How Vulnerability is Strength, Not Weakness

How Vulnerability is Strength, Not Weakness

What do you think of when you hear the word “vulnerability”? Someone who’s weak and can’t look after themselves? Many people think being vulnerable is something to avoid. But in fact, vulnerability is strength, not weakness. Let me explain.

Why Vulnerability is Strength instead of Weakness

Lots of people think that showing your emotions is a sign of weakness. Vulnerability is about rejecting this idea and finding strength in being honest about how you feel. If you’re struggling in life, it’s a much better demonstration of your strength of character to ask for help than it is to pretend you can manage on your own.

When I was finishing my Ph.D., I was extremely stressed. I never had enough time, I wasn’t sleeping or eating properly, and I felt exhausted and miserable. I didn’t want to burden my friends with these problems, as many of them were in grad school at the time. I ought to be able to handle it myself without asking for help, right?

Eventually, though, I realised I couldn’t continue on my own. I asked two close friends to help me out, and they did so in spectacular fashion. They took care of some of my work, brought me food, and most importantly, they supported me and cheered me up.

Not only was this extremely helpful for me, but it also strengthened those friendships. My friends weren’t annoyed that I asked for favours, and they didn’t think I was selfish. They were glad to help, just as I was glad to return the kindness later on.

By being vulnerable and admitting I needed help, I acquired both practical support and stronger friendships.

More than Just Honesty

It’s tempting to equate vulnerability with honesty. The two aren’t necessarily the same thing, though. Vulnerability is more about the reasons why we share something, not just sharing every feeling we have. A vulnerable thought is an honest thought, but just because you share that thought doesn’t mean you’re demonstrating vulnerability.

Imagine that John and Stewart are best friends, and they both have a big job interview today. John panics and comes across as a bumbling fool, while Stewart keeps his cool and ends up landing the job.

John feels it’s unfair that Stewart did so well simply because he was calm. He might say something like “Your successes make me feel like a failure. I feel worthless because of you.”

Showing that vulnerability is strength

Voicing a feeling like this certainly seems like vulnerability. (It’s honest, at least.) In reality, John is simply dumping his problems onto someone else instead of taking responsibility for his own emotions.

To transform this into a “vulnerability is strength” moment, John might admit that he has this feeling, tactfully voice his envy to Stewart using Nonviolent Communication, then understand that he has the ability to change if he wants to. Stewart might even give him some tips on how to keep calm in his next interview.

Emotional Vomit vs. Vulnerability

One common issue when people first start trying to embrace the “vulnerability is strength” mindset is that they over-correct and land in emotional vomit territory.

Emotional vomit is where you share all your feelings all of the time, to the point where every situation becomes about you. Everyone knows “that guy” who pours out their intimate secrets to someone they just met on the bus. Such behaviour is frustrating for those around you and can push people away instead of bringing them closer.

If you find yourself in emotional vomit territory, don’t worry: you’re not failing at vulnerability. It’s common to enter a kind of adjustment period where you over- or under-share as you attempt to find the right balance. It’s all part of the journey.

All you need to do is take steps to rein in this tendency to make everything about you. Don’t force yourself to share in the name of vulnerability; just make sure you aren’t hiding behind a façade of false bravery and let the sharing come naturally.

Being Vulnerable without Being Inappropriate

The key to being vulnerable without emotional vomiting is to know what’s appropriate. The feelings you might talk about with your best friend are different from what you would talk about with a teacher. Make sure that you’re sharing your feelings in a way that suits the relationship you have with that person.

Consider these questions when deciding what you should share with whom:

  • Am I close enough to this person that they want to hear about my feelings?  
  • Do we have a reciprocal relationship where we both share?  
  • Is now the right time for me to unload? Is the other person in the right mental space, or are they absorbed in their problems?  
  • Is this the right setting and the right place to have an in-depth talk about our feelings?

If you pick the right time, place, and person to talk about your feelings with, you’ll find there is great strength in vocalising your struggles. I didn’t walk up to a random friend at a party and tell them about my stress issues during my Ph.D. program. I waited, I chose a quiet location, and I talked with people I trusted.

