The quality of our lives is determined by the choices we make: which career path we take, which partner we choose, the lifestyle we embrace. Just as you have the responsibility and the power to make choices about your wardrobe, your relationships or the car you drive, you have the same responsibility and power to choose your attitude and approach to life.
I learned my first lesson in the power of choosing attitude on my first day of school. It may seem strange, considering that I make my living as a professional speaker, but I was a stutterer for most of my childhood. Until I reached school age, it never seemed to be a problem. My family always assured me that I would grow out of it. My mother and grandmother always reminded me about my uncle who’d stuttered as a child, lost it as an adolescent, and become a respected college professor. They’d tell me that I stuttered only because “your brain is working faster than your mouth.”
I never thought of it as a negative until my first day of kindergarten. I was so excited to be around the other kids and to find a desk in the front row with my name on it. Miss Peterson was a very positive, dynamic woman who glowed with energy and enthusiasm. She told us right off that she thought we were going to be the best class in the school. Then she started to go around the room asking us to say our names so everyone could get to know each other. She asked me to go first. I jumped up, turned and faced my new classmates, and started stuttering terribly because I was so excited. “My, my, my-my-my-m-m…”
I’ll never forget the girl with pigtails in the back of the room. She jumped up and said, “He can’t talk. He stutters.” Everyone laughed. Then the boy next to me looked at me and said, “You’re too tall. You shouldn’t be in our room.” The kids all giggled.
I was hurt, of course. I wanted my mom. I had never felt that kind of pain. I kept repeating those negative inputs: You’re too tall. You can’t talk. You shouldn’t be here. That feeling of “not belonging” is a terrible one, whether you are a kid in kindergarten or an adult in a corporate office. Do you remember the book Everything I Know I Learned in Kindergarten? That’s me. I learned about rejection. I learned that people can say things that hurt you. And, thanks to my mother, I learned that you can choose to not be hurt or rejected.
The voices of my classmates got louder and louder inside my head. Later in life, I learned that the strongest and most destructive voice is your own. It was true in this instance. While the teacher and my classmates went about the first day of school, I sat there telling myself that I didn’t belong in school. I’m too tall. I can’t talk. I want to go home. I laid low until our first recess. Then I bolted.
I ran home. We lived two miles away. I took one breath the whole way. I set the world speed record from kindergarten to the front porch. But as fast as I ran, Miss Peterson was faster. My mom was hanging up the phone when I hit the porch. I ran into her arms and she gave me a world-class hug. It was the hug of a lifetime. I can still feel that hug.
I remember looking up at my mom and saying, “I’m too tall. I can’t talk. I don’t fit.”
“Miss Peterson told me what happened,” she said. “There is good news.”
Good news? I stopped crying. What good news could there be? No more kindergarten? Home-schooling with Miss Peterson?
“The good news is that you tried. I’m proud of you for that. My little man tried and even though you are not able to say your name as well as you would like, that’s OK. This is going to be a challenge but I’m convinced that if we work hard, one day, and I do mean one day, all the kids will listen when you say your name loud and clear. Son, don’t ever forget that you are special.”
My mom effectively supplanted the negative messages I’d heard from my classmates with a far more positive message. When I ran away from school it was because my inner voice had been repeating their words: You’re too tall. You talk funny. You don’t belong.
I went back to school with my mom’s words on my inner tape recorder: I’m not different, I’m special. I can learn to talk without a stutter and then they will understand.
Suddenly, I wasn’t speech-impaired. I was working on a challenge. Again, the reality had not changed; I still stuttered. But my perception of my speech impediment had changed. Another paradigm shifted, a new attitude created. And that changed everything. Now, I had a weapon against the teasing and the mocking: I had a new attitude.
My mother taught me then and there on the front porch that afternoon that attitude is a choice. When I told her I couldn’t go back to school, she listened and understood what was contributing to that negative attitude. She was able to listen to the pain that fueled my fears and humiliation. She then gave me the opportunity to choose a new attitude.
You, too, have a choice. You can accept an attitude of humiliation and fear or you can take on an attitude of action. You can be a victim or a victor. You can let life run you over or you can take it on!
My mother showed me a way out of fear and humiliation, and in doing so gave me insight and inspiration. She showed me that even as a small, insecure boy, I had the power to choose a better way.
I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t backslide from time to time. I took speech lessons for six years and I used to lie about why I was getting out of regular class to go somewhere else. I had my days of attitudinal backsliding, anger, rejection and embarrassment. But I never forgot the lesson communicated in my mother’s hug and her words of encouragement: You are special. You can choose not to be hurt or discouraged. You can choose a positive attitude over a negative one. And you can overcome this challenge.
What negative messages do you repeatedly tell yourself? What positive messages can you adopt to replace any negative ones?
This article was published in January 2009 and has been updated. Photo by DisobeyArt/Shutterstock