One of the most meaningful times for me during our staff orientation is when I direct a training session with all our female staff. We lock out the males – we take a deep breath – and we talk openly about the tough stuff.
I start our session with an exercise called “The Six Word Memoir”, where each person writes herself a private note, in six words, about how she views herself in the world. There are no restrictions in the exercise, other than the six-word limit. It can be a simple collection of words e.g. fun, energetic, kind, loving, sensitive, freckly. Or, it can be a sentence e.g. I am a very sensitive soul. I really try to provide a free space for each person to approach it as they desire. I then ask each person to put it in her pocket for safekeeping.
Following this, we dive straight into the heart of our session; talking about what it takes to be women of Indian Head Camp. We break down social norms and expectations of the outside world, we re-write the rules, and we create a space of trust and encouragement. What happens during that uninterrupted, nonjudgmental space is truly remarkable. It is one of the great joys of my job.
At the end of the session I invite these young women to re-write their original memoir, and, if they feel comfortable, to share the before and after version with the group. Year in and year out, I am so discouraged at the negative tone of many of the original memoirs. In my eyes these women are talented and gifted. Some I have known since their childhood, growing up carefree and confidently at camp. When I look at them I only see beauty and strength. But for some reason at this delicate stage in their lives, young women don’t see what I see. They see something entirely different – something lesser.
I spend a lot of time thinking about why so many girls transition from being that carefree spirited child, who believes she can conquer the world, into feeling a sense of inadequacy. I know the answer to this question is complex. Off the top of my head I could list a dozen responses: social media, parenting style, trauma, hormones, substance abuse, social climate, politics etc. However, the truth is, I don’t want my article to be focused on that. More candidly, I can’t allow my article to focus on that, I’m afraid of where that might lead – and if it would ever end. Instead, I choose to focus on the learning experience camp affords these young women, and the changes it can make in them, and in our campers. The lessons learned at camp serve only to empower us – and propel us forward as more physically and emotionally mature versions of that confident unlimited child.
One of my favorite aspects of camp is that it is socially ‘messy’. What I mean specifically is that I love that in camp the only predictable social entity is yourself i.e. you can only make decisions about how YOU are going to ‘show up’. This not only makes us self-reflective, it also makes us accountable. The rest is out of our control. Through being deliberate in how we choose to approach things helps us learn to navigate a social world that involves both peers and adults. These social experiences at camp help us develop a social responsibility, and can also lead to a realization that what we put out into our world is often reflected back to us. Even those of us who’s camp experience did not end in lifelong friendships, or who felt they were pushed out of the social hierarchy (which does exist by the way), often do, in time, understand lessons that, for example, the external forces were not worth battling, and that on occasion some people just don’t deserve our friendship and loyalty. There can also be a valuable realization that healthy relationships are always reciprocal. Just because you want someone to be emotionally connected to you in your life doesn’t mean they owe that connection to you. You must also have something meaningful to offer – and part of life’s realities is that different people attach value differently. Early in my career as a therapist a parent scolded me for not being able to fix a difficult social dynamic for her teenage daughter. It was a tough situation where the other girls were not explicitly mean to her, but it was clear that they were not motivated to be emotionally connected to her. This particular therapeutic relationship ended with me being told that despite that fact that I was solely responsible for the most challenging experience of her daughter’s life (yes alarm bells here) – her daughter would be moving forward confidently with the new knowledge, borne from this experience, of what true friendship should look like and how it should make her feel. I of course decided that to reply with ‘you’re welcome’ was not appropriate.
I think about the example above ALL the time in relation to camp. Camp affords our sons and daughters opportunities to learn from the tougher social experiences. The social journey in life presents challenges for all of us, and camp is not exempt from this. I confidently believe that camp is one of the only places left in our children’s lives, out of their own home, that is committed to working through these challenges, not by merely ‘fixing’ them, but by educating children on the role they can play in that endeavor. I’ve read many credible research studies correlating children’s active role in conflict resolution with lower scores of depression and anxiety and higher scores of self-esteem. Simply put, when we guide our children on how to acknowledge their role in their problems, as well as help them navigate those who are problematic towards them, they in turn become more secure happy individuals. This has camp written all over it!!!
In a previous article, I have discussed the importance of raising children who are crafting the art of conversation. I feel it also has deep significance here. How easy has it become to send a text, or post something online, to communicate our feelings – or even worse to passively communicate our feelings – and often not directly to the source itself? I had a painful experience of this just recently. I had invested a significant amount of time during the latter stages of my pregnancy to someone in my life who was experiencing martial difficulties and depression. In the end, some of the truths we discussed privately together became too much for her to bear. It is not uncommon for individuals who share private information to feel an increase in their own vulnerability, and in turn fight this exposure by blaming their confidant. Instead of just telling me she was struggling with her feelings towards me she took to Facebook to post passively aggressive quotations about poor female leadership. I was of course hurt that my attempt to be a caring friend and mentor had been manipulated, but the funny thing is it would have been easier on me if she had just publicly called me out! Her passivity was the most hurtful part. Ironically, it is this same pattern of passivity that has led to her personal crisis – but for some reason she just cannot connect the dots.
It is amazing to witness the high frequency to which we struggle to articulate feelings directly. I’ve watched this occur in 7 year olds through to 60 year olds. Being able to speak honestly and openly about our feelings is what ultimately leads to resolution. Period. As Brene Brown so eloquently stated, ‘you cannot selectively numb’. If you numb, hide or skirt around the emotional truths in one aspect of your life – you are essentially holding your heart hostage. This doesn’t mean that the confrontation of issues will be easy, or that the outcome will be what you desired. However, the active engagement in one’s own social experiences, and subsequent emotional processes, will lead to emotional stimulation and evolution. Simply put, embracing and confronting hurt is powerful, and gives us access to our heart. This ability is one that separates us from any other living species. It makes us human. Is it therefore not bizarre that we spend most of our lives trying to avoid it!? I’m genuinely relieved that during camp our children and staff are encouraged to speak truths, hear truths, respond to truths, process truths and emotionally feel truths. There is no screen to hide behind, and no passive quote, comment or emoji cloaked in humor or reflective thought.
I’m lead back to the six-word memoir. The sadness I feel when hearing the original versions is completely overshadowed by the joy I feel after reading the re-writes. Unsurprisingly, after engaging in real emotional discussion where we lay out in full force the issues, good, bad and ugly that we face and commit as women, the valence of our self-perception changes. When we unleash emotion – and name our demons and own them, and celebrate our gifts and own them, we subsequently see ourselves as stronger, prettier, friendlier, smarter, funnier……..
I delight in being part of this experience for our staff. It reminds me that camp extends so much further than a place for children to play. Camp is life giving. Camp hones our skills in areas that directly inform our self-perception and our emotional vibrancy. Camp permits our children to ‘feel’ and evolve – even when they don’t notice it. What a gift you are giving to your children. What a gift our staff members are giving to themselves. It’s huge - and the best part is - the benefits can last forever.