‘You’ll only be good enough…’

‘…if you are exactly, and do exactly, and say exactly, what I want…’

‘You MUSTN’T  do this…’

‘You SHOULDN’T let that happen…’

‘You OUGHT to follow MY advice…’

This is not about those kindly and loving souls who give us advice to help us; it is about those who condemn us, and bully us, if we do not shape up the way they want!

Anyone out there ever felt this kind of pressure being bought to bear upon them? I have. Countless times. I still do. I am very easy to bully, to persuade, to frighten, to render wobbly and uncertain. You may have noticed. Noticed, for example, how rarely I give vicious ‘tongue’ to vicious, uncalled-for or sanctimonious comments on here. Believe me when I say that I am equally, if not more so, reticent – afraid – when it comes to sticking up for myself through the medium of speech off the blog!

Those who tell me how I should be doing it are missing the point by miles. If I could, I would be doing it already. It may be easy for YOU to say ‘No!’ or establish firm boundaries; to care little about other people’s reactions – but, for me, it is as difficult as dyslexics struggling with words.

My son, who is a wise owl, asked me about bullying I had experienced the other day – and said something like, ‘But what was it about you that made them want to bully and scare you, Mum?’

An excellent question – and one which I have asked myself countless times over the years. The answer is very simple. It is not that I am a naturally weak person, or that I deserve to be intimidated because of serious character flaws, or that something about my ‘posh’ accent, or looks, or tastes triggered an immediate desire to kick the shit out of me (either physically or emotionally).

The answer? I have never learnt to successfully defend myself against human predators. I have never fought back – and won the metaphorical bout.

I allow people to get away with it, in other words. I allow them to use all the rhetoric at their finger-tips (and bullies who do not go in with the fist typically have an entire boxing glove’s worth of nasty rhetorical devices designed to bring you to the mat within seconds) to diminish, confuse and guilt-trip me. Despite knowing what they are up to, I am easily talked into believing that I, in some way, merit that treatment. So, for example, I accept unpleasant comments – both on blogs and in ‘real’ life – because the alternative is to be told that I take myself too seriously, cannot take criticism or am a complete hypocritical bitch.

Many people have a firm line when it comes to sentences containing ‘should’ and ‘ought’ and ‘shouldn’t’. Most people I know are able to say, ‘Don’t tell me what to do! Sort your own problems out first!’

I do get very uneasy when advice given has this censorious and bossy tone to it. When people claim that they are only doing or saying negative things for my own good, I feel a sense of utter panic, but also disgust and anger (both pretty deeply hidden).

My view has always been that it is perfectly possible to advise and even criticise another with gentle loving kindness rather than harshness and fury and contempt. Why?

Because most people, if they have anything about them, are only too well aware of their flaws, weaknesses, unhelpful predilections, crippling habits and tendency to attract the wrong people into their lives.

Telling someone, ‘You shouldn’t do that: I am only telling you because I love you…’ is, if you think about it, a form of emotional blackmail. And I am coming right out of my corner of the ring and, with my own glove of rhetoric, calling it by its proper name.

Think about it a bit more: What is the effect of saying the above to someone else? Of using your feelings to push them into either doing, or not doing, something? In what way is the above any different in intent to the more obviously sinister, ‘If you don’t perform Act A, or give me Amount/Possession B, I won’t love you anymore!’

Both are designed to get you to do as you are told, and to shut you up.  Both are designed to trigger obedience, ‘for your own good…’ Both are covert threats. Neither uses physical violence, it is true- but both use a form of mental violence which, in my eyes, is just as bad.

Both are designed to use the bond of love to force you into seeing the error of your ways. Both are shock tactics deigned to silence you – because, the use of the word ‘love’ is a barrier to any kind of angry come-back, isn’t it?

I am fully aware of my weakness in this area. I wonder how many of those who read my words – and secretly, or not so secretly, think, ‘Stupid woman! Can’t she see that she ought to sort it out and that the solution is bloody obvious?’ – are as clear-sighted about their own character flaws?

During my years as an English teacher, I was often an unofficial counsellor to distressed and disturbed adolescent girls – and I learned a great deal from the experience. One of the things I learned almost immediately, and from very bitter experience, was that taking a condemnatory, pejorative approach – and, linguistically, over-loading the talk with that famous trio of modal verbs (‘must’ ‘ought’ and ‘should’) – caused the child to withdraw and run for the proverbial hills. If I wanted a child’s full confidence, either as a teacher or as a counsellor, I needed to learn to put the brake on the modal verb vehicular tendency, and find other, gentler, ways of drip-feeding my opinions and thoughts.

I am not being immodest here – because many aspects of my teaching were sloppy and ill-thought-out at times – but I was very good at dealing with difficult children, and still am!

Anyone who wants to get control of a classroom situation learns, often to his/her cost, that overt control, bossiness and over-doses of the Modal Trio, simply gets the kids’ backs up and makes them far less willing to co operate, listen and learn.

Schoolchildren, like the rest of humanity, very quickly pick up a teacher’s unspoken reaction to them; in fact, they have an instinct for it which put many adults to shame. Particularly good on fear, they know exactly how far to push a nervous or inexperienced teacher! I know! I have been at both ends of this one!

