“You’re so strong!”
“You’re so smart!”
“You’re so nice!”
How many times have we uttered these phrases, with the intention of bestowing our greatest admiration upon the receiver in front of us, whether a child, a colleague, a family member or a friend?
The truth is, when you’re told that you’re a certain way over and over, your identity can become inextricably linked to a particular set of traits or qualities.
What’s so bad about that?
Don’t we all want to exude a sense of effortless positive traits and be known for it?
What could honestly be so negative about reinforcing those characteristics in our loved ones?
Aren’t we being a little overly sensitive and PC?
When someone’s identity is so wrapped up in celebrated traits like emotional strength, kindness, intelligence, or happiness, it can be devastating and surprizing for that person (and others) when, for some reason, he or she can’t keep it up any longer.
The “strong” person shows vulnerability and cries.
The “smart” person gets a mediocre mark on a test.
The “nice” person shows anger.
Fixed or Growth Mindset?
Preoccupied by the desire to prove himself/herself, she might spend a great deal of energy trying to uphold the ideal of who he/she thinks she/he should be. As Dr.Carole Dweck asserts in her book Mindset, “I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves— in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?”
Just Keep Swimming
Like a duck in water, he might find himself paddling furiously underwater to keep the illusion of strength, control, discipline, or intelligence alive, when inside he is feeling anything but in control. Sooner or later, his energy wears thinner and thinner with every paddle. It becomes too hard to show up the way he wants-too exhausting. Suddenly, the fragile nature of his ego is exposed. He finds himself acting in ways that deviate from the traits with which he most identifies, which can feel confusing. The stakes feel really high. Above all, the desire to cling to certainty can become overwhelming. Hello, identity crisis.
Veterans and PTSD
Take, for example, the war veteran who has been necessarily conditioned throughout most of his or her career to be emotionally strong, overcome fear, and show up selflessly for others. These skills and traits are what a serviceperson requires in order to survive some of the horrors and trails associated with war. That being said, the after-effects associated with adverse conflict-related trauma can be devastating. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, “it is estimated that up to 10% of war zone veterans—including war service veterans and peacekeeping forces—will go on to experience post-traumatic stress disorder.”What’s more, the conditioning that a serviceperson has undergone throughout his/her training often precludes him/her from demonstrating the vulnerability required to seek medical attention and support. There’s often a stigma attached to PTSD. It feels impossible to admit that he/she is struggling because his/her identity as a strong, capable, helper is so deeply entrenched in who they are.
High-achievers = Higher expectations
Quite often in classrooms and schools across the globe, it can be easy to get caught-up in the capitalist-industrial pressure to keep improving, keep exceeding expectations. It’s pretty common for teachers to be more surprized by average to mediocre results from our high-achievers than by failure by the lower-achieving students in our classes.
We expect our high-achievers to continue high-level products, to continually be improving, but we don’t always make space for them to show up in an average or mediocre way. Quite often, childhood prodigies or high-achievers will do anything they can to avoid failure because the expectations on their achievement is so high. Perfectionism can set in, which can cause really intelligent, capable kids to seek certainty and comfort over risk-taking and creativity. According to Dr. Adam Grant (Originals), “Child prodigies usually pursue conforming achievement, following the well-worn paths to Carnegie Hall, the science Olympics, and chess championships. They succeed by expertly following the rules rather than making their own.”
Now, I am by no means suggesting that we should all start lowering the bar for some of these high-performers but do want to bring attention to the fact that sometimes these kids will strike out. They’ll produce lower quality work, once in a while. They might have a couple of bad ideas, but it doesn’t make them any less intelligent. They shouldn’t be shamed or ridiculed or pressured to do better every single time. They should be encouraged to ask interesting questions, pursue creative exploits, and to express themselves fully so that they may become originals in their own right.
Separate Traits from the Person
When we can separate the person from traits or qualities (positive and negative), we can allow for the normalization of a wide range of emotions and traits within a person, as opposed to a fixed perspective of who they are. It can be helpful to think of the power of growth mindset, which Dweck has described as “the passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well…This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”
It is possible to free ourselves from the expectations of who we’re supposed to be and allow ourselves to sit within the essence of who we are, without judgement and with great admiration for ourselves and the journey that got us to where we are today.
Some practical replacements for common reinforcements:
Instead of…. Say….
You’re so strong! ~ You handled that with a lot of strength!
You’re so smart! ~. You solved that problem really well!
You’re so lucky! ~ Way to be prepared for that opportunity!
You’re so pretty! ~ That’s a lovely shirt. How do you feel in it?
You’re so organized! ~ You’ve thought of every detail. You must be feeling prepared.
Dr. Adam Grant (Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World)
Dr. Carole Dweck (Mindset)