I recently talked with a woman about her current self-view and childhood. She related to me the story of her high school math class. It was the day she would find out if she had done enough to pass her class. She had worked as hard as she felt she possibly could at passing. It turned out that she did not pass. What stuck with her most, though, was her teacher’s words:

You’re never going to get it. I’m going to pass you anyhow. She translated that to mean, you’re stupid, you’re not as bright as everyone else in this room, and I cannot waste any more of my time. With tears in her eyes, she explained to me that she didn’t think the teacher was being mean-spirited. She was just dumb, and that was that.

Fast forward a few years. This same girl has graduated high school with a low GPA. She sought a college that would accept her based on her character and not just her GPA. She got in! She left, excited for this new adventure. She was going to make something of her life. She was determined.

Then she started taking exams.

She failed those exams.

The Dean of Women (Who I know and have always thought of as a joke, and this story only reinforced that perception) called her into her office. This woman (We’ll call her Pam) was excited. Pam thought that maybe the DoW wanted to talk to her about how she was adjusting to college life or about the different programs regarding teen sexuality that she was trying to start. Pam had a limitless desire to make a difference in the world.

Sadly, the Dean of Women wanted to talk about her test scores. Pam explained that her mind freezes when she sits before a test and forgets everything she has ever learned. The words seem to fly out of her mind. At this point, a human being would expect the D0W to respond with some cognizant information about test anxiety and strategies for dealing with the implications of it.

Well, not this paragon of academic virtue. No, she tells Pam that it sounds like Pam is just lazy. Now, lazy is the one thing that Pam knows she is not. The woman goes back and forth with Pam about being lazy or dumb.

Now, there it is! Pam gets this one. She’s just dumb. When God made her brain, he put it together wrong. Just fall back into yourself and do your own thing. Stay away from trying. The power of potential failure is too much.

Pam got the message loud and clear from her teachers to this monstrosity of a Dean to her standardized test scores. She did not have worth. Here are the exact words,

“One afternoon, the dean of women asked to meet with me. She and I sat and talked about my struggles in the classroom. I told her how every time I began to take a test, I would become stressed and forget everything I knew. She looked me in the eyes and said, ‘That is an excuse for laziness.’ I finally got it; I would never get it and was lazy. I decided college was not for me, and after attending for two years, I got married and started a family.”

“After getting married, I worked as a teaching assistant and continued to search for value and worth. What could I do with my life? One day, a friend came to me and asked that I consider being a manager for a fitness center. I said, “No.” I knew I was not smart enough to run a business. My husband was shocked that I gave the offer no thought; after all, it would be a better-paying job and a good experience. I explained to him that I could not do it. At this point in my life, I had lost the determination to prove I could amount to anything. My husband coaxed me into accepting the job.”

Here’s where the story gets fascinating to me. The woman took a closet of a fitness center and turned it into a million-dollar-a-year business. She helped her boss open up eight other fitness centers and was named the top manager for the Northeast region. In business terms, she knocked it out of the park.

What happened? What changed?

She started to believe in herself. The woman found someone who believed in her more than she did, and his words mattered. His positive words overcame her negative words.

Of course, eventually, the woman’s words began to matter again, too. Only this time, they were positive words. When people gave her negative feedback, she fought it with truthful words. She left her business and started raising her children as a stay-at-home mom—a long-time dream for her.

She began to push her daughter, who, despite her mom knowing she was smart, was struggling in school. She states that it felt as if she was talking to herself. She and her husband had dreams about running a business together someday. She thought she needed to return to school, and she did.

She has since gotten her Master’s Degree, run her own business, and become a force in her town. She is a sought-after public speaker and an influence for good. People seek her out for her thoughts and opinions. She has helped countless other women and men find their voice and way.

What does this story mean for you? Well, along with being pretty inspirational, let me ask you about the words you use with your loved ones. In my profession, I meet many people with deep scars who always wonder about their worth. I meet people who always give up deep parts of themselves to feel loved.

I also meet people with a deep, unshakable sense of identity and self-worth.

In almost every instance, that identity and self-worth developed from deep self-work and regular positive input from their loved ones. They often built on a foundation laid by their parents. So how about you? Here are some things everyone should be doing.

  1. Telling your spouse and children you love them should happen multiple times daily. There does not need to be a reason. If they walk across the living room, just stop them and say, “Hey, I love you.”  Sure, you might feel a little dumb, but the dividends will outpace that; I promise
  2. Tell your spouse and kids everyday things that you love about them. In other words, talk about their strengths. Don’t shy away from their weaknesses, but help them to understand both.
  3. Encourage your children to take risks. Yes, this means they may fail. Teach them that failure is a means of acquiring knowledge, not an end. Of course, you might have to take a few risks now and again.
  4. Don’t confuse telling them why you love them with rewarding only good behavior/attributes. In other words, celebrate your loved one without implying that they can somehow make you love them more or less by their actions. So when your kid hits that home run, tell him how proud you are of him, but don’t forget to express your pride in him when he strikes out. If your daughter wants to dance and could be more talented, let her do it and walk the journey with her.
  5. Don’t worry about how other people will perceive it. Family is ultimately about the other person. If your five-year-old wants to wear clothes that don’t quite match, but she picked them out, does it matter what Mrs. Cleaver down the street will think? So often, I see parents or spouses holding back because they are afraid that someone they don’t even like will judge them. To me, that’s silly.
  6. Don’t be afraid to be extravagant. Buy a gift for your spouse or kids for no reason.
  7. Build confidence in your family by being redundant about their strengths. The greatest gift my daughter ever gave me was when she looked at me and told me, “Dad, you don’t have to tell me that you love me every day.” Oh yes, I do, Missy; I cannot guarantee that tomorrow is coming, and today may be my last chance to tell you.
  8. Tell your family daily how beautiful you find them and how thankful you are for them. There will come a day when you will not be the primary voice in your kids’ heads; until that day arrives, you must create an indelible voice print that stays with them. Don’t assume your family knows that you love them. You may be correct, but it never hurts to say it repeatedly.
  9. Utilize whatever is important to your family. If watching Scooby doo is important to your kids, watch the show. If your husband likes to watch sports, watch it. If walking is your wife’s thing, do that.
  10. Plan time together. Never underestimate the importance of game time and family sharing time. These things are the glue that gives children a sense of security.

Just love on your family. Use words and actions. Both are important. Your family needs to hear that they are important to you and that you love them multiple times daily. Of course, you can apply many of these ideas to others outside of your family as well, but that is a post for another day. Words matter. Use them for good.

There will always be another Dean of Women like the one in Pam’s story there, willing to tell them they are not enough. There will be plenty of teachers like the one in Pam’s story who, by all accounts, was doing his best yet fed her lies about her identity.

Their inner voice will repeat to them that they are not enough. Use your words and actions to overcome these negative influences. Someone once said there is the power of life and death in words.

May our words always bring life.

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