Thursday, February 1, 2018

What is imposter syndrome and what can I do about it?

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash
So what exactly is “imposter syndrome?” We hear about it more and more. Technically, the term Imposter Syndrome is not a recognized or defined in the DSM. The DSM (aka Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is the reference book which psychologists and therapists use to make an informed clinical diagnosis. That being said, imposter syndrome is widely recognized by most therapists and clinicians as a set of symptoms related to self-doubt and fall into the DSM diagnostic criteria for anxiety and at times, depression.

Imposter syndrome can be defined as someone not being able to fully internalize accomplishments and anxiety around fear “of being found out” or about a perceived current or future threat. It can be seen in highly successful people who have an internal belief they don’t deserve to be at the level of accomplishment the achieved in their career. Psychologists first described imposter syndrome in a clinical paper in 1978 and since then it has been estimated that it affects up to 70% of the population.

In my clinical therapy practice, I work with adults and older teens who struggle with symptoms of depression or anxiety. Many of my clients have thoughts, fears and worries that can be categorized by the term imposter syndrome. It is especially common in my practice with teen girls with high expectations and performance in school.   These fears and worries often come from our beliefs about a situation and not necessarily the situation itself. Self-talk (the way we interpret our lives in our heads) can be based more in fear and anxiety than in objective truth or reality. These thoughts are be labeled “cognitive distortions”. These distortions are ways of labeling or categorizing our negative thought patterns, which we all use to a different degree. Cognitive distortions perpetuate core beliefs about ourselves that we have developed over time from messages we get from our families, teachers, media, friends, and others.  These messages become a part of our automatic inner voice.

The more often we tell ourselves these negative ANTs, (automatic negative thoughts) the more ingrained they become. Imagine they make an impact in our brains not unlike the way a path gets worn in the grass from being walked across over and over. In order to change the thoughts we need to consciously change the ANT and see it from a more realistic and objective view. By really examining the evidence that supports and doesn’t support the ANT, it becomes clear that many times the ANT’s are just thoughts, not truths. By doing so, we can create a new, more realistic cognitive path and allow the figurative grass to grow where the ANT used to be.

Another thing I see in my clinical practice is the connection between imposter syndrome and perfectionism. People who are very driven and success oriented and work hard for achievements can often become frightened once they accomplish what they set out to do. The cognitive distortion manifests as black and white thinking. They believe that they have to be perfect or else they have completely failed. Finding that middle ground can be challenging because so much of who they believe they are rests on perceived performance. People believe that their inner voice needs to be critical and the best way to self-motivate is through harsh inner dialogue. The core belief that “it is not ok to brag” or “if I get too comfortable someone will come along and be better than me” can contribute to the need to buy into the cognitive distortions related to perfectionism.

Although data shows this is seen in both men and women, I find it more and more common with women. It may be because as children, boys are socialized to be more risk takers and girls not as much. Girls are socialized to be more risk adverse than boys and it often can be seen in adulthood related to career. Especially in careers that are more male dominated, women can feel isolated and begin to doubt themselves and their ability to be where they are, despite the evidence that they deserve to be there. 

So if we understand all of this, what can we do about it?

Here are a few steps that can help.

  • Self-care: When people aren’t taking care of themselves physically, negative thoughts can be more prevalent. It is important to exercise and maintain healthy habits. Self-care is not selfish, it is a necessity for happy and productive living.
  • Work/life balance: Having strong boundaries around work are also important. Creating a healthy balance with socializing, family, hobbies and creative outlets.
  • Work with a cognitive behavioral therapist to identify limiting core beliefs and ANTs.  Reframe negative thoughts and beliefs using more adaptive strategies, such as examining the evidence and challenging distorted thinking.
  • Practice self-compassion. Researcher and Psychologist, Kristen Neff describes self-compassion as recognizing stressors and suffering as part of life and that people are not alone in their struggles.  She urges people to speak to themselves the way they would speak to someone they care for and love with kindness and compassion. Often our own self-talk is much harsher than we would ever speak to anyone else, so the idea of practicing self-compassion is creating a kinder and more supportive inner dialogue.
  • Practice mindfulness and meditation. By having a regular mindfulness practice we can help to build that awareness around out thoughts. That awareness can create a space between situation and response instead of the automatic reaction and self-destructive thoughts.
  • Let go of perfectionism. Understand the origin and find a balance between perfect and OK in order to create more realistic and healthy standards and expectations.
  • Re-define failure as a motivator, a positive experience. Instead of personalizing failures, see them as growth opportunities to become better and more resilient. Some of the biggest success stories come out of perceived failures.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Kindness and Compassion in today’s world…

