What if they hate me? An exercise in vulnerability

Got my SET scores today. In academic land, SETs are Student Evaluations of Teaching. They are there ostensibly to inform the lecturer or teacher about their teaching approach and what is good and what can be improved. It’s a bit like a performance review except that students are in charge. And it’s official.

The butterflies I get before I read the scores reminds me of the horror I have of being evaluated. I hate it. I want to be loved. I just want people to love me. And I know that a proportion of people just won’t love me because we’re not on the same page or because we disagree on fundamental aspects of life. Like politics and religion and being nice to people and living lightly on the planet. That sort of thing. But as I sat in front of my computer, shaking a bit while the scores downloaded I thought “why should I care what people (spotty undergraduate students) think of me?” and I realised I obviously have a need to be accepted and liked. As do all human persons, but it tugs at me that I care so much about what my students think. Bless them, they’re young and at times pretty stupid, but what made me latch onto the nastiest thing said in my SET comment sheet? Why did I go to the worst comment and let it affect me so much when there was so much good commentary that far outweighed the bad?

Well, a bit later (immediately) I looked up Brene Brown’s TED talk on the Power of Vulnerability, in which she talks about her longitudinal research study on vulnerability. She said exactly what I was feeling. It’s the shame of not being liked or accepted. Her research found that it was those who learned to be vulnerable and to have courage (heart) who lived most fully in the world, with joy, presence and purpose. And she talked about learning to be vulnerable and how it was vital for us to live well.

And as I took my beloved Poppy-groodle for a walk I wondered what had made me NOT be vulnerable? What had frozen me out of vulnerability and made me hard? DH occasionally remembers me as being hard when we were first dating, even some time after we married. We’ve talked about it a bit. He’s super patient.

And I can think back to – not events – but long term circumstances in my life, that perhaps broke me a little bit. First was being the first born of 5 girls with loving but busy parents, who did not or could not communicate with me very well and who at times made me feel worthless. Not because they felt that way at all – both my wonderful folks openly love and value me, particularly the older I get. But I think I felt very vulnerable as a child, and when I was naughty, which was often, my family’s method for dealing with this was to FREEZE me out. The silent treatment. Ostracism and coldness. And so I put up a shield to deal with that stuff. I think I was probably a difficult child and the ostracism was a result of me being hard to handle. I was a truly horrible teenager. I was bold and angry and proud and defiant and obnoxious. I’m secretly a bit proud of parts of that teenager. I was bolshie, man! I would lift up my chin and be defiant. So, that’s circumstance #1. I think.

Circumstance #2 was my relationships with men pre-DH. That would be boyfriends, partners and husbands. Got together at 18 with a guy (I was way too young but see above for why I might have gone to the dark side – at least SOMEBODY noticed and cared – even though I’m at pains to point out my folks really do love me and they’re wonderful and we have a GREAT relationship now) who was not good for me in EVERY way. I was an abused wife. Not physically (well, mostly not), but I was mentally held hostage for a very long time. I was very afraid of that man. Getting away from the daily reminders of how worthless I was took some doing, I can tell you! So, at 25 with 2 children under 5, I’m a single parent just coming out of an abusive marriage. Oh! And I’m also a musician and I don’t have my BMus yet and I live on the single parent pension. Way to have value in the community, Jess.

So I really had my 20s together. NOT! I continued my tendency to date men far less together than me because at least then I was in control. But it did not help my home situation and certainly did not make me feel any better about myself. And I was NOT vulnerable. I was invincible and hard. I think “being strong” was the only way I could cope at all. It was so difficult being a single parent with no money and few close friends. And my singing voice went to pot and I had nothing to hold onto except my pride and my stubbornness and my anger. So I held onto those things and stayed invulnerable. Closed. Frozen. Impatient of vulnerability and weakness in others, I could not see I was a raging mass of contradictions and that I was in danger of breaking apart like cracking ice (sorry, just had to have the Frozen metaphors in there).

I think I lived frozen and invulnerable for a long time because I was all I had. My kids needed me. No one could be allowed to get to me the way my ex-husband had gotten to me. No-one could ever get too close. I was determined not to be a victim, but in truth, I think I was. Of me. Of the grief that comes with not being loved and being ignored and the fear that you will never be loved again. And the shame of that.

But over time something shifted, and when I met my DH, I was learning to live with vulnerability again. And that made me open to being loved, and to loving, and to having hope, and to feeling joy.

I felt like Brene Brown was talking about me when she talked about herself. She went to a therapist – one of the ones who treat other therapists because they have a good bullshit-o-meter – and told the therapist to forget about all the childhood shit and mother problems and just give her strategies to her problems of vulnerability. And I laughed and laughed because that’s exactly what I would say to my therapist if I had one.

So this brings me back to those darned SET scores. Was I good enough? What if they hated me? What if I was NOT GOOD ENOUGH? And I realised then and there as I picked up Poppy’s poop that these were not my words. This was not me. Why should I be concerned with what these students thought? I’m not perfect. Never will be. Who said I had to be perfect? Phew, luckily mine were pretty good. On a rating of 1-5 with 1 being “kill yourself buddy because you’re a worthless hunk of shit” and 5 being “I want to deify you”, I’ve come out at about 4.4 across all my teaching loads. That makes me pretty happy because it means the students are evaluating my teaching as being very good but they’re not blanket licking my a**e. There’s always room for improvement.

But I’m reminded of how I used to be pre-DH and how hard I have had to work to feel ongoing joy, love and contentment in my life, and how being vulnerable is an exercise in letting go of the shield. And I’m not sure I’m quite there yet.

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2 thoughts on “What if they hate me? An exercise in vulnerability

  1. Jess I love how honest you are prepared to be. This piece has resonated with me on a few levels. I too had issues with vulnerability & protecting myself when my DH came on the scene. It took me a long time to trust enough to allow myself to be me with him. It’s been the most important lesson I have learned – that I am enough. I don’t have to be anything other than true to myself & my heart.
    My feelings still get hurt. I still have relationships with some family/friends that continue to challenge me. I want to protect myself at times & sometimes it is appropriate to do so. I think our DH’s are both magnificent men! Jess you continue to inspire me.
    One day when our schedules aren’t so full we must have coffee & laughs ……Dx

    1. Thank you Deb! I’m learning how to live with vulnerability every day – it makes me feel stronger and more courageous, not less. It’s been a long road but I’m getting there!

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