Part One – I Peel
Those of us who teach and train therapists and mental health professionals often rely on the “peeling the onion” metaphor to help students understand the gradual and layered process of learning about clients and their issues. New therapists often want to take a cleaver to the onion during the first session. As you can imagine, this doesn’t work out too well. Lots of tears and terminations.
The onion peeling skills are extremely helpful with kids. During kindergarten, I experimented with all kinds of questions and, by the end of the school year, finally learned what questions lead to meaningful afterschool conversations with Ellen. Of course, I’m not one to spend much time on grade talk - I feel like I get enough academic feedback with graded work, progress reports, report cards and student conferences. I want to know about the social-emotional side of things. The answers to these questions tell me a lot and are great jumping off points for conversations:
1. What was your high?
2. What was your low?
3. Who did you sit with at lunch? Tell me about it?
4. Who did you play with at recess? Tell me about it?
5. Who moved their pin today? (class behavior program)
A few weeks ago, Ellen’s high and low were both “playing soccer” at recess. She loves soccer, but she said that her and her BFF are “so tired of being THE REST.” I peeled a little more, “What do you mean when you say, THE REST?” (If you’re trying to picture this conversation, I’m usually driving or fixing dinner. I’m not sitting down in a chair while she’s lying on a couch, Freud style. In fact, I find it works best when she’s in her natural, active groove).
Ellen looked at me and said, “You know. When they pick teams.” I forced a hard swallow, trying to keep my own inner 3rd grader from crying. Ellen went on,“They always say, I’ll take Susan, Brent, John and Harry. You can have THE REST.”
We spent a lot of time talking about THE REST. I had to work very hard to keep my hurt memories of team-picking in check. I've always been careful not to dismiss her experiences when my gut reaction is, "trust me, this isn't a big deal." Working on my parenting study taught me that doing the opposite - assigning or assuming hurt when there may not be any - is also a big block to empathy. It's so frickin' hard for me to stay with her, where she is, when I'm fighting off the urge to kill people or start crying.
In the end, she said it was worth being THE REST to play soccer, but she'd probably start switching between soccer and other games that her BFF liked better. So reasonable. So balanced.
Speaking of reasonable and balanced, you'll be happy to note that I resisted the urge to beat up any 3rd grade soccer captains OR say bad things about how they were raised OR make fun of their parents (this time).
Two weeks later, Ellen comes home with this high: "I made two big saves during the first game and they picked me by name for the second game!” She’s been Ellen and THE REST off and on since.
Part Two – Ellen Peels
Last week, Ellen spotted me on the couch looking dejected. She walked up, sat down next to me and rubbed my shoulder. “What’s wrong, Mom?” I explained that last year I was invited by a very famous place to lead a weekend retreat on my work in July and to participate in a big conference with a lot of very famous people in my field in September. I told her that I was excited about seeing my name and picture alongside the names of these really well-known people. I told her, “I thought if my picture was next to their pictures, it would mean that I’ve reached a goal.”
She was listening to me so hard that I wasn’t sure she was breathing. Then I pulled out the brochure and showed it to her. Her eyes darted all over the page. She traced her finger over the words. Then she looked up at me and said, “Well Mom, looks like you’re THE REST.”
I took a deep breath and said, “Yep. I’m THE REST.” She then took the words from our earlier conversations and shaped them into her own: “I see your picture on lots of things. You know how it goes. Sometimes you’re the captain and sometimes you’re THE REST. It just depends on who you’re playing with.”
Ellen strutted away from our conversation. I could tell she was so pleased by her ability to help me. I had to fight off the voice of fear that kept whispering, "Don't you want her to think you're perfect?" There is a part of me, of course, that wants her to think that I'm perfect, but there's a bigger part of me that is working really hard so she doesn't inherit my perfectionism. It was a pretty great moment.