Put your hands up if you smile and say "I'm good thanks" when the reality is you're feeling far from good?
Therapeutically, we call that being incongruent. When what you're saying doesn't match what's really happening or what you're showing i.e. in your body language. As a therapist, I'm like an incongruece detective, and I use it to help clients become aware of their behaviours and what this type of denial brings to their lives.
There are many reasons why we may not choose to be congruent, let's call it authentic for the rest of this blog, but the problem is when we struggle to be authentic; when it's not a choice but an automatic response.
If you're still reading, I'm guessing you put your hand up and that you're a parent or carer? I want to talk about being authentic, how your children are natural authenticity detectives, and how you can all benefit from 'you' being more authentic.
As young children we learn by what is spoken and what we observe, this immediately suggests then, that if we say one thing and do another, it will impact their ability to understand and will influence how they use this information.
I'm going to stick with the example of smiling and saying you're OK when actually what you need and want is to talk to someone and be validated for your experience. Imagine you have a 10 year old, maybe you do, they feel like something is wrong so they ask you (they are internally concerned and they put it out there - this is them being authentic and using their internal world to inform their behavioural choices). You give a half-hearted smile and tell them you're OK, turning away to avoid eye contact. What messages could they derive from this?
- Don't trust your internal world, your feelings; they're wrong
- If you feel negative emotions, you lie and pretend you're not
- If you're struggling, you deal with it on your own
- Negative feelings aren't OK, you only speak about positive ones
- Withdraw if you're not feeling OK
At a time when children are learning how to navigate the world, how can they learn to do this effectively if they are not allowed/they're not encouraged/it doesn't feel emotionally safe to experience the whole range of feelings? Yes you may tell them that it's OK for them to be sad, angry and scared, but if you're not showing them it's OK too - they won't fully develop what you say as a belief.
During my time working in a Women's Aid refuge, the women I worked with were often in survival mode and they would put a lot of energy in trying to make the trauma of abuse as easy as possible for their children. Even though there would be shouting, things broken and often worse, they would always try and smile for their children. Not as a direct result by any means, but often the children would struggle to identify their own feelings because they would cut them off like they saw the adults do and they would struggle to regulate their feelings, because they didn't have much practice with the difficult ones.
My message to you, is that children know more than you think, they may not have the language or the understanding, but they sense and feel it. Furthermore, you are a wonderful parent if you're authentic because you reduce the confusion your child would experience if you hid reality and you help them understand that their internal experience is valuable and they can use it in many different situations. Our internal experience can help us:
- Understand what we want and need
- Communicate to others what's happening
- Identify what feels safe and unsafe
- Develop and show empathy
- Develop entitlement (because we've learned that what we feel & think is important)
- Rely less on the external world for validation, approval, praise and achievement
Tips for Authenticity
- Think and Reflect on your own Authenticity - this may be difficult to do, especially if you were encouraged when you were young to deny your internal/authentic experiences. By being aware of it's importance, you can reflect on how authentic you are day-to-day and create some small changes, that with practice, will grow.
- Honest Answers - give your children honest answers. You can do this in an age appropriate way, which may mean not giving too much information and by changing your language i.e. saying grumpy instead of angry or p*$$ed off.
- Read Stories - that reflect life in all it's wonderful and difficult glory. Happy-ever-afters make us feel great inside but they also create a false sense of what we should be aiming for and encourage us to compare ourselves negatively to fictional characters. Having stories depict sadness, anger and injustice allow us to see how good we are doing, how positive our relationships are and allows us to gauge our interpersonal success more accurately.
- Own your Perspective - an aspect of childlike thinking is to consider things right or wrong, we can develop confidence in their unique way of thinking and feeling by showcasing our own and encouraging & valuing theirs. This may be done by saying "Some people like that sort of thing, but for me, I find it worrying, what do you think?" or "For me, the temperature is just right in here, what could you do to warm up a bit?"
- See Them - one way we communicate with our children is through praise and whilst I think this is important, I think it's value is in recognising the child's effort and investment over the end product. Praising a child for their spelling test results is very different to praising their effort and commitment, than validating how that extra night they did has shown in their mark; after all, that's the real success.