Aggressively Nonjudgmental

“I’m such a bitch!”

This is coming from my 17-year old — what’s the right word? Former student? Mentee? Dare I say — friend?

She’s being serious and, sadly, she’s sort of right. Caught up in high school senior social drama, My Teenage Friend did something pretty crappy to another girl to look cool, in front of a lot of people, and now a friend is a former friend.

So how do I respond to the “I’m such a bitch” line, then? I could have gone a number of ways.

  • Knee-jerk: “No you’re not!” 
    • Patronizing: “Don’t call yourself that!”
      • Puritanical: “Don’t use that horrible word!”
        • Oh-so-clever: “Don’t insult someone I care very much about!”

          • Empathic: “Yeah, aren’t we all, sometimes.”
          The response that came to mind, though, was this:

        “Sorry you feel that way. So now what?”

        Not the best response, maybe, but you see, to me, guilt is about living in the past. And to me, guilt’s best remedy is pulling yourself back into the present moment: “Where do you go from here?”

        I have spent a fair number of hours talking to teenagers — I would say “advising,” except, of course, most teens are blessedly immune to advice — and I decided that for me, the most important trait as a mentor was to be aggressively nonjudgmental.

        I spent hours as a teenager just feeling guilty. The scope of my guilt was broad and the topics diverse: I felt guilty about not doing homework, and having acne, and wanting to have sex, and watching TV. I felt guilty that my mom smoked and that I couldn’t write an essay to save my life. I was guilty that I didn’t exercise or practice the piano. I let down the other kids in the jazz band, I let everyone down.

        Then, one day, I stopped — just stopped — feeling guilty. I decided it was stupid and so I ought to just get it out of the way. I made up a little ceremony for myself: I screwed up my eyes, spent one minute concentrating on all the things I felt guilty about, and then let it all go. All of it.

        It was the most exhilarating feeling of my life to that point — an experience that involved no drugs, fast-moving vehicles, or intimate relations.

        So I’m not judgmental with teenagers. Ironically, I can be extremely judgmental with adults, especially parents. (That’s six good links, but pretty much every third post here has an “oddparents” tag.)

        I like giving kids a little leeway to make mistakes; no one is perfect, especially kids who haven’t had very many years to work out how their values and personalities.

        Maybe I should cut adults a little slack, too.