ARE YOU IN YOUR OWN WAY: Red Pencil Mentality
By Sarah H. Elliston
Are You In Your Own Way? Easy answer? Yes.
I get in my own way. Plenty of times. Nobody else does. I am responsible for me. I would prefer to blame my thoughts, feelings, actions and reactions on others. It is tempting and feels easier. For many years, I blamed my problems on anybody else: my mother, traffic, my boss, the weather, my husband, the dog, somebody else’s demands, lack of sleep. I had a long list. What I found was that no matter what or whom I blamed, I still had obligations. I still had to go to work, feed the dog, drive the car, help with homework, cook a meal, wash the dishes. I was still responsible. When I blamed others, and complained, I felt angry and sad. It was painful.
Dr. William Glasser, founder of Reality Therapy and Choice Theory, teaches that the only thing the world gives us is information. How I receive and perceive that information is up to me. Nobody else is in my head, telling me how to think and feel, how to react to the world and act in the world. Complaining and blaming are toxic habits. They hurt. When I stop complaining, and blaming, I realize that I am responsible – I am the only one who gets in my own way.
Even so, knowing this, I still find myself consistently telling myself that I can’t do something or if I am doing it, then I am not doing it well. I should do it better. I find something about myself to criticize.
I don’t think I was born with that message. As a friend of mine asks, “How many toddlers, learning to walk, stand up, look around, fall down and say, “I can’t do it, I give up?” Children are filled with the excitement of themselves and the exploring of their world. The adults in their lives put boundaries around them and caution them only for safety, for love.
And yet we learn the negative message. That we are not ok.
One way we all learned this was to wear red pencil glasses. Are you familiar with them? I’ll bet you have worn them from time to time yourself.
This concept was identified by Dr. Sidney B. Simon, professor Emeritus of Values Education at the University of Massachusetts. He reminds us that in school we received our homework from the teacher covered with red pencil marks. Our teachers were showing us what we had done wrong, what we needed to correct. Unfortunately, it also taught us to be constantly on the lookout for what needs to be corrected and changed. We become observers of what is wrong, not what is right.
Criticizing my work, criticizing me, leads me to criticizing others. The most destructive element in a relationship is criticism. When I am not liking myself, I cannot like others.
So, how to eliminate the red pencil glasses? I start by acknowledging that they are there. I remind myself that I can take them off. I can look at the information, what the world is telling me, as a three-year-old, with curiosity and interest. I can refrain from finding what is wrong; I can look for what is right.
When I first learned the concept of the red pencil glasses, I was teaching junior high social studies to seventh and eighth graders and they were eager, rambunctious people. I adored them. On quizzes and tests, I would normally make comments on their papers and note the number of points taken off for a question in red ink, in the margin. I would circle the number of points earned (number of points taken off, subtracted from 100 points) in the upper right hand corner, in red ink.
I decided to write the number of points being added for a response in red ink in the margin, instead of the points being taken off. Rather than subtracting the total red numbers from 100 points, I would add them up. Then I put the number of points earned in a circle at the end of the answer sheet in red ink.
I waited to see how they would react. The number circled was the same, it just wasn’t a minus number, it was plus number. As I handed back their papers after a test, a quiet roar of outrage began to grow. “This answer is right. Why did you take 10 points off?” “I didn’t get this wrong. Why are five points taken off?” I waited for them to get to the end of their pages and they got quiet. I asked if the number in the red circle was a plus number or a negative number. They stared at me, at their papers, and relaxed.
We talked about habits, about being trained to look for everything with red pencil glasses. We talked about looking at the world with curiosity, not criticism. We acknowledged that it was easier to see what was wrong because we had been trained that way. It was a habit. Progress does rely on looking for better answers but it rests on the idea of improvement, not lack.
We explored how to look for what was right and could get better.
Dr. Simon invites us to combat the red pencil glasses by using the language of validation and I taught it to my students. A validation is a description of what we value in ourselves or another person. It is our perception and our value. There are a number of ways to begin a validation: “I like…, I honor….I admire…I enjoy…I treasure…I applaud.” They contain no judgements, just statements of what we value in another person. They can be written about others and ourselves. “I applaud your scoring the winning touchdown.” I appreciate how you helped me study my French verbs.” “I admire myself for getting to school today.”
In my classes, we did both. We had envelopes on the walls with the students’ names on them and each day we took the time to write validations for three other students and one for ourselves. The guideline was that if you received a validation, you wrote two to others and one to yourself.
For example, “I liked the way I introduced the concept and got their attention.” “I cherished the open, comfortable, honest discussion we had about being trained to look for what is wrong.” “I applauded their willingness to practice validation. It was brave work.”
I began to use different colored ink for every test; the grades in my grade book were recorded in green, purple, blue, black and occasionally red. I forced myself to record what points they earned for a response instead of what points they had lost. And I wrote a validation on each test or quiz paper that was handed in, no matter what grade the student earned. I spoke to the value of the student.
This is a fond memory and I like myself better when I remember it. When I think in terms of validations, I have positive messages in my head. When I look at the world as information, I can remember that I am in charge of how I receive that information. I can hold to a belief that I honor myself, I cherish myself and I treasure myself.
One phrase that Dr. Simon taught his classes is, “No matter what you say to me, I’m still a worthwhile person.” He would stand in front of the classroom, while his students shouted the phrase and he made critical comments, “Are you really wearing that?” “Get your elbows off the table.” “You’ll never get anywhere in the world with that attitude.” I only do this exercise with adults and it brings peals of laughter as we hear the kinds of messages the world gave us as we grew up. I find the longer I call out critical statements, the louder the class will get in shouting the statement.
No matter what you say to me, I’m still a worthwhile person. No matter what you say to me, I’m still a worthwhile person.
I can have a positive voice in my head, my voice. I can visualize what I want to do, have and be and see it as possible. Dr. Joe Dispenza is a researcher, speaker and author who has been studying brain mapping and the impact of positive meditation and quantum physics. He believes that each one of us has the potential for greatness and unlimited abilities. His latest book is You are the Placebo, Making Your Mind Matter. He teaches that our brains change when we visualize the possibilities of which we dream. The brain changes in positive ways and sends positive messages to the body when we visualize the possibilities.
Dr. Glasser teaches that our brain drives our behavior to meet our needs for love, fun, freedom, power and survival. Behavior is thinking, acting, feeling and physiology. We act to get our needs met. Dr. Dispenza teaches us to change our behavior: to align our thoughts and feelings to what we want and to believe it is possible. This will bring us to seeing it in the world.
If we take off the red pencil glasses, we look at the information from the world in terms of possibilities. When we say, “No matter what you say to me, I’m still a worthwhile person,” we are behaving in a positive way to believe in ourselves.
If I choose to refrain from criticism, especially self-criticism, my brain changes. I see the world differently. I am curious, eager and feel a little like a three-year-old. I am responsible for me. This is about changing how you think, act, and feel, to create a new personal reality.
Sarah Elliston is the author of “Lessons from a Difficult Person – How to Deal With People Like Us”. A faculty member of the William Glasser Institute, Sarah is a highly successful workshop leader and trainer, who is certified in Values Realization, Parent Effectiveness Training and Reality Therapy. www.SarahElliston.com