I am currently nearing the end of a session of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help me manage anxiety. It’s been a very positive experience overall, thanks in large part to the compassionate and encouraging psychologist I’ve been working with. And aside from acquiring tools to deal with and overcome anxiety, I’ve learned that it definitely has roots in my janky self-acceptance skills (which is definitely not good for unschooling, as I will explain later).
I want to also confess that I am easily carried away by my emotions, and while that makes me a passionate and charismatic person, it can get in the way of rational decision-making. Fortunately, I’ve become a lot more rational in the years of deschooling and in the weeks of CBT I have done so far, and I am pleased that in the situation I’m about to describe, I acted on my values thoughtfully and carefully.
So here goes: My husband, E, and I met up with a financial advisor/planner about a year after we moved to the city we currently live in on the Canadian west coast. I will call him Peter. Now to be sure, we aren’t exactly your typical investing family. In the summer of 2015 I decided that my boys would not be returning to school so that we could unschool, and about a week after their last day of Junior Kindergarten (for M) and Grade 2 (for F), my husband was laid off of his web management job. And then almost three months later, we decided to renovate and sell our house so that we could travel for a while. We ended up closing our house sale almost exactly a year after E lost his job, in July of 2016, and we took a 10-month-long road trip through Canada, the U.S., and New Zealand, deciding to return to Vancouver Island instead of southern Ontario.
E was unemployed when we first connected with Peter in the fall of 2018, as he was still figuring what direction to take work-wise. So at the time, we were living off the proceeds of our house sale, were not rushing into work, and were homeschooling (which meant our kids came with us to our financial planning meetings).
At first I liked Peter. He was friendly, worked with a well-known investment group, and we had a bit of background in common. His sweet assistant offered drinks to our kids while they quietly played on their iPads in the reception area. Not long after we became Peter’s clients, we were invited (kids included) to a comedy show put on by his financial group.
After that positive start, I would occasionally e-mail Peter to request some money from our investment accounts, and I always got curt replies, even though I attempted some personal engagement with almost every message. And the couple of in-person meetings we had with him during that time didn’t feel quite right either, awkward and generally uncomfortable.
This past Christmas, we hadn’t been invited to the show, nor had we received a Christmas card from Peter’s office. I didn’t really care about the show, but I did think that not sending out cards was unprofessional, given it would cover two major holidays, one of which marked a new fiscal year. But I more or less forgot about it until I e-mailed Peter last week about our investments. I began the message wishing him a Happy New Year, and said that I hoped he had had a good holiday with his family. I told him what I wanted done, and ended my e-mail by saying I was looking forward to our annual review scheduled for later this month. The next day I received his reply that he had done what I had asked, and signed it with “All The Best” as though we would soon be parting ways. And that was it. Not even a “Happy New Year” to his client, a week into 2020.
Now for me, the most important aspect of life is relationships. It doesn’t matter if it’s holding the door for a stranger, discussing the grocery list with my husband, or resolving arguments between my kids; how I interact with another person, and how he/she interacts with me, really matters. Moreover, when it comes to business, I firmly believe that good business is borne of good relationships. Given that investing with a financial advisor is (hopefully) a long-term relationship, it’s a win-win when there is trust and mutual respect, elements that develop over time through kind and committed communication (even when it’s brief).
But my primary instinct, as it tends to be, with handling Peter’s brusqueness was to disappear. So my first thought was to simply find another investor. That felt like the easiest route, certainly, but after a while it also felt like avoidance, and not much of a solution to defusing my frustration. I eventually thought about how it would be better for everyone involved if I simply told Peter about my issue and saw how he responded. If he responded well, then I would be able to trust him that much more, and he would be able to trust me more knowing that I respected him enough to talk to him instead of just jumping ship. If he didn’t respond well, then I would have evidence that my distrust was warranted, and I would be able to confidently take my business elsewhere.
After a few hours and a slow build-up of nervousness, I e-mailed Peter back. This is what I wrote:
I’d like to think in your several years of financial planning/advising you[‘ve] learned that good business comes from good relationships.
It’s one thing not to invite clients to a show or to even send out holiday cards at Christmas, but to not have the time or inclination to wish a client a happy new year when he/she has contacted you directly is not just discourteous, it’s bad business.
Once I sent the e-mail, I felt surprisingly confident that I had done the right thing. And I wasn’t nervous, either, when I read his reply that followed soon after, which said that he had not intended to be rude, but that he was rushing to get things done because his wife was in the hospital. He also explained that they rotate invitations to their Christmas show because of limited seating, and that they had sent out cards at Thanksgiving (which was really odd to me, when we received one) in lieu of Christmas cards. And then he wished me a happy new year.
Peter’s wife being in the hospital, especially when they have a toddler at home, is clearly a huge stressor, and I truly felt bad for him for that. But it didn’t for a moment make me regret my initial response given that he had been sending me aloof e-mails for a while. So I seized the opportunity to model what I think good communication looks like, by replying with the following:
To be honest, the show and card stuff isn’t really important to me. But personal business relationships definitely are, and I felt it necessary to address this point given your history of curt replies.
That said, I’m very sorry about [wife’s name] being in the hospital. I’m sure that it is very stressful for you, especially with a young child to worry about as well. I hope things get better soon.
So what does this all have to do with unschooling? Well, the amount of thought I’ve put into what may be perceived as a trifling situation shows that I’m pretty quick to discount my feelings as unreasonable, overreactive, and shameful. And that is one of the most pernicious outcomes of so-called self-control. The very frequent thought I have that “I shouldn’t feel this way” is as anti-learning as it gets, in the same way that not following personal interests because they supposedly waste time (and maybe money) is. This internalization of someone else’s rules, someone else’s thoughtless criticisms, doesn’t just get in the way of learning, it also fragments the thinking of the learner.
The big question for me is, why shouldn’t I feel this way? Given my own experiences, my body, my brain, this point in my life, and this particular situation, I’m reacting this way for good reasons (even if I don’t know what they are). This doesn’t mean, of course, that every feeling needs to be resolved, or even validated, but sometimes my emotional reaction puts a spotlight on my values, as it did when I got upset at Peter’s poor social skills. And if I not only ignore but evade that call to action, because of fear of vulnerability, I am not moving in the direction of my values, and therefore not moving towards becoming the principled person I want to be. (The key, of course, is that I act calmly and thoughtfully, as I aim to do with all of my interactions, with varying degrees of success😉).
I read somewhere recently that we don’t determine our values so much as we discover them. And the same can be said for the values of our children. In the same way that their feelings are real, and manifest as behaviour with good (and sometimes unknowable) reasons behind them, it is better if we love them “no matter what, and even when”** so that they can offer the same compassion to themselves as adults, or better yet, feel secure enough with themselves to not need much of it at all.
One of my favourite metaphors for this kind of acceptance comes from Sandra Dodd in an episode of The Unschooling Life podcast, where she compared children to seeds (that are whole from the beginning), and will grow into the tree of that seed no matter how much we try to shape it into our own idea of what that tree should be. As unschoolers, we support our children’s growth by meeting their specific needs.
As I’ve been learning, self-doubt stymies learning and creativity, and even joy. I personally know how deeply frustrating and paralyzing it can be. Living faithfully in accordance with one’s values and their principles, which is at the centre of unschooling, is very much worth the vulnerability and the solid relationships that come of that courageous way of living.
** From Dr. Paul Jenkins, not an unschooler but a master of positivity with a focus on relationships.