Cut out the negatives

Once in a restaurant the sizzler that I had ordered had a baked tomato only half cooked. I called the waiter who very casually pointed out – “But Sir, the rest of the platter is fine. At that moment, I was furious.

It was the first gift my five-year old niece had wrapped all by herself. I noticed this one fold sticking out and pointed it out to her. And she said, “Isn’t the rest fine, uncle?”

It was then that I realized what message the waiter had for me. We focus so much on the 20 per cent imperfections that we forget to appreciate and get encouraged by the 80 per cent ‘perfection’.

I also realized that as an adult we often berate ourselves. For many of us, our self-talk is rarely self-appreciative, rather mostly critical of ourselves. We almost think that it is not nice to feel good about oneself (that should come from somebody else).

Most self-criticizing habits are formed within the first eight years of life – especially between 2-8 years of age. Physiologists explain that this is the period when adults quickly point out all our negatives. To quote Peggy Jenkins (from ‘The Joyful child’): “Overheard criticisms, put-downs, misinterpretations of parental anger or scolding can all chip away at the child’s self worth and leave him feeling joyless and worthless.”

The ensuing life long negative self-talk is like driving a car with parking brakes on.

It is enough to stop the child from dreaming big enough, aiming high enough and trying enough! It is enough to weaken our overall self-esteem. And the vicious thinking assures that every failure gets added as proof to our over critical self’s repertoire.

Here are five typical parenting tendencies to check out for. See if you are prone to any of them:

1. No, No, NO!

If what the child gets during the day is, “Don’t touch this, don’t eat this, don’t waste your time, don’t do that, no pulling my hair, no playing with your hair, don’t run, no jumping on the sofa, don’t eat fast, don’t eat so slowly…

When our actions get negated, our thoughts get negated and we start feeling, “I am not worthy (and capable) of thinking ‘right’”. To the extent that often children will do something just to see how soon they are stopped from doing it.

Alternate approach: Rather than pointing out what you want the child NOT to do, try saying what you want the child to do. Example: Instead of “don’t waste your time”, say, “it’s nice to focus on your work”.

2. Comparison

What you think and feel is less important, what is socially appropriate should always be done! – While this seems to be the least effective kind of motivation, I guess as parents we run short of ideas and just tend to use it so frequently that it becomes the basis of all the decisions in our life.

When I feel I am incapable or not worthy just because somebody else seems to be more capable and worthy – then we live a life of low self-esteem. Then we also do not achieve much because we think we’re unworthy of achieving much!

Alternate approach: Understand motivation. Focus on the progress of your child rather than comparative performance.

3. Blame

I remember when I got that sizzler in the restaurant with the half cooked tomato the first thought that came to my mind was “these guys are horrible”. Now I have realized it was not the guys who were horrible, but the tomato! Have you ever thought – I am a failure – well you were not – only the approach you used failed!

Alternate approach: When angry or upset, instead of shouting or hitting, try expressing your feelings by saying “I am upset, I do not like lies being told” Follow that by clearly stating your expectations, “I trust you and I expect you to tell me the truth always”

4. Should

A large part of our critical self talk emerges from this thought process called SHOULD. “I should look good, I should answer right, I should be smart, I should not make a fool of myself by asking or trying” and so on.

Check out how his makes you feel. Check if it is enlarging or diminishing?

Alternate approach: Replace all your SHOULDs with COULDs. “You could finish your homework fast. You could say thank you to uncle” etc.

5. Decisions

One of the key signs of low self-esteem is consistent indecisiveness or the inability to take a balanced decision and the result is either inaction or impulsivity. This often stems from the fact that most of our childhood decisions are taken by parents and many a times over-ridden by parents.

Do you decide how much your child should eat? If your daughter chooses a dress for a party – do you over ride her decision – especially with a “I say so”. We seem to have our own operating parameters, while the child is ignorant of them, leaving the child in the lurch as she doesn’t really understand what it is that’s wrong with her decision making.

Alternate approaches: First – let the child decide – the negative consequences arising from a wrong decision is only going to become a learning experience for the child. Second, if something is not acceptable to you – express that before the child makes the decision eg: “Choose your dress, however, avoid a sleeveless one, as it is cold outside. Advance information empowers the child to make a sound decision.

Another way to look at the whole concept of development of self-belief is to follow what 'Goethe' said:

Correction does much, but encouragement does more!
I agree with you whole heartedly. As a child all I ever recieved was criticism, and now I'm finally learning how to overcome this. It's funny, because now that I'm an adult I still criticize others, but now I spin it into a positive criticism.
For example, If I recieve bad service from a server at a restaurant, I don't leave a bad tip. Instead, I leave a regular tip that I usually do. I usually tip generousely, so the server usually thinks about what they didn't do right that they know they should have to deserve the tip they got. If I simply left a bad tip or no tip, they might simply right me off as some jerk not knowing they did anything wrong, or even think that that's all they were going to get anyways. As a result, they are left in poor spirits and the next customer has to deal with poor service too. It's funny, when I walk into restaurants where I've done this, I get excellent service now, and my friends still can't figure out how they already know what I'm going to order.

See, the thing that really messed me up when I was a kid is that I was gifted, so a higher standard was put on me, so my own self criticisms for failing at things that even average people could excel, were very harsh. This resulted in years of depression that was a result of anger towards non-gifted people who were rewarded the same or more for doing less. I fealt cheated that although I was held to a higher standard, I received no extra benefits to achieving a higher levels of excellence. The thing is though, I didn't develope this type of thinking on my own, but I learned it from teachers, my parents, and other messed up negative thinkers that I was emersed in at school, and everywhere else. I spent 21 years living this nightmare, and since yesterday when I talked to a psychologist, my attitude made a complete 180.

The worst blow I ever recieved was when I was sent to a behavioral school, that was more like a prison. They also thought I had a learning disability even though I went on and on that I didn't try because it wasn't necessary, and I received nothing for doing better, so why would I? Out of spite of threatening me with enrolement in the bahavior school, or being left back, I pulled off the highest marks in the province on my grade 6 PAT's, and had the worst attendence record the school had ever seen. Once I was in the behavior school, I was so motivated to prove them wrong I almost finished my grade 7 year in two months with straight "A's". And when they recieved my transcripts for my finals, they kicked me out of the program. I started attending regular schools and went back to half assing my way through because there was no incentive or encouragement to do any better. Even in High school, all I heard when I got report cards was people going on and on how I wasn't going to achieve anything. Not once did anyone ever say to me that because of my intelligence that I could get the grades needed to become a astronaut, physicist, or scientist. I got convinced through collective negativity towards me, that I was nothing, and would achieve nothing, and that's what I ended up achieving. However, I found myself to be in the wrong place, on the wrong path, and everything made me unhappy. I won't except this now, and now I'm working on going to university to become a scientist of some kind, haven't decided completely yet. I might dedicate my life to social sciences and psychology, then I can learn more about situations such as mine and the solutions to rectify such problems.

I read this in a fortune cookie, "Criticism after failure is like medicine after a funeral."

Don't end up like me, and don't mess your kids up like me either. Encourage good actions and help find solutions, don't just point out the problem.
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