Stop Thinking You're Bad. It Will Make You Better.
Nothing is black and white.
I used to think I was a bad parent.
I have two kids with multiple Learning Differences. It’s the term I prefer to use when people have diagnoses like Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Executive Function issues, etc.
I grew up a total school nerd, straight A, Ivy League, Neuroscience PhD kind of person. I considered my academic prowess to be an important part of my identity.
For a long time, I had this thought in the back of my head that I couldn’t change. I didn’t want my kids to have Learning Differences. I was very focused on wishing that I could change something that I had no control over. And I couldn’t understand how it happened. How they both managed to win some sort of random double recessive genetic lottery ticket.
So, when they would remind me that they had these differences — struggle to tie their shoes way past when all the other kids could do it, or spell Dad ‘b-a-b’, I would internally freak out. How will they make their way in the world? What will their identity be, if not academic jock?
Then, on top of the freak out, I would berate myself. What’s wrong with me? How dare I think these thoughts? I’m a terrible human! These are two of the sweetest, kindest kids in the world. Why is this upsetting me? How shallow am I? I must be a terrible parent!
And there it was.
That’s what went on in my head. I’d go from zero to sixty before my kids knew what happened. All they saw was their mom watch them tie their shoes, and then have a total meltdown. For no reason they could understand. It’s not like they knew that they were late for some arbitrary milestone.
It would upset them to see me freak out. And that made it worst of all.
So, I had two identities I clung to, and swung between, back and forth. Academic performer, and bad parent. To be a better parent, I had to stop caring about being good at school. But how could I let go of what I thought of as a fixed part of my identity?
I was missing a piece of the puzzle.
Cherry picking the evidence
We are all bombarded by information, all the time. So we pick and choose what we see and internalize. Psychologists call it cognitive bias, and define it as:
a mistake in reasoning, evaluating, remembering, or other cognitive process, often occurring as a result of holding onto one’s preferences and beliefs regardless of contrary information.
I had told myself a story. That my “success” in life was due to my academic performance. And I had decided that therefore, all “success” is related to academic performance. I had blocked out all other evidence in my mind for most of my life, because it served me. But then it stopped serving me, and I was spinning.
Without understanding what I was doing at first, I started looking for new evidence. I sought out stories of people who found health, wealth, and happiness without a conventional academic path. Richard Branson, Barbara Corcoran, Henry Winkler. I learned that beloved members of my extended family hadn’t finished college, or even gone to college. Somehow I never realized.
I discovered that I chose only to see the success of the Harvard graduates of the world because it supported my story. And conveniently left out the high school and college dropouts who went on to great, happy lives. Because it didn’t serve me.
I began to realize that there isn’t one story, there are multitudes.
It’s possible that…
I started to believe that not only were my kids going to follow a different path, but that path could be even better than mine. How could I know? How could I predict? There is evidence for an infinite number of scenarios all around me. Scenarios I had never even noticed before.
And I started to think about the idea of cognitive bias as it applied to how I thought about my parenting.
I told myself the story that I was a bad parent. I used my occasional freak outs about their Learning Differences as evidence. Was there evidence of anything else, right in front of me?
What about the fact that I hugged my kids and told them I loved them every single night before bed. And they said it right back. That we had inside jokes, and laughed at the dinner table almost every night. What about the fact that they came to me when they were happy, or sad, or confused. And I did my best to help them.
Was it possible that I wasn’t a bad parent? Was it possible that I was an okay parent? Or a good enough parent?
This was a revelation that I hadn’t considered.
Practice the thought you want to believe
I started to toy with thinking of myself as a ‘half decent’ parent. “It’s possible that I’m an okay parent.” I’d tell myself. It’s possible that I am sometimes a good parent. When I’d start to berate myself, I’d find that sentence in the back of my head or on a post-it note on my desk and mull it over. Roll it around. See if it felt reasonable. Often, it did.
And then something even more surprising happened.
When I stopped beating myself up for every misstep, I stopped freaking out at my kids as much. Sure, I’d still worry, or get frustrated, or occasionally lose my temper. But I stopped telling myself that this was clear evidence of bad parenting. I’d feel the frustration, without the extra negative voices.
And I became a better parent. Less volatile, more open. It would take me less time to get back down to earth after a tense moment. More accepting of who my kids actually are, instead of who I expected them to be. If they couldn’t tie their shoes, I’d show them, again. Because it didn’t matter if they “should” know by now. The reality was, they didn’t. They didn’t need my freak out, they needed another lesson. So that’s what I gave them.
I’ll never be a perfect parent. Perfect parents don’t exist. And I’ll admit, I had a meltdown just yesterday when my 8 year old pulled me into a Lego situation that I wanted no part of. But I didn’t make the meltdown mean anything. It didn’t mean I was a bad parent. It meant I had a tough moment. We all do.
Nothing is fixed
Here’s the only story that is true, 100% of the time. Nothing is black and white. You can be a good person, a good parent, a good employee, a good daughter, and make mistakes. Or, you can be bad at something, keep practicing at it, and get better.
So, telling yourself that you’re a bad person isn’t 100% true and won’t make you a better one. It will make you hide from the evidence of your good qualities. And afraid to put yourself out there and try to get better.
What is the story you are telling yourself today? And is it true? Is there no other evidence, no other possibilities, no other perspectives? I bet there are. You just have to look.