Living a Vulnerable Life

Vulnerability comes in a variety of forms, not just sharing a hardship or internal struggle you’re experiencing. Other aspects of vulnerability include:

  • Admitting when you don’t know something
  • Taking responsibility for the decisions you make
  • Speaking up when someone hurts you
  • Telling people around you that you care about them
  • Putting yourself out there, and taking risks even if you face rejection

The key to cultivating the “vulnerability is strength” mindset is to take note of these behaviours and gently steer in a more productive direction. One conversation at a time, one moment when we stop emotional vomit before it occurs. Those are the steps to getting stronger through vulnerability in your own life.

Most of us know something in our lives we should be speaking about but aren’t. Whether it’s fear of failure, a feeling of being lost, resentment of others, or feeling inadequate, chances are there’s something you’re keeping to yourself.

Challenge yourself to be vulnerable about one thing you’ve been keeping hidden. Choose the right time, place, and friend in your life, then see how the people around you support and help you.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.

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How to Identify Passive-Aggressive Behaviour When You’re a Young Person Who Wants Quality Relationships

How to Identify Passive-Aggressive Behaviour When You’re a Young Person Who Wants Quality Relationships

Do you have friends who get annoyed at you but complain behind your back instead of talking it out? Do you have a boss who rolls their eyes when you raise a serious issue? How about family members? Do any of them sulk or give you the silent treatment when you displease them?

This is called passive-aggression, and it’s incredibly destructive. I’ve seen friends lose friends over this type of behaviour, and I’ve struggled to communicate with passive-aggressive people in my own life, as well.

It can be difficult to recognise and react to passive-aggressive behaviour. But with a little effort and the right communication skills, we can build stronger, better, and healthier friendships.

How to Spot Passive-Aggressive Behaviour

The first step to dealing with passive-aggression is to identify it in ourselves and in others. We’ve all met passive-aggressive people who insist that they’re fine and nothing is wrong, all while continuing to behave in a way that makes it clear they’re angry. 

Some of these behaviours include:

  • sulking
  • doing things deliberately badly
  • backhanded compliments
  • deliberately not doing something to cause inconvenience to others
  • not taking responsibility
  • glaring or avoiding eye contact

Let’s look at an example. Gemma invites her close friends and a few of their partners to a party. She doesn’t invite Emily’s boyfriend, though. Emily attends the party alone and seems to have a good time, but in the days afterward, she gets up and leaves every time Gemma comes to sit in her group. When mutual friends ask her what’s up, Emily insists she’s fine.

This is classic passive-aggressive behaviour. Emily is angry about her boyfriend not being invited to the party, but she won’t say so out loud. Instead, she expresses her anger at Gemma through sulking and avoidance.

Gemma can tell that Emily is angry at her, but she might not know why. She feels like she has to walk on eggshells around Emily and that she maybe needs to beg her forgiveness, even though it’s not clear what she’s done wrong. 

Emily is manipulating the situation to make Gemma feel guilty and uncomfortable, instead of expressing that she’s upset her boyfriend wasn’t invited to the party. It’s easy to see how unhealthy and frustrating that can be in any kind of relationship.

We can be passive-aggressive ourselves, too. A common example is having parents ask us to help with chores such as taking the rubbish out. We might put off doing it for hours or days, waiting until a parent gets fed up and does it themselves. 

By doing this we’re being passive-aggressive by deliberately not doing a task, or doing it badly, so that we won’t be asked to do it again in future.

When Being Nice is Passive-Aggressive

Sometimes passive-aggressive behaviour isn’t obvious — even to the people who are perpetrating it.

People sometimes believe that they’re being “nice” by not voicing their unhappiness and deferring to the wishes of others. But if that niceness comes with the cost of them being snarky and sulky, and if they are only pretending to be nice in order to manipulate you into doing what they want, then that behaviour isn’t nice at all — it’s selfish.

Think of a guy who has a crush on his female friend. Instead of voicing his feelings and asking her out on a date, he keeps showing up to “support” her when she’s down or when she’s having problems with her current partner, talking about how her current boyfriend is no good, and so on.

All this time he’s actually resentful of her and is trying to win points so that she might eventually reciprocate his romantic attention. Rather than expressing his true wishes, he hopes to manipulate her into being interested in him. 

A lot of people would say he’s just being nice, even if he has ulterior motives. In reality, he’s not being nice at all; nor is he being a good friend. He’s being passive-aggressive.

