacher and--yes--even my dad didn't mean to hurt me. Don't even say things like that jokingly or offhandedly. Because you can never know how the other person might take it. These kind of comments have honestly led to many, many cases of suicide. I know that's the extreme, but that's the truth of it. The self-fulfilling prophesy, when used unwisely or unintentionally, can hurt people in ways you might never actually see or understand.

Its exactly this kind of thing that led me to an interest in Social Work. Because I can't stand seeing people hurt by people the love because of a little slip of the tongue. I hate it that people out there don't even feel safe enough to share personal problems with their own family members because they're afraid of being judged. I have fallen victim to both of these types of things before. In fact,  I still do. I know a lot of that is because I have psyched myself out over the years and become wary of trusting people. But I hope to work through that. And, someday, I hope I can help others through similar problems.

Anyway, my point: Use Words to raise people up. Not tear them down.