What does it mean to be compassionate today? If you pay attention to the news or spend any time on social media can be difficult to find examples of kindness and compassion.  Negativity is so prevalent in social media, Brene Brown describes her experience in the book, Braving the Wilderness as:
 The way we engage in social media is like a fire. You can use the to keep yourself warm and nourished or you can burn down the barn. It all depends on your intentions, expectations, and reality check skills.
She points out that although there is opportunity to build community and connection, things can easily get out of control.  I see social media very similarly. I love going on social media to read articles and see updates and happenings from friends. The downside can be the negativity and trolling that happens so often online. The internet can be a place filled with angry rants, criticism and judgment. Like anything else, I chose not to let that be my focus. I don’t pay attention to the trolls and their negative comments. I recognize that none of it is really about me personally, but is much more of a reflection of them.  It is easier said than done and I recognize many people can be hurt by the negativity spewed at them from behind a keyboard or screen.

Connectivity to others and understanding that most of us are more alike than we are different is a key ingredient for compassion, yet polarization and separateness happen so easily when we communicate though electronic devices. What we would say to someone in person is far different from what we say in front of our keyboard or phone.

Living in a more connected and compassionate way creates what contemplative scientists call “compassion action.” It is about recognizing and empathizing with others as a driving force for happiness.  The concept of compassion action is not the automatic go-to response for so many of us. We are hard-wired to survive, which can mean we have learned to put up our defenses, thus the opposite of compassion. Professor and researcher Frans De Waal explores his the idea that compassion and morality pre-dates modern religion and societal “rules” as shown with his work with primates that people are pre-wired to be more compassionate and connected.  Society and our survival instinct have moved us away from that compassionate hard-wired thinking and reinforced separateness and negativity bias.

When we are on the defensive, we begin to dehumanize people by seeing them through a lens of “other” and ultimately lose that innate connection and compassion that is needed for happiness. Neuroscientists have shown that training in empathy and compassion can be reverse the learned negativity bias and increase our overall happiness and wellbeing.

An important part of cultivating compassion is not just about people around us, but also there is a need to increase our own practice of self-compassion. In the book Self-Compassion by Kristen Neff, she identifies three basic steps for practicing self-compassion, which I have paraphrased here:
  • Be mindful of your suffering.  Suffering is a part of life. In my words, recognize that “sometimes life sucks.”
  • We are part of a common humanity. Suffering is not personal. Know we are not alone. “De-shame” the negative parts of our life and know that we are connected to others through our common humanity and experiences.
  • Do what helps. Talk to yourself with a kind and compassionate voice. Identify what you would say to a friend or loved one and say those words to yourself. 

A quote from Dr. Neff sums up so beautifully why we often aren’t practicing self-compassion:
“I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent. They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.” 
That belief that we need to “keep ourselves in line” feels a lot like the need to be perfect or the need to always be “right.” That pull of right or wrong / black and white thinking is part of what polarizes people against each other. We believe that there is only one way to view a situation and we separate people that think differently into two sides of either “with me or against me.” 

This posturing and polarization strips the kindness and compassion from our day-to-day experiences.

An excellent tool for cultivating and increasing kindness and compassion is with loving-kindness meditation.

