Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Giraffe hunting

I was invited to attend a 'confidence' building seminar headed by the author of a series of 'self-help' books, one of which had been given to me as a gift several years previously. In the most ironic twist of fortune I've yet to encounter, I left feeling even less confident than when I went in. It was my fault for assuming that, just because this 'life coach' had her name plastered in glossy colours across the cover of a book - in addition to having her own YouTube channel and Facebook 'appreciation society' - she would hold the answer to all of my esteem issues. I've since learned the importance of making up my own mind about the extent of someone's 'professionalism', and about deciding for myself whether that person deserves to be lionised.

I happened to arrive a few minutes late, due to circumstances that were beyond my control. Even before I'd had a chance to place my name-tag on my chest, 'Coach' had shoved me under a burning spotlight before the group of ten people, a majority of whom were older than me and from different backgrounds.

"So Stanley. How do you define confidence?"

Is it really decent to put someone under pressure from the moment they enter the crowded room, when they have come in the hope of resolving self-esteem issues as a result of a mental illness?

As soon as this question was thrown at me - as when you might suddenly find a stick of dynamite in your hands with a burning fuse - I immediately felt all eyes in the room on me. I wanted to give a definition that was true to my personal beliefs, not something randomly plucked from the surface of conciousness (ie. a cliche). I also didn't want to offend anyone in the room - knowing that they were all vulnerable and sensative people - nor give the impression of myself as an opinionated ex-student. It would have killed me had I done so. My worst memories of student life were attending seminars populated by individuals who enjoyed the sound of their own voices. I didn't want anyone to think that of me. It didn't help that there was an individual present in the room - brooding darkly in the farthest corner - who had on every occassion that I'd been forced to interact with him previously, made me feel extremely uncomfortable. Beneath his scrutinous eyes, I felt judged and hated. Unable to cope with this sudden pressure, I answered at truthfully as I dared;

"Could you come back to me later please?"

"Certainly", 'Coach' replied.

She didn't. The notion didn't even occur to her.

As the seminar progressed, I began to notice that 'Coach' clearly didn't like me. She gave every other person in the group a chance to speak, either encouraging the quieter ones to share just a few fragments, or picking others like blades of grass. But I wasn't acknowledged once. As more stories were related and personal anecdotes brought forward, I felt as if a crucible within my soul was heaving. I wanted so much to say how I felt, to share my experiences and problems. But the oppressive group atmosphere, the burning eyes of the previously mentioned individuals, and the sheer fact I was not encouraged to speak up left me feeling tangled and unsatsified. I tried to speak several times, but my insecurities held me back - and, as always, the louder individuals jumped in first.

At the end of the seminar, 'Coach' presented a question to the group; "Name one thing that you are thankful for" - and procceeded to extract answers from around the table with her hands pointing at the speaker like a pistol. I slipped straight back to how I was when under fire at the very beginning of the seminar; I wanted to say something honest, and something that wouldn't offend anyone or give them the wrong impression of my character. The first lady spoke, and was honoured with a lengthily dissection of her comment from 'Coach' along with many encouraging words. I was looking forward to her giving me that same privelege. To have a 'famous' author comment on my feelings would be an honour.

The pistol found its way into my direction. The crucible within me flooded over, but not enough to stain the ground around it; "I'm thankful for parents who understand my circumstances"

I waited for her encouraging remarks, her 'professional opinion'. I recieved merely a grunt of acknowledgement, and the pistol swiftly moved to the next person, who - after speaking - was soon basking in the 'Coach's' flattery and encouragement. I also couldn't help noticing that I was the only person 'Coach' did not refer to by name during that final scrutiny around the table, despite the fact I had a name-tag like everyone else.

As I stood in the street a few minutes later, almost in tears as I related the story to my father over the phone, I couldn't understand what had happened. Were my contributions less valuable than those of every other individual in the room? Was I snubbed because she deemed my not 'ill' enough to merit her attention and encouragement? Was my self esteem 'too high' to merit begin in there in the first place? When talking to those who arranged the seminiar in the first place a week later, I was told 'Coach' probably treated me as she did because my first remark - asking her come back to me later after she put me on the spot - was interprited by her as cheek, a way of saying "I'm not going to comply with your demands". I never intended it that way. Perhaps it was this that 'Coach' interprited as me being 'too confident' to be in the seiminar in the first place. Or maybe she was simply too proud.

Although my feelings have been voiced to those who matter, I still find myself boiling with a mixture of disgust and injustice towards the way I was treated. There is also some sadness within that crucible, that someone who on whom I placed many high expectations - from myself and from others - was such a disappointment. It reminded me too vividly of a similar experience several years earlier at university, when I attempted to contact a professor - a celebrity among literary circles, and, like 'Coach', with a streem of titles to her name - for assistance in a personal project which she happened to be a renown specialist in. When I recieved nothing in response, my esteem to plummet, for it seemed not even 'famous' people deemed me worthy of their assistance.
But in both cases, I have no reason to be sad at being rejected by people I have no respect for - whose reputations are based entirely on news paper reviews and marketting statistics. Allowing their rejection to tear my soul would be no different to endorsing them by purchasing their 'books' and lining their pockets.

I agreed with only one of the 'Coach's' philosophies; that a lack of confidence comes from comparing ones self to others. But she spoiled the effect of her wisdom by shamelessly contradicting herself a few minutes later. There was - as is the case with most group gatherings - one individual who spoke up just a little more than everyone else, and thus secured most of the 'Coach's' attention. The general jist of his story was that he had been through dark times, but was on the way out of them. Shortly after, another individual was encouraged to speak, whose story related that she had only just begun her jounrey into the wastelands of mental health. 'Coach' - in a whimsical attempt to sow hope within her - told her to draw strength from the tale of the previous speaker, the undertone being; "Look at him! He's better now! And if can get better, so can you!" Had I the confidence that she denied me, I would have liked to have told 'Coach' that she had contradicting herself to by encouraigng the lady to draw on the experience of the man. By telling her to draw on the latter's story, she was encouraging her to compare herself to him - to set her expectations high. And what if those expectations are not met? This is the wrong thing to tell a vulnerable person, for not only does it set them up for disappointment, but it also undermines the extent of their issues. Just because one person recovers from bad health speedily and through a certain means does not mean that another will achieve the same results.

I don't believe a 'life coach' who snubs clients for brusing her pride and contradicts her own philosophies is in any position to be preaching about confidence. When I found her book a few months later while decluttering my room, I shredded it into as many pieces as I could manage and cast it away where it belonged - in the waste paper bin. I would have done far worse if I'd been feeling creative enough.