On Being Too Hard On Yourself

“It is the most shattering experience of a young man’s life when he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself: ‘ I will never play the Dane.’ When that moment comes, one’s ambition ceases.”

Monty, Withnail And I (1987)

I suppose I shouldn’t have been updating my GTCS Professional Update record and self-reflecting at the same time as teaching Hamlet’s ‘Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’ soliloquy. While Hamlet contrasts his own weaknesses with that of the travelling actors, he is burning with remorse and regret about what he has not yet done in his life. That recognition of plans not yet achieved hits hard and reminds me of the empathetic nature of studying great literature. But, for me as a teacher,  when does self-reflection become self-reproach?

I don’t have any issues with self-reflection. Indeed if any reflection is going to be done, I can be quite selfish about it. The new GTCS professional update asks you to comment or reflect on every entry you make. What was the impact of that Powerpoint presentation you just sat through? How will you use that new fangled technique someone in a suit just told you all about? The possibilities for creative writing are endless. However, the problems occur when, like Hamlet, you try to compare yourself to some perceived ideal and it drives you a little bit mad.

Being a perfectionist, whenever I reflect on lessons I invariably end up disappointed. Something could always have been done better. Never mind providing me with a starting point for future lessons, I end up with a feeling of regret at another missed opportunity. It’s a bit like that feeling you get half way through your year when you realise that, inevitably, things haven’t quite gone as planned. They very rarely do. Sometimes it’s better not to look too closely. Writing down can be worse. As Holden says at the end of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’:  It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.’

Hamlet’s introspection and procrastination lead to disaster in the play. Perhaps there’s something in that; the dangers of becoming so self-reflective that you create a fear of imperfection or change. If you are not the optimistic bright light in the staff room then a bit of chin scratching might not be the best thing for you. It doesn’t mean you have no ambition. You may just have different ways of dealing with your thoughts.

Regrets have been on my mind  this week ever since hearing Sir Anthony Selden quote Thoreau in a speech. ‘Most people live lives of quiet desperation: they go to their graves with their songs inside them.’  Very few of us get to play the Dane, even metaphorically. The greatest role of all; the great actor’s dream. Perhaps we were not meant to. But, then again, given the choice I’m sure Hamlet himself might have passed.

6 thoughts on “On Being Too Hard On Yourself

  1. “Most people live lives of quiet desperation: they go to their graves with their songs inside them” I would like to think that you’ve sung a few songs that inspired people over the last few years especially Mr P 😎 Great post. Nicking the quote for my classroom wall.

  2. This has been so helpful. Especially as a beginning teacher you’re constantly asked to reflect on everything and question every decision you make which nine times out of ten leads to self doubt! Like everything, I think moderation is key.

  3. Enjoyed this, Kenny. Hamlet teaches us that too much reflection is debilitating, and I think balance in life is important for happiness and a sense of fulfilment. It’s good to have high aspirations, but we need to be kind to ourselves sometimes.

    Have a really good Christmas/New Year.

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