Since elementary school, my teachers and parents praised me for my enthusiasm and hard work. By senior year, I had learned to equate performance with self-worth. I believed as long as I kept working, never stopped, was as close to perfect as I could be, and wore a mask of success and happiness, that I was valuable. I was important. I was enough.
It was hard to tell I was depressed. Or angry. Or ashamed of who I was. I smiled. A lot. I earned straight A’s. I had perfect attendance. Achievement was the mask I wore, the way I kept myself safe. I was able to foster relationships as long as I hid what was happening inside. Often, I suffered alone. In silence.
The problem is… what happens when “high functioning” people like me stop performing? When the world is silent, when the body is still? Or, when we come face to face with mistakes and imperfections? I would tell myself that I was failing those whose approval and judgment I so desperately sought. And if I failed them, I failed myself. I was flooded with worry. Anxiety. Sadness. Shame. So I didn’t stop, and I tried my hardest not to make mistakes.
Then, at age 43, face to face with breast cancer, my sick body wouldn’t allow me to perform like I used to. I had scars, I was tired. I couldn’t parent the way I thought I should. My body forced me to take a step back, allow the silence and stillness, embrace my imperfections as human. Then I started writing poetry and making art again. Being. In process. Full of my body. In recovery. For myself. My life.
Creativity, the Senses and Being in the Present
Children and teens need unconditional regard everywhere: at home and at school. Our mental health is at risk. Our social norms of constant evaluation, incessant performance, and ever progress-seeking are damaging our self-worth, our desire to play and take risks, our awareness and love for ourselves as beings (not just becomings).
I want to help children, teens, parents and teachers create a place of non-judgment, of released expectations, of stillness, of self acceptance, REGARDLESS OF PERFORMANCE, without needing a traumatic life event to shift our world views. That is the thrust of Well Beings Studio. And the mantra I am working so hard to cultivate for myself: unconditional regard for my being. And in that regard, we can create “beautiful oops.”
Last week, in partnership with Very Special Arts Orange County, I worked with over a hundred teachers on fostering social emotional well being with their students through the arts. On Zoom, we opened with a salt meditation (which you can see in my Wet Wings video above.) We created personal portrait masks about emotions, inspired by the Museum of Teaching and Learning. We talked about the masks we wear on a daily basis, and the parts of ourselves we keep hidden. We talked about emojis and avatars. About creating a safe space to process emotions and build community. About how our culture of perfectionism and judgment affects us when we make art. We talked about inclusion practices in art-making; anti-bias goals for education; telling diverse cultural and historical stories in the classroom; addressing cultural appropriation and cultural/historical contexts for art-making in arts education.
All of it matters.
Counseling psychologist Megha Pulianda suggests there are several key ways to work with youth:
- foster self-love
- avoid minimizing language (about their experiences)
- ask exploratory questions out of curiosity, not investigation
- encourage creative expression
I would add that we address values and beliefs, policies and practices in US culture that produce barriers to self-love and creative expression, unconditional regard and our authentic selves. While it was art and writing that saved me, it was my training in social justice and gender studies that provided me the framework to understand my individual experiences within institutional contexts and histories.
We live in the both/and. Not either/or. We are joyful and melancholy, old and new. There is room for all of it.
Well Beings Studio’s Guidelines for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
- Embrace families where they are (emotionally and geographically)
- Cultivate the whole child, the whole family, and the whole story
- Break silences and address stigmas
- Ensure accessibility and inclusion
- Uplift diverse voices through relationships, curriculum and pedagogy
Mental Health during COVID Resources
- Beautiful Oops Resources for Home and School, by Barney Salzberg
- CA Guide on Managing Stress during COVID with Kids
- Edutopia’s Getting Creative with Social Emotional Learning
- Strategies to Support an Anxious Child
- National Alliance on Mental Illness, Orange County (NAMI-OC)
- Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) Mental Health Resources
- Family LGBTQIA Mental Health Resources
Sharon Chappell, PhD, is the Executive and Artistic Director of Well Beings Studio. She is a teacher, breast cancer survivor, parent and artist.