Archives for posts with tag: self-acceptance

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.

As a psychologist, I work with a lot of parents who disagree about how to best address their children’s problems or often, whether there is a problem to address at all. A good deal of the time, these perpetual conflicts are a result of the couple trying to solve a different problem than the one they think they are trying to address. The real problem might be feeling like a bad parent and trying to solve it by deflecting blame to the other parent.

But what does it really mean to be good or bad? Kids often tell me that “bad kids” are the ones who get corrected by the teacher or who hit or who learn differently. In other words, “goodness” is defined by actions and abilities. A lot of the kids I see think of themselves as “bad”, which is an extremely painful state of being. I say, “I’ve worked with thousands of children in my life and I’ve never met a bad one. All children are good. Sometimes even grown ups get confused about this. They think that there are good and bad people.” When I say these things to children, I am not just trying to ease their pain. I mean it from the very bottom of my heart to the very top of my brain.

We make good and bad choices. We have skills at which we are good and those at which we are bad. We perform good and bad actions. These statements are true for all of us on a daily basis. We do good things and we do things well. We do bad things and we do things poorly. Every day. Every person. Are all of these good’s and bad’s equivalent in terms of importance? Of course not.

People are beings, not actions, skills, or decisions. Actions, skills, and decisions are capacities, not entities. I believe that every living being is a miraculous creation. A miraculous creation is a good thing. Every person is a miraculous creation. Why is this so hard to accept?

I spent a good part of my early life worrying about being “good enough”. The hardest times were when I was depressed. There were some things I learned getting myself out of those depressions, though. A very important lesson was that even having failed at happiness by becoming depressed was not the end of my life. I came back from the illness. I was more resilient than I had realized despite my imperfections. It was an important step in stepping away from the question, “Am I good?”

Stepping away from “Am I good?” is a really important part of self-acceptance. I don’t believe that self-acceptance is a absolute. It is a process toward an idea. I believe that I have traveled close enough to it to make a very large positive difference in my life.

I am discovering the freedom in self-acceptance, in stepping away from the question, “Am I good?” It allows me to more frequently see myself and others as whole people with beauty and mess. I am a messy imperfect but loving person. By accepting this, I am actually better able to make good decisions, engage in good actions, and learn good skills. I have a lot more time and peace as I learn not to berate myself. I don’t devote energy to fancy justifications for my actions.

Getting wrapped up in that question can cause so many problems. Even if you don’t believe that people are miraculous beings and inherently good, perhaps you might consider that classifying oneself and others as “good” or “bad” is really not helpful to anyone.

What does it mean to be good? It means that we are here. It means that we can move on to more useful questions, ones that bring love and compassion to our lives, instead of keeping us stuck.

 

I sometimes work with parents who reluctant to give their children any kind of correction or to communicate to their children they they have any kind of imperfection. Then there are other parents who criticize their children harshly. And still other parents vacillate between those two extremes.

Sometimes I tell parents that it is important not to be so reluctant to discuss their children’s less than perfect qualities. I explain, “You don’t want to give the unintended message that your child’s challenges are too horrible to speak of.”

The other unintended message is that perfection is attainable and expected. My massage therapist expresses the belief that everyone is perfect. I know what she means but to me, it seems like a cheat. If I were to think about myself that way, it would seem like a  way to avoid looking at myself fully, a way to avoid acknowledging and examining the parts of myself that underscore my membership in humanity.

I know that I write about painful topics with a good deal of candor. And I also know that I expose my faults. Sometimes I think people worry that I am too self-critical. I find that for myself, if I avoid thinking about my faults, I give myself the message that they are too bad to be observed or examined. This kind of thinking can provide a foundation for very difficult feeling states like shame and humiliation as well as the very damaging thoughts and beliefs that accompany them. I believe it can also lead to living a fragmented or compartmentalized life, the kind of life that makes it hard to see oneself as an integrated whole. To me, it is important that the way I live my life makes sense. I can’t do it unless my imperfect pieces fit together in some kind of reasonable way.

