True or False: Only Perfection is Worthy?

Anxiety and depression began around puberty for me, at least that’s the first time I remember having symptoms of both. The abusive home environment I lived in was no doubt the catalyst for my mental health issues, and it is what solidified those problems so they would just grow and become more complex over the next decade. As I near six months in my mental health journey using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to treat PTSD, Anxiety, situational Depression, and Binge Eating Disorder I am analyzing the root cause of these issues. While many experiences combined to create my mental health cocktail, the overall theme of why I struggle to overcome these issues is my self worth.

For example, two weeks ago I started my two year old son in daycare. I began working out with a trainer at a gym three days a week, I have more dedicated work time so that my work/life balance is less stressful, and I have more time to focus on therapy and meditation and healing. Each of these things is an overwhelmingly positive change in my life, or at least, it should be. So why am I noticing signs of my brain falling into depression? Why do I seem to be self sabotaging these positive changes? My theory? I think my brain is reacting this way because at the deepest of levels I don’t believe I’m worth better. I don’t believe I’m worth my time, energy, and love. I don’t believe I’m worth self care. I don’t believe I’m worth the effort to better myself.

That’s a hard thing to admit to yourself, let alone to other people, but there it is. In analyzing how my self worth got this low, and how it got concrete poured over it to make sure it never moved, it seems to come back to many things I witnessed and experienced in those teen years when my mental health problems began. I want to share some do’s and don’t’s for parents that would have made a huge difference in my mental health journey, my body image issues, and my personal self worth.

DO: Reassure your child that the changes their body is experiencing are normal and all of them is beautiful all the time because their beauty is more than physical.

DON’T: Say conflicting things about your child’s appearance, even jokingly. Don’t tell them they’re beautiful, then make a joke about eating a second slice of cheesecake “for the other cheek”.

DO: Take care with how you speak to and about other people around your child, making sure you are respecting all other human experiences.

DON’T: Insult and belittle other humans in front of your child (or at all). We notice when you tell us we’re pretty and then call the curvy woman on TV a fat ass.

DO: Teach your child healthy coping mechanisms for stress, and use those mechanisms yourself so they can see it in action.

DON’T: Lose control of your emotions, blame others for your stress, use unhealthy coping mechanisms yourself (like substance abuse and binge eating).

DO: Encourage your child to talk to you and truly listen to their truth. Assure them that their stress and feelings are valid, and help them to find healthy ways of coping.

DON’T: Share your personal problems and stress with your child. They are not responsible for your stress level and should not be made to absorb your problems in addition to their own.

DO: Honor your child’s stress, even if the problem seems trivial to you. Encourage them to feel their emotions and work through them in a healthy and rational way.

DON’T: Belittle your child’s stress or force them to put their emotions in a box. Even if you are in public and feel embarrassed by your child’s tears, do not push your stress of being embarrassed onto your child. If they are going to learn to take care of themselves and not care what other’s think of them they are going to have to see you exemplifying how to do that.

DO: RESPECT YOUR CHILD’S EXPERIENCE.

DON’T: Try to control your child’d experience.

Those of us with mental health issues will most likely unintentionally pass them onto our children. I can already see anxiety in my two year old. The important thing is that we teach them how to cope. We teach them how to handle stress in a healthy way. We show them through example that every person’s experience deserves to be respected. It wasn’t just the abuse that I endured that shaped my mis-wired brain, it was also the abuse that I witnessed. It was the casual hatred for other people, the subtle and not so subtle ways I was taught that only perfection is worthy and perfection is unattainable so I am not worthy. Let us be the generation that ends the cycle of abuse, that ends the cycle of hate, and that begins respecting people simply because they are people.

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Selfishness

It’s a trait that is pretty universally known as a negative. Being selfish means you don’t care about others, that you only care about yourself. At the extreme end some can use it to describe a person that lacks empathy or is narcissistic. Where is the line, though? That’s where it gets fuzzy, and where my anxiety lies. For people raised in healthy homes it seems clear that taking care of yourself and being selfish are two completely separate things. For us that were not raised in healthy environment the two become one in the same. Attempting to learn the difference between self care and selfishness as an adult has proven difficult.

First I had to process what it was that made the line so fuzzy in the first place. For me, and many others like me, it was both obvious and subtle. Obvious things, like getting punished for using your earned income as a teenager to purchase something on a class trip for yourself instead of purchasing souvenirs for family members. Things like being punished for having an emotional reaction to being verbally abused in public. These things would make a developing brain think that what they want or need does not matter and that in order to survive they must put the needs of those around them before their own in every instance. Then there are the more subtle things that groom us to be over-givers and overly empathetic, like never having your thoughts or feelings acknowledged as valid. Like being expected to know the adult’s mood instantly and behave accordingly or suffer the consequences.

For example, I remember at 8 years old or so, that when my dad came home in a good mood he enjoyed walking in and “looking” for us, so we were expected to hide and play the game. If we didn’t do this in anticipation of his arrival he would be upset and make us feel guilty for not wanting to make him feel special after his long day at work. If we did hide in anticipation of his arrival and he came home angry we would stay in our hiding spots until he and my step mom moved their fight out of the living area and then we would scurry down stairs to stay out of sight of his anger. Recalling memories such as this one helped me to see that I was groomed to be self-less to a fault. I was explicitly taught that any thought for myself was a selfish thought.

