We treat ourselves, as I blogged here, as we were treated. Psychological problems can often be usefully framed as a question of how we treat ourselves. Depression can be the result of beating ourselves up, or neglecting ourselves. Too, often, therapists (and friends) deal with depression as if they are interacting only with the victim of self-abuse or self-neglect and not with the perpetrator. Anxiety can be the result of not knowing what to do, or not knowing how to evaluate available evidence. Anxiety looks like a child lost in the mall, but it typically involves a parent who doesn’t notice that the child has not kept up. Treatment that lasts will involve that parent—the part of the person that is unavailable during anxious moments—and not just the frightened child.
The idea of introjects—internalized representations of others—is very old, and it is well-known that it takes a tightly framed, extremely intimate relationship for a therapist to become a new kind of introject for patients. But the understanding of how parents (and others) become introjects in the first place is often obscured by overly complicated thinking on the subject. There are all sorts of chaotic, systemic forces at play, but the smart move is to say to your children what you want them to learn to say to themselves.
1. Honey, do you have to pee? I discovered while toilet training my older son that the process mainly involved making this question a core aspect of his self-experience. If he was aware of having to pee, he knew what to do, but the risk was that he would not become aware until it was too late. In this model, “awareness” is simply a mentalized substitute for being asked the question. Most of us have this question so embedded in our self-systems that checking for pee seems like second nature. Even passed-out drunks will, occasionally, get up and go to the bathroom, so ingrained is this question.
The “honey” is meant to represent the tone of the question as that of a concerned and supportive parent. You can induce toilet training with the bark of a drill sergeant or the annoyance of a busy parent, but you will not create a functional system of self-care with that attitude. Plus, you will have far fewer accidents if the part of the system that wants to know is experienced by the part of the system that may have to pee as allied with each other around mutual interests.
There are many life problems, including those labeled psychosomatic, but also those associated with poor sleep habits and disordered eating, that can be considered problems with getting a simple systems check on biological needs. The best defense is an accurate, friendly parental voice that fosters such a systems check. “Honey, are you hungry?” “Honey, don’t you need to get some sleep?” That kind of thing.
2. Honey, what sounds good? Parenting is demanding, especially if you intend to have a life of your own while you are doing it. (Therapy is less demanding because it’s relatively easy to give up a life of your own for 50 minute chunks while getting paid to do it.) It’s not a bad thing to teach children to go along to get along, to participate positively in the routines and rituals of a system. But sometimes, we inadvertently teach them to do so by sacrificing, rather than tabling, their own desires. This can lead to the insidious kind of depressive living that looks functional but is actually joyless.
Parents who live a life of their own often feel guilty about not meeting their children’s expressed wishes, and the children respond either by not expressing wishes or by demanding they be met. If parents express curiosity about children’s desires, they can make a considered decision about what to do given all the demands on the system. The result, other things being equal, are adults who know what they want and are positioned to make considered decisions about whether to act on desires. But if the person’s desires are not even asked about, they can’t even be considered.
Much depression can be construed as a failure to ask oneself what sounds good. In small ways, opportunities for pleasure are lost when no thought is given to one’s preferences. Ice cream shops provide free samples for a reason, but only those who ask themselves what sounds good capitalize on the chance to do a taste test. In large ways, people will live for decades in the wrong environment, work at the wrong job, or commit to the wrong relationship because they haven’t asked themselves what they want. Anxious people would often be less anxious if they knew what they wanted and how much they wanted various alternatives.
3. Honey is that a good idea? We are good at catching our kids misbehaving in our presence. We know that punishment doesn’t work, as I blogged about here, so we try not to yell at them or hit them and instead direct them to a behavior that will get them some part of what the misbehavior might have gotten them, or we show them that what they were trying to get wasn’t what they thought, or we just reward them for doing something else. Some of these solutions to the problem of misbehavior create a dependent relationship between good behavior and being watched. Some of us try to convince children that they are always being watched, but a little experimenting on the child’s part usually disproves this. Instead, we can teach children to stop and think by asking them, when they are doing something bad but relatively harmless, if what they are doing is a good idea.
Brian Gearity, who directs the University of Denver’s online master’s program in sport coaching, cited a famous French soccer coach who said that American men would never win the world cup despite their advantages in health, diet, money, and population size. Apparently, the French coach noted that American boys rarely play soccer without adult supervision. As a result, he said, American boys learn the solutions to soccer problems, but they don’t learn how to solve soccer problems. (I’ve since wondered if we supervise clinical trainees too closely.) Making the question of whether an action is a good idea into a core aspect of parenting is an attempt to create conditions where kids can learn to make good decisions on their own.
Impulsive people and those who annoyingly don’t consider their effects on others could usefully ask themselves this question. Anxious people ask themselves this question, but they don’t know how to answer it. This is partly because they are not that familiar with the implied concept that many situations are “bad but relatively harmless.” They either don’t monitor themselves or they just scream, “Stop!” at themselves. We can help children avoid that condition by asking them to do their own thinking about what they are up to.