I was a shy kid growing up. I didn’t sing, I didn’t dance, I didn’t perform. Even as an adult I don’t love speaking in front of groups or being in front of a crowd. Aside from one eighth grade play, and 30 seconds of barking like a dog to get a Klondike bar in the mall as a teen (what can I say, I really love ice cream), I don’t think I really put myself out there to be seen in a way that could lead to embarrassment.
Naturally, I morphed from shy kid into shy adult. I wouldn’t sing in public (aside from a very brief stint at karaoke, where I at the very least wouldn’t sing solo), I didn’t dance at weddings (this one pains me to write), and often was the one on the sidelines smiling at others having fun without inhibition.
I have always been amazed by the people who could act silly, be goofy, and let loose regardless of where they were. People who would dress up on theme days, dance in front of their friends, who would make asses of themselves and walk away without flinching. I have so often been awed by these folks. As though their ability to show up without reservation was some sort of superhuman skill.
Goofiness and looking silly just weren’t part of my growing up experience. My parents were for the most part all quite reserved, fearful of making fools of themselves and perhaps too conscious of public opinion. Their fear of public shame was inadvertently passed along to us as kids, and we were aware of the “appropriate” ways to act and be in public situations that wouldn’t draw attention to them or ourselves.
When I became a mom nearly a decade ago I vowed to do things differently so that my children would grow up learning to embrace humour and fun, with a freedom to be and do whatever felt right in the moment without paying undue attention to the onlookers. I wanted my kids to grow up seeing silliness as normative, and to see their mom model a lack of care about what others thought, seeing someone who did not fear public opinion and who didn’t allow it to dictate how they moved in the world.
This was a great thing to want for my kids…but the reality was that being goofy wasn’t the norm and I did care about what others thought. I was all too often concerned about how I was being perceived by onlookers, and would naturally freeze rather than engage.
And so began a very intentional effort to model inhibition and public tomfoolery.
I remember skipping with kids through shopping malls, dancing up escalators, and making silly faces in an array of places. I remember family dance parties, van dance parties, and the chest-clenching that would precipitate all of these activities as my own shame narratives were on high alert.
Everything in me wanted to blend in, not look silly, and not be judged. My own body displayed palpable levels of discomfort that I had to push through, and move past, in order to model a way of being in the world for my kids that felt significant and important.
It has been nearly a decade of working on this, and of practicing confronting shame/discomfort in this arena.
As much as I’ve tried to model supreme dorkiness for my children, I’m afraid that only one of my kids is so far able to embrace ridiculousness and goofiness without reservation. My oldest (perhaps I was unpracticed at the start?) is still more shy, more reserved, and a lot like his mama was as a kid, while my youngest child is a regular goof. I think this means my efforts at ridiculousness and dorkiness simply need to be maintained, until the point that my eldest can bust a move in public. Seriously, it’s kind of my life mission to get this kid comfortable enough to dance in front of people.
Yesterday as my youngest and I were waiting for my big kid to get out of swimming lessons, I noticed a long open hallway – begging to be pranced. Now, in a way that felt shockingly natural, I leaped a few steps down the hall with little grace and arms flailing beside me. My youngest pled for me to stop being embarrassing (but secretly, I think she loved it). As my eldest walked out of the change room, he was on the other side of a glass hallway, and as he exited I made awkward gestures and completed spins while walking towards the door. He walked backwards with his hand in front of his face trying to not look at me. (But I think he loved it too.)
As my youngest again complained (this time to her brother) about what a dork her mother is, I noticed my heart swell a bit. I turned to my kids and said, “It has taken a lot of practice to be this good of a dork.” And I meant it. Learning how to let go, ignore the ‘crowd’, and be uninhibited has been nearly a decade long project. And there still is room to grow. Public dancing still takes a deep breath and a bit of settling to undertake…but I’m getting there.
As I thought about these exchanges a bit more after I got home, I found myself super encouraged at the possibility that deeply entrenched ways of being in the world can in fact be movable. If you would have asked me 10 years ago if I’d prance across the university, or spin/walk around strangers – I’d have turned red with embarrassment and laughed in your face. It wouldn’t have been a no, it would have been a hell no, not ever, no way, no how. My body would have turned into bricks and not moved. I would not have let myself let go in that way.
And yet nearly a decade later, it happens almost reflexively. A long, open corridor calls to leaping legs, and a soundproof glass partition begs for ridiculous body gesturing.
It seems impossible that this is now how I operate in the world.
And for many of the folks I work with as a therapist, the idea that their body could feel different, calm, or comfortable in a situation that at present stirs up tension, anxiety, and fear seems utterly laughable. Preposterous. Impossible. There is no way they can believe or see a way that their reality could shift, and they feel locked in to things always being the way they are now.
And yet I know first hand that we can change. That we can learn to re-story danger cues, and that we can learn to feel safe in situations that at present are interpreted as unsafe.
As a counsellor sometimes I have the privilege to hold hope for people who can’t see another way. For whom it feels impossible to believe that their present reality won’t necessarily always be the whole story. This is such a neat part of my job. When I notice clients say things, or share stories that highlight their own shifts in default ways of being I’m often keen to throw my hands up and shout ‘Pause!’ in the middle of a session, stopping to highlight the shifts between old and new ways of moving in the world.
We can change. Bodies can calm. We can re-wire danger messages, and learn how to experience discomfort in small doses in ways that our body can manage. You don’t have to believe it, but it’s true.
So, onward we go. More prancing. More dancing. Less watching.