It has happened so many times over the years that I don’t have a particular patient in mind as I write this. My first contact with a family is usually the mother of a patient. We usually talk on the phone for anywhere between 15-45 minutes so that she can get information from me and a sense of whether I am competent. And I get information about whether the referral is appropriate for me as well as a head start on honing the focus of my assessment. Mom usually tells me a list of concerns about her child. Things that don’t seem right. Things that seem harder than they should be. I am a child and adolescent clinical psychologist. Parents don’t want to meet with me if they think there is nothing wrong.
However, parents often tell their children, in front of me, “There’s nothing wrong with you.” It is meant to be a reassuring statement. It is not, even when it is said in all sincerity. (“There’s nothing wrong with you. The problem is that your school does not know how to teach you.”)
When a parent says this, it is damned confusing to a child or a teen. I mean little kids have fun when they come to my office. I play with them and mix in silly questions like, “If you had three empty swimming pools and could fill each with a different food or drink, what would you put in each one?” I also ask about things they would change about themselves if they could, questions about painful feelings, and other more heavy questions. Interviews with young children are not so much about questions and answers as how they interact with me and whether I can get a flavor for their personality and general cognitive level.
The other kids know. They know that they are struggling in school. They know that they are not getting invited to birthday parties. They know that they are getting yelled at by their parents. They know that their grades are bad. The older ones know which teachers actively dislike them.
This way of communicating sends the message that to have something wrong with oneself is too bad to speak of and must be avoided. It is a layer of non-acceptance that can make happiness very difficult. The confusion of being told that “nothing is wrong” when it is patently obvious plants the seeds of externalizing blame and/or internalizing shame, neither state being compatible with taking responsibility for one’s own life. Is it so bad to say something like, “Everyone has things they are good at and things they have to work on. You have a hard time making good choices sometimes. We will help you with this.”
This is part of the reason that the message I saw on Facebook the other day, “There’s nothing wrong with you” got me fired up. It is a seed that can grow into much unhappiness. I see so many wonderful people in my professional and personal life who struggle with perfectionism, never being satisfied that they are worthwhile and good people. I see very successful and outwardly happy people who I can tell, due to my own empathetic skills and life experience, seem like they are faking it. Pain has a way of bubbling to the surface, even when well hidden.
My own perfectionism, which has waned over the years, seems so unnecessary now. The part that remains is fairly stubborn but I will keep working on it. I know that parenting cannot stem the tide of the influence of our culture. But parenting matters and it matters a lot.
I try not to be preachy in my blog because I have tried to focus on my own personal experience. That tone is the most healthy for me. I was kind of preachy yesterday. But that’s okay. You can handle me being fired up every once in awhile. I also did not want to make my blog into a “psychologist’s blog” including advice. But today, I would like to share what I think is the very most important way to teach our children self-acceptance.
Work on your own self-acceptance. I have decided that not only am I not perfect but that perfection is a goal that is unworthy of me or of my family.
I deserve better. And so do you.