In my life, I have felt guilt, shame, great anxiety, and humiliation. It is difficult, but I try to see myself for all of who I am, the good, the bad, and the in between. In writing about myself for the past two years, I have discovered something. I have discovered more freedom from my own harsh judgment. When I confront both my positive and negative qualities, I feel better able to decide how I want to live my life and to make changes, if needed. By describing and admitting my shortcomings, I find it easy to accept myself and further to grow as a person. In turn, I find it easier to accept others.

I have yet to find anything about myself that was too horrible. I am still working on it, but almost always, I can look myself in the eye.

 

In my job as a psychologist and a diagnostic specialist, I am asked to answer questions and make recommendations. Answering diagnostic questions can be really hard, especially in my areas of specialty. I sift through multiple data sources, try to find patterns of behavior, and predict how behaviors change across settings and over time. Meanwhile, I have to remember that diagnoses do not define children and that their functioning at school, home, and in the community vary as a function of many many other individuals and environmental factors.

Often however just asking the question is harder than answering it. Yesterday, I received the following email:

We have a 13 year old son who is struggling in school. His main challenge is executive functioning and spacing out in class. We are not interested in assessments or medications but do want to understand how to get at the root cause of the lack of motivation. Do you think this is something you can help us with?

This email was obviously written by a very loving parent. The parent has also done some reading, I suspect given the terminology used in this letter and the reference to medication. But it is hard for me to help when I am asked to help solve a problem without finding out what it is. Asking the question, “Is there something wrong with my child?” is sometimes even more frightening than asking, “Is there something wrong with me?” Parenting hits us in the tender places in our heart. For many of us the two questions are really the same question, “Am I a bad person who is passing off my inherent badness to my child?” Some of the variations of this question are less severe but it boils down to fear of coming up short in some very critical way.

Fear of asking the question, “What is wrong” can lead to all kinds of odd little dances. So often, people try to solve problems without knowing what they are. Some people even try to solve problems without admitting that there are even problems. This sounds silly but problems have real consequences with which we are left to cope. You can’t make a problem go away by not believing in it.

Parents often feel responsible for their children’s issues. And honestly, as parents we are responsible for a lot. But we aren’t responsible for every part of our child’s reality. It is particularly hard for people who appear to be successful and high functioning on the outside but fear being exposed for the horrible people they fear themselves to be. I have met many parents who think, deep down, that they are awful people. And you know what? They are never horrible people. And some of them are quite wonderful people who nonetheless feel fundamentally flawed.

The saddest part is that when people refuse the help I can give them because they fear themselves, it perpetuates bad decision-making and bad problem solving. Then they just feel like really bad people and are even less likely to seek help for themselves and their children.

I believe that I am a worthwhile person, a good wife, and a good mother. I believe I am good at my job. But like everyone else, I am deeply flawed. I am a kind person but I hurt people and sometimes I do it on purpose. I am a loving person but sometimes feel contempt for others. I am a generous person but at times act with keen selfishness. It has never been easy in my life to engage in constructive self-reflection. At times, I have sought professional help but with great difficulty. At other times, it was not so hard. It was pretty easy to be open to seeing a psychologist after my cancer diagnosis. After all, who am I to begrudge myself support for CANCER? But I have seen psychologists multiple times in my life for individual, parenting, and marital purposes. I am happy for all of the experiences. They were extremely valuable. I did it because I felt like I owed it to myself and my family to be a well-adjusted person. Because truthfully, unhappy people are hard to live with, especially when a very unhappy person resides in your own heart.

I will keep working on myself and I wish all of you the happiness that comes from seeing yourself, the good and the bad, working on things knowing that things can get better but not perfect, and being okay with that. Self-acceptance is an amazing power and I have been happy to have gotten more and more glimpses of it as I continue through life as a beautiful and flawed human being.

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George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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