I believe with all my heart that we are perfect the moment we are conceived. What I mean is we are, by definition, the perfect manifestation of our own being. We are the only one of us on the entire planet.
The reason I believe traditional parenting does not result in happy adults is because we’ve been parenting this way for generations, and so many of us are plagued with sadness, anxiety, self-doubt, anger, distrust, etc. Of course, our parents were also perfect when they were born, and surely were doing the best that they could. But our “scars”, the toxic messages we carry about ourselves, invariably come from whatever particular form of traditional parenting we grew up with.
Without criticizing our parents/caregivers, they created the internal foundation we are trying to chip away at in therapy. This is a challenging task under the best of circumstances, but becomes even more challenging when we live with our parents (or very close by) as adults. We feel the same “triggers” as adults we felt as children, and we receive constant reminders of whatever toxic messages we received as children. It’s like moving towards a happy, strong life in the truth of your own beauty and perfection, but having a foot stuck in the door.
None of this means we cannot love, respect, honour and celebrate our parents. It’s not about “blame” and it’s not about anger. It’s about self-protection.
As we journey in therapy towards re-discovering our own perfection, we often find it seductive to try to get the unconditional positive love from our parents we never got as children. We are thirsty, but we are going to a well we already know is dry. And if we can look away from the destructive messages and towards the endless exciting possibilities of a world where we know we are perfect, and then SO many wells are there for us to drink from.
One of the many things I love about my job is the amazing people I get to meet (and who I probably would not have encountered in the “outside world”). Everyday I get to work with people who are bravely confronting all the things in their past that have resulted in self-doubt, self-consciousness and self-deprecation. We are all actually born perfect, and all the messages that we get otherwise are because of other peoples’ “stuff”. Unfortunately, we take it on board as information about ourselves, and it becomes the basis of how we view who we are.
This foundation of how we see ourselves, and how we see the world, is the very basis of why the world looks different through everyone’s eyes. We all have our unique individual “phenomenology”. It was developed over many, many years.
When we are in therapy, we are trying to chip away at this foundation and get back to recognizing, celebrating and honouring the perfect being we always were. But this is a long and slow process. Occasionally people in therapy will get frustrated with themselves for slipping into old thought patterns or old behaviours. I want to say to everyone in that situation: “Give Yourself A Break”! Consider that instead of being annoyed with yourself for “slip ups” you can use every slip up as an opportunity to give yourself a heartfelt pat on the back for all the courageous work you’ve done, and continue to do. Every glass is half full and half empty at the same time, and we can always choose to lament how much of a journey remains, or celebrate how far we have come. And thank you to those human beings who are willing to let me share their journeys with them.
Thanks to my favourite podcast, now called “Build for Tomorrow” (formerly Pessimists’ Archive) I have learned that there was a very popular disease in much of the 19th century called “neurasthenia”. Its invention led to all sorts of things being attributed to neurasthenia: including depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, headache and high blood pressure. It was associated with lonely farm wives and especially overworked business people.
“Treatments” were typically stays at “rest” hospitals and resorts, although later the idea of electric therapy became popular. One thing was always consistent: No one could identify WHAT the disease actually was. What part(s) of the people was/were actually unwell? Yet it was the “affliction du jour”, especially for the middle and upper middle class, for many decades.
This article from Atlantic Magazine tells the story of this “disease”:
Neurasthenia was a widespread disease until people got tired of it and got tired of not hearing an explanation for what it was. People lived and died entire lifetimes with this word “neurasthenia” in their vocabulary. They were certain they had gotten it right – until it turned out they got it completely wrong.
Just as priests in the Middle Ages blamed emotional struggles on “bodily humours” and doctors in 1870 blamed emotional struggles on “neurasthenia”, in 2021 we blame emotional struggle on “mental illness”. In all of these examples, we have no actual proof the thing we are pointing to even exists and many people are making great profits off these ‘flavour of the month’ cottage industries.
And the arrogant part is how sure we are that we are right. Every generation thinks they have “got it right” and points to all the scholars and practitioners who have bought into whatever the current “big lie” is. 100 years from now, if we still have podcasts, perhaps people will be chuckling that an entire world of people bought into a belief, with NO evidence presented, that the struggles they have are caused by their minds being ill. Aside from the obvious part that the mind is a metaphor that doesn’t really exist and therefore cannot be unwell, we all embrace the idea that how we feel emotionally or psychologically is somehow a health issue: “mental health”.
