Being Seen, Being Recognized

The author and her son standing back-to-back facing the camera

When I was in elementary school, I always wanted to be the class representative, but I don’t remember ever being chosen for student council.

I thought that if I continued working hard at my studies, helping my classmates, and helping my teachers, my peers and adults around me would see my “leadership potential.” I worked as hard as I could to be seen as a leader.

At the 6th grade graduation ceremony, there was one student who would be recommended from our school to be the delegate to the 7th grade Associated Student Body. I was so hopeful that it would be me. I really wanted to start off junior high contributing to my school and knowing people, and what better way than a summer where I would get to work with other leaders?! (Did I mention I was a little nerdy?) I had represented my school in various district competitions as an elementary school student (from spelling bee to Math Counts) and I had been one of the first students in my elementary school to be placed in the highest level math AND English classes.

I waited with baited breath for the student leadership award to be announced.

It wasn’t me.

It was Amy G, the elementary school student body president.

Looking back on this moment now, this probably should have been a given. Student body leaders in elementary school are destined to be student body leaders in middle school and high school…and maybe in life.

Throughout middle school and high school, I tried to run for or show interest in leadership in a variety of ways.

But I was never elected, never chosen.

I excelled academically. I got good grades, tons of academic awards, even scholarships. I was even voted most likely to succeed.

But I wasn’t seen as a leader.

Okay, so grown up me sees model minority stereotype & bamboo ceiling written all over all of this, but little (or at least younger) me didn’t know any of that.

Little me just thought that no one would ever think that I was a leader.

Little me thought that I would never be able to contribute the way I wanted to.

Big me thinks this “not a leader” thing is somewhat hilarious since most of my adult/professional life has been dedicated to servant leadership and now, there are some days where I wish people would recognize my leadership capacity a little less (okay, not really, actually, I just need to learn to set better boundaries). Something shifted somewhere along the line. Maybe it was being around others who, in small and large ways, began to see me. Maybe it was finding and developing my passion. Maybe it was finding and discovering more about my identity. But something shifted. Nowadays, I feel seen for who I’ve always deep down known I was. I feel recognized.

(There are also some days where big me still feels like I’ll never be able to contribute in the ways I want to, but for different reasons. That is less hilarious, but I digress.)

Anyways, fast forward 25+ years…

Last week, my 14 year old got an e-mail at his school account. Someone had nominated him for a youth leadership position, a group of youth who would do community work and speak about the impact of COVID on various communities.

When he showed me the e-mail, he said, “This seems really cool, but I’m not sure that I could do this. I don’t really like to speak to people I don’t know. And this seems like you’d have to be cool and have knowledge and be able to tell people what you believe.”

Trying not to pressure him, I responded, “Well, I think you’re cool, and I think you’re well spoken, and you have a lot of knowledge.”

He replied, “You’re my mom. You have to think I’m cool, and I’m not cool, and I can’t speak to other people, and I have knowledge, but I get nervous when I’m trying to explain it to people I don’t know.”

So then, I said, “Well, you can always apply and find out more about the commitment and then if you get chosen, and you don’t feel like you want to do it or you can, you can say no.”

He looked at me, and said, “You’re smart. I didn’t even think about that. Okay, well then, I’ll try.”

He began the application and on the first question got stuck, telling me he didn’t really have any experiences related to COVID. In talking, he felt that because we have relative privilege compared to so many others, he didn’t really see his experience as valuable or contributing. We talked through it. He wrote some things, a lot of things. Then he finished the application on his own and turned it in. At multiple times in the process, he expressed his own self-doubt as to what he could bring and why someone would nominate him.

He doesn’t see himself as a leader, at least not that he would admit to me, but he does know that he’s someone that has always wanted to contribute to something greater than himself.

I always have seen him as a leader, but perhaps, I’m his mom so I have to think he’s a leader (I don’t actually have to think that, but I do actually believe that). I have also always wanted him to have opportunities to contribute.

More importantly, in this moment, some other anonymous adult in his life, related to school (because no one else would have that address for him), sees him as a leader too, or a potential one, at least.

Mama me couldn’t be prouder.

Someone saw my son the way I’ve always seen him.

In the contrast of how I wished to be seen as a child and adolescent, and how I’ve seen my son recognized, in ways that surprise him, I feel healing and hope.

Every child deserves to be seen for their potential.

As a mother and an educator, I’ve realized this week that one of our greatest roles is standing for the greatness that people may or may not recognize for themselves, within themselves. Our task is to see that greatness and to recognize it, to nurture it and to grow it, to support it and to be with it, in moments of doubt.

Greatness is a gift.

It’s a gift we all have.

If it is unseen and unrecognized, it can take much longer for that greatness to manifest, if it is able to come to the surface at all.

But when it is seen and recognized, particularly by others as young people, it allows us to be our best selves and make our most authentic contribution to the world around us.

I had to do a lot of work to embrace my own greatness. My son will also have a journey towards embracing his greatness.

It did not look like I thought it would. I am imagining that his greatness won’t look exactly the way he pictured it either.

My hope is for more joy in his journey than mine, and that we will learn to see ourselves and recognize for ourselves that which those we love see around us each day.

Growth in Parts

The author as a 2-3 year old girl in a red dress with a white apron looking at the camera

Me, at 2 or 3

I am growing, and learning, a lot, this summer, at a rate that oftentimes feels overwhelming, and when I feel overwhelmed, I’ve learned that a big part of grounding is writing through it.

