Psychology shows it’s a big mistake to base our self-worth on our achievements.
Not too long ago, my son came home disappointed about his performance on a standardized English test. Although he did very well, he had received perfect scores in previous years and felt that anything less was unacceptable. This striving for achievement, while impressive, was also misguided. In short, his thinking was that if he missed even one question, then he was a failure. As his mother, my goal is to help him to learn that his worth runs deeper than what he can prove through achievement. Here is how I aim to achieve that goal.
1) Teach your kids to love themselves for WHO they are not WHAT they can achieve.
This can be especially important if you are raising what I refer to as an anxious overachiever; one who holds themselves to over-the-top standards and then stews in self-criticism when they fall short of their expectations. I work with many medical students in my counseling practice. They often come to me with a crisis of identity. They may go from being the smartest student in the high school classroom to an environment where they are surrounded by some of the brightest kids from across the nation. All of a sudden their sense of self is rocked. School feels hard, possibly for the first time in their lives. They are in an ultra-competitive environment. A client once told me, “I don’t know who I am if I’m not the smartest in the class.” Nothing had changed within this person, but because they overvalued their intelligence, they lost a sense of confidence in their identity.
As a parent, take opportunities to point out what you like about your child that has nothing to do with their performance. Focus on attributes like their big heart, their curiosity, their honesty, or their quirky sense of humor. This is a wonderful way to remind them that they are more than what they do.
2) Focus On The Process Of Goals Rather Than The Outcome
Being “process-focused” means that you place more attention on the actions taken in pursuance of a goal rather than how the final outcome turns out. For instance, draw attention to the effort your child makes to study 20 minutes a day in preparation for their science test, rather than solely on the grade of the evaluation. Shifting this focus is important because we have limited (and often no) control over the outcome of most events. Goals often have unexpected roadblocks. Someone better prepared for that spelling bee. Poor weather conditions at that cross country meet. Subjective judging at the band performance. What we do have control over is the time and effort we put into the process. Teaching your child to focus their energy in this way allows for satisfaction, regardless of the outcome.
3) Normalize Mistakes
Help your kids become comfortable with both their strengths and their weaknesses. Sometimes I get pushback regarding this: there’s a feeling that if we teach “self-acceptance” then our kids will “stop trying.” Many adults operate under this assumption as well. We’re afraid that if we are to be gentle and kind with ourselves, to relax our grip, we might not accomplish anything at all. In actuality, the research shows the opposite. We can be a masterpiece and a work in progress at the same time. When an individual becomes comfortable with their strengths and weaknesses, they have the freedom to try new experiences with less fear of failing. I call this “failing forward” or talking through the experience of mistakes and looking at them as an opportunity for growth. This also reduces negative internalized feelings when activities become a challenge.
4) Challenge Messages About Achievement From Your Child’s Online World
If you spend any time on social media, you will likely find a barrage of misguided ideas about what should constitute success. The majority of people share posts that are carefully crafted, representing the highlights of their lives rather than the mundanity of their day to day existence. Ads in social media feeds use algorithms to target each individual’s search and click history, increasing the likelihood of buying items in areas where you didn’t even know you were lacking! The struggle is even more significant for children and teens, who are less advanced in sniffing out and challenging this type of fallacious thinking. Help your child to develop critical thinking skills surrounding the messages they receive from pop culture, social media, and their peers.
While we live in a society obsessed with achievement, you can help your child to understand the limits in this type of value-judging and develop a sense of self, beyond accomplishment.