“Jamie, when we first met, you brought up all of my popular girl issues and I didn’t know how to act around you.”
My mouth was agape when Ramona, a member of the Dancing Mindfulness community and now a senior affiliate trainer in our program, revealed this to me several years ago. While I didn’t wish to negate her experience, there was a part of me that wanted to rage back, “But you don’t understand! I’m anything but a popular girl. After all, the popular girls in school gave me a complex that’s taken years of therapy to repair!”
The images of that chubby girl with a bad perm being teased and set up on the Catholic school playground in elementary school came flooding back. The panic I experienced in junior high that I would never be “liked” in that way by a boy or a girl rose up in my chest. The despair in which I found myself as a competitor in high school speech because I never felt pretty enough, talented enough, or likable enough to win the top prizes came into the clearest view. Then I realized—even as an accomplished professional with a public image, I still let the kids I perceive as more popular affect me. And it turns out that many of us still do, long into adulthood.
There’s a great deal of talk about impostor syndrome in pop psychology literature and on social media—the fear that one day people are going to expose us as the frauds that we are and realize that we’re full of shit and have no business to be working in our fields. What I am putting out there for consideration is related and yet essentially different—the popular kid complex. This is the fear that no matter how hard we try, how great we look or how talented we are, we’ll never be invited to sit with the popular kids at their lunch table. While we can argue that in an ideal, spiritually enlightened world there ought to be no such thing as lunch tables and that external metrics of this nature shouldn’t matter, we do live in that world. And no matter how hard we work on ourselves or how deeply we invest in our spiritual practices, things like this can still matter even to the steadiest among us.
This idea may feel like just another variation on the keeping up with the Joneses concept, always wanting more out of a sense of competition. To explain how I see the popular kid complex as fundamentally different and even bigger problem, I’m going to call myself out on my own shit. Many years ago, I set out on the path of my teaching career as an extension of service and continuing to live in the eleventh step as described in a 12-step program—to pray for knowledge of my Higher Power’s will and the power to carry it out. At first I was simply over the moon that people wanted to book me for trainings and read some of my articles. The more I kept putting myself out there, I gratefully received more teaching invitations and my first book contract in 2011, primarily to write for other therapists.
Then at some point, I found myself getting intimated and maybe even a little jealous by the likes of Brené Brown, Gabrielle Bernstein, and Anne Lamott. They are popular! They are on the New York Times best seller list! They have a reach beyond just their niche market. Oprah invites them onto Super Soul Sunday, the ultimate cool kids lunch table for modern times. Here’s the kicker—I like their stuff, I adore their teachings. They put themselves out there the way that I would like to, and what still stops me short is this fear that I will never be as pretty, whimsical, charming, likable, talented, relatable, or popular as they are. I am even prone to thinking thoughts like, “Why does the world need teachers like me when they have teachers like them?”
Fortunately those thoughts come and go, as I know at my core that what I do in my work is a direct fruit of me asking my Higher Power and the universe to make me a vessel, in whatever form that may take. But as much as that spiritual perspective keeps me grounded, I am still human. My meat suit and all its programming can get the best of me. In the language of recovery, I can still get in my own way.
Sometime last year I looked at jealousy—is it that I’m just jealous of people who are better than me and can get things done where I can’t? The teachings of the Kripalu-Amrit lineage in which I study yoga helped me through that one. I accepted that jealousy is a fear that, at my core, I am not enough. Jealousy is about being cut off from the reality of my true Self and my true nature where none of us are separate. Spiritual me gets that. Human me still struggles.
I was recently doing some of my own EMDR therapy on this matter and the Brené Brown brings up my popular girl issues and I’ll never be likable enough to get a Netflix special was tripped-wired. The therapist working on me said “go with that” and I immediately blurted out, “Brené Brown is my Marla Carano.”
Marla Carano was the best speaker in the Ohio region where I competed my senior year of high school. Tall, articulate and charming, she looked about ten years older than the rest of us, wearing a stylish olive green suit for major competitions. She went to one of the powerhouse suburban high schools where her father was the legendary head coach. As a kid from a city school with a small team, I believed I could never be as cool as her. To be clear, she won on her talent. Also to be clear, Marla was always a gracious competitor and genuinely nice to me. I never felt anything like a “mean girl” vibe coming from her. Yet I could never shake the fact that I would perpetually be second or third next to the likes of her because I wasn’t as pretty, whimsical, charming, likable, talented, relatable, or popular as she.
