Unlearning What Our Parents Taught Us

growth mindset Jul 19, 2020

I had a rough week.

Not because of anything anyone said or did to me; and not because of anything that happened to me.

It was entirely because of the way I reacted to something that happened.

I submitted a document I’d created to my coach, for a critique, looking for advice and suggestions on how to improve it. But I had a preconceived idea in my head of the type of feedback I expected to receive (aesthetic improvements I could make to the document), and when the suggestions didn’t fit those parameters, I took it personally.

The feedback was mostly about the substance of the content itself, and that shook my self-confidence to its core. I put my own spin, my own interpretation, on the suggestions I was being given, and instead of viewing it as positive information I could use to make improvements, I let myself believe it meant I had done a lousy job.

I had failed.

I was a failure.

I might as well just give up.

Do you see how that escalated? And it all happened within a matter of a few seconds.

Do you ever find yourself getting angry, or bursting into tears, or simply feeling helpless, and then later on, when you have time to sit back and reflect, you realize you’ve overreacted? It’s an incredibly common phenomenon, and for most of us, it has its roots in our childhood.

Many of us have never actually sat back and thought about the things that happened to us when we were kids, and how they might have affected the way we cope in the real world today. Part of growth, part of becoming an adult in the emotional sense, is learning to separate our reactions to events that occur from the events themselves.

It’s far easier said than done. Our emotions can turn on without us giving it any further thought. But there’s a difference between experiencing an emotion (something you really can’t control) and cultivating feelings about that emotion (making it personally applicable to you).

Even when we are aware of this tendency, it’s so easy to slip back into it. That doesn’t mean we're immature. It means we're human. And if we can learn to catch ourselves while it’s happening (or even, to realize on reflection that we've overreacted), then we can continue to grow and gradually master the art of separating what happens from how we react to what happens.

You may relate to my story.

When I was growing up, I was fed a steady diet of positive feedback, in the form of statements like “You’re so smart! You can do anything you want to in life.”

Unfortunately, I interpreted this to mean I wouldn’t/shouldn’t make any mistakes (because I was ‘so smart’, I should get everything perfect!). I also developed the assumption that I shouldn’t have to actually work for anything I got in life – whatever I produced should be just so good that it wouldn’t need improving (or if it did, the suggested changes would be incredibly minor, and mostly cosmetic).

For the first few years of my schooling, the above was all true. I coasted through the first 5 grades, got perfect on virtually every test, and always had the right answer when I put up my hand. Until one day, in Grade 6, when I got the wrong answer. Everyone in the class turned and looked at me, and laughed. Their laughter pierced my soul. I felt humiliated, and just wanted to crawl under my desk and disappear.

I wasn’t perfect, after all. I was flawed. Everything I’d been told about myself – by my parents and by my teachers - seemed like a lie in that moment, and the firm foundation on which my identity had been built was now shifting sand. I could no longer believe any of the positive reinforcement anyone had given me in the past.  From that moment on, my identity was forged on a desperate desire to produce perfect work, and to seek praise and approval. If my ego wasn’t being stroked, it meant I was a failure. My self-worth was tied completely to the quality of my output. And I was bound and determined that I would never be humiliated like that again.

I stopped participating in class, unless I was 100% certain of the answer (and sometimes, not even then, because even when I thought I understood the material, part of me still doubted myself). I became shy and withdrawn. I was thin-skinned and suffered from imposter syndrome.

Is any of this sounding familiar? I was raised with what psychologists call a “fixed mindset” – led to believe that the gifts and talents I had been born with were the determinants of my future success. This type of messaging, ironically, causes us to put limitations on ourselves, to think that if we make a mistake or fail at something, it reflects on us personally and that we are incapable of changing it. It’s incredibly unhealthy, and can cause us untold amounts of grief throughout our lives if we don’t address it.

The alternative, (and the healthy way to raise a child), is to create in them a “growth mindset”. This way of thinking values and rewards the effort the child puts in, rather than the result they obtain. It cultivates a belief that improvement is always possible. There are no inherent limitations on what can be accomplished, based on the raw materials the child was born with.

Instead of getting praise for getting all As on a report card, for example, the child is praised for how hard they worked during the term, regardless of the final grades obtained. Thus, if the child does their best, and only gets a B in a particular subject, there is no shame, and instead of internalizing a sense of failure, the child simply learns to analyze where they can improve, course-corrects, and tries a new approach the next time.

[Here’s a great article by the author of “Atomic Habits”, James Clear, that explains the “fixed mindset/growth mindset” dichotomy and how it can impact the achievement of our goals in life.]

Looking back on my personal experience, I can see that as a result of being raised with a fixed mindset, I became incredibly needy of validation and positive feedback for anything I did. I became a perfectionist. And to this day, I have a hard time accepting constructive criticism, because “if I’m not perfect, then I’m a loser”.

Awareness is the first step.

This is personal growth work that ideally I would have done many years ago. But for so many of us, it takes half a lifetime to mature to the point of feeling ready to confront these feelings and learn how to let things roll off our back when our work is critiqued. I’m in my mid-fifties, and although I’ve paid lip-service to the concept of the “growth mindset” for many years, I’m just now confronting the fact that this actually isn’t how I was raised.

My parents loved me. They meant well. They didn’t understand the damage they were doing by telling me that I was “so smart” and that I “could do anything I wanted to do” because of my God-given, natural ability. So, along with cultivating awareness, and learning how to focus on my efforts rather than the specific results those efforts generate, I also need to work on forgiveness. I need to learn how to let go of the resentment that sometimes wells up inside me when I think back to my childhood humiliations, and the fact that I wasn’t brought up with as much resilience as I otherwise might have been.

We are all works in progress. Our growth doesn’t end until the day we draw our last breath. Thank goodness, because that means we can always adapt and learn new ways of coping in life, no matter what our back story might be.

Were you raised with a fixed mindset, or a growth mindset? How did that affect the way you cope with life today – in particular, with the way you deal with setbacks and negative feedback? Did any aspect of my personal story resonate with you? Let me know in the comments!

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