Another solution is to approach others with a sense of curiosity and less judgment. Recognize that as humans, we are more alike than we are different.

When faced with someone who thinks differently from you, seek to understand that person’s “why” instead of focusing on trying to convince him or her that your view is the right view. Enter into situations and discussions with other people with a goal of learning, not convincing. If we focus only on what we want others to know, we lose out on so many opportunities to grow.

It is possible for people to have very different views on one particular topic and agree on another. Understanding intent and accepting differences of opinion with the openness and curiosity to understand can bring more kindness, compassion and happiness into our every day. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

De-Stress this Holiday!

Holiday season is here!

Unfortunately, that can also trigger pressure and unwanted stress!

A common reason we find ourselves overwhelmed and feeling less than jolly can be pressures that come from family, friends, and media. We often have childhood memories of the holidays that seem unattainable today. Those expectations can lead to unrealistic pressures to re-create the magical and perfect holiday for ourselves and our families.

Other sources of stress can come from managing finances, staying healthy, and comparing ourselves to others. If we have suffered a loss or a difficult time this year, the holidays amplify our sorrow, grief and stress.

So what can we do to de-stress this holiday?

Let's start by changing our relationship to stress itself! We often see stressful events as bad or harmful, but the reality is that our interpretation of stress can be the key to managing it. Researcher and stress expert Kelly McGonigal talks about how to make stress your friend in this excellent video from TedX. She explains the importance of changing our perspective on stress and some tips on how to increase protective factors like socialization and helping others.

When we start feeling overwhelmed with our to do list, take a step back and ask how important is everything on my list. Where can I set realistic boundaries? When can I say no?

Make self-care a priority.

Be realistic with yourself. Recognize that it is not an all or nothing situation. We don't need to do everything perfect and we definitely don't need to believe those negative messages that we "should" be a certain way. Focus more on your blessings and less on what you believe may be missing. Take some time to build relationships instead of stressing about the perfect gift or the ideal picture for your holiday card. Remember that it is okay to be okay... Sounds silly, but it is important. Savor the good and the positive in your life, connect with people you love, and let go of the worry of what other's may believe about you. Make your health and happiness a priority. 

When it comes to your physical health, recognize you may indulge more this time of the year and pay attention to healthier eating and exercising when you can. Budget time for exercise to stay on track. Allow down time to call a friend, take a walk, practice yoga, meditate, and continue with a healthy lifestyle that can easily be forgotten about when life gets busy. When you are out celebrating, focus more on the social aspect of a party and less on indulging. For example, eat a meal before going to a party so that you can spend your time connecting with loved ones and less time indulging.  

In the end it comes down to expectations. 

Identify what is important to you this holiday season. Stay focused on what you truly value and less on outside pressure and unrealistic expectations of perfection and you will find yourself having a much happier holiday! 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

#metoo, what next?

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

If you have Facebook, twitter, or have listened to any news media outlet in the last week, you would have heard someone say #metoo.

In response to the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Alyssa Milano tweeted the following:
If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet.
Within 48 hours #metoo was posted about one million times. Think about the impact of one million people publicly acknowledging having been sexually harassed or assaulted!   

I have heard a lot of people commenting that this in not new. That is true, sexual harassment and sexual assault being pushed under the rug or people turning a blind eye, leaving victims to feel ashamed, embarrassed and at fault, has been going on forever.  Why now are women (and some men) coming forward?

Perhaps it is because there is a safety in numbers. Much of the sexual assault cases that are coming out publically now, were well known secrets. It was considered to be part of the territory and a necessary evil. Sexual assault is seen as a part of our culture. Think about the Access Hollywood tapes of Donald Trump. Even after admitting to groping and forcibly kissing women, he was elected to be President of the United States.  How is that possible? The response from many was “that’s just locker room talk.” Rape culture is normalized and excused. So much so that statistics show that 85% of all rapes go unreported. Sometimes we hear the counterargument about a risk of false accusations, however the reality is that accounts for only about 2% of all accusations. Take a look at this data from the website

There is very little accountability.
No wonder so many women blame themselves for what happened to them.
It is important to point out that sexual assault is not just a problem for women. Men are also victims of sexual assault and women can be perpetrators as well.