And the reality is, in what has since become the classic Dr. Jamie Marich move that has defined my adult career, I wrote a pretty avant-garde original oratory for high school speech tournaments. My speech created conversations with other students and even other judges even if I didn’t necessarily win top prizes. The move I made that year to put my voice out there is the gutsiness that I celebrate and applaud in my own students. That move, I believe, made me the speaker I am today whose primarily livelihood is literally forged on my ability to go up there and speak truth without fear.
So why isn’t that enough? At seventeen, one could say I was still in high school and having a place in the spotlight matters. But I’m nearly forty. Why can I feel, especially within myself, that life is still a damn speech and debate competition? Maybe it is. After all, I’m still vying with others to win teaching contracts, spots as a keynote, deals with publishers. The cynical and yes, human, side of me knows that there will always be an element of competitiveness to life. As I continued to “go with it” in my own EMDR session that day the larger, spiritual truth filled my heart—teaching and being public in my field must never be a competition.
Our purpose as healers is to alleviate human suffering, bringing one of Buddha’s noble truths into beautiful fruition in this world. This task takes all kinds of people—those who have mass appeal and those who have niche appeal—and all types of talent. Working the front lines of community care in places like correctional facilities, treatment centers, and poorly funded public mental health facilities requires talent and commitment. People who will never give a training or write a book have a different yet wholly essential talents that I do not. This is where the heart of our work is happening and when I get into crazy places with my own ego, I must remember this truth.
In preparing to write this piece, I reached out to Marla Carano Honen, as we’ve been in touch on Facebook through the years. I wanted to make sure she was okay with me putting an article out there in which she is my nemesis of sorts. Marla is anything but a villain; she has helped me to see a higher truth. And in speaking with her about the premise of the popular kid complex—guess what? It affects her too! I firmly believe we are all that “popular kid” to someone who brings up their issues, and all of us have popular kids who bring up stuff that as adults we must learn to heal and to manage.
I also had the chance to spend some time on a retreat (Ram Das: Spring on Maui) with one of my legendary popular kids, Anne Lamott. And guess what? Anne has struggled with the perils of comparison and can still face her own share of dark thoughts. What I learned from her so robustly on retreat is that she continues to put one foot in front of another by working a 12-step program and reaching out to safe people with whom she can be honest. And in a story I ended up sharing with her, Anne helped me to sink into much of the solution.
After sitting through another beautifully folksy talk by Anne in her awkward loveliness, I walked to the back of the pavilion to get some tea. I thought to myself, “Jamie, even though you are getting more public with your work you will never be as likable as that.” And literally in the next breath a lovely young yogi comes up to me and says, “I like watching you dance at the kirtan. It’s so inspiring!”
Okay, I’m human enough to admit that part of my thinking went to, “Wow, a perfect looking young yogini likes the way I dance, I matter... I am valid! Roll credits.” Fortunately the spiritual truths of what I’ve been learning and studying kicked in and gave me the real lesson: When I dance, I am my most authentic self. I dance absent any kind of technical prowess. Dancing and responding mindfully to the music is the purest experience of being a vessel for Divine energy to flow. That doesn’t make me popular, and yet it does something much more magical. It attracts the people who need to feel it too so that hopefully they will be inspired to open up and be their unique expression of Divine flow.
And hmmm... doesn't this sound like something Brené Brown would teach in her groundbreaking work around vulnerability? Turns outI just had to work on my edge around her to fully open myself up to the teaching. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you Brené and all of my other popular kids for allowing me to "go there" and receive your wisdom.
In many parts of Ohio, competitive speech and debate is a sport. I caught the bug my sophomore year where I tagged along with my best friend to a tournament. There was something about the pageantry of even a run-of-the-mill weekly speech tournament that was magical—and I wanted to be a part of it! I was transitioning out of figure skating, deciding to focus more on academics, and competitive speech seemed to be the perfect fit for me. I got to dress up, perform, and be my geeky self…how could I not fall in love? I went to a city school with a very small speech team and it made me proud when I was able to represent and often best kids from the Catholic schools and the big suburban juggernaut teams. It felt like I was a skater from a small country going up against the Russian powerhouses! In my competitive days I was never the best of the best, although I got a chance to try out many new ideas that would be the root of what I now identify as my professional voice. Junior year I made it to state and senior year I made it to nationals. Although constantly stuck in the second or third place slot my senior year and bitterly let down at some big tournaments, I remember my time on the speech team as my most precious in high school. Some of my dearest friends, many from those powerhouse schools, were made during my time in competitive speech.
