The Slippery Slope of the “Things Could Always be Worse” Perspective.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

The other day on Facebook, a good friend posted something that had happened to her kids. One of them, a pre-teen and budding photographer, had lost a file of treasured pictures from his hard drive. The other, age eight, had melted down after discovering that his Legos had been unexpectedly tidied up in his absence, though he was in the midst of a grand building scheme.  As parents often do, my friend was reflecting on the events and the meaning she and her kids had each made of the losses they’d suffered.

So often, we talk about how to help our kids (and ourselves) maintain perspective when they, or we, encounter loss or endure an insult of some kind. In the example of my friend and her two boys, the parental message was one of a splash of empathy mixed with a big dose of perspective: bottom line? Nobody has Ebola, so it’s time to move on, right?

Yes, but…

I am fortunate to have been raised by hardworking, successful parents who could afford some of the finer things in life and made a point of encouraging new experiences and opportunities for me and my brother.  Their work ethic and desire to provide for their kids trickled down to me, and my resulting M.O. is to raise my daughters to have a work ethic and drive of their own, an inner sense of civic responsibility and the importance of giving back, and a childhood free of serious financial burdens.  Sounds perfect, right?

Well, things aren’t always so streamlined and clear. Many people in our social circles struggle with the same questions my parents faced decades ago: How do we raise children in relative comfort without a sense of entitlement or tendency to overreact when confronted by minor adversity? How do we develop in our children an appreciation of their good fortune compared to the challenges faced by so many in the world around them?  How do we instill a work ethic and solid values, while giving them so much “stuff”?  These questions have been debated for years, but my focus here is slightly different: how can we provide genuine empathy when our kids hit bumps in the road—acknowledging their disappointments and distress while maintaining perspective and helping them stay grounded.

I’ve written on this topic before, dealing with the “it’s just a game” mantra when things don’t go our way in sport:

For those of us fortunate enough to have been raised within a loving family where basic needs were met and fundamental aspects of childhood were sustained, the “things could always be worse” mantra can loom large in our psyches… But what if we are never allowed to feel pain or disappointment because the message we continually receive is that we are fortunate and that others suffer more?  What if things literally could always be worse and, therefore, our problems are never legitimate enough to warrant attention or sympathy?

So when our budding photographer loses his cherished photographs in middle school or our eight-year-old comes home to find his Lego village destroyed, our instinct is to remind them that it’s important to keep perspective.  We tell them that “it’s not the end of the world,” that they can always take more photos and build a new Lego city.  In fact, we might add in frustration how lucky they are to have fancy cameras and hard drives and Legos, which 90% of the world’s children can only dream about.  And, besides (we might pile on), many kids with cancer or who’ve lost a parent, or who are in foster care, would give up their cameras and Legos in a heartbeat for a chance at health and stability.  Indeed, when my nine-year-old daughter had moments of fatigue this summer while juggling her soccer ball to raise money for the kids at St. Jude Hospital, you can be sure I whipped out the “suck-it-up-because-you-don’t-have-cancer-message” one time too many.

Our intentions are good. We are doing our best to create grounded kids with a sense of appreciation and perspective. But here’s the problem: it can be all too easy to go overboard and raise kids whose cuts and scrapes never get acknowledged, because someone else lost a limb. We can create kids whose psyches resonate with the message of “things could always be worse,” and are never allowed to acknowledge any loss in their lives.  Their dad might be away on business trips five out of seven nights a week, but at least they have a dad.  Their mom might be starving herself to fit into her party jeans, but at least she makes their lunch every day, and it’s packed in a monogrammed lunch box. They may have lost their championship soccer game, but how lucky to be able to pay for the traveling team, to be healthy and have the experience of competitive soccer in the first place.

It’s a slippery slope, the perspective one, and I’m here today to give voice to the importance of having our little “owies” acknowledged, bandaged, and cared for. We all need to feel that we are heard, seen, and nurtured, no matter the big picture.  And while this strategy refers mostly to parenting, it also applies to how we treat ourselves. If we grow up being told over and over that things could always be worse, that we are so fortunate to have what we have and be who we are, we just might end up trying secretly and desperately to find a REAL reason to be taken seriously and cared for, with outcomes that are far from ideal.

The lifelong message is to keep in mind the importance of acknowledging and validating the pain and disappointment of our everyday losses while also understanding and appreciating the big picture and the positive aspects of our lives. This balance is as tricky as life balances get, but with all the self-help and parenting advice that gets thrown around these days, especially in circles of privilege, it is well worth remembering.

 

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There is not One Right Way: Acknowledge Your Influences and Appreciate that Yours is but One Perspective.

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Yesterday I was driving our daughters to a rehearsal, and the word “irony” came up.  Our nine-year-old wanted a refresher on the meaning of that word, which we’d discussed before.  This led to a conversation about genetics and the nature / nurture conundrum.  Beefy stuff.   It was one of those conversations that left me fully in awe of my role as parent, one of the times when I realized that my daughters’ world view–their understanding of critical concepts, their opinions about social/cultural phenomena, and their belief systems in general–are all informed first and foremost by mine and my husband’s points of view.  Teachers, grandparents, friends, coaches, and others will all have an impact, but the reality is that our lens as parents has a profound and lasting impact on the worldview of our children.

