From the willow tree…

Since the time I was that little girl in the willow tree I have needed to be reminded of myself time and again.

Since the time I was that little girl in the willow tree I have needed to be reminded of myself time and again. My life has been such that I have had the opportunity to reinvent myself more than once. There are only a very small handful of people in my life that know enough of my story that they could share a sense of continuity and consistency around my narrative identity, the way my character and experiences have unfolded. Together they could put together more than each alone, but none know all.

This is not unique to me at all. It is a shared experience of the multiple aspects of self and how our identities become fragmented and we lose a sense of integration. Some people experience this only to a small degree and for others it can lead to dysfunction.

When families were more functional, when we lived in villages and didn’t move from state to state, country to country, pursuing whatever it is we felt we needed to do, we were surrounded by people who could help us remember who we are, not just how we feel in ourselves (introspective self), but who we are to others (relational self).

In our busy modern society filled with different organisations, clubs, groups, politics, and countless other social identities, our relational self becomes many, few cross-over or provide consistency through interaction or integration and as a result, our introspective self becomes overwhelmed with information about ourselves which is very often inconsistent. When we experience this inconsistency (known as cognitive dissonance) we have a choice between pausing and acknowledging it, and doing the work to understand and resolve it; or using a strategy to avoid, ignore, repress or deny it. When we chose option two, we feed the hungry shadow, our existential baggage grows heavier and we rob ourselves of the chance to grow and be free of the things we fear.

I left school for the first time at age 25. I had worked the entire time, very often full-time hours as well as being a full-time student since kindergarten. Many, many hours of time when most children played, I worked, I provided child care for my younger siblings, and I stole every possible moment I could for myself, to read, do my homework or write poetry. My life, from a very young age, has been one in service of others. I served my first customer from behind the counter of our family store at age 3.

Shari aged 3, 1978 ~ I’ve always had spunk
Shari aged 4, 1979 ~ The good girl

You might have already judged that little girl in the willow tree to be an imaginative child, she was also curious, friendly, warm and intelligent, which meant others engaged with her freely, building her relational self through conversation, mostly with adults. The other thing I have always been in the presence of others is open, I naturally show up with a level of authenticity that I now realise is relatively rare. That’s not a brag. It has not always been a good thing, in fact it is the source of so much pain and trauma. When you are that vulnerable and no-one in your life has taught you boundaries, you suffer. When the people that should have protected and guided you, instead used and controlled you, your self worth is threatened and your relational self has to make a choice in service of your ego: empathy or narcissism. Surrender to the notion that you are here to be of service to others and give yourself over as the pleaser, doing all you can to meet the needs of others, your ego wanting them never to experience, as you did, needs not being met. Or, embracing the desires of the ego, you reject the notion that you are here to be of service to others and instead, in service of your wounded self, seek to control your environment and those within it.

For many, many years, I was a pleaser.

I enabled other people’s narcissistic dysfunction.

I was very good at it.

Many of you met me when I was at my best in this regard.

Dr Shari Read – ANU, 2018

But I am one of the very fortunate ones because I also showed up with a naturally strong spirit, one that has been crushed and trampled on but never quelled or extinguished. Most of you who know me, know that I am a spiritual person. So while I have struggled with anxiety and depression, there is always a sense of hope within me that comes from faith, and an understanding that the pain, whatever it is, will end. I wonder back to being the little girl who would chant affirmations to herself while jumping up and down on her bed. My mother had hung posters with lovely sayings in my room, ‘love makes the world just the right size’, ‘happiness is having you to cuddle’, there were others which I unfortunately can’t remember just now… but I do remember many times, making up little tunes using the words from those wall hangings.

And during my most difficult times in my teenage years I would play Wilson Philips ‘Hold On’ on repeat for hours. I believe it all helped build an inner strength that kept me connected to my spirit, my soul, the energy that gives us vitality and the desire to keep engaging with life.

On the other side of my childhood room when I was around 5 years old, was a large poster of the times tables, I would also dance about my room chanting those to myself…

And so you might be starting to get a sense of some of the things that occurred during my formative years that have contributed to my character, my strengths, my passion and my identities.

The identity that lead me to meet most of the people in my network (as it is as I write this post) is that of teacher.

My first teaching gig was as a Sunday School teacher at St George’s Anglican Church, in my hometown in Tasmania. I was in my first year of high school and I loved it. While I do not identify as Christian, the lessons, the growth and the exposure to community and ritual is something I will always be grateful for.

I told my year 8 English teacher that I wanted to be a teacher and he told me I could do better… he also didn’t shame me when I experimented with ‘bad’ behaviour in his classroom. One day when I was trying to be cool in front of a guy I had a crush on for the entirety of high school, I wrote on his essay draft in class. He had written an unfinished sentence, something about going to his bedroom. While he was out of his seat I leaned over and wrote something about him touching himself, implying masturbation. Because I was such a goody-goody at school the boy thought it would be funny to get me in trouble with the teacher, but Mr G. recognised the behaviour for what it was and again simply said ‘you could do better’. I still wanted to be a teacher.

At 21 I started teaching at university as a tutor in developmental and cross-cultural psychology. Within 18 months I was coordinating courses as a lecturer in social psychology and continued to do so throughout my PhD candidature.

Since that time I have been a childbirth educator, a yoga teacher, a corporate/executive educator and a university lecturer. Teacher is the most consistent role I have played throughout my life, besides that of nurturer (more to come on that role).

In 2018 I received several awards from the university I was teaching at acknowledging my contribution and service to education at the institution, I was so proud. I had been innovative and bold and taken a few risks and, with this recognition, I was rewarded for it. The greatest reward was my connection with students though. As a post-graduate lecturer, I had the privilege of learning from people from all around the world, who had been in the workforce already, and had stories to share of their experience and frustrations. I’m not sure how many business school academics realise how lucky they are, that the knowledge and experience and questions and challenges walk right through the door and even pay to be in our classrooms!! Most academics have to go in search of their subjects and data, and students.

Dr Shari Read accepts the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Educational Excellence, ANU, 2018

By the time I was teaching in business schools I had already spent over a decade teaching mind/body ‘medicine’, yoga and meditation, had studied clinical psychology, undertaken immersive training in Buddhist psychotherapy and worked as a therapist. Bringing spirituality to the management classroom wasn’t a choice, it was embodied and came with me, part of the package. What I wasn’t expecting was the creeping dissonance that grew with my sense of identification with being an academic, or the devastating, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking effects of freeing myself from its chains.

Dr Shari Read celebrates her award for Excellence in Education, ANU, 2018.

Once I went to a talk given by a young, gorgeous Buddhist monk, he giggled as he explained that happiness wasn’t in the places we were looking, not in the fridge where we left a piece of cake, nor in the shopping bags we carried home. Likewise freedom isn’t in roles or titles we chase, not in the promotion or position, the salary or benefits. In fact freedom is in none of those things because the more we chase them the more we forget all the other choices we could be making, all the other freedoms we could be pursuing with less stress, less politics, less responsibility for things you can’t control….

Walking away from my academic career (for the second time), wasn’t a choice, it was the reintegration and realignment of my relational and introspective selves, a resolution of dissonance; a reclamation of sovereignty.

Simone B'Free reflects critique and validation of women’s experiences of injustice in a system that seeks to both exploit and control her mind, and her body.
Simone B’Free reflects critique and validation of women’s experiences of injustice in a system that seeks to both exploit and control her mind, and her body.
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