It’s Time to Call Out Passive-Aggression

Once you’ve noted passive-aggressive behaviour, you need to have a conversation with the person about it

You can tell them directly that you’ve noticed they seem angry, and ask them why. Give them the opportunity to spell out what’s bothering them, and try to listen with an open mind. Sometimes people behave like this, not because they have bad intentions, but because they don’t know how to deal with their emotions or they feel like they can’t.

This won’t be easy and it won’t always work — some people won’t listen to anything that sounds like a criticism. They may become defensive, or deny their behaviour.

But still, it’s worth trying to talk to them and to be emotionally mature. People may not realise how badly their behaviour is affecting you, or they may think you don’t care about them, so taking the time to talk with them can demonstrate otherwise.

If you’re not sure how to start this conversation, sometimes it can help to acknowledge how uncomfortable you are about bringing it up. The handy phrase “I need to talk to you about something awkward” lets the person you’re talking to know that you’re not taking pleasure in telling them off or trying to make them feel bad. You acknowledge that it’s uncomfortable for both of you, but that it’s important to discuss disagreements and issues in a mature and responsible way.

Take a Step Back

Often, people won’t react well to being called out like this. They will probably feel embarrassed or defensive, maybe even angry. It can take some time and self-reflection to realise when you’ve been behaving poorly, after all.

Once you’ve called out passive-aggressive behaviour, it’s best to back off for a bit. If you want to salvage a friendship, sometimes you need to give that friend some space to reflect on their behaviour. Don’t text them often or go right back to hanging out all the time.

Once both you and your friend have some time to reflect, you may find that you’re not actually angry at each other and that your disagreement is something you can move past.

When you meet or text with someone for the first time after a disagreement, don’t dredge it up or apologise. Instead, start afresh and allow yourselves to remember why you were friends in the first place. It’s not about dwelling on what happened, but moving forward to something healthy.

It’s true that this won’t always work. Sometimes people will be so angry that you disagreed with them that they’ll never forgive you — but these people were never going to be good friends anyway.

Remember that it’s ok to walk away from these situations. You are under no obligation to put up with passive-aggressive behaviour, especially if you’ve made every effort to work it out in a mature manner.

Most of the time, though, you’ll find that with a bit of space you can rebuild a friendship after a disagreement and have healthier boundaries with each other.

Arguing Sucks

Most of us don’t like fighting or arguing with people. We’d rather everyone got along and that no one ever felt bad. Even as an adult, I find it hard to disagree with people whom I like. It’s a lot easier to talk about boundaries in principle than it is to put them into practice.

But the truth is that you can’t avoid conflict in your relationships. You can either do what most people do, which is to avoid conflict to such a degree that you end up being passive-aggressive, or you can confront conflict head-on by acknowledging it directly and getting issues out into the open.

This isn’t comfortable, and it requires you to stick to your principles and weather other people’s awkwardness. But it is the best and most adult way to deal with conflict, and it will lead to stronger relationships.

Try to be aware of when people are displaying these passive-aggressive behaviours against you, and try to honestly acknowledge when you’re using them yourself. That’s the first step in moving past this stumbling block and onto more honest and effective communication.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.

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Why We Should Stop Worrying about Exams

Why We Should Stop Worrying about Exams

Imagine you wake up one morning with a sharp pain in your side. It doesn’t go away after breakfast, and the pills you take at lunch aren’t helping. Guess it’s time to see a doctor!

If you could pick medical professionals from a catalog, which would you rather have: a doctor who scored poorly on med school exams but has helped hundreds of people, or a doctor who aced their exams but hasn’t seen a single patient?

In the real world, nobody cares about exams, grades, or any of that nonsense. We want people who have practiced and improved their craft, and the only way to measure that is through action.

Examining Exams

Exams are supposed to be an indicator of a student’s mastery over a body of knowledge. If  you know the topic, you get a good score. If you don’t, well, you’re a failure, or you didn’t apply yourself or work hard enough.

This idea is complete rubbish.

To pass an exam, you simply memorize information and repeat it back on command. Different types of exams do this with varying degrees of interaction, from written essays to multiple choice tests. Some exams do inspire a bit of thought, yet the way they’re structured as a class capstone still encourages students to focus on test scores instead of learning, promoting an unhealthy fear of failure.

The only thing an exam score is an indicator of is your ability to regurgitate data. It says nothing about your ability to put that information into practice in the real world.

