“Oh, I could never say that!” My come back to this is, “Why not?” “What would happen if you did?”
If you’re a people pleaser, co-dependent, or were raised in a family with volatility, chaos, or unsafety, you probably learned early on how to “read the room”. In other words, your survival instincts taught you to very quickly and automatically tune into those around you, particularly your caregivers, assess their mood and stress level, in order to determine how to act and what to say around them. This was so that you could stay out of the fray and remain as safe as possible. What an ingenious and finely-honed skill you developed! Most of us who were raised around alcoholism, mental illness, toxic personalities, abuse, or broken marriages, found that this really helped to keep us emotionally and physically safe. Not a bad quality to have, and it has served us well!
However, as adults, this can start to cause us suffering and hardship. The cost of us tuning into others’ feelings instead of our own, constantly editing ourselves, reading and misreading others’ minds, in order to determine how we should proceed, neglecting our own needs, or even not knowing our own thoughts and feelings can lead to depression, anxiety, or just feeling empty inside. Therapy is about discovering, validating, and honoring our true selves. The parts that are underground and begging to be paid attention to and validated. It begins with deciphering OUR true needs and finding OUR own truths, as a way to nurture ourselves to become confident and fulfilled. Healing is about becoming whole, as human beings, accepting our thoughts, feelings, and choosing our actions in a way that helps us live and reach our true potential. Some may call this self-actualization.
But, isn’t that selfish? (I hear this all the time!). The short answer is no! I am not suggesting that we become totally self-focused and inconsiderate of others and their needs, but that we put ourselves on the list! Hopefully, at the top of it, so that we are healthy and intact enough to show up for true intimacy in our relationships with others, even if that brings some bumps and conflict. When we are self-aware and honest within ourselves, we can be sincere and honest with others in a more intimate way. We stop trying to control and manipulate conversations, we stop our indirect ways of preventing or influencing the moods of others, we stop pretending and hiding our feelings, we let go of trying to control others’ reactions and upset, because when we do, we are not being sincere, but rather we are really trying to manage our own fears. It is possible to speak our truths in a respectful way and allow others to as well, without trying to control the outcome. It is possible to be set free!
Unrest, anxiety, frustration, even fatigue can occur if we are working too hard at something that we cannot or should not control. How do we know when this is the case?
Am I pushing and getting met with resistance?
Am I overthinking?
Am I trying over and over and it’s still not working?
Am I frustrated with trying to solve a problem?
Am I working at trying to solve someone else’s problem?
Do I feel anxious about timing? Am I feeling impatient?
Am I exhausted from trying?
Sometimes, it is time to step back. We may be trying to force or control a situation that we don’t have power over, or isn’t ours to control. This will always lead to frustration and a sense of defeat. What if we could recognize that things happen in their own time, driven by forces outside ourselves. We are not in control of the timing of the world, other people, their paths, the future, and outcomes. It is okay to let go. Perhaps there is a better outcome out there, than we, ourselves, could have imagined. There is a peace in surrendering and letting go.
I invite you to try it.
It’s normal to care about others with a healthy sense of empathy, but some of us get caught in perpetually taking care of others. “Caretakers” and “fixers” automatically go into advice-giving, problem-solving and may take on other people’s problems as if they are their own. They set themselves up in relationships to focus mostly on others, often to the point of losing their own interests, friends, opinions, and responsibilities…eventually losing themselves all together.
How does this happen? “Fixers” learn their well-honed skills at a young age. As children, they take on the role of making sure others are okay out of survival and necessity. They may be really “good” kids who, not only do as asked, but become excellent at anticipating what’s expected, and make sure that the boat doesn’t get rocked. They take care of other family members emotionally, physically, or may even become a “favorite” who serves as a friend, counselor, or sounding board for a parent. These children do this, ingeniously and instinctually to keep peace and maintain calm in the household. As a result, they never learn that they can set healthy boundaries. Furthermore, they attract those who also don’t understand about boundaries. Caretakers and fixers often find themselves with someone who cannot, or does not, take care of themselves in appropriate ways. They spend enormous amounts of energy focusing on others, then losing sight of themselves, feeling unsatisfied, resentful, unsafe, or depressed. Some may eventually decide relationships are unsafe and avoid them altogether, facing relationship burnout.
Psychotherapy, Codependency Anonymous and Al-Anon, all focus on helping people who struggle with caretaking and fixing behaviors to examine where this comes from, whether it’s working, and how to take responsibility and better care for one’s self in relationship with others. If this rings true for you, it is not too late to make positive changes to take care of yourself.
PROGRESS, NOT PERFECTION
Sometimes in therapy, things get worse before they get better. As we get in touch with difficult feelings and begin to look at patterns or issues in our lives that aren’t working, we may feel worse. Sometimes we may take actions that make it worse! Why? How could that be? Why am I doing all this, then???