Telling a reluctant learner, ‘You must do your homework…’ or, ‘You should be getting higher grades than this…’ or, ‘You ought to sit nearer the front of the class because your mum’s told me you need glasses…’ is very unlikely to have the desired effect, especially if said loudly in front of the young person’s peer group.

A child who suffers from a genuine condition which affects his or her learning ability cannot be bullied into improving! Anyone who has ever taught KNOWS this.

And yet generations of school children continue to be shamed in the classroom by thoughtless adults – and, outside the classroom, we as a species continue to believe that shaming, or intimidating, others into changing (becoming more like us, in other words) is a workable solution.

‘How’s about trying this approach?’ tends to work far better than, ‘Do it my way: I am a teacher/expert/sorted and I am right!’

Because, let’s face it, we are all fallible! No one knows for absolute certain that he or she is right in any given situation, or that his/her opinion has any more validity than another’s. For me, English came easily; for at least 50% of the children I taught over the years, it did not. However, I had insight into the feelings they experienced because, to me, Maths was, and remains, impenetrable – and no amount of, ‘But you SHOULD know your tables by now!’ ever worked to decode that particular mystery.

If you are dyslexic, being told, ‘But you OUGHT to be able to spell simple words by YOUR age!’ can have a hugely damaging and demoralising effect.

Most kids are very keen to please adults, even if they do not show it – and a child who is word blind often tries incredibly hard in spelling tests.

So it goes for anyone who has a genuine difficulty with life skills that others take for granted – in my case standing up for myself with conviction. If it is easy for you, great, well done! But it isn’t for me. It is something I am constantly working on, refining, devising new strategies for. It is, like dyslexia, an on-going battle.

My final thought: I believe that we humans have allowed ourselves to entertain a dangerous fallacy: That with the snap of a finger, or linguistic shock tactics, we can cause any of life’s problems to disappear. We can probably stop their overt manifestation, in the sense that the one shocked no longer feels it safe to show them to us – but stop them altogether?

No. We just drive them underground – and that is potentially far more dangerous and destructive.

We do not need to leap the modal verbs in order to prove ourselves to others – and, those who demand such a ridiculous Olympic style psychological Hurdling event would be better occupied examining their own language use and teaching skills!

Most of the time, we get far better results from listening than from reacting. There is no ‘must’ ‘should’ or ‘ought’ about true listening skills.  There is, instead, the space for the speaker to explore techniques for him or herself, to ask, ‘What works for me?’

Modal verbs are just words, neither good nor bad in and of themselves. But when we use them to influence others in a manipulative way, they can take on an aura of darkness!



17 thoughts on “‘You’ll only be good enough…’

  1. Well said, Ali. I think the hurt caused by physically​ violent bullies is far easier to heal than the mental and emotional damage caused by verbal attacks that may be invisible, even to those who perpetrate them. Some may be ill phrased, though genuinely well intentioned, but the trouble is that those verbs set off all the warning bells when you have been subjected to them for less selfless reasons x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My Mom put it very simply to me when I was sometimes subjected to my Dad’s angry outbursts (that had merit into what he wanted me to do or understand):

    “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”

    I like your example of posing criticism as a question, rather than as a “should/ought to/must” statement. I received that advice in a professional-development session last week in a different form, too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your mom’s saying sums it up so well, Noah. As humans, we are blessed (or possibly cursed!) by the sheer range of tone/volume/manipulation we can attach to basic meaning. I used to do this as a drama exercise when I was a teacher: I’d get us all in a circle and each child (and me) would have to say, ‘The grass is green today’ in an individual way, with no two the same. Amazing the variety one got! The kids loved it, especially the shy little souls who managed to bellow the words out like a Town Crier! xxx


  3. Julie

    I agree with Ted’s sentiment that ” When it comes to it a soul must find true inner strength and balance and that in its very essence is a lonely path.”

    The path, in my experience, starts with the realisation that anger is actually a healthy emotion. Healthy and necessary and useful. It operates as a purging force which clears the way for self-respect.
    Then comes self-confidence and finally self-love.
    All this takes time and courage. To start the journey, we have to abandon the fear of fighting and being alone. It is indeed a lonely path but a tremendously rewarding one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The lonely path is a familiar one – and I think those of us who accept it do so both consciously and willingly. We are aware of the stony sections, the at-times inclement weather, the growls of wild beings and so forth – but we trudge on regardless towards the next section! xxx


  4. I had a few attempts at commenting on your post Ali. Writing almost anything leads it seems into one of the very traps you so carefully illustrate in your blog. People are by and large a difficult bunch, tribal and evolutionary self centred. When it comes to it a soul must find true inner strength and balance and that in its very essence is a lonely path. xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for this, Ted. Your comment illustrates a vital point about my subdued modal verb rant: The way of behaving I describe typically reduces the other to complete wordlessness as they wonder how the hell they can avoid the traps, both seen and unseen, put in place. My point was that no child should be so scared of the teacher’s response that he or she became frozen and unable to learn. The analogy fits all spheres of life, I feel. By deliberately aping the approach some ‘teachers’ (in the wider sense) employ almost without thinking, I am illustrating the way we stifle other people’s free self-expression! God, I do go on, don’t I??!!! xxx

      Liked by 1 person

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