I have a friend who is also a psychologist. At times he does some tricky things to help the kids he meets look differently at the way they are thinking. He believes that, if something goes wrong, there are many possible different ways that we can see it—some of them helpful, some of them not so helpful. Let me give you an example.
If someone does badly on a particular question in a math exam they could think, I’ve always been hopeless at math, and this just proves it; or they could think, I sure did badly on that one question but I did pretty well on all the others. The first thought isn’t very helpful because you won’t feel very confident at math with thinking that way, whereas thinking the second thought can be a lot more helpful.
Similarly, if you get into trouble for not doing something at home, you could think, I’m always in trouble and never do anything right, or It’s true that sometimes I get into trouble for forgetting to do things but mostly my parents are good and loving to me.
I guess the question is, how do we shift our thinking from what is not helpful to what is more helpful?
Roxie was one of those people who tended to think the worst of herself. She was heard to say at times, “No matter what I do I always get it wrong,” “I’m never any good at school work,” “The other kids are always picking on me,” “I’m useless at whatever I try.” If somebody phoned and asked, “Who’s that?” Roxie would say, “Only me,” as though “me” wasn’t very important.
Roxie’s parents got a little worried that she was unhappy and took her to see my psychologist friend. He figured Roxie had to learn to feel better about herself and that just talking to her about what she should do wasn’t the best way to help her feel happier. So he did something I thought was pretty tricky.
He asked Roxie, “Do you have a tape recorder at home?” When she said yes, he asked if her parents would let her borrow it for an experiment. He had learned that she was studying science at school and that she knew experiments were used to find out things that there were no right or wrong answer.
“Over the next week,” he continued, “I want you to pretend you are an interviewer on the TV news and use the tape recorder to interview your parents, your brother and sister, and maybe one or two of your friends. What you are to say is this: ‘I am doing a documentary on Roxie. What are the things you most like about her?’’
“I can’t do that,” she protested. “They’ll think I’m conceited.”
“Just tell them you are doing an assignment. You are being an investigative journalist and you have to know what they honestly think. You can’t let them get away with just giving you just one single answer, either. You need to find out all the things they like about Roxie and what brought them to this conclusion.
“Like an investigative journalist or scientist, you will need to gather your data. Play back what you have recorded in the quiet of your own bedroom. Take some time to listen to what your interviewers have said. What do they like about you? Were they things you were expecting them to say? What comments did you like the best?. “Write down the most important things they like about you. It may be helpful to make a list of the top ten. When you have the list, stick it on your dressing table mirror or the wardrobe door so that every morning when you get up and every night before you go to bed you can remind yourself of the things you most like about you.”
I wonder, if he had asked you to do something similar, what you think those important people in your life might have said about you? If you were to write out a list, like Roxie did, what would be included?
My friend can be sort of tough in what he asks of people at times, too. “One more thing,” he said to Roxie. “There is a condition. If people are helping you with your experiment, it’s only fair that you give a little back. At the end of each interview you are to give a compliment back to the person you have just interviewed. Tell them something you really like about them.”
Understanding the role of therapeutic stories, I thought you would like to share one of yours with us. So, what stories of self-caring have you observed in children, be they your own children, your clients, or the neighborhood kids? How would those observations fit the therapeutic goal or goals of a child you are working with at the moment?