I recently got myself back into therapy, and am working with a wonderful Asian American female therapist who sees and gets me in a way that is profound and affirming. Whenever she says, “That must have been really hard for you,” I get emotional. I mean, I am getting emotional writing about her saying that because I feel seen in those words.

It was hard for me.

Sometimes, it is still hard for me.

And so often, the hard parts, the hard feelings, the loss, the mini-traumas, the major-traumas, are the moments that I’ve swallowed, hidden away and masked, in a desire to move forward.

My therapist asked me, in one of our first sessions, to spend some time drawing the different feelings and emotions I was experiencing over the time between sessions. I had been feeling a lot of anxiety recently (we are, after all, living during a pandemic, and for people with trauma history and experiences of sudden loss, nothing is more triggering than a situation in which you experience a complete lack of control) so I thought that would show up predominantly in my drawings.

But, what really showed up, was overwhelming sadness, masked as frantic movement to get things done.

I am so sad.

I have been so sad.

I have been carrying this sadness for such a long time.

It is exhausting, hard, and destructive.

There is so much weight to this swallowed, silenced sadness that is protected by an image of incredible strength, competency and hard work.

It had become overwhelming.

And then I saw it, in my own sketches.

So, we worked through an exercise based on parts therapy, which, as I understand it (and clearly, this is not my area of expertise) helps parts of yourself that are stuck at certain ages (your inner child or children) come to resolution, or at least, be seen and acknowledged for what they felt or are feeling, as it’s triggered in your current life.

And here’s what I realized through that work:

  • I’ve struggled with being seen for so long, since I was little, with feeling like the work I’m doing will be accepted by people I want to like me.
  • I’ve struggled with not knowing how to play the right game, with feeling like people are too busy to see me or talk with me or play with me.
  • I have felt alone in the midst of so many people I wanted to be in community with.
  • I have internalized that all as not being good enough.
  • It is at the core of my sadness.

But I’ve also realized this:

  • I can be responsible for my own healing. I can heal myself (with support and community, of course, but also by paying attention to the little me).
  • At the core, I have always been and will always be a survivor.
  • I don’t have to swallow my sadness anymore.
  • There are people who do love me, just the way I am, and it’s okay to let them in.
  • When my sadness surfaces, often what I need more than anything is to pause and be with it.

Doing this self-work (self-care, self-preservation, self-sustainability) is not easy, and it’s a process. I see myself getting triggered all the time. I still am engaging in hard-to-break harmful patterns of overworking and negative self-talk. But, I am hopeful. And grateful to the community that calls me into all of my work.

The process of change and transformation is not linear, straightforward or easy.

No one said it would be.

But, I am nothing if not committed and hard working.

Only this time, the goal is pushing towards liberation, for myself, my communities and in my work.

It is time.

Growth in parts.

Towards this goal.


I am not okay, but I will be.

First, I want to start off this post by thanking God, my family, and my many friends and colleagues who have expressed concerned about my well-being during this time, or have seen the signs of stress and overwhelm, overwork, and the unproductive patterns of people pleasing. You all gently, but firmly, have been reminding me to prioritize self-care, drink my water (Marian, you know I’m talking to you!), and turn off my computer when I need to. You’ve said no for me (thanks, Jung) when I hesitate to say no for myself. You’ve supported me when I’ve been too tired to move forward. You’ve modeled for me your own self-care. In a million big and little ways, you have reminded me I am not alone, even when I feel most alone.

But sometimes, all of that, and all of the strength in the world isn’t enough.

Two days ago, my friends, Dr. Kisha Porcher and Dr. Shamaine Bertrand held a special live Black Gaze Podcast with Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz on transparency & healing, a follow-up to their recorded conversation with Dr. Yolie on Radical Black Self-Love, and it was a word.

It was such a word that it prompted me to do what I KNOW that I’ve needed to do for the last several months (at least since COVID social distancing started), but that I “haven’t had time to do.”

I got serious about getting back into therapy.

I have been in therapy before, during some of the hardest and most stressful points in my life. I kept telling myself in the last few months that, although things are stressful now, they’re not THAT BAD (because you know, when you have experienced multiple major traumas in your life, a global pandemic with xenophobic racism directed towards your racial group and a major job transition are actually just not that bad), and I can just use the tools that I’ve gotten in therapy before (which I have been doing) and I could lean on my communities (which I have been doing), and I can just push through (which I have been doing).

But this week, it hit me, that I can actually do more than survive (thank you to the brilliant Bettina Love for introducing that thinking to me through her brilliant and powerful abolitionist teaching book), that it is possible to have the tools, communities, and strength, but actually want for more, to freedom dream in my own way, individually so that I can have the strength to do the work collectively that I am called to do.

Because, good Lord, I have only been surviving, and barely doing that, in these last few months, despite all outward appearances.

And what I want is to thrive, and be free to set boundaries so that I can do the work that I am called to do. So that we can do the work in community for the world we deserve.

When I get serious, I get moving. Had a consultation session with a therapist today and my first appointment on Tuesday.

This is a big step in radical self-love, that I can commit to healing “even when things aren’t that bad,” that I can commit myself to more than just surviving, that I refuse to fight myself for scraps of my time for the people that are most important to me, that I can be important enough to myself to want better.

I’m writing this because if I had not heard and witnessed the transparency of healing from the Black Gaze podcast and through the words of Dr. Yolie, I might not have had the courage to claim my own healing. And for some of you, maybe this blog is that push you need. Maybe it’s therapy, maybe it’s boundary setting, maybe it’s the courage to say that you want and deserve more.

But get serious, and get moving, because we’ve got to commit to ourselves.