Just as the masses in the Middle Ages would have done well to consider bodily humours with a grain of salt, and the masses in the 19th century might have done well to be a bit skeptical of neurasthenia, we might do well to step back from our current “big lie” and analyse for ourselves whether this concept of “mental illness” resonates with us, regardless of how many others have bought in.
Maybe all of human culture has struggled to recognise that we are all beautifully different and someone is neither a demon, a neurasthenic or a victim of mental illness, just because they don’t fit in with the “normal majority”. If we knew different was beautiful, we could celebrate each other rather than label each other.
One of the most powerful things we can do as parents is to empower our children. Children define their capabilities through our eyes as parents if we believe our children can do something; they are likely to believe they can do it themselves. Consciously or otherwise, our children know we won’t put them in situations they are unable to handle, so if we put them in a situation, part of the message is “you can handle this”. And then they believe they can handle it. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee they will succeed, but it does maximize the possibility they will succeed, because they will believe in themselves.
This comes up quite a bit in early adolescence, Of course, it can be a scary world out there, but this is the world in which we live, and since we can’t protect our children forever, we want them to develop a sense of their own competence to handle themselves in this world. To whatever extent possible, parents have the opportunity to say “yes” rather than saying “no” when children are wanting to “spread their wings” and are asking for increasing levels of independence.
If we really embrace our ability to define our children, we can recognize countless opportunities to empower them to think of themselves as capable, competent humans who have everything they need to create the lives they choose
There is a principal in law usually called “Gillick Competency”. It is named for a 1985 case in England where a child under 16 was deemed competent to receive contraception without parental consent. This principal was strongly upheld by the Australian High Court in a 1992 case known as “Marion’s Case”.
While there is no age specific “bright line” for competency, the Gillick precedent says that if a child has “sufficient understanding and intelligence to enable him or her to fully understand what is proposed” their treatment does not require parental consent.
It is a basic principle of human rights that individuals have a right to “self-determination”. Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that: All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
In Australian Family Court situations, when a child is expressing the wish that they do not want to visit a parent, it often leads to accusations of “parental alienation” and sometimes to children being forced to live with a non-preferred parent. I have long expressed the view that this disrespects the child’s capacity for independent thought, regardless of who is or is not influencing them.
A colleague has come up with the brilliant idea that rather than delve into the murky waters of trying to assign blame and figure out the etiology of a child’s decision, the court could apply the Gillick test. If a child were deemed competent under Gillick, their right of self-determination would be respected.
Sometimes the greatest ideas seem so simple. If we know a child is competent to “fully understand what is proposed” and we honour the basic human right of self-determination, the analysis needs to go no deeper. Of course children are greatly influenced by their parents, just as they are influenced by their teachers, their friends, You Tube, etc. We are ALL influenced by loved ones, friends and media. But at the end of the day, competent human beings take all the information into account and make their own decisions. If a child is deemed Gillick competence, the court ought to respect their decision about where they live and with whom they spend their time
As this very strange and unprecedented year draws to a close, I’ve been thinking about what emotional lemonade we can make out of the lemons of this pandemic. Everything always has an inherent duality, and even something that has been as devastating to so many people globally as COVID can give us pause for reflection.
Many people talk about how one of the most challenging parts for them is not knowing when COVID will end. If we knew we have to deal with this until, for example, the end of 2021, we could all plan around that. But the uncertainty is really unsettling for many of us. I think at the same time, it is a reminder that uncertainty is an inherent part of anything that hasn’t happened yet. A reminder that all we have is this moment, and any expectations or ideas we have about the future are nothing more than imagination. What a powerful manifestation of the reality that memories of the past or ideas about the future are just thoughts – they don’t actually exist. All that actually exists is this moment. The uncertainty provides us a powerful reminder of being mindful and being in the moment.
I’m also sure few of us would have predicted a pandemic in our lifetime, in the “modern” world. It’s a reminder to set aside our preconceptions and know that anything can happen. As the quote from Rilke reminds us, we can let everything happen to us, beauty and terror. And maybe they are flip sides of the same coin. Maybe every moment contains beauty and terror and maybe that is part of the infinite wonder of the human experience.
I wish everyone many beautiful and loving moments on this day and any other days that may or may not occur in the future!