Everyone has potential. To discover it is a road to success. To apply it is a road to happiness.
by Dr. Veronica Brodsky, PsyD
The above statement has been my philosophy and core belief ever since I have established Interactive Discovery in 2007. However, one of the main challenges for me as a clinician is not only to recognize someone’s potential, but to help adults and children learn to recognize this within themselves. How can one apply their potential and their talent when they face struggles with low self-esteem on daily basis? While many educators, mental health providers and even politicians recognize the importance of self-esteem as a way to improve performance and feel more satisfied in life, we are still faced with many people feeling that they are simply not good enough. Most clinicians will attest that a common treatment plan goal, regardless of the presenting problem, is to improve self-worth and confidence and yet few feel that this is an easy goal to accomplish.
We all have a history and past that can influence how we experience ourselves. What is striking in my practice is that regardless of how bad or good one’s past experience has been, the struggle with self-esteem is very similar across the board. It just varies in its intensity. One of the things I have observed over the span of 20 years of working and studying psychology, is that one common element the majority of my patients have is high self-criticism and low self-compassion. Teaching children and adults to be kind, loving, and gentle with themselves has been one of the most important, and yes, the most difficult aspects of my practice. Unwiring the habit of self-criticism is a lot more challenging than receiving a promotion at work, high grades in school, and being selected for an Ivy League college.
Recently I came across an article in The Atlantic by Olga Khazan about why self-compassion works better than self-esteem. This article resonated with what I have observed over the span of my work as therapist. In her interview with Dr. Christine Neff, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, she speaks about how we as a society promote high self-esteem. However, what it actually means is to “feel special and above average.”
As a society, we are competitive. The term “keeping up with the Joneses” is an understatement. We are constantly comparing ourselves to others. We want a lot more than we need and feel that by obtaining things, status, senior positions, and real estate, we will be happier. In his book Happier, Tal Ben’ Shahar, a Harvard professor of psychology, states that “While levels of material prosperity are on the rise so are levels of depression.”
We want our kids to go to the best schools, get the best grades and be the best in everything –athletics, music, arts, social leadership; the list goes on and on. Kids know this & they feel it. Just the Middle School selection process in New York City is enough to make a healthy child develop anxiety, panic attacks and depression. If you didn’t get “that” job, didn’t get into “that” school, didn’t pass “that” test, what does it say about you? So when we equate our accomplishments with self-esteem, it is not surprising that we often don’t feel good about ourselves, no matter how much we accomplish, because there will always be something that we didn’t get. According to Neff, “When we fail, self-esteem deserts us, which is precisely when we need it most…The best way to think about the problem of self-esteem is not whether or not you have it, but what you do to get it… usually self-esteem is highly contingent on success.”
I think it is very important to have goals, ambitions and purpose, but it is no less important to have self-compassion. Being gentle with yourself, setting realistic expectations, forgiving yourself for mistakes, allowing yourself to be taken care of, asking for help, making space and time to do something you truly enjoy and nurturing yourself helps to develop self-compassion. Neff suggests that self-compassion is “treating yourself with the same kind of kindness, care, compassion as you would treat those you care about — your good friends, and your loved ones.” Without self-compassion, the road towards achieving our dreams can be self-destructive. Applying one’s potential cannot lead to the road of happiness if self-compassion is missing.
Ben-Shahar, T. (2007). Happier. New York: McGraw Hill Publication.
Khazan, O. (2016). Why self-compassion works better than self-esteem. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/05/why-self-compassion-works-better-than-self-esteem/481473/.
Dr. Brodsky received her doctorate from New York University. Her research interests are in the areas of examining child and parent relationships and their effects on child development.
BLOG: EMDR, Separation And Divorce And Its Impact On Children Part I, Separation And Divorce And Its Impact On Children Part II, Ways to decrease anxiety through rewiring our brain: Mind-Body Connection
Pony Club is back! This is an empowerment group for girls ages 8-10 run by myself and a PATH-certified instructor, provided by GallopNYC.org. This is not a riding group, but a group focusing on self-esteem and empowerment of girls through some group activities and work with the ponies on the ground (care, grooming, leading, and others). The group will meet outdoors at the Bowling Green near Kensington Stables and Prospect Park – weather permitting. In case of rain, sessions will be held indoors either at the stables or in my Park Slope office. There will be 8 sessions on Fridays from 4-5:15 pm starting 9/14, $65/session. If interested please email Susannah Gersten, LCSW at SGerstenLCSW@gmail.com.
“Mommy, the princesses won’t let me play with them.”
I pulled over and got into the back seat of the car with my 4-year old daughter.
“What do you mean?” I desperately asked her, trying to conceal the panic in my voice . . .
