Yesterday I saw my therapist and we spent the bulk of the hour talking about a subject that is difficult for me to speak of: My strengths. When I replied, ‘I absolutely hate doing this’, she chuckled and told me that everyone says the same thing to her. She informed me that I, and she, are not of a generation that spent a great deal of time praising children and therefore were not told in our childhoods the strengths that we possess. It truly is a different time, and a different world, where one of the strategies used now in parenting our children, especially certain types of children, is to quickly and continually praise their strengths and accomplishments.
It isn’t as if I had others in my life pointing out my strengths to me, either. I wasn’t a particularly popular child, and at times was teased, ridiculed, and even tormented by others. Some say childhood is the ‘time of your life’ and to enjoy it while you can. I know I frequently talk about having had a difficult childhood. I know there are those who have and had it far worse, but I got my fair share of the short end of the stick as a child. I talk about some of the ‘terrible’ parts of it. I keep much of it to myself. There are very few people who know ‘a lot’ about my childhood.
I grew up in a time when if people were mean to you, or picked on you, when you were a child, parents had a relatively universal response – they said ‘those people are just jealous of you.’ My mother said that to me, more than once. People that picked on me were just jealous of me.
I reflect on that now with a self-effacing laugh. I wasn’t tall…not particularly good looking, though not off putting and hideous. My family split when I was eight. My father was a mechanic, and my mother a bookkeeper who held down three jobs to make ends meet; with one of those jobs being waiting tables in a local restaurant. We had very little money. My siblings and I were not close. I had no athletic ability to speak of. I was shy, quiet, and solitary. We lived in an average sized home on an average sized plot of land. I never possessed the latest clothing, technology, or ‘fad’ items. With divorced parents and a mother working all the time I had to learn to take care of myself very early on…cooking, cleaning, laundry….I came home to daily torment at the hands of my sister. Most days I simply tried to find a place to hide and get my homework done and keep to myself as much as I could. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes she found me.
What, I ask myself now as well as then, would ANYONE be jealous of that for? And what kind of a shit-show must their own life be if MY life raised feelings of envy in them?
I don’t mean to throw myself a pity-party here about my childhood. I know there are others who have or had it far, far worse than I did. I’ve heard endless stories, through becoming a foster to adoptive parent, about situations that children are kept in. I wish they all had the ability to express themselves in writing and share their stories, so long as it helped them to heal in some way. Not everyone has that ability. Not everyone heals. I know that in being able to express myself in writing, I am able to get some of the feelings out of my head and into black and white. I am, when the demons are rattling their cages, able to stop the noise going on in my head and soothe the savage beasts into submission once again. That’s not to say I hear voices, or have invasive thoughts….we all have demons from our past that we’ve caged….every one of us….things that with the passage of time we’ve learned to put in some space where we can lock them up and be the gatekeeper. Every so often they begin to howl at us, and we have to find a way to tame them.
Someone said to me once that ‘when someone says something negative about you and it makes you mad, there must be some part of you that believes it for some reason.’ I agree with this. When, since that statement was made to me, I’ve had someone make a negative or disparaging comment to me and found myself upset with it or them, I do stop and ask myself ‘why’ it’s making me upset….what part of me subscribes to their appraisal of what they perceive as a weakness or defect in me? I like to believe I am the best ‘me’ I am capable of being most days. I like to think I give my best effort in most things, and recognize that when my best effort isn’t really all that effective, I either find a way to compensate, or just don’t add it to the list of things I am good it. I try to not keep a list of things I’m ‘bad’ at. I know what many of them are, I just don’t stockpile them into any sort of organized ‘list’ – many days that would be a poor choice to make, whereas in times of doubt or worry, I’d likely be one of those ‘post it notes around the house’ people who, for the most part, put notes up on the fridge, on mirrors, on doors saying things like ‘You are beautiful’ and ‘You make a difference’ and ‘You are strong’…..only mine would be different…and focus on my shortcomings. My ‘negative notes’, were I to put them up, would say things like ‘You suck at wrapping gifts’, or ‘If jumping to conclusions were a sport, you’d have several gold medals’ or ‘You may think you’re funny, but others often find you weird and inappropriate.’ Best not to give myself pale yellow note reminders hanging in my house and dwell on these things.
I know I have many strengths. I know that to think about them, admit them to myself, and to articulate them to another person is not one of those strengths. When asked in job interviews and by therapists what my strengths are, my brain hears ‘explain the process by which a frontal lobotomy is performed then describe in full detail the mathematical chaos theory and wrap up your response by reciting every country in the world sorted by gross national product and average household income. It’s THAT MUCH of an effort for me to list my strengths as a person. I don’t dislike myself. I enjoy my own company (I bet all the introverts say that!), I have come to realize that there will, in life, always be someone better looking, smarter, funnier, etc. – just as there will always be people not as attractive, not as intelligent, not as funny……you don’t need to compare yourself to others and be ‘better’ than someone to be ‘good’….you just have to be you, and be the best you that you can be.
I spend my days trying to remind myself to praise the kids often and quickly…..when they do something the first time I ask, they get a ‘nice listening, thank you!’ When they answer a homework question incorrectly at first, they get a ‘well, not really, but great effort, though’. There is a lot of belief around the positive effect of praise upon a child, and I do, definitely see those benefits when I praise the children for their strengths. I tell them both they are smart, and charming, and handsome, and imaginative, and loving…..I tell them all the things I wasn’t really told. When they wonder why someone says or does something mean to them, I answer them as honestly as I can based upon the situation in a way they can understand – saying things like ‘it sounds like ____ is unhappy and the only thing that makes _____ feel better is to try to make someone else feel bad…and that’s sad that they feel they have to do that.’
Never, ever, under any circumstances do I tell them, ‘They’re just jealous of you’.
Even if I find myself nearly ‘debilitated’ when asked to list my strengths…..I try, again and again, to overcome that in relation to the kids. I try to reflect on my own feelings about it and push through them, rather than simply believe ‘I learned to like myself without it, so will they’ – because who really knows if they will or not? I’d rather err on the side of caution and offer the praise. Always better to have and not need than need and not have.
There is a Winnie The Pooh quote that states, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.’
I like those words.
I plan to say them, or something similar, often to my kids.
I hope they remember them as adults. More than that, I hope they are able to say them about themselves…and mean it.