Emotional Health

Barbara Corcoran, Positive Thinker—The Secret Sauce of Success

How many times have you heard people say that if they brought home a test with an A- written on it, their parents said, “Why not an A?” Even if these stories are not all accurate memories, somehow that is the attitude that filtered down to the kids: perfection is what you must strive for, or, as a teacher once said to our class, “The good is the enemy of the better.”

I didn’t understand that saying at the time, and I still don’t buy it. Good is good, and comparing it to another result is not always helpful. It can serve to diminish significant achievements that are worthy in and of themselves. That does not mean that striving to do your best isn’t a worthwhile goal, but perfection in all things is impossible. Worse, it is a destructive goal.

British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott urged mothers to be a “good enough mother” and explained ways in which perfect mothering (if that were even possible) deprives children of the ability to learn to “parent” themselves as they grow. Frustration and disappointments, which occur naturally when a mother fails to perfectly meet her child’s every need, are essential experiences in development. When wounds and failures occur, experiencing the repair of these breaches is one of the most important tools that parents can use.

The best kinds of parents understand this intuitively, and, not surprisingly, a similar process occurs in psychotherapy. Often the most fruitful work takes place when the patient feels disappointed in the therapist and the wounds and misunderstandings can be examined and worked out.

Even so, parents can learn from other “good enough” parents, something that is especially important for those of us who may have had less than optimal role models. Recently, the wildly successful real estate broker Barbara Corcoran gave an interview in which she discussed her own childhood and its influence on her success. A mediocre student in school, Barbara had trouble paying attention:

 . . . I spent six hours a day daydreaming in class. I just gave up by third grade. But my mother’s response was to say: “Don’t even worry about it. You have a wonderful imagination. You’ll learn to fill in all the blanks.” That was powerful for me, and I leaned on that for the rest of my life.

The Corcorans had a large family and her father worked two jobs to keep them afloat. But her mother kept things running smoothly with terrific organizational skills (she kept one massive sock drawer for everyone to find a pair as needed), but she had the knack for treating her children as individuals when it was important. Barbara remembers,

My mother was also great at figuring out the best qualities of her kids and only focusing on those. She never criticized us. All she did was compliment us on what we did well. It taught us to have a positive attitude about ourselves, and it also taught us to look at the light in people.

Her father wasn’t able to be around much, but he also had a skill for teaching the kids the lighter side of life. He modeled the pleasures of silliness and play, and even insubordination. Barbara credits these as skills that people need not only to enjoy life but also as essential ingredients to her success.

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  • b. elliott June 22, 2017 at 2:32 pm

    Such a great post! Shared it with my friends who strive to be “good” mothers.

    • Diane Dettmann June 25, 2017 at 8:14 am

      Thank you Dr. Ford for the insightful and inspiring article. Just reading it helped me relax. Today I plan to see life as a place to follow my dreams and have fun in the process!