Now that I know where the wires in my brain got crossed, how do I move forward to straighten them out? How do I recognize the difference between positive self care and selfishness as an adult? How much longer to I have to live with this dissonance while I figure it out?

Right now, logically and rationally, I know that going to therapy is the best thing I could be doing. I know that putting my son in daycare instead of trying to pull double duty working and watching him all day is the best thing I can do. I know that taking time to read, write, get a pedicure, meditate, is a good and healthy thing for me to be doing. Rationally I know this. But instinctively my brain tells me that all of those things are selfish and wrong. It tells me I should be focusing on my son, not giving him to another to care for, no matter how much the double duty wears on my mental health. It tells me that taking time for myself, whether its for therapy or a pedicure, makes me a horrible wife and mother. It tells me that if I wanted to be deserving of my family I would be willing to put myself last at all times and sacrifice my health as needed. Better yet, it tells me that I don’t deserve my family because if I did I would be able to do everything on my own without it negatively affecting my health.

My anxiety is me having to talk back to my brain constantly. It is me seeing my irrational thoughts and not being able to change them. The best I can do right now is to counter my irrational thoughts. To remind myself of the rational reality and to model my feelings and behaviors off of rational thought. That is a big step forward, being able to recognize and dismiss my irrational thoughts, to see where the wires are crossed. It doesn’t make arguing with your own brain any less exhausting, though. When it comes to selfishness and self care I fear I will have to live with this dissonance for a while longer. Some of these problems are so deeply embedded that even after you see them it takes diligent work to affect actual change.

When you see someone who is overly-generous, who is extremely sensitive to the emotions of others, who never seems comfortable doing things for themselves, maybe take a step back and realize it could be traumatizing events and abusive grooming that made them that way. There is a good chance they developed those qualities to survive. Think on how those qualities affect that persons quality of life before you default to it being a positive character trait. There is such a thing as being selfless to a fault and if more people understood this perhaps there would be less stigma around the term “selfish”.

Praise and Punishment

I channeled my anxiety while pregnant into learning as much as I could about pregnancy, birth, child development, and parenting. I read books, blogs, and scientific studies. It was during this time that I read something about parenting that didn’t make much sense to me immediately, the idea that praise can be just as detrimental as punishment. It seemed ridiculous. How can telling a child that they are smart or responsible or mature be a bad thing? Those are all good qualities to have, why shouldn’t a person praise their child for having those qualities? This concept didn’t click in my brain until my therapy session this last week.

We’ve been trying to get to the “why” of my ability to have empathy for others in droves, but no understanding for myself. For example, when thinking about the abuse I suffered as a child I am mostly indifferent, but when I think about the abuse my father inflicted on my siblings and mother/step mothers rage bubbles up inside me. I can understand and empathize with their struggle, but still struggle with blaming myself for my own. I just never seem to meet the unrealistic expectations I have of myself. When we began talking about some of the details of my childhood it came out that I was consistently praised for being smart, that I was left in charge even though my brother was older, that I was always praised for being mature and responsible. No matter what came up I was the one that could handle it. I was the one who would take my siblings to the basement and play a loud game or movie so they wouldn’t hear the awful things my father was shouting at my step mother. I was praised for being the leader that took care of others.

On the flip side the few times I did behave as a child: telling a harmless lie, acting without thinking of the consequences, etc. I was punished for it in a big way that did not fit the severity of the action (read: beat with a belt until bruised and bloody, kept from socializing with other children my own age).

This combination of praise and punishment is what wired my brain the way it is wired today, the wiring for anxiety that I’m having to do all this work to try and fix.

It was not just the punishments that impacted my development negatively, it was also the praise. I formed an identity around being the smart, mature, responsible one. Every time I don’t live up to that standard as an adult I punish myself. Every time I didn’t perform as well as I thought I should have in a class I had a panic attack. Every time I made a life decision that didn’t pan out perfectly I had a meltdown and/or fell into depression. Every single time I didn’t live up to this idea I had of who I was supposed to be I berated myself and tore myself down. I would sometimes even use the same words that I heard as a child.

As a parent now I try to be careful with my words. I praise my sons effort, not his result. I try not to call him smart or tell him how perfect he is because I don’t want to force him into an identity that has an impossible standard attached to it. I don’t want to see him struggle to meet his own expectations the way that I do. I especially don’t want him to have the same negative voice in his brain that is in mine.

I want my child to form a strong sense of self that no one can ever take away from him. I want him to know that he is capable of anything, that he can overcome obstacles, that even when something doesn’t work out the way he planned he will be able to adapt and succeed. My anxiety wired brain is often hard to navigate, but when this clicked I knew that I am a perfect example of praise gone wrong. Read the article link below if you would like more information and think about how you are shaping your child’s brain when you praise them.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/200909/parenting-dont-praise-your-children

If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, callThe National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233