Teaching through Emotions

where emotions and relationships are central to teaching and learning

Month: March 2014

Chicken from Hell


Our expectations about how the world will respond to us are often limiting and self-fulfilling — and can feel like being gripped by a Chicken from Hell.

So there’s a new dinosaur in town, Anzu wyliei, the Chicken from Hell. Eleven feet long, weighing 500 pounds, “a really absurd, stretched-out chicken” (as one scientist described it). “Nightmarish” says the Daily Beast. “[A] cross between a velociraptor and an ostrich.”

And a great blog post title.

But it’s related to what I want to talk about today. Really. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the phenomenon psychotherapists and -analysts call “transference,” the capacity we all have to project a hologram from the past onto people in our present and to interact with the hologram as if it were real. We generally engage in transference in times of stress, when we’re taking risks or feeling insecure or unsafe. The hologram represents what we expect to happen, how we expect to be treated or viewed. And the ways we behave when we’re engaging in transference usually, ironically, guarantee that our expectations will be fulfilled.

Here’s an example: It’s Parent-Teacher night. Ms. Z is a little nervous about meeting her students’ parents. But she’s ready with folders of student work and lists of scores that bolster her evaluation of each student’s performance so far.

Ms. Z was doing just fine until Skippy’s parents showed up. When she described her curriculum, Skippy’s dad made a sour face. When she indicated that Skippy’s writing was a little undisciplined, both parents looked at her in surprise. “But he loves to write!” they exclaimed. Ms. Z suddenly felt extremely defensive. “Well, he might love to write at home,” she said. “But he doesn’t love to write in school. And that’s got to change!” Ms. Z’s comments carried an accusatory tone for the remainder of the conference; Skippy’s parents sat stony-faced to the end and didn’t thank Ms. Z when they left.

This is a story of transference. It’s an interesting example, because it shows how little someone has to do to activate anxiety in someone else. In this example, it was the sour face and the surprised comment about Skippy’s writing that set off the psychic alarm inside Ms. Z. She had grown up with faces like that and negative judgments about her abilities. Though she tried to fight off these contemptuous messages when she was little, she nonetheless successfully internalized them in such beliefs as “I’m not smart” and “I don’t really know what I’m doing” and “One of these days someone is going to call me out as a phony.”

Often these beliefs were silent or at least quiet inside Ms. Z. But this parent-teacher conference released them as a howl. Without even thinking, Ms. Z blocked the parents’ imagined contempt by expressing it about them. “I’m not the incompetent one,” she seems to be saying. “You are.”

Where’s the hologram? Ms. Z projected an image from her past onto Skippy’s parents that embodied her expectations of how they felt about her (based on how others from her past had apparently felt about her): that she was stupid, incompetent, and self-deceiving; that she was contemptible. Because this hologram was so convincing to Ms. Z, she (1) couldn’t see Skippy’s parents or discern their actual thoughts and feelings about Ms. Z’s class and (2) responded to a reality that she had in effect created. Her response, which she had perfected as a child, was to deflect others’ contempt and judgment by going on the offensive and accusing them instead. And lo and behold! By doing this she ensured that Skippy’s parents left feeling the contempt and judgment for her that she most feared.

What does any of this have to do with the Chicken from Hell? The way I see it, the anxiety that fuels transference, that powers up the hologram, is a Chicken from Hell. The expectations of blame, judgment, censure, inadequacy, etc., that we have constructed through our lives can be as “nightmarish” as an 11-foot, 500-pound velociraptor ostrich. These terrible feelings can come out of nowhere; they can come with incredible speed; they can appear sometimes as a stretched-out chicken, sometimes as a velociraptor, sometimes as an ostrich; they are always totally convincing and they grip us in their claws without mercy.

And they can really screw up our relationships.

Just as the discovery of Anzu wyliei is exciting, so is uncovering your own Chicken from Hell. For, if you can see that thing coming, you can protect yourself. You can prepare for it, think differently about it, notice your instincts and wonder about them, try entirely new behaviors and see what happens. You can say,

“Here comes my Chicken from Hell, Anzu wyliei, my nightmarish, absurd dinosaur. There was a time when this creature was a genuine threat, when I was afraid for my safety or my integrity or my right to exist, when I feared I’d be abandoned or destroyed, when I thought I’d lost the love or protection or admiration I desperately needed.