Too often we dismiss perpetrators and make excuses like “boys will be boys.” There are so many examples in our culture where we romanticize behaviors where men “don’t’ take no for an answer.”  Just look at the most popular movies and shows where male characters persist and persist despite being told no. Movies like, Say Anything make us believe it is cute for a guy to stand outside of a girls house in the middle of the night with a radio to get her attention after she has repeatedly said she is not interested. Subtle messages like these can be confusing and contribute to a culture where it is acceptable for a man to be elected President of the United States after admitting that he sexually assaulted women and gets away with it because he is wealthy. Ask anyone connected to the media industry and they would tell you they knew of these “open secrets” about Harvey Weinstein or about Bill Cosby before it became the center of media attention.

Statistics show that one in five women are sexually assaulted by the time they get to college. The FBI Uniform Crime Report of 2013 reports (with a very narrow definition of rape) that one person is raped approximately every six minutes.

So what do we do? 

Right now, we teach our girls how not to be victims. We tell them to not put their drink down in a bar, be aware of their surroundings, don’t dress provocatively or get “too drunk”, make sure they don’t walk alone in the dark, etc.

The majority of the attention, accountability and responsibility fall on the victim. No wonder so may sexual assault victims blame themselves for things that happen to them? That is a big part of why they don’t come forward. That was the case for me almost thirty years ago. 

That is not ok.

An expert in treating sexual assault victims, Psychologist, Charity Truong, PsyD describes a “just world myth” that perpetuates the guilt and blame following a sexual assault. We believe on some level that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. When bad things happen, we start to think we must have done something wrong. We also have what is called a “rape script” in our mind of what an assault looks like. It’s a stranger, in a dark alley, late at night. That is different from the experience of many people. That discrepancy between what we think constitutes assault and what we actually experienced leads to self-blame and guilt.  We rationalize away what happened.  We make excuses for the perpetrator and we bury the emotional pain, shame and hurt.

Again, that is not ok.  So what now?

As a therapist and as a parent, it is important to me to be a part of a changing culture and here are three thoughts I have on how to begin:

  • Recognize this is a problem. A problem not isolated to a select few perpetrators but a culture that condones, romanticizes, and rationalizes inappropriate behavior. Most of us can agree and publically agree that Harvey Weinstein, Brock Turner or Bill Cosby cases are unacceptable, but what about the smaller, sexist micro aggressions that happen every day? Can we call out sexist language, harassment, slut shaming, mom shaming, stereotyping, and objectification of women?  Do we step in and challenge our friends, coworkers, or family members when they say and do things that perpetuate a culture of sexism? Can we stop condoning a culture of entitlement that makes excuses for “locker-room-talk?" Take a stand and speak out against the notion that “boys will be boys,” or that the way someone dresses or acts means they were “asking for it?” One of my favorite social workers and authors, Brene Brown, writes about having the courage to speak truth to bullshit in her newest book, Braving the Wilderness. Silence around these issues is a form of condoning. I get that it isn’t easy. If it were easy, this would not be as big of a problem. Speak up and step in.
  •  Get really clear on what sexual assault looks like, not the extreme “rape script” we imagine. Understanding the definition of sexual assault can help to better clarify what is happening. It allows people to know clearly what is and is not assault and create more accountability and less victim blaming. The Department of Justice defines sexual assault as:
 Any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling, and attempted rape.
  •  The responsibility of preventing sexual assault does not fall on would-be-victim; the responsibility falls on the would-be perpetrator. We need to spend more time teaching our girls AND our boys about respecting boundaries, accountability and what IS and WHAT IS NOT consent.
Changing our culture starts with changing ourselves.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Practice what I preach...

