Coping with depression, a habit of perfectionism, and unhelpful thinking patterns has made my life challenging. Learning to process these through talk therapy helps me every day.
Depression & Brain Differences
She enters my room biting her lip, eyes darting around the table. She barely meets my gaze as I introduce myself. I attempt to lighten the mood with silly facts about myself and ask the same of her. Sixth grade is proving to be a rough year. She doesn’t tell me that. It is written all over her face.
I explain the cognitive therapy we will be doing for the next couple of months and why. I tell her that her brain is having trouble putting sounds together to form words and taking words apart into sounds. I end our introduction by informing her that dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence. I can see her relax a little.
My heart goes out to the students like this one, who come to my coworkers and me each week. These children are among the 20 percent of the population who struggle to read. Some students know that they don’t read as easily as others their age. Some don’t. Some have multiple issues, coping with language, cognitive, or emotional challenges as well.
Though I have never had difficulty with the written word, I remember a time when I was traveling regularly to a different sort of office to find help for my fuzzy, forlorn, fearful brain. The uncertainty I sometimes see in my students’ eyes, I felt and still feel.
Like my students, my brain is different than an “average” brain. Five percent of the world’s population has a brain like mine—350 million people living with depression.
Studies suggest that psychotherapy paired with antidepressant medication is effective in strengthening neural “wiring.” I have benefited from two years of talk therapy and the antidepressant I take to this day.
I feel blessed to have had so much help to heal and deal. I feel blessed that I can use my experiences to build up my young clients.
The Power of Talk Therapy
My counselor was my encourager. She walked me through tough situations. Her ability to listen and accept me in my desperate state was something I’ll always carry with me.
So I frequently reframe tough situations for the students I see. When my students are having a bad day, I switch the focus from rewarding correct answers to rewarding perseverance.
Instead of discussing how many answers they got “right” or “wrong,” I remind them I only had to record how often they needed my assistance to be successful.
I show them how their abilities when they first came to my office compare to what they can do now. Sometimes it makes an immediate difference. Sometimes not. Nonetheless, I continue to plant these seeds that hopefully will continue to grow as my pupil does.
Coping with Perfection
I remember, from my own experience in therapy, being challenged to push back against my dismay over not being perfect. My students are no different. Perfectionism, which is attaching self-worth to performance, can creep in and not allow them freedom to make mistakes. Some are extremely sensitive to being corrected.
My goal is always to address and identify the emotions behind their discouragement. One day, I asked one of my particularly sensitive students if he thought it was okay with me when he made a mistake. He looked at me sideways and answered with a “no” that rose into a question.
I then spent the next few minutes assuring him that what was most important to me was persistence, not accuracy. Every chance I got after that, I reiterated the need to “keep on keeping on” even if he was struggling. That became my mantra for that particular child.
Another part of what I bring to the occasion is what I will not say. Because of my own experiences with well-meaning but misguided people, I will never say, “I understand your frustration.” The truth is, I don’t. I understand my version, but not theirs.
I will never use “if only.” Such as, “If only you would do your homework, you would learn so much faster.” Instead, I tell them that if they choose to do their homework, they are choosing to help themselves. Guilt is never going to make lasting positive change. Freedom and choice will.
I do (and don’t do) these things in the name of seeing something new written all over their faces: hope. That makes my personal struggles seem a little more worth it.
Printed as “Viewpoint: Persistence Tops Perfection,” Fall 2017