My job as a psychologist for many years was conducting assessments of children, adolescents, and young adults who were struggling in some way.  Not surprisingly, in most cases the difficulties in the presenting client were embedded in a family in which others also struggled. Day in and day out, I was privy to the significant and immeasurable effects of parenting on children.  The point wasn’t (and isn’t) to blame parents; rather the idea was to appreciate the enormity of the job and the myriad ways things could go wrong and lead a child astray in some important psychological way.

There’s a bumper sticker that says, “Don’t believe everything you think.”  I’m not a big bumper sticker lover, but this one always makes me pause and read it twice.  I like the message.  It’s a good reminder to acknowledge that our belief systems–our opinions and perspectives—are just that: OURS. They are not facts or truths, even if we tell ourselves they are.  They are the outcome of a number of influences, starting with the perspective and psychological standing of our parents and earliest caregivers. Having a stance and firm beliefs is important, and developing a point of view is one of the great gifts of the human experience.  However, it is important to keep in mind the subjectivity of our lens and view, lest we convince ourselves (and our children) that our opinions and ways of seeing and doing things are the only true and final ones.

As I’ve written before, it is important to be able to sift through the many influences available to us in order to come to an informed decision that works for us.  Choosing anything–from a workout program or specific methodology for learning a new skill, to a school for our children, to a healthcare provider–is a critical undertaking that forces us to call upon our own convictions in conjunction with the opinions and influences of those around us. And once we make such choices, we invite the influence of these providers (our kids’ teachers, our coaches, our doctors, the news reporters we watch) who will contribute to the way we view the world and the choices we will make in the future.

As you arrive at the big, tough decisions, it’s always a good idea to check in with yourself and acknowledge the long and winding road that has led to where you are. Don’t get trapped into accepting the advice of an “expert” without stepping back and evaluating the decision-making process. There is almost always not just one answer to a question, one definition of a word, one theory to espouse, or one way of training for your sport of choice. Appreciate the in-between: hang out there long enough to come out the other side with a course of action that works for YOU, for now. There will always be time to revisit your choices with new information and experience—and, in fact, it behooves you to do so lest your beliefs become your dogma.

It’s Just a Game…or Is It? Perspective Matters.

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By Dr. Allison Belger

People often talk about maintaining perspective.  When life gets tough and things don’t go our way, we try to make ourselves feel better by keeping perspective—reminding ourselves that things can always be worse, that at least we have our health, our job, our family.  We may take comfort in the fact that, compared to our friend who is going through a nasty divorce, or our daughter’s teacher whose child was hurt in a terrible accident, our life is just fine, thank you very much.  When we compete in a sport to which we’ve dedicated time, energy, and resources, and the outcomes are not in our favor, perhaps we tell ourselves something like, “It’s only a game,” or “Life is bigger than a CrossFit competition.”

There are some practical benefits and relief in maintaining this approach when life throws us curveballs.  Reminding ourselves of the positive aspects and blessings of our lives is a powerful tool to keep us grounded and aware of what matters most.  However, there may be a fine line between living with perspective and overstating the simplicity of “things could always be worse.”

For those of us fortunate enough to have been raised within a loving family where basic needs were met and fundamental aspects of childhood were sustained, the “things could always be worse” mantra can loom large in our psyches, instilled by loving parents who were able to hold onto perspective when life’s relatively minor insults crossed our paths.

But what if we are never allowed to feel pain or disappointment because the message we continually receive is that we are fortunate and that others suffer more?  What if things literally could always be worse and, therefore, our problems are never legitimate enough to warrant attention or sympathy?  All sport, when it comes down to it, is always just a game.  But then what’s the point of training and commitment if it doesn’t really matter?  Why bother with all the work if, in the end, life is so much bigger than the game?

Life is, in fact, about our passionate pursuits–the activities that most engage us.  Might the “life is bigger than…” line be a way of sugar coating the reality and emotional impact of poor results despite our hard work and best efforts?  If our attitude is always that “it’s just a game,” it seems a slippery slope to conclude that “it’s only a job,” or “it’s just a house,” or “it’s just a marriage.”

Of course, our health and wellness and that of our loved ones always comes first; no argument there. But beyond that, who is to say that sport or any other endeavor to which we devote ourselves is “just a game” or “just a race” or “just a presentation.”  One bad day or one bad game may not comprise a crisis or tragedy, but our overall experiences are absolutely the substance of our lives, and their outcomes definitely matter.  These outcomes become the stuff of our lives, and trying to convince ourselves that they don’t have worth can be as problematic as overreacting to a single negative event as though it were a tragedy.

The point is this:  know what is important to you, know what you’re putting into your sport or your job or your relationships, and be sure that you are prioritizing appropriately.  When things go well, how great is that?  But when they don’t, let’s not pretend that life is bigger and that our losses don’t matter; life IS comprised of these events and outlets, and finding a balance is vital.  Live it, love it, and enjoy the successes, but take time also to appreciate and process the downside in order to find meaning and grow with the challenge of loss.  It’s okay to mourn bad sport outcomes, just as it’s acceptable to lament other endeavors gone awry.  Learn from the experiences, the feelings, the losses, and move on with whatever it is that matters to you and warrants your focus moving forward.  Onward you’ll go.

**Related reading:  Had a Bad Day, Now What?