She was beaming proud as she handed it over. My insides reflected Emma’s outsides, beaming, too. Until she spread on a thick icing of Need for Approval.
I am intimately familiar with this icing. I use it on the majority of my social interactions, cleverly disguised as smiles and deep breathing. Sometimes not so cleverly as “DO YOU LOVE ME? I AM FUN, RIGHT? DO YOU LOVE ME? I’M FUNNY TOO YES YOU CAN TELL ME I’M FUNNY IT’S OKAY I DON’T MIND I GET IT ALL THE TIME. YOU LIKE ME, RIGHT? DID I OFFEND YOU? WAS THAT FUNNY? DID YOU LAUGH? WE’LL DO THIS AGAIN, RIGHT? CALL ME OKAY HERE’S MY NUMBER LET ME CHECK YOUR PHONE TO MAKE SURE YOU HAVE MY NUMBER YES YOU HAVE IT AND I CAN SEE IT SO I KNOW YOU HAVE IT SO YOU’LL PROBABLY CALL ME SOON GREAT THIS WAS FUN.”
Emma asked if Kat liked her painting and where she would put it and if she would keep it forever and tell her future grandchildren the story of The Moustache Painting on warm summer nights. The next day we saw Kat again and Emma attacked like a starved jungle cat, “DO YOU STILL LIKE THE PAINTING? DID YOU HANG IT BY YOUR COMPUTER LIKE YOU SAID YOU WOULD?”
I kept my parental mouth shut during the first attack, giving Emma space to be. The second time I was unsure enough about stepping in that I did. “Ha-heh-erm easy, Em. Don’t pressure Kat. Now that you’ve given away your gift, you have to let her enjoy it how she likes, and let your pleasure be in the memory of the making and giving.”
One of the highest places you can get to is being independent of the good opinions of other people. -Dr. Wayne Dyer
I was sharing with a new friend how I felt about blogging after a long absence. I told her people have always been really complimentary of my writing, but I worry it’s because they’re nice or biased or don’t get out much. Most people respond to that with more positive commentary about my writing. Rachael stopped me and said, “What matters is how you feel about what you write. Don’t write because others like your writing; write because you like it.” And my god how many times have I heard some version of that, but something about the timing and her delivery splooshed in my face.
I want this for my Emma. I want her to paint moustache-shaped love onto canvases and be moulded and grounded by that love and her ability and thoughtfulness. I want her self-worth to be separate from feedback. I hope for her to observe desirable and undesirable responses without being defined by them.
I want this for myself, too. Oh lordy do I.
Last week I snapped at Emma for repeating herself three times when no one responded. It’s one of her habits that’s a button-pusher for me. I am impatient with her neediness because I’m drowning in my own. I was unkind, trampling her dignity with my correction.
I had been thinking about it the following morning while she was still asleep, feeling badly. I read about attachment parenting and “discipline that is empathetic, loving, respectful, and strengthens the connection between parent and child.” I needed to apologize. Emma woke up and came down in her bedhead and pjs. We cuddled on the couch while I apologized and she wiped the shame off my cheeks. She settled her head in my lap as I traced her face, brushing her hair back the way my mom did at bedtime before coming in for a kiss.
It felt like a good time to have a follow-up conversation about the need she had for Kat to love her painting. I asked her to picture something hard to break and something easily broken. She came up with a couch and a house made of unglued popsicle sticks. I told her they represented two kinds of self-worth.
The couch kind is built on good, healthy thoughts. It’s built on what we know about ourselves, what we do well and what makes us feel great. The unglued popsicle stick kind is built with our fears and other peoples good and bad opinions of us. We talked about which one would hold up better in a storm. We talked about storms being things like hurt feelings, a learning disability or someone rejecting your moustache art.
I explained to Emma that basing her self-worth on the the external is not only bad news for her, but for others, too. The people in our lives can’t be expected to shoulder the making or breaking of us. That’s our power to keep.
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” -Alice Walker
I confessed to her that I’m only figuring out now, at 37. I shared what Rachael said to me and the impact it had on my thinking. If Emma could start internalizing this at nine instead of 37, her self-worth will be couch enough for any variety of wonderful or stupid life boomerangs her way.
But some days we’re still going to be needy and that’s really okay.