There’s probably no good way to introduce the actual topic of this blog post without causing anxiety. So, in preparation, I’m going to ask you to empty your mind of preconceptions and judgment and fill it with curiosity and kindness.
The topic of this post is grandiosity, or being “too big for your britches.”
The reason I think this topic is anxiety-producing is that, well, there’s nothing really good about grandiosity. If you’re grandiose, you’re inflated and out-of-touch. If you’re too big for your britches, you’re arrogant, conceited, narcissistic, and insufferable. So why in the world would anyone want to think about grandiosity?
The reason I believe people, especially teachers, should think about grandiosity is that there’s a more humane (and relevant) definition: feeling more powerful and influential than you actually are. And, given that we’re heading towards the end of the school year, when teachers might be tempted to either take more credit than they deserve (“She couldn’t have done it without me”) or, far more likely, blame themselves disproportionately (“I have failed him!”), getting a handle on grandiosity can be helpful.
The truth is that grandiosity is a totally adaptive quality if you’re someone who takes care of other people. If you didn’t believe you could have a far-reaching positive influence on others, why would you enter any caretaking profession? Being too big for your britches becomes a problem when it destabilizes you: when you become filled with anxiety about staying on top (keeping those compliments coming, keeping your students’ or administrators’ or peers’ or school parents’ approval, etc.) or when you tear yourself down for the poor performance of people under your care.
The key to thinking about grandiosity is, first, to notice it and refrain from judging yourself. Are you feeling resentful that others aren’t working as hard as you are? Are you feeling somehow superior to others? Are you feeling hyper-responsible and lonely? Are you worried that you’re actually a phony and at risk of being discovered? Are you working overtime to win and keep others’ approval?
On the flip side, are you feeling terrible about yourself for not having gone the extra 100th mile, for not having seen signs ahead of time, for not having rescued someone from a fate worse than death, for having done your best and discovered your best isn’t good enough? Are you blaming yourself for other people’s setbacks or failures?
Another key to thinking about grandiosity is to meditate on this fact: You can control no one but yourself.
If this is hard for you, meditate on it some more.
Yet another key is to meditate on this fact: Wherever you go, the best you can do is to bring yourself along. (Or, as Jon Kabat-Zinn put it in his 1994 book, Wherever You Go, There You Are.) If you are someone who has an internal center (rather than an external one, lodged in other people’s opinions) and a willingness to stop, listen, think, and feel, you will be able to respond to other people adequately. You might not be able to fix them or solve their problems, but you will be able to offer them two crucial things: empathy and boundaries.
And, of all people, teachers need to understand unequivocally the value of these two responses. Empathy means “I see you and hear you and support you in your learning.” Boundaries mean “But it is your learning, your struggle, not mine. By trying to save you from it, I am robbing you of your birthright to grow and develop into a secure, healthy person.” Teachers help in this developmental process, but they cannot do it for their students.
Grandiose teachers try.
What’s great about noticing grandiosity and meditating on who you are and what is yours — that is, meditating on the boundaries that both separate you from others and connect you healthily to them — is that you can cultivate yourself. You can wonder about your need for approval or success or influence or power or appreciation or love. Understanding your needs and getting them met by appropriate sources (hint: not your students) can strengthen you as a teacher and allow you to offer your students scaffolding they can actually use to learn and grow.
And trimming yourself down to fit comfortably in your britches can be a relief. It can feel great. A big reason, I think, is that fighting reality — trying to be more powerful and influential than you really are — is exhausting and, ultimately, futile. Attuning with reality, on the other hand, is calming and liberating.
But note: Being just right for your britches does not mean giving up on caring for others, on teaching and helping your students to grow. It just means accepting your own limits and valuing your ability to be authentically and simply present to yourself and others. Such a sense of realistic balance is inexpressibly precious.