Glossophobia or speech anxiety is the fear of public speaking or of speaking in general. So many people have it. The idea of presenting in front of a group and being the center of attention can be overwhelming, especially for people prone to anxiety. I have had symptoms of anxiety my entire life and yet speaking in front of a group is something that I find exciting and motivating.  I worked for years in a training role for a major pharmaceutical company and currently I teach classes and workshops on mental health, optimism, and resiliency as part of my clinical social work practice. Although I get a bit nervous just before a presentation, within seconds I begin to feel the positive energy of the group and find my flow.  I pride myself on the ability to handle negative and challenging audiences and can keep calm even when things go horribly wrong.  

So, if all of that is true, why did one workshop throw me into a panic last month?

It all began after finishing up a three-week class I teach several times a year for the local adult school. It is called: Get Happy: The Science Behind the Smile. The next session starts October 2017 (here’s link if you would like to join me).  Two women from the last class contacted me to see if I would put together a program with the information we covered in class, specifically to reinforce resiliency and a positive mindset in their teenage daughters. They thought that the information presented would be best received coming from an expert instead of from mom. Excited by the idea, I agreed.

Having a 13-year-old daughter, I had a pretty good idea how to create a version of my course that would be appealing to young teenagers. I could easily re-package the information with relatable stories to create an hour-long program that would fit the needs of the parents and keep the kids engaged. After creating the content and going back and forth on dates and times, we settled on a date for me to come to the home of one of the women. The plan was for her to host a party of 8th graders after school where I could present my information and lead a discussion style workshop.

After I agreed to do it and was all ready to go, I panicked. What the heck? Why was I feeling so anxious about this? My internal voice kept reminding me that I am better with adults than I am with kids. I began my career as a therapist working with children and families but after taking a 13 year detour into a corporate job, my current my current clinical therapy practice is much more focused on working with older teens and adults, especially around work/life balance stressors and triggers.  All of a sudden I felt completely unprepared for what I had signed up to do.  My negative self-talk had me feeling overwhelmed and insecure about doing something that really should be a no brainer for me.

So what did I do? I am not proud to admit it, but I tried to get out of it. I was not exactly sure why I was so fearful of doing this workshop, I just knew I wanted to bail. The mom hosting the workshop emailed to say that her daughter told her that this was going to be the lamest party ever. That was all I needed to hear, I was convinced that it was a bad idea. My 13-year-old daughter reminds me on a daily basis just how “uncool” I really am. I thought, “How could I possibly think I could do this?”

I tried to remind myself that teachers do this every single day, but that did not really help. Teachers have special gift and type of patience I don’t believe I have. As much as I love to teach, adult learning is where I thrive.

Nothing worked. I couldn’t find a way out. So there I was, sitting in someone else’s home with a room full of young teenagers whose parents paid money to have them come learn from me how to be more resilient and optimistic, when I myself was feeling overwhelmed and pessimistic. Before getting started one boy said to me, “I don’t think I want to stay, I don’t really like psychology type stuff.”  Ugh, I just kept thinking, “This is going to be a complete shit-show.”

So, I just took a deep breath and started anyway.  A few minutes in and I was shocked to see that I held their attention. Most of the teens were engaged and were began participating in the discussion. Hmmm, I thought “Maybe this would not be so bad after all.”

As I went through the material it hit me. The key points I was trying to teach these kids were the very messages I needed to tell myself at that very moment. I was not practicing what I preach. I was doing, in my own mind, exactly what I was trying to teach these kids not to do.  My panic, fear and insecurity around doing that program were in my mind, not reflective of situation.  I believed my irrational thoughts, personalization, pervasiveness, and perfectionism that had driven me into a panic. All of these were topics of this workshop.

