My daughter is finishing school this year. She has enjoyed school, but like most 18 year olds, she is more than ready to leave. She has a clear idea of what she wants to do next. Her dad and I are right behind her and will support and encourage her dream. The trouble is, she is receiving minimal support from anywhere else because shock, horror – she doesn’t have any interest in going to university. Why is this such a problem? Her friends, her friends’ parents, her aunts and uncles all seem to struggle with the idea of her not wanting to get a degree.
When did this happen – this insistence that the only way to success and happiness is via university? Is this the case everywhere, or just where we live? In the past, you needed a degree to be able to do certain careers. The current attitude is that it doesn’t matter what it is, just get a degree. No wonder the drop out rate is so high. No wonder university graduates are no longer guaranteed a job when they finish.
My daughter is constantly being asked about her back-up plan. She is being told over and over again to at least apply to go to uni and defer for a year. And although she can see the path she wants to take, that’s not good enough for people around her. University is not free. It is not easy to get a degree if you are not interested in the course you’re studying and it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll walk straight into a well paying job. So her dad and I will continue to help her defend her right not to attend university, just as we will support her if she changes her mind down the track.
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When did quitting become the worst thing in the world? Parents often worry about a child wanting to stop learning the piano or finish their swimming lessons once they have become competent swimmers. Adults can stay in jobs they loathe because they don’t want to feel like a quitter. They can baulk at taking up a new interest or studying later in life for fear of dropping out if it doesn’t work. First year university students don’t seem to worry about quitting – they’re leaving in droves, but perhaps that’s because university has become the norm, instead of an option for those who are really interested in doing a specific course.
Why are we so concerned when our child wants to quit something? Is it because we regret stopping piano or swimming lessons when we were young? Do we fear that they will never finish anything they start and will never be able to commit to anything? Why do we feel ashamed to drop out of a course or change jobs ourselves? Are we worried about how we will look to our friends and family?
Surely it’s important to keep making informed decisions and to teach our children how to make good choices. Why do you feel like quitting? If the activity or job really doesn’t interest you, what is the point in hanging in there? But if you want to leave because you’re afraid that you’re not up to the task or people will discover that you’re not as good as they thought you were, then you may be suffering from imposter fear and that should be addressed.
If you want to quit because your quality of life is really being impacted by the demands of the job or the course, then what’s wrong with aiming for a less stressful existence? But if you concerned that you’re not perfect – you’re not getting high distinctions or you’re not employee of the year, then your perfectionism may need be tackled.
If a child presents a good argument about why they want to stop learning to play the guitar or why gymnastics isn’t for them anymore, we need to listen. Telling them not to quit doesn’t really teach them how to weigh up all the information and make an informed decision. Encouraging them to come up with alternate ways to live and learn is surely a better life lesson than don’t be a quitter.
Every day clients teach me more and more about how humans think and behave. Yesterday, a lovely woman I see explained why it’s so hard for her to feel grateful and see the positives in life. She told me : I have a lot to be thankful for, but no matter what happens, it will never be as good as I had hoped. For me, the penny dropped as she said those words – How can anyone see the positives if their expectations are always greater than reality?
Clients have been telling me this for years and I have only now truly understood what they were saying.
Of course I love my baby, but motherhood is so much harder than I thought it would be.
I know I have my health and wonderful friends and family, but this is not where I wanted to be at this point in my life.
In other words, it’s very difficult for people to focus on the positives and cope with the negatives before they have accepted reality. Positive psychology examines the benefits of thinking positively and being grateful. But many people find it hard to think positively and be grateful. Perhaps we have been skipping a vital step. We first need to accept that life rarely turns out exactly the way we imagined it would. There will be challenges and there will be pain. No amount of love and hard work will completely protect you from disappointment or heartache.
Once we have accepted that life is a series of wins and losses, successes and failures, pleasure and pain, we can find it easier to celebrate the positives and cope with the negatives. If we go into parenthood or relationships knowing that it won’t be easy, we can enjoy the rewards. If we enter adulthood knowing that life will take us down a series of different paths, we can feel better prepared for challenges and more appreciative of the luck and achievement.