She then launched into the details of how, during recess at her preschool, the boys and girls divided into gender-specific groups: “Star Wars” and “Princess.” My poor girl, a fan of the Star Wars films, found herself in the nether-region of such “gender play” and was effectively banished by both Han Solo and Sleeping Beauty.
Over the next few weeks, I was transformed.
The next thing I knew, I–a pacifist and a social worker–was taking names and forming opinions about these 4-year old girls who, much to my chagrin, were on the receiving end of my dirty looks at drop off the next day and the days that followed. My feelings and passive-aggression towards the parents of these “perpetrators” was no less shameful.
I then began down the rabbit hole of self-blame: If only I had scheduled more playdates with girls. If only I wasn’t selfish in wanting to spend time play-dating with my friends, most of whom had boys. If only I hadn’t been a tomboy myself. If only I had somehow been a better parent, this would not be happening. She was an outcast, and it was all my fault.
In the weeks that followed, I withdrew from my regular mommy-friends and sought out play dates with the girls who had “rejected” my child in an effort to prove to them once and for all that my little girl was awesome and worthy of play. These efforts were not only unsuccessful (due primarily to scheduling conflicts), but backfired terribly. The feelings of rejection! The anxiety! The depression! The shame!
The reality was, my daughter hadn’t a clue. It was I who suffered the slings and arrows of this tragedy. She was fine. I was a mess.
After several weeks of this craziness, I took a step back to reflect. The inner chaos I was feeling had several layers. First, the Mamma Bear Instinct: protect my child from hurt at all costs. Ok. I’ll give myself that one. But it was more than that. I was fueled not only by my protective instinct, but by my own history. My own pain. My own experience of being an outcast, feeling banished, not fitting in. My own rejection from the princesses. My own desire to opt for the headstrong Princess Leah over Princess what’s-her-name who always needs to be rescued. Rescued. It wasn’t my daughter who needed rescue from this social calamity. It was me.
I then went back to all I knew about child development, and the fact that children at this age need to have their own social experiences. This is how they develop social skills, conflict resolution and communication skills, and foster self efficacy and self esteem. If I intervene here, she will not learn to fight her own battles and navigate the social matrix that is going to be the rest of her life. She needs to do this herself. My job is to be there to support her, comfort her, encourage her and guide her. Not to manipulate her for my own comfort.
Good lord! I thought the nursing, sleep deprivation and diaper changing of the early years were tough! None of those what-to-expect-when-you’re-expecting books said anything about this one!
Once I came out of my fog and regrouped, I began to share my ever-so-humbling experience, and found that many parents shared similar thoughts and feelings. I also began to formulate a theory based on my experience as both a psychotherapist and a parent. In psychotherapy, “countertransference” refers to the feelings the therapist has in response to (as triggered by) the client. It is the therapist’s responsibility to be aware of these feelings and to be diligent not to react to them, as they typically interfere with effective treatment.
The countertransference of parenting, then, refers to our tendency to react to our children based not only on what we perceive to be in their best interest, but also out of our own needs and past experiences. Mindful Parenting is the process of enhancing our awareness of these issues in an effort to be the best parents we can be. By ‘getting out of our own way’ and relying on our instincts and knowledge, we can foster our children’s independence and growth. Thus, once we are aware of our ‘triggers,’ we can tune in more effectively to our children and utilize our parenting skills more adaptively.
So how is this done? How, in the throes of emotional turmoil do I–as a parent–take the time to reflect, when all I want to do is act on my impulse rescue (or fix or change)?
The answer for today is this: Hindsight is twenty-twenty. Take a minute to reflect on some of the incidences your child has had where you felt driven to intense action (or feeling). What was happening? How did you feel about it? How did you react? Did the event remind you of something you experienced in your own childhood? Think about the situation again from an objective point of view. Would you have behaved (or felt) any differently about the situation if you took yourself (your history) out of the equation?
It is important to note that the initial goal of this process is less about resolving these issues, but more about creating a framework for understanding your own reactions so that you might approach these situations differently the next time. It is also an opportunity to tune into your ‘younger self’ and to recognize when she (or he) is being triggered and might be in need of some additional attention or self care. This might be where therapy comes in, or simply a chat with a supportive partner, relative or friend. At the end of the day, the more supported and nurtured we are, the more loving and mindful parents we can be.
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Fara is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Park Slope where she specializes in working with children, adolescents, parents and families, coping with trauma, addictions, anxiety and depression. Utilizing both traditional psychotherapy and creative arts therapy in her work, she provides individual, couples and family counseling and has developed and implemented psychotherapy, psycho-education and creative arts therapy groups for children, adolescents and adults. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 917-359-3335.
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