In Their Words…Luke
We have come to learn just how much men appreciate reading/listening to the stories of other men who have dealt with depression, anxiety, and the challenges that go along with these conditions. I have reached out to the 140 men who attend our support groups and asked them if they would be willing to share a story that was important to them that relates to the struggles they have had. I have made no edits to the content of what they wrote and the words that follow are those of the man who wrote them. Today I am sharing a story by Luke who attends a Face It Men’s group.
Forgive me if this post isn’t perfect, and I’ll do my best to forgive myself. The goal is to be proud of myself and my creations, but some days forgiving myself of the shame is good enough. My son was struggling in school, needing to be picked up early, getting kicked out of his summer camp. Eventually I learned that when I told him, “Have a great day!” he heard me as saying, “I’ll only love you if you’re great today.”
I knew my depression and anxiety drove my perfectionism. Despite my positive reinforcement and showering of love, my son ended up learning it from me. I hadn’t realized how much it controlled my life until, with tears streaming down his face, my son explained that I’m perfect and since he isn’t that he was broken and bad. Instead of joy at being labelled perfect, I felt ashamed because his comments were proof that I wasn’t a perfect dad.
His school struggles weren’t based on being violent or lacking empathy, but on trying to be perfect when learning requires failure. I explained to him that I make mistakes, and one of my biggest caused him to think he had to be perfect. I began telling him about my struggles regularly. Things like wanting to stay in bed all day, avoiding social situations because I was afraid of being judged, or bingeing on video games.
Last week, I accidentally tried to give him a compliment in the wrong way, I said, “Buddy, you are so amazing.” Comments like these are easy to say, but they aren’t the best way to encourage kids who don’t believe in themselves. They believe they are not amazing and so saying they are just increasing their shame. They might even lose trust in you for making the comment, because how could they trust someone who is so completely wrong. In my son’s case, he ran up to his room to hide.
I let him have a few minutes of alone time and then went up to talk with him. “I’m not amazing,” he said, “I’m not a doctor, I don’t help people who get cancer, I don’t volunteer enough or donate money to charities. So, don’t say I’m amazing because I’m not.” He’s 9 years old. Honestly, I don’t think I said the perfect thing back to him. I said, “If I needed surgery, I definitely don’t want a 9-year-old performing it.” He was ready for that, “Well some 9-year olds are already in college so I’m not even smart enough.”
I continued to rebuke his arguments, explaining we could set up volunteer activities, he could become a doctor, his standardized test scores are in the 90th percentile. My perfectionism needed him to see that he is amazing and all his reasoning for believing that he isn’t was false. What I should have talked to him about is how hard it feels when you don’t feel good enough. That all his arguments were true, but that my definition of amazing, of being worth love, is simply that he is breathing. People are worthy of love despite their strengths and weaknesses.
I’m learning though. Instead of feeling terrible for refuting his rationale and not being a great dad, I feel proud. I put in my best effort, I was there, and I took the time to talk it out with him. I also learned to be more careful with my compliments. That I should aim to encourage his efforts, to reinforce the unconditional nature of my love for him. Best effort given, lessons learned, totally worth it.
He and I are both still figuring out how to shift the focus from a perfect product or outcome to the effort given and the lessons learned. The most effective treatment for us, is for both of us to tell each other when we’re struggling, so we can remind each other just how worthy of love we both are, imperfect.
Please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or thoughts and I will pass them along to Luke.