This is a follow-up Newsletter from ‘The Impact of Abuse’ where I described the different outcomes of unpredictable or predictable abuse. This article expands on the characteristics of those children who lived in a family where the destructive treatment was always the same. As pointed out the people from this background felt they had to be better than, invulnerable, good/perfect, independent and totally in control. In fact, they had to be ‘perfect’ or others would discover just how damaged they were.
Elene Aguiliar, the author of many books on coaching recently wrote about understanding perfectionism. Despite not linking this need for perfection to an abusive childhood much of what she says helps us understand these children. She recognizes that at the heart of perfectionism is a belief that, in order to be loved and accepted, we must strive to act and be the best all the time. Our very worth as a human being is tied to our perfection.
This belief has its core in toxic shame (see Newsletter 7th March 2017), the view that if I make a mistake I am a mistake and so to have any sense of worth I have to be mistake free!
It is prudent to remind ourselves we are dealing with children with a damaged sense of self. We all know, or should know perfection is unattainable but the striving to achieve perfection is at the heart of all real success. We don’t want these children to stop trying but we want them to understand the reality of any situation in which they find themselves.
When talking to students I used to tell them all that I am a perfect human. Having engaged their cynical attention, they obviously knew how flawed I am. I went on to explain that no human is perfect, I’m not perfect so I must be a perfect human! By repeating this catch phrase, it became part of our shorthand communication and understanding that these kids rely on external validation, when they had made a mistake I could remind them that they are perfect. This is possible when you have developed a genuine relationship with the child, you can correct the work without having them link this with their sense of self.
We all have a real tendency to see ourselves as being imperfect and that is how it should be; this allows us to have humility and compassion, we know we have flaws but still have a sense of worth. We also can observe the faults of others without dismissing their importance. The thing is, these kids not only see their acceptance being tied to being faultless they see others as perfect. They will accept their validation or rejection without question, they have no autonomy.
To change this sense of toxic shame is a long-term project. This belief is linked into the child’s emotional memory and any cognitive discussion will have limited success. The secret is to set-up the lessons in such a way that the expectations are realistic, that is the child can achieve the goals at least 70% of the time. It is a mistake to make the work too easy, kids can see through this but having a success rate that is significant will encourage real participation.
When giving feedback be careful of how you assess their work. As children mature they need less praise and in fact teenagers are likely to reject those who praise them (see Newsletter Consequences Neither Punishment or Reward, 4th February 2018). Make your comments about the work and their effort if appropriate, never say well done when you and the student know there has been little effort.
You need to understand that when presented with new work these children will already be experiencing negative thoughts like:
I can’t do this ….
Everyone will laugh at my ….
I hate ….
They are already set-up for failure.
Too often I have seen teachers, who have little understanding of these dynamics make comments about the resulting poor efforts by the children saying things like:
What do you think you are doing ….?
Is this the best you can do……?
Why did you do that?
Comments like these reinforce the child’s self-perceptions and destroy any chance of developing a working relationship. At best, the child will agree with the teacher, of course I can’t do this, at worst they will really resent that teacher.
As pointed out above, keep the feedback focused on the work. When presented with their work acknowledge what has been done and suggest improvement using statements akin to:
How can we make this ….?
What can we do to ….?
What will it look like if ….?
Using this approach is conveying the message that you believe they can see a better way to do things, at least you are being inclusive and that is a sign of acceptance despite their lack of ‘perfection!
As the teacher you have to be aware of the emotional state they come to each task; their natural reaction is to resist ‘having a go’. Don’t confront this but acknowledge it with the following type of statements:
You hate being told to do this work.
I understand you would much rather be outside.
I get you don’t like doing this type of work.
They still have to do the work, they are students and you have to teach curriculum but by telling them you know they don’t want to, gives them the message you care about them and appreciate the extra effort they have to make. You can transform a determination to not even try into a feeling of at least being understood.
This Newsletter started addressing the problems those students raised with persistent patterns of abuse and their faulty belief that they have to be ‘perfect’. The suggestions outlined will support a teacher’s efforts to develop an authentic sense of self in these students. The same approach will work just as well for those students who think they are totally ‘imperfect’ and failures. It is all about validating their humanity.