The goal of therapy is to have a safe and confidential place to explore why we’re not feeling good, not acting like our regular selves, or perhaps to heal from a negative experience. If we feel safe enough in therapy, we can drop the wall we’ve built around painful, uncomfortable feelings to be able to explore what’s behind them. Like a scab that may be covering an infection under the skin, we may have to lift the scab and clean out the wound underneath. This hurts! And sometimes our pain becomes worse as we take a look and poke around at old wounds. In therapy, we often benefit from looking at how the past has affected us, how we’ve come to hold beliefs about ourselves, others, and life that aren’t accurate or working well for us any longer. Perhaps we’ve developed ways of coping that aren’t holding us up in positive ways anymore. Whatever it may be for each person, it is painful to revisit uncomfortable experiences and uncover problematic patterns in our actions and beliefs. This is the part that doesn’t feel so good.
As we uncover what isn’t working and why, we realize that we may want to try out new ways of thinking, acting and reacting. Things like, speaking up and setting boundaries, asserting ourselves, or practicing stepping back and letting go. These are new skills and new skills take practice. We may be clumsy and awkward at first. Nervous and unsure, we may take baby steps in the beginning. This is normal. If intense emotions have been bottled up, we may find that we let loose, and come across too forcefully when speaking up, or trying out new behaviors. THAT’S OKAY TOO!
Be gentle and forgiving with yourself as you go along. Be patient! New ways of thinking and behaving take time to practice.
Therapy is hard work and is not for the weak! It takes courage, effort and trust...in yourself. Here are some tips:
Set a time every day to check in with yourself and feel any underlying feelings. Ask yourself: What Am I Feeling?
Write your feelings down, or say them out loud.
Honor your feelings, and be curious about them, versus frightened or critical.
Ask yourself if there is anything you are doing that is contributing to yourself feeling this way? i.e., Are you allowing yourself to be treated unfairly? Are you expecting something unrealistic? Are you doing a behavior over and over and getting poor results?
Ask yourself what you can do to take care of yourself? Do you want to take action? Do you want to change something in yourself? Make a request of others?
If so, make an action plan or timeline.
Evaluate afterwards how you feel? Did it work? Would you do anything differently?
Remember that the goal is to make progress, not to be perfect!
© 2020 Marianne T. Vernacchia, MFT
HOW TO BUILD RESILIENCY & SELF-ESTEEM
Would you believe through a healthy dose of failure and mistake making?
Although true for anyone, this article will focus on parenting and children. In an age when we endlessly strive to build our children’s self-esteem, we risk doing the opposite, or even building a “hollow” sense of self-esteem, by not allowing our children to make mistakes and experience failure. (Yes, that is a loaded word! More on that later.) Instead, we find a way to build them up, no matter what and strive to protect them by intervening or preventing the mistakes from being made in the first place. While backed by only the best of intentions, this can back-fire creating self-esteem not based on self-reliance or trust in one’s abilities, but instead based on a belief that others should take care of them, protect them, and make it easier for them. In other words, a sense of entitlement. While this may buffer our children from the cold, harsh realities of the world, it does not prepare them well for adulthood, real relationships and challenges down the road.
We live in a pressured, fast-paced and competitive world and we feel a need to prepare our children to succeed. In doing so, we may become over-involved in our children’s assignments, grades, friendships, free time, activities and play. As parents we have nothing but good intentions when helping with our kids’ with their difficult assignments, protecting them from potential consequences, even, sometimes, defending inappropriate behavior and mistakes. This is all done out of love...and trying to do better than our parents did. A noble endeavor, indeed!
But, have we gone too far in trying to provide our kids with a successful and perfect childhood? Has a loving, healthy childhood become confused with an overly protected one, where kids aren’t allowed to make mistakes, fall down or fail? How about the value of learning about their short-comings and problematic tendencies (we all have them!) facing them, and, hopefully learning to work with or through them? Have today’s kids been denied the chance to feel that horrible, sinking feeling of guilt and regret when they’ve done something “bad” or had the living daylights scared out of them when they get caught and realize the potential consequences they now face? Are they protected from ever being in these useful, learning situations? Worse yet, are they getting intervened on before it ever happens, thereby never gaining the first-hand knowledge that comes from making a wrong decision, an independent decision, learning what happens when they choose a certain path, learning how to right a wrong, get through difficult situations, or fix it when things go wrong?
I am not advocating we let our children completely fend for themselves. We certainly don’t want to watch them hurt others, themselves, or commit a dangerous or illegal act. Every child is different and there are various degrees of appropriate support for each child, but it’s important to know that hands-on helping or interfering isn’t always better. Ironically it can prevent resiliency and self-esteem from developing because the struggle and learning process that comes with a difficult situation isn’t ever experienced. Many children need a lot of intervening and oversight, especially those who struggle to see themselves in a positive light to start with, have a traumatic past, psychiatric or other developmental disorder. However, even children who need a lot of support benefit from being challenged, being held accountable, and having the space to make mistakes and overcome them at appropriate times and in safe ways.