Accepting reality provides a neutral baseline from which we can move up and down depending on what happens to us. If our expectations are too high, the only way to go is down. And if they are too low, we look for the negatives to support our dark view of the world. So in the end, being realistic makes it far easier to be positive and grateful.
Experts tell us that if we get caught in a rip when swimming in the ocean, we should not waste energy trying to swim against it. Instead, we should raise an arm to attract attention, try to stay calm and go with the current until we are out of its pull. Once free of the rip, it’s easier to swim back into shore. Let me use this analogy to address what to do when we’re caught up in an emotional rip.
If we are suddenly thrown into turmoil by circumstance, fighting the emotions can be just as counterproductive and exhausting as swimming against a rip.
Here’s what happened when a client of mine lost her temper with her boss. She’d told him where to stick his job and stormed out of the office. Minutes after that incident, she rang me in a panic. Through hysterical sobs, she explained what she’d done and was wondering where she was going to live now that she would be evicted for not being able to pay the rent after being sacked. Sacked? Evicted? She was whipping herself into a frenzy. Much to her annoyance, I simply kept asking her to focus on her breathing and on her physical symptoms. She wanted to fight me. She wanted me to debate the possibility of getting fired and being evicted. But when she gave in to her emotions and stopped trying to think her way out of her situation while the emotions were still too intense, she began to calm down. As soon as she stopped fighting and stopped trying to solve problems that hadn’t arisen, she was able to slow her breathing and she no longer felt panicky. By allowing the emotions to peak and then start to decrease, she began to see things more clearly. She then decided to go home and email an apology to her boss.
When our emotions are high, we can’t think properly. Our thoughts become irrational and we’re in danger of behaving in a way that could have serious consequences. The decisions we make in a highly emotional state may not be the same decisions we’d make in a calmer state. But it’s impossible to simply calm down. That’s why it’s infuriating when we’re told by another person to calm down or not panic.
Instead, it’s good to recognise that we are caught in an emotional rip and go with the current until the intensity eases off. Then we can find our way back to firmer ground – back to reality and back to safety.
A friend once advised me to always be myself, otherwise it would be impossible to maintain the act. He was referring to my very minor role as a psychologist on TV. It occurred to me recently that this advice also applies to my role as a parent.
For the twenty years that I have been a mother, I have wished that I was a better mum. My children are wonderful people but I have never thought that their fabulousness had anything to do with me. I blame myself for their faults of course, but their strengths are despite my mothering.
I have so often wished that I was that laid back mother who never gets phased by anything. When they were little, I envied the mums who couldn’t hear the noise and couldn’t see the mess. When they were at school, I felt guilty for not being that mother who was regularly in the canteen or on the school committees. As a parent to adolescents, I failed to always stand my ground and now that they are young adults, I still can’t completely relax when they go out or have friends over.
I have only now realised that I am who I am. I may not be the most relaxed mum in the world. I am certainly not the mother earth I wanted to be. But any attempt to pretend to be anything else has never lasted. It’s impossible to maintain the act. My children see right through me. They know when I’m worried. They know when I’m angry or upset. And they seem to have turned out all right anyway. I guess it’s because they know they are loved by an imperfect mum.
The dominant thought principle is often discussed with reference to building self-confidence. Put simply, if you are thinking negatively eg Why am I so unlucky in life?, you are more likely to see the misfortunes in your life. Whereas if your dominant thought is Good things often happen to me, you will find it easier to see the positive parts of your day. Similarly, if you focus on your good health it will feel better than focusing on the possibility of getting sick.
The concept also applies to the messages you send out to others. If you constantly tell your partner that they don’t love you, over time they may start to agree with you. If you are often warning your children not to lie to you, they are more likely to be thinking up better and better lies. If you are forever asking your adult child why they never come to see you, then you are unknowingly encouraging them to stay away.
