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Being Uncomfortable and 9th Grade Math


Hey friend:

Algebra and geometry were not my best subjects in high school.  I was the kid who always needed extra help.

Law school made a lot of sense for me.  There was not a lot of algebra or geometry in law school.

Fast forward a few decades, and now my younger son is a freshman in high school.  I’m definitely biased, but I think he’s super handsome and the kindest person I’ve ever known.

He also reminds me of my 14 year-old self.  Timid.  A little too urgent for external approval.  And, well, not super strong with the high school math.

During a conference with his math teacher, I found out he missed two recent homework assignments.  Not cool.

Of course I confronted him about this.  He told me he gave up on those two assignments because he didn't think he could do them.

I asked him about the recent afternoon when he stayed after-school for extra help and was it actually helpful.  He replied that other kids were in the math teacher's classroom that day, and therefore the math teacher was too busy for him, so he just didn't go into the classroom to ask for the help.  (Yeah, I know, I should've called "bullshit" on that excuse, but stay with me.)

I asked him what he thought his chances were of improving his math grade when he would not even take the action of walking into the classroom to ask for help.  He acknowledged that the odds were not good.

I asked him to see how the thought that he couldn't do it (that is, 9th grade math) was ultimately creating the result that he wasn't doing it.  He admitted that he could follow that logic (and I believe him.  I subject this poor child to my thought questions all the time, so he has experience with this subject.)

I asked him if maybe his brain was playing a trick on him, telling him that the teacher was too busy for him when the real answer was just that he felt uncomfortable about walking into the classroom to ask for help.

"Wasn't that really what happened?" I said.  "And because that feeling of uncomfortable was between you and the result you wanted, which was a decent (or at least not incomplete) math grade, you were not going to get to that result because you were not willing to feel uncomfortable, right?"

He copped to it at that point.  "Yes," he said.  "I was uncomfortable."

"So, what's the problem with being uncomfortable?"  I asked. "What's the sensation in your body?  Describe it to me like I'm a Martian and I don't understand what feelings are.  Is it like a fluttering in your stomach?"

"Yeah, kind of," he said.  "And, like my heart's racing and I feel a bit dizzy."

So I asked, "Okay, dizzy like you're going to fall over and your heart is going to explode?"

"No, no.  Nothing like that."

I pressed on.  (I'm a pain in the ass like that.  Ask anyone.)  "What was it then?  What was so bad about feeling uncomfortable that you gave up on yourself?"

He paused, and then responded, "I guess nothing."

So then I said, "listen, buddy.  Do you know what's going to happen to you later in life if you don't get a good grade in 9th grade math?"

Him (timidly) "What?"

Me "Nothing."

Now he's confused.  He has that look on his face -- the I-think-my-mother's-trying-to-trick -me-and-it's-freaking-me-out look.

I go on (and I'm really hoping the math teacher doesn't read my blog) and tell him, "I'm really not that worried about 9th grade math.  The truth is, it's not going to make or break your whole life."

"But the giving up on yourself is very concerning.  All because you wanted to get away from a feeling that you're telling me wasn't even that bad."

I'm guessing that the way my son managed 9th grade math in that moment is not that much different from how you sometimes manage your relationship with your ex.

It's awkward.  It's uncomfortable.  It might even be punch-in-the-gut sad for you still.  So your brain is going to tell you to avoid it.  Go the other way.  Get back in the cave.  It's dangerous out here.

That's perfectly logical.  Your gorgeous brain is trying to protect you.

And so it's keeping you in the cave, away from the results that you want to achieve.  Your brain is okay with that.  It's perfectly comfortable inside the cave not changing one darn thing about your life.

We know this life.  It might not be the math grade that we really want to get, but at least we know how to stay alive while we're getting a C minus.

But if uncomfortable is the only thing keeping you from the A grade, why aren't you going for it?  Is feeling uncomfortable really that bad?

You already know my answer to that question.

So back to this conversation with my son, I asked him "Are you willing to feel that uncomfortable feeling again, just allow it to be there and walk into extra help anyway?  I mean, you know you'll have that feeling again, but you also know how to feel it now and you know it's not going to really hurt you.  It's just a feeling."

I offer the same question to you, my friends.  Are you willing to feel uncomfortable to get a result that you want?

You don't have to.  You can stay in the cave.  Most people do.  The A is not morally superior to the C minus.  It really isn't.

Just know that the choice is yours.

If you're willing to feel any feeling and just let it be there, then you have a super power.

And this is a skill you can learn.  I can teach you (feeling feelings, I mean -- not 9th grade math.)

Talk to you soon.  Take care until then.

P.S.  A few days after the above-described conversation, my son did go to math extra help.  When I picked him up afterwards, he told me he totally understands math now.  These kids slay me. . . 

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