If you flunk your foreign language tests but can carry on a conversation with native speakers, what purpose did the tests serve? According to the school you failed, but according to the tourists you gave directions to in their native tongue, you’re quite competent.

Exams and grades have no connection to our real-world abilities. Focusing on getting high marks just takes attention away from what really matters: building and improving on skills we need to succeed.

Worrying about Nothing

Back when I was a student, a ceramics professor neatly demonstrated to me why worrying about grades and test scores is nothing but a distraction.

His emphasis was always on the practical application of ceramics. The class was about making bowls, plates, cups, and mugs; things that want to be used in day-to-day life. Yes, it was great when they’re pretty, but we tried not to get lost in abstraction. We stood there and made something you can drink out of.

And how do you get better at making cups? The same way you get better at anything: by doing it, failing at it, learning from your experiences, and doing it again.

This professor said he would be thrilled if each of us built 100 mugs a day. Maybe only one of them would be worth keeping, but that wasn’t the point. Focusing on the goal would mean adopting a harmful achievement-oriented mindset. Instead, we put our attention on the process. We tried to enjoy making each of those 100 mugs, and learn from each flopped attempt, too.

We didn’t have exams in that class. Sure, the professor could have tested us on technique, clay mixing recipes, glaze temperatures, and the like, but to what end? He just wanted us to make things. If we had studied for a test and worried over the outcome, it would have taken both time and attention away from what mattered.

Outside of school, nobody has ever asked me what score I got on an exam. A lot of people do ask about the rust and cobalt glazed bowl I have sitting on my desk, though. I made it in that class almost 20 years ago.

Testing without Exams

As soon as you bring up the idea that exams are pointless, people fire back counter-arguments. The most common one is that without exams, we’d have no way of testing knowledge.

I have a pretty simple response to that: how on Earth do you think that’s true?!

Graded exams do not occur in the natural world. A whale does not need to pass a test to learn how to surface for air, and a lion doesn’t need a B+ before it’s allowed to join a hunt.

How do these animals pick up skills? By learning from experienced members of their community. They aren’t concerned about missteps in their learning process, nor do they get distracted by a hunting exam at the end of the season. They simply practice, fail, and improve.

The knowledge we pass to other people is more complex than gazelle capturing methods. The principles behind teaching and learning are exactly the same, however, and they have been throughout our own history.

How can you prove you’ve learned something unless you take an exam? A philosophy professor I know solved this problem in the most straightforward way: he replaced exams with one-on-one conversations.

Many students saw this as an oral exam in disguise. I took the opportunity to relax and focus on understanding the material, which was all I wanted in the first place. Put those same students in a room together today and most will talk about how stressful that class was. I remember good lectures, good readings, and a whole lot of useful philosophy.

I asked this professor once why he chose to have discussions when grading tests would have been less time-consuming. He had a simple response:

“I want to know how well students actually understand the knowledge. I can’t think of a better way to do that than by talking to them.”

Shifting Focus onto Practical Skills

Really, exams and grades only exist to make it easier for schools to codify their efforts. They don’t benefit students, and they don’t benefit anyone in the real world. It’s just another way for schools to enforce subconscious lessons like obedience and a fear of failure.

Your life isn’t over if you fail an exam. On the contrary, it might be a wake-up call to show you how pointless exams are, so you can get to work actually learning something useful, something you enjoy, something you can benefit from in your daily life.

If you want to learn how to code, pick up the basics and build a program, then scale upwards and outwards from there. Why would anyone care what grade you got in coding classes if you can make something useful in the real world?

Think back on any tests you’ve taken in the past. How much do you remember from those pages? Probably very little. Now think back to any skill you’ve picked up, even something as small as being able to throw a baseball. You remember a lot more about that process, don’t you?

If you’re nervous about an exam, even an exam you think you need in order to get into a certain career, try not to worry about it. Seriously, don’t. Your goal is to get better at some skill or some body of knowledge, and tests are a poor indicator of ability. 

Forget about test scores, and forget about grades. It’s time to focus on what’s real and useful in your life: practical skills. Follow what interests you and don’t let something as pointless as an exam get you down.

John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.

His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.

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Why The Achievement Mindset You Learned In School is Toxic

Why The Achievement Mindset You Learned In School is Toxic

If your school was anything like mine, you sat through countless lectures on the importance of achievement. I heard the same speeches again and again from parents, teachers, chaplains and headteachers.

Whether it’s grