• Crysta

For The Excluded



April 6, 2018


Hi Crysta,


Thank you for writing that excellent piece intended for your son. It resonates a lot with me. I too had quite a troublesome teenagehood and now I have my own girls still preschool, I worry about this. I’m currently teaching excluded secondary pupils in a Pupil Referral Unit, just outside London. You’ve put into words what I’m trying to teach. For these students there’s no point in saying don’t do drugs, sex, etc. – I’m helping them choose how far to go and when to know you’re about to step over the line and make calculated risks. I was wondering if you have any tips or things your son found helpful. Thank you again for your words. xx


April 8, 2018


For the Excluded:


Pablo Picasso once said “learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist”. The rule breaker in me loves this. The bending and the breaking, the defiance, the skill and savvy in knowing just how far outside of the lines to go. There is no manual, no step by step guide or quick tips. As frustrating as it is, I also think there is tremendous beauty in that. As far as I know, paint by number has never moved anyone to tears or filled them with joy in the way that a rules-be-damned piece can. And I think the same applies to life – it’s a bit of art, knowing how far to go.


I don’t think any of us are born to follow rules that others set on us – not really. We all need to learn by doing. As a teacher, and a mother, of course you know that the deepest learning comes from doing and practicing as opposed to just memorizing theory. In order to really know a thing, we have to experience it, to feel it in our bodies and in our psyches, far beyond the theoretical dos or don’ts. We have to know deeply the cost of our choices and the consequences. I had to look up what it means to be an “excluded pupil” and I understand this to mean that you are working with a group of rule breakers. For various reasons, all of which I am gathering involve breaking rules on some level, they have been excluded. Placed on the outside. Disconnected, at least to a degree. This disconnection, as I think you know, is a risky space. It’s the space where the rules start to fade away and anything can happen. We all need to be connected. To one another and to ourselves. It is one of our greatest human needs. The quality of our relationships has huge impact and to a large degree determines the quality of our lives and our happiness.


In order to build and maintain connection, I believe we have to learn two sets of rules – society’s rules, and, of equal importance, our own rules. Society’s rules are easy, relatively speaking. They are largely black and white and most of us are able to at least understand them, even if we question or have trouble abiding by them. Learning our own rules can be trickier but they are equally, if not more important. We know that there are consequences for breaking social rules (exclusion), we just don’t always recognize the consequences of breaking our own rules.


So many of us grow up losing sight of our self. We do this because sometimes it feels safer to hide, safer to blend in, safer to keep our truest selves tucked deep. While this is sometimes absolutely necessary, if it becomes our default it starts to cause problems. When faced with a conflict between acceptance (our relationship with others) and authenticity (our relationship with ourselves), most of us choose acceptance. As people, we need both things, however, one of our deepest human fears is that we will suffer disconnection in our relationships with others. We want to be accepted, we want to be liked, we want to be loved. And so, whether we do it consciously or unconsciously, we often sacrifice our authenticity, or our relationship with our self in order to maintain our attachments to others. But the catch is when we do this, we disconnect from ourselves to varying degrees and this in turn limits our ability to truly connect with others. Staying connected to who we are means that we can have the meaningful connections with others that we crave.


Knowing our own rules takes a deep understanding of who we are. We need to understand what makes us happy, what makes us sad, what it is that we love and what it is that makes us feel dark inside. We need to be able to hear the calm quiet voice inside, our instinct or our gut feeling. We need to understand what turns us on and what turns us off, when we feel like we are flying and when we feel like we are dragging behind a runaway train. And we need to understand these things on our own terms, not someone else’s. So often we decide who we are in the context of our relationships – our families, our friends, those around us. We let them define us whether we realize it or not.


Something I think is integral to knowing our self is understanding our individual strengths. We all have them, every single one of us. Identifying our strengths can start with looking at the activities that we love, the things that make time fly, that pull us in and captivate us. Perhaps through those the answers are clear and evident. Going deeper with this, a good, free, strengths assessment can be found here with options for youth and adults. The cool thing about character strengths is that we can use them in any situation or circumstance. When we live in our strengths, we feel good. We see ourselves as worthy. We take steps to honour and protect ourselves and we begin to cultivate life practices and habits that support that. We begin to learn how far we can go because we understand what we are navigating with.


It is also necessary to learn about our darkness and our longing. We need to learn about the things that set us up, our patterns, our trips and our triggers. So often these are the things that make us wildly uncomfortable, the things we want to deny and the things we seek to avoid. Knowing and understanding these things, and then taking responsibility for them is every bit as important as knowing our strengths. These are the things that if left ignored will mess us up and throw everything we know about our strengths right out the window. Facing our ugly bits is hard work and many of us consciously avoid it. Even just acknowledging that these things exist in each of us can create the safe space for this work to happen. And when we embrace our strengths as well, we begin to understand that we are so much more than just the things we hate about ourselves.


And finally, with all of this self-reflection and awareness, responsibility is key. We have to recognize that it is our own choices that land us in some of the situations that cause us the most pain. Yes, circumstances can be shit. We sometimes get dealt bad hands and it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we have no choice in how we play them. We always do though and I think the degree to which we learn and accept this directly correlates to the choices we make. Sometimes we have to play a hand before we learn. Sometimes we know better and we do it anyway. And sometimes we know better and we make another choice. Perhaps it is our willingness to feel our own suffering, our heart’s call for relief, and to really know ourselves that eventually fuels us to make another choice.


Do you know the poem “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” by Portia Nelson? I think it is a simple and beautiful look at the process of taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions.


Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

- by Portia Nelson


1. I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in.

I am lost … I am hopeless.

It isn’t my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.

2. I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don’t see it.

I fall in again.

I can’t believe I’m in the same place.

But it isn’t my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.

3. I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in … it’s a habit.

My eyes are open.

I know where I am.

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.

4. I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.

5. I walk down another street.


I really don’t believe these principles are any different for adults or children or teens. Of course, there is necessary context but I think we all have the same fundamental needs and we all have the ability to live rich and beautiful lives – we all have the ability to create our own masterpiece. As mamas, as teachers, as adults, as people, we have a responsibility to model these things for our children and for our youth. We need to show them what it looks like to have healthy relationships and make healthy choices, how to honour our gifts and own our shit. Being a real life example of all of this is the best lesson we can offer. It’s only when we actually show up with integrity that we are able to show our babies how it’s done.


Without a strong grounding in who we are, and a willingness to take responsibility for how we show up and the situations we find ourselves in, how can we be expected to make good choices? Choices that fill us up, support us, keep us safe. If we don’t understand our gifts and our trips, we will have no idea how to calculate the risk or draw the line. In order to learn rules like a pro, we need to understand consequences. My guess is the kids you teach have got that dialed. Beyond that though, there is a fine line between a mess and a masterpiece. And it’s there, on the edge of that line, in the space of self-awareness and personal responsibility where we learn to calculate the risks and break the rules like an artist.


With Love,

Crysta