So it’s no wonder, like any obsessed sports fan, that I spent the better part of fifteen years after leaving high school involved in high school speech in some manner as a coach. And coaching young people on several different types of teams proved even more transformational than my own high school speech experience. Yes, I was a “speechie” in high school, as we are often called, yet being a coach crystalized the power of that identity in my being. For this reason, I dedicated my newest book Process Not Perfection: Expressive Arts Solutions for Trauma Recovery to my students, the “speechies” that I coached between 1997 (the year I graduated from high school) until 2011. As I reference in the dedication, they truly taught me the power of expressive arts as healing.
I coached on four teams during that time—I assisted at two schools while I was an undergraduate. I had the privilege of being the head coach of Chaney High School, my alma mater, when I was in graduate school and during the first two years of clinical career. To coach a Chaney kid to a state title, and coach another to three state final rounds in three different categories during his tenure, brought my “small team” kid experience full circle. I thought I was done…what could top that? Then in 2008, when I moved to one of those suburbs I once growled at when I was a city school kid in Youngstown, OH, the head coach of that team (an old friend of mine), pulled me in for one more go as his assistant. I got to coach on two state championship teams, a new experience for me having always either been on a small team or having coached one.
During all of these stints I met such awesome young people—I can think of no other adjective for their spirits or for the experiences I had coaching them. Coaching is not quite the best word. Rather, I had the privilege of guiding them through process, the construct I now celebrate in my work as a trauma-focused expressive arts therapist. To be in process as you prepare for competitive speech, especially if you want to see good results, is to be constantly willing to engage in trial and error. As a coach I often guided my kids through one sentence of their speech or performance piece in thirty different ways, just to test it out and notice what best popped. This same idea applies whether a student is in more of a performance-based category like drama, humor, or poetry reading, or one of the classic speaking categories like original oratory.
Working with my students is where I really developed the competency of listening with my body, a skill that has served me well as a trauma-focused therapist and expressive artist. You listen and you notice with something that often can’t be put into words for a sense of “That’s it!” These moments can happen at 7:00pm at night in a high school classroom, long after other students have cleared out. And then your student may take it to a tournament, try it out, and it falls flat, which can be an invitation back into process. Or, they may take the fruits of their work to a tournament and, following the flow of their intuition, may create even more magic than you or they even thought possible during those hours of practice.
I wish that I could tell stories about all of my students in this piece, but there is simply not enough room! A book wouldn’t even suffice. In reality, they all taught me something. Even the kids who resisted the depth of practice it would take to be competitively successful taught me about process, whether that was getting to explore resistance or to realize that for some kids it’s never about winning. The process is in the having fun, enjoying friendships and trying something new in their high school speech experience. In expressive arts therapy we talk a great deal about the work not being outcome-focused. Because competitive speech is, well, competitive, the end result was imperative to many of the students I coached. It was to me at the end of my high school speech career which is why I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I could have. Yet I inevitably found that the students who were willing to dive in and embrace the process—the trial and error, explore the range depth—ended up being most successful in terms of trophies and titles won. I think there is a lesson here for those of us who pursue the arts professionally in one way or another—the power is in the process. Focus on the process, and you may be utterly amazed at the outcomes you are able to achieve.
And then we can pick apart what it even means to be successful. In reflecting back on my own high school speech career, I never came close to achieving the success that many of my students did. Yet I now have a professional career and public image that is based largely on my ability to speak publicly. I remember the first time I offered a continuing education training for other professionals in 2007, one of my colleagues asked, “Where did you learn to hold a crowd like that?” I chuckled and replied, “You have no idea,” thinking fondly on all of those hours I spent preparing with my own coaches and friends in high school, talking to walls (a common warm up practice on tournament day), and then working with my own students. The trophies have been thrown away or recycled and yet the fruits of the process remain.
Now looking back, the students who had the most impact on me are those who were never major contenders for awards. Yet I saw them blossom in terms of confidence and ability to stand tall and speak their voice. I remember one student who came to me during my second stint as an assistant, asking me if he could still be on the speech team even though he had a speech impediment. I adored his spirit right away and welcomed him aboard. He is now a lawyer. The person I coached to the state title at Chaney is a teacher and speech coach herself in Baltimore, and I beam with the pride of a mother when I see the pictures she posts at tournaments with her own students.
So many of my former students are making a real difference in this world, regardless of their chosen profession. Through the wonder of social media and texting, I am still in touch with many of the young people I had the joy of coaching through the years. Instead of talking about gesture placement and intonation, we now talk about life. It warms my heart that they can still seek out my experience, strength and hope… and it’s a two-way street. When I hear some of the young people, I coach make such intelligent life connections that I wish I would have made at 22 or 23, I smile and thank them for sharing a lesson with me.
And this is what I mean by all life being a chance to engage in process.
Institute for creative mindfulness
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