“But that dinosaur is dead. It’s a pile o’ bones somewhere in North or South Dakota. The thought of it still terrifies and controls me, but if I can remind myself that it is a memory, an expectation, that it is not necessarily real right now, then maybe I can try something new.”

What might you try?

You could try peeking out from behind the hologram projector to see what the person you’re interacting with is actually doing. Maybe they won’t live up to your expectations; maybe they’ll treat you differently from what you anticipate. You could try protecting yourself from situations you know will activate your anxiety either by avoiding them entirely or arming yourself with tactics you know you will use to maintain your balance and sense of agency.

You could try unearthing the beliefs about yourself the Chicken from Hell represents. You could generate new, more accurate beliefs and say them to yourself and post them all over your apartment and carry them with you on index cards so you can refer to them whenever you need to. You can label feelings and think about their significance to you, what they mean, when you’ve felt them before, where they came from.

You could try getting curious about what your feelings might be telling you about other people, how they might be feeling right now. You could wonder why you’re so quick to assume you know what’s going on inside someone else. You could ask a clarifying question or two. You could practice affirming what is true and good about yourself and commit to taking care of yourself when you’re in emotional trouble.

And, when you’re feeling especially strong, you could try looking at that absurd chicken and laughing. Or hell with it: you could take out an imaginary shotgun and blow the damned thing away. Your Chicken from Hell deserves to be extinct.

A Poet-Teacher’s Minifesto

field-meadow-flower-pinkThis is a poem written by my good friend Amy Antongiovanni, a poet and writing teacher at Butte College in Chico, CA.

I was privileged to give a couple talks about my work at Butte College in early March, 2014, to some of the most warm, caring, and receptive faculty I have ever encountered. Thank you, Amy and Butte!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Listen to your students. Listen as though you were walking the streets of a strange city at night. Watch closely as you listen. They are your teachers.

Imagine each of them as an instrument, unique and essential to the whole. Play their notes lightly and with caution, as though from their song, you could tease out information from a foreign culture, learning its tastes, manners, myths and fears.

Ask your students challenging questions. When they answer, imagine you are the conductor and they, the composers of an orchestra. Study their melodies slowly and with patience.                                                                                                                         Let harmonies evolve organically and rearrange the dissonance.

Believe their answers about themselves and their world as you would believe an elder of a native tribe.

Trust that in their hearts, they care, even when they wear backwards hats and flip flops to class.                                         Even if they talk to their friends, interrupt, or check their phones. Remember: their hearts are caution-taped in an effort to defend against not knowing.

Stand at times before them in bewilderment. If you are brave enough to be vulnerable before them, courageous enough to say, “I don’t know,” “I made a mistake,” they will become brave enough to ask                                     the difficult questions and live with the unknown.

Be gracious. Their lives are harder than yours.

Share with them your passion for learning, your love for the subject. Be the aspen that sprouts new shoots from underground, your roots will become their trunks.

Be generous with your words; praise them often.

When they fail or falter, be kind in your criticism. Like toddlers, they’ve extended themselves into a new and strange environment, and in order to master this labyrinth, they must bump into walls clumsily, many times before learning to navigate it well.

A second chance never hurt anybody. Third, fourth and fifth chances can tear down a spirit.

Like all artistic endeavors, teaching is a moment to moment exercise in awareness and presence.                                                                                                                      Even though legislators focus on desired outcomes, who can say when our lessons will make a difference, or when they will manifest in the students’ lives?

The outcome is less important than small moments of brilliance along the way —                                                                                                           glimpse of a red fox emerging from the trees —

I do not remember the grades I received on each paper I wrote in college, nor have I hung my diplomas on the walls, but I remember my mentor bending down to show us a newt along the trail,                                                            fiery red, its nearly glowing salamander spirit

Take your students outside. Teach them to appreciate this land, this water, the creatures around them. Let them be quiet and listen to the wind in the leaves of the great sycamore that bows over the creek.

Be still and notice the bullfrogs, the blue-bellied lizard doing pushups on the fallen oak. Point out the swallows nesting in their mud-nests under the eaves, the humming birds darting                                                                                                                           from blossom to blossom.

Teach them the names of flowers: penstamon, black-eyed Susan, salvia, willow-bark, English lavender, Russian sage, Shasta daisy, mule’s ear, monkey flower, thistle-weed, lupine, snow flower, aster.

Look around you, there are deer grazing in the fields. This is what matters. This is why we are here.

(The title was inspired by Brenda Hillman’s title: Ecopoetics Minifesto: Draft for Angie.)