When the obvious light bulb went off and I gained insight into the unhelpful thoughts I was having, I was able to use more adaptive thinking strategies, reframe my thoughts and adjust my perspective to allow my fear to dissipate. As I listened to the kids sharing examples of growth mindset thinking it clicked how much I was operating from a fixed mindset and sabotaging myself over irrational and unhealthy assumptions. I was stuck believing my thoughts that “I just don’t work well with kids” or “I can’t really relate to a room full of 13-year-olds.” Those beliefs weren’t based in facts or evidence but in my own maladaptive thoughts. I had to remind myself that just because I think it, does not make it true. Something I say to other people several times a day.

During the hour together, the kids shared stories of social comparisons and how those emotions have had negative affects on their self-worth.  We identified examples of situations where emotions were triggered by unhelpful and unrealistic negative thinking, labeled and reframed those negative thoughts. The kids showed insight and eagerness to understand their own triggers and even the kid who said he didn’t want to stay, shared with the group a challenging time when negative thoughts led to feeling depressed and hopeless.  

It is funny how sometimes the things we fear can become valuable lessons. In preparing to teach other people how to be more resilient and operate from a growth mindset, I really reminded myself to practice what I preach.

Thank you to the families who trusted me to teach their children, and for the opportunity to step outside my comfort zone and continue to grow.

If you are interested in attending an upcoming workshop or setting one up, please reach out any time, you can contact me through my website Maximize Wellness or via

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Price of Perfection

This summer I had an opportunity to put a small dent in my never-ending pile of books I want to read. One in particular that motivated me to write this blog is, “What Made Maddy Run, the Secret Struggles and TragicDeath of an All-American Teen” by Kate Fagan. This particular book popped up on my Facebook feed from a friend connected to the Author and I immediately was drawn to the story as both a parent and as a therapist. I wanted to better understand Madison Holleran's story, having remembered hearing about her suicide on the local NJ news a few years ago. At the time it was shocking and hard to image what could be going on with such a talented, beautiful and seemingly "perfect" young girl.

Thinking about what could have been going on in her life through my experiences as a therapist, I can see how warning signs can be missed and how depression can look different then we expect it to look. However, as a mom of two highly driven kids, her story triggered my fears about just how much I really know about the pressures my children are facing, as compared to pressures I may have faced a kid. Just as I started to read this book an acquaintance lost her 12-year-old daughter, Mallory, to suicide as a result of relentless middle school bullying. It is impossible for me to fully comprehend the pain Mallory, Maddy and their families have, and still are, experiencing. This book, “What Made Maddy Run” helped to remind me the importance of talking about this subject with my children and better understand life from their perspectives.

Maddy's situation wasn't about external bullying or social media however social media did play a part in her story. The author, Kate, talks about Maddy's carefully crafted social media profiles and the contrast between that image she put out into the world with the internal pain and conflict she experienced. Kate Fagan also bravely shares about her own experiences with the pressure to be "perfect" on the outside while having doubts on the inside. It reminds me of the term “imposter syndrome” which I see almost every day in my work as a therapist. Highly accomplished people report feel as if they have been fooling everyone and that someone will find out they don't really belong. Those feelings come from distorted thinking and self-doubt with very little truth behind them. I have struggled at varying times in my life with challenges related to self-esteem, self-doubt, and perfectionism and it is easy to understand how negative thoughts like “I am not good enough” and “someone will see I don’t really know what I am doing” can increase fear and anxiety and feed unrealistic expectations. Much of my personal struggles were before social media. I had no Instagram or Facebook to compare myself to others and I could shut off social comparisons when I needed to. That is not the case today.

In this book, Kate describes how social media leads people to believe they connected and that they know about other's lives when really they only know the very carefully constructed ideal image they want others to see. That magnifies the feeling of “I’m not good enough” for so many people. Although on some level people are aware that others' reality is far different from the Instagram or social media persona, it is still very difficult to not compare and ultimately feel less than.

For athletes, that contrast can be even more pronounced. The book describes the pedestal that athletes are placed on and expectations of success that are different from everyone else’s. Kate talked openly about her years as a college athlete and the pressure she felt. She writes

"Our culture celebrates harder, faster, stronger. Vulnerability, it would seem, undermines that pursuit. And within sports culture, continuing to practice of play, no matter what your mind and body says, is romanticized: T-shirts are emblazoned with quotes, inspirational sayings are stenciled on the locker room wall, epic speeches are given At Colorado, a saying above one doorway read "Pain is weakness leaving the body."

