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I like you just the way you are: Learning compassion from Mr. Rogers

At the end of a five-hour workshop on Mindful Leadership, I invited the participants, all middle-aged, Japanese corporate managers, to walk around the room, look into the eyes of other participants one at a time and say, “I like you just the way you are." After looking around nervously they wholeheartedly did the strange exercise and, as they said and heard the words, the warmth in the room grew with their smiles and laughter. The workshop ended with a glow among those who lingered to bask in it and seemed to accompany all as they left the room. I've done this exercise with people of all ages, and it always creates the same wonderful effect of interconnectedness. I got the idea from Mr. Rogers, whose children's television program was broadcast for more than 30 years and whose story has been made into a film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). He ended each program by saying, "There’s no person in the world just like you, and I like you, just the way you are.” Mr. Rogers believed that we need to help children deal with feelings that they are insignificant and not needed in the world. He wanted every child to feel valued and know that their uniqueness is appreciated. So each day he gave each child an expression of care: “You've made this day a special day, by just you're being you.” Mr. Rogers thought that saying this helped children to feel that they are okay and good enough; it helps them to accept themselves. Mr Rogers’ words—“I like you just the way you are”—help children to feel seen and heard. The declaration gives children the clear message that they are good and lovable. It says that we see the goodness in them, the best possible self that is within them.

My father used to say, “He’s a good kid, but a bad actor.” This expression means that there was goodness in the boy though his actions were bad. We can accept the child in all their imperfection and at the same time trust that they can act better than how they are acting now. Liking them does not mean condoning or allowing bad behaviors. The unspoken message in “I like you just the way you are,” is "And I trust that you can be better.” Or in the words of Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, “Each of you is perfect the way you are ... and you can use a little improvement."

Knowing that despite your bad actions someone sees your basic goodness helps children to feel accepted and appreciated. It helps children to feel "good enough," paradoxically releasing energy toward self improvement. Because every child is receiving the same message, they know that not only are they special but that everyone is special. It encourages self-acceptance and a sense of connection with others, each of whom is also special. Letting each and every child know that they are special is a way of helping them learn how to be both an individual and part of society. This message may seem idealistic or wrong to some people, as if you’re telling the child you approve of bad behavior. You may worry that children will become complacent and self-satisfied and refuse to change. In American society, specialness often gets taken to the extreme and becomes the core of personality that can be destructive by placing one’s needs above others’ needs. In my experience, the sense of mutual acceptance helps people transcend their individualism and place it in a context of community. In their evaluations, people of all ages express the joy of being seen as good enough, and having that expressed directly to them is a rare and precious experience. Though they question at first whether they are really being honest in saying that they like the other person, in expressing it they are amazed to realize that they really do. I'm learning that we are never too young or too old to be affected by receiving and giving unconditional acceptance. We don't need to fear this courageous and gentle way of connecting with others. To say and to be told, "I like you just the way you are," can be a seed of transformation.

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