Perfection Pitfalls: Teaching Self-Worth

On my desk sits a bowl of candy.  The bowl is titled, “The Grandma Candy Bowl”.  It is free to any student who chooses to come to my desk and tell me something about their day or themselves.  This week one of my students came to collect his butterscotch and I asked him, “What is one compliment you can give yourself?”  He sat there with the candy in hand, staring off, struggling to find words.  He could not think of one kind thing to say about himself.

This student is merely one of many who struggle with the idea of what it means to be kind to the person they are with the most: themselves.  Learning self-love is not a unique struggle for kids, especially as they enter adolescence.  It may also come as no surprise that it is a hurdle for many adults as well.  Collectively, we have unknowingly engaged in a societal war on our worth.  Fabricated measures of values have placed us in a perpetual race for perfection, which is a fertile breeding ground for anxiety and depression.

Research done by JAMA pediatrics (2022) states that by 2020, 5.6 million kids (9.2%) had been diagnosed with anxiety problems and 2.4 million (4.0%) had been diagnosed with depression.  This is an overwhelming number of children who can benefit from direct instruction and reflection on how to make the friendship they have with themselves stronger and healthier.  In working with kids and adults, I have found that these are a few areas we can focus on.

Ditch the enemy known as “You”: Growing up I had the habit of frontloading every idea or opinion with the phrase, “This is probably stupid but…”  This was the  armor I used to face potential rejection or ridicule.  Until one day, early in my career, my boss and mentor gave me the task of helping out another school.  I was tasked to put my talents to use and present it to a district principal for her approval.  I started the presentation with my habitual words: “This may all be stupid, but here is what I came up with.”  After the meeting my mentor called me to give me feedback.  She said, “Your work was great, but your self-deprecation is unnecessary.  If you do not believe in yourself, why would others?”  There is something to be said about the reality that we are all our own worst enemy.  We create the hurdles we must jump.  We dig holes we fall into.  We eliminate the opportunities we feel we do not deserve.   Assist your learners with reflecting on their actions and how they impacted their achievement as well as the habits that held them back.  Success and fulfillment comes when we realize that the person who has the most power to impact our outcomes is ourselves. 

Just say “Thank you” :  There is a notion that if we are kind to ourselves we are blind to our weaknesses.  This is a concept I have battled my entire life.  If I receive a compliment I always have a quick rebuttal ready to poke holes in the theory that I was anything but mediocre.  I vividly remember the first time I became aware of this mental pitfall, 21 years ago in college.  My friend’s mom gave me a simple compliment on how beautiful I looked.   Per the usual, I stumbled over how to downplay her words and responded with “trust me it is just the makeup.”  She grabbed my arms and said, “Dear, just say thank you.” She followed up with, “When someone gives you the gift of a compliment, it is best received with gratitude instead of refusal.  That, my dear, is rude.” In my mind, if I would have thanked her, I would be agreeing with her flattering assessment.  If I agreed with her, I was “stuck up” or not practicing humility.  It never crossed my mind that refusing a compliment was “rude” or at minimum impolite.  The idea that we are being conceited or cocky if we are proud of our hard work is nothing but an invitation for constant self-belittlement. Celebrate your students.  Give compliments.  When I give a compliment, I always tell people, “I don’t say anything that isn’t true.”  Watching someone accept acknowledgement for their gifts is a gift in return.    

Approval comes from within: It is human nature to look outward for the measuring stick of our value or worth.  We select those we want to be like (or better than), and we cover up our identity with a version of someone else.  We watch videos on social media and with each 60 second clip determine if we are better or worse than the person we are viewing.  We make the mistake of shaping ourselves from the outside, in, instead of letting the gift of who we are on the inside shape the world around us.  So often we use others to either validate or shame our intelligence, body, and abilities.  We overlook the gifts we were born with for two reasons. We either believe they do not exist or we think they are not good enough to contribute to the collective good, which quite frankly is bullshit!  Turn off the apps on your phone and fall into what you love.  Remind yourself and your students that in the words of Brene Brown, “Your worth is not negotiable.”  It is yours.  It is not a “thing” that can be voted on or decided by those outside of you.  Restrict your child from social media and encourage them to follow the passions that were innately placed within them.  Find opportunities to praise kids for being unique or independent thinkers. 

Find beauty in failure:  We are not where we want to be… YET!  When Carol Dweck first put out her work on growth mindset, over 30 years ago, it seemed to me a simplistic approach to working with students that had been overlooked and underestimated.  It is a value system that helps kids see that failure is not self defining.  Rather, it is a starting point for trying again.  Growth mindset places value on accepting feedback, taking academic risks, and building resilience.   We can live this approach through goal setting, self-reflection, and by replacing our defeatist language with self-empowering words.  When kids underperform, validate their feelings of negativity and quickly throw them the life line of planning for what comes next.  Praise their bravery for risk taking such as trying out for a school team, attempting challenging questions, or simply being the only student to raise their hand to contribute an idea.  

There are no simple, one-size-fits-all solutions for the negative self-perceptions plaguing our children.  This is partly due to the fact that every child is so different.  Kids with self-hate may look like the quiet kids that try to go unnoticed in your classroom.  They may look like the loud, attention seeking students that interrupt your lessons.  At the root of so much turmoil in kids and adults is that at their core they do not believe they deserve a life of worth.  Factors from every direction convince people that there is a prototype of perfection out there that they are far from attaining.  Lest we forget, the only perfection is imperfection.  It is the unique nuances in our character that make us the missing puzzle piece to a more perfect tomorrow.  Be brave. Be yourself.  Be boldly willing to contribute your gifts to those around you. You make the world a better place. 

Research provided by: Lebrun-Harris LA, Ghandour RM, Kogan MD, Warren MD. Five-Year Trends in US Children’s Health and Well-being, 2016-2020. JAMA Pediatr. 2022;176(7):e220056. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.0056

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