Defining athletes by sports performance is not new. My husband and I went to the same high school in the late 1980's, yet our experiences were vastly different.  I was more insecure and awkward and he was confident, popular and well-liked. I was on the swim team, however swimming was not looked at the same way as other sports. My swimming career was mediocre at best and ended with high school. My husband, on the other hand, was a football player and received a full scholarship to play football at Boston University. His experience and “social status” in high school was far different from mine and so much of what people knew about him was defined by his place on the football team. We never would have dated back in high school and only became a couple at our ten year reunion. We joked it was because ten years later, “I got more cool and he got less cool.”

The message that success is linear and defined by accomplishment is ingrained in our kids from a very young age. For athletes, like Maddy and Kate, it meant winning, being strong, and working through any pain or doubt without letting anyone see imperfections. For academics it means getting the best grades and achieving the most prestigious college acceptances. Society praises and rewards good grades instead of praising the journey and learning experience overall. Is an A in a class where very little effort was put into it better than the C that took time and perseverance to earn? For me it is not, but most people says it’s the “A” that matters. That’s how we are judged, by the outcome and not the effort.

As a parent I try to be more mindful. Being a self-proclaimed “recovering perfectionist” I am careful of the messages I send my children. Both of my children play team sports and I remind them that it is about having fun and not just about the win. I tell them that success is defined by being better today than they were yesterday and not about being the best or better than anyone else. I believe accomplishments are important in the sense that they reflect effort, motivation, and drive, however those accomplishments do not define us, they are a part of a much more complex and full sense of self. My daughter has said to me that I am the only mom who doesn't care about grades. I reply by telling her I care about her happiness first and foremost, grades are a byproduct of learning. 

Another message I have tried to convey is that mental health and physical health are not much different despite the stigma associated with mental health or emotional health. My children both know relatives and friends who have struggled with depression and anxiety and I am open about things I do to manage my own anxiety levels. They understand diseases affecting mental health can be treated just like other medical issues such as a broken leg, diabetes, or strep throat. Mental health struggles are not personality flaws, personal weakness or something to hide or be ashamed of.

Even though I try my best, sometimes things slip through the cracks. For example recently I had an eye opening conversation with my 10-year-old son. He had been really busy with travel sports and summer camps and increasingly irritable and angry at home and I wondered if maybe he wanted to talk to someone other than his mom. He sometimes will meditate with me and uses some cognitive skills I have taught him but I thought it was important to ask if he needed more support.  I asked him if he wanted to talk with a counselor or as we call it “feelings teacher.” To my surprise he immediately became angry. He said, “I’m not stupid, why would you say that!” 

What? What did he mean, “stupid?” Is that really what he thinks? I was completely blindsided by his reaction. I approached him with curiosity and tried to understand what he was feeling. He expressed being embarrassment at a sports camp that was new to him and he wasn’t performing well and falling behind his friends. He had internalized his performance from a negative and fixed mindset instead of seeing potential to learn and grow and enjoy the opportunity take on a new challenge.

The take away I want to share today is for all of us to be aware of the messages we send our kids, whether consciously or not. Take time to understand how they are feeling and show them they are valued for who they are and not just what they accomplish. Recognize that pressures today are increased with social media and many of us just can’t fully appreciate what it is like for kids today compared to how it was for us when we were that age.  Not only should we tell them they don’t need to be perfect, but show them by modeling our own self-care, acceptance, and self-compassion.

Maddy’s story is heartbreaking and my hope is that by sharing it in her book, Kate has opened up dialogue for others who are struggling and can make progress toward reducing the stigma that contributed to Maddy’s death.

If you or a loved one are in need of help, please reach out to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: or call 1800-273-8255.