Here are some examples of statements that are commonly made. It’s obvious which messages are more likely to result in something positive.
I know you don’t want to come with me.
I’d love for you to come with me.
Don’t lie to me.
Please tell me the truth.
Don’t ride your bike so fast. You’ll fall off.
You are always late.
Please be home by 7pm tonight.
Don’t be shy.
Look people in the eye and say Hi.
The trick is to try to catch yourself before you send out a negative message and turn it into something positive – for everyone’s benefit.
When an individual is unwell, physically or emotionally, one of their greatest fears is that they will become a burden to their friends and family. The idea that others will suffer because of your struggle is overwhelming for a lot of people. It’s one of the reason people seek help from psychologists, so that they are not over-burdening their loved ones. And most tragically, it’s one of the reasons people take their own lives. They simply cannot cope with the idea of bringing others down.
We need to keep addressing the issue of suicide in our society. Yes, we need better mental health services. Yes, we need to publicise the symptoms of depression and the avenues for treatment and support. And we also need to tell the people closest to us that they are not a burden. Anyone who is grieving (and grief is lifelong) knows that they would always prefer to have their loved one alive and be there to support them than to be relieved of that responsibility. Being a carer is one of the hardest things to do in life, but not being a carer after the death of their loved one can be even harder. We need to support the carers so that they don’t burn out (something that needs a lot more attention), AND we need to understand that the burden of caring is one most of us would choose over grief.
If someone you love is struggling with a serious illness, disability or depression, tell them that they are not a burden and tell them often. And if you are the one who is suffering, know that you are loved and that your supporters want you here – no matter what.
Should competitiveness be taught to young children? The AFL is about to expand their approach of not scoring games or having league tables and best and fairest awards for the under 10s age group and below. Many adults have expressed their outrage at this approach via social media. Their argument is that a good dose of competition never hurt anyone and we should stop wrapping our children in cotton wool. Kids need to learn resilience, they say and winning and losing is part of life.
I agree that children need to learn resilience and helicopter parenting is not helpful. Children are not silly. They know when they have just received the best player award because it was their turn. They think they know who the best player on the field is (although young children often don’t know the value of a good defender or a fabulous team player). But they also know when it’s important to play well and get in a good team for their parents’ sake. And ugly parent syndrome is a large part of the problem.
Playing a team sport is good for children for physical and social reasons. The AFL has obviously looked into how children can get the most out of playing AFL. What will keep them playing? What will draw kids to the sport? Not all children can be superstars on the field. How can we stop them dropping out if they love playing but are not the best? Kids who are never picked in decent teams or who are always on a losing team may give up. And those children who are the stars of their teams in younger age groups don’t necessarily continue playing past puberty, especially if the pressure gets too much.
Surely the key to encouraging children to do anything is to reward genuine effort. Whether we’re talking about academic performance, playing sport or a musical instrument, dancing, drama or debating, celebrating effort has got to be good for them. If they come off the field or stage or receive their school report and they hear us applauding how hard they tried, then they are more likely to keep trying. And isn’t that a good life lesson? Not everyone can be professional sportspeople or musicians. We’re not all CEOs or company owners. But if we work hard and find things we enjoy, then the rewards should flow.
Children who shine in their younger years often do so because of natural talent. They might be naturally sporty, artistic or musical or they may be highly intelligent and so they stand out amongst their peers. But as they go through adolescence and into adulthood, they will discover that natural talent only gets you so far. Others who have worked harder and have enjoyed doing so will start to reap the rewards in terms of success and happiness.
I believe in teaching children how to cope with winning and losing, it’s just that learning the value of effort is even more valuable.
Thanks so much to Josie Thomson for coming onto Studio10You this morning to talk about her journey back from cancer with the help of conventional medicine combined with meditation. Your generosity in making your CD – Simple meditation for busy people available to download for free on your website is fabulous.
Anyone interested in learning this valuable life skill can contact Josie directly at www.josiethomson.com.au