Emotional Health

Self-Appreciation: Smell the Roses

We all know people who brag about, dwell on, and even exaggerate their achievements. They see life as a race, and they want to be the winners. This kind of “zero-sum” thinking assumes if you are not a winner, then you must be a loser, but this actually applies to very few areas in life.

In general, women are more inclusive and less competitive than men, and physical differences (e.g. their bodies’ need to support a pregnancy and nurse a child) and psycho-social norms reinforce this. The late psychologist Eric Erikson studied children playing with blocks in many different cultures, and found some consistent results. Boys built big or tall structures, while girls tended to build enclosures.

As a woman, you are more likely to see your wellbeing as inextricably linked to that of your family. There’s a saying that “you are only as happy as your least happy child.” If one of them is unhappy, it is hard to ignore for long. It weighs on you, demanding an answer, an answer from you.

We not only feel responsible in a supportive way, but also in more negative ones as well. Our children are not only our responsibility, and but their problems are our fault. This viewpoint was shared by clinicians until quite recently. Many mental health problems, for example, were considered directly attributable to poor maternal care. Schizophrenia? The “schizophrenogenic mom.” Autism? The “refrigerator mother.” Both these illnesses are now seen as biologically based.

Family issues, too, used to be more often attributed to maternal care. Homosexuality was caused by either a rejecting or smothering mother, depending on who you asked. Marital problems in marriages, including male impotence, was thought to be caused by a woman’s “frigidity.” Compulsive eating was seen as the product of maternal negligence. And so on.

Things have changed, but many prejudices persist, women are often unaware that we share them ourselves and buy into some old cultural stereotypes of female weaknesses. At the same time, we put pressure on ourselves to adopt masculine skills, pushing ourselves to win and compete on men’s terms.

This creates a lose-lose situation in that you are set up for failure by the standards of complete responsibility (an impossible goal) and the male standards of competing and winning even if it isn’t necessarily a good idea.

And it isn’t always a good idea. Women excel in many areas of life precisely because they don’t value winning as much as cooperation and inclusion. For example, a recent report noted that female physicians can be more effective than males because they listen more carefully and openly to their patients. They interrupt less often, and are less likely to think they know the “right” answer and/or search a single solution, and so are more apt to consider multiple options from researching diagnoses to dispensing care.

While it is clearly important to “get it right,” even in medicine there are more useful measures than success or failure. It is not always possible to restore a patient to perfect health, but a worthy goal is often to manage an illness so its duration is limited, its negative effects transitory, and its recurrence unlikely. Still, even the most successful treatment is imperfect. Necessary interventions like chemotherapy or drugs have side effects, and those problems must be managed as well. A good outcome is rarely without bumps in the road, and even the best treatment sometimes fails.

Rather than success or failure, a more useful way to look at life’s problems is the metaphor of a garden. A good one is not easy, and it requires consistent tending. Some plants will be robust and healthy. Others will falter or be subject to disease. Some require more water and sun than others, and a careful balance is necessary to make the garden work as a whole. Weeds, vines, and invaders must be managed.

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  • Sherry November 1, 2018 at 9:37 am

    Thank you, Dr Ford, for this beautiful and apt metaphor.