This doesn’t mean we leave our children alone to flail and thrash around in the water for long periods of time, especially, when we can see that they are going to sink. It does mean that we don’t always need to jump in and save them immediately, as long as they are still reasonably safe and working at it. It means, we watch carefully, let them splash around, see if they start to use their arms and legs to swim, and monitor how they are doing on their own. If they go under for a minute and swallow some water, do they cough it up and keep going? That is
success right there! Have they been given enough instruction, and do they apply that and learn what their arms and legs can do? Can they find their way out and tread water on their own? Do they have the chance to self- correct without outside help? Do they eventually learn to move forward and become good swimmers? If so, this is gold! They will say, “I did it!” It will feel amazing! This is the stuff self-esteem is made of!
Struggling through a difficult situation, not knowing what to do, trying, failing, and trying something else, followed by reflecting on what did and didn’t work, and eventually figuring it out is all part of the learning process. It is nourishes a crucial feedback loop that builds problem solving capabilities, trust in one’s abilities, self-esteem and resiliency. The teen years, especially, are about thinking for one’s self, figuring it out on one’s own, and balking at what mom and dad say in order to develop independence as an adult.
It may feel counter-intuitive, to allow your kids to fall down, make mistakes, or endure a “failure”, but if it is framed as a learning situation, a worthwhile set-back to be learned from, then it can be a valuable tool; even one that serves us better than a “success”. The word “failure” has a negative connotation and is usually couched in a ton of shame, but learning what doesn’t work is just as important as learning what does. A failure doesn’t have to be a shameful act. Sometimes, we do the right thing and it doesn’t work out. Sometimes we try our best, but we endure a failure. We also learn the most from situations that sting a bit. We remember painful experiences more because pain hurts! It tells us what we don’t want to have happen again, and we apply that learning going forward.
The key is balance! You want to point out and praise the positives, as this builds positive credits in the bank that they can draw from later when facing a consequence, making a mistake, or enduring a hardship. The ratio of positive to negative feedback should be much more on the positive side. A child who doesn’t get enough positive feedback doesn’t have a lot of self-esteem to draw from, and will not be able to withstand a lot of negative outcomes. When our children face unrealistic expectations, relentless and repeated failures, then there it is a much tougher battle to overcome and build self-esteem. This is a set up for shame and frustration that lead to a behavioral backlash. Instead, we need to tell children what they are doing right, praise them when they do indeed make a good decision AND allow them the opportunity to face mistakes with honesty and humility, not shame. Teaching a child how to honestly take responsibility for their actions, how to fairly face negative consequences, and how to learn from each “non-success” are key. It is through both positive and negative experiences that our children become independent, self-confident, good problem solvers. This will prepare them well for the challenges that life will eventually throw at them.
Below are some ideas to help build self-esteem in your children!
- Let them vent and express their frustration or difficult feelings (this doesn’t mean you necessarily agree, but listen and try to understand, as they work it out and hopefully look at their part in it).
- Tell them that you believe in them and their ability to figure it out and make a good decision.
- Assign regular and achievable chores, household responsibilities, or expectations for them to become a dependable/reliable participant in the daily running of the household.
- Give lots of hugs and acknowledge and praise them when they do a good job.
- Hold them accountable with reasonable, age-appropriate consequences when they don’t.
- Repeat the mantra: “I am the parent. My job is to be kind, but firm.”
- Don’t come to the rescue right away (depending on your child’s age and situation. This could mean wait 5 minutes with a toddler, or it may mean wait 24 hours with an older teen)
- Don’t call their teacher unless necessary. Instead brainstorm and ask your child what they can do to handle the situation directly.
- Follow through with checking to see if your child did what they said they were going to do.
- Don’t believe everything you hear. Rely on your instincts here. Your child COULD be bending the truth to avoid shame, or an undesired consequence. This is a normal, human reaction.
- Set consequences that are natural/logical, sting, and are short-lived (depending on the situation). You want them to have a chance to learn from it and quickly correct the behavior. Long, drawn out consequences are typically not effective and can cause backlash.
- Remind them, that they have good thinking, are smart, and have a good head on their shoulders.
- Be sure to commend them pointing out successes, in any situation where they earnestly tried.
- Wait a good amount of time, then ask if THEY would do anything differently, if they could do it over.
- Ask them if they need any help in figuring it out, planning, etc., but don’t jump in and take it over.
- Consult with a professional, if unsure, so as not to set your child up for an insurmountable failure, or too many failures, especially if they’ve been struggling a lot already.
© 2020 Marianne Vernacchia, MFT#35980 4990 Speak Ln., #100, San Jose, CA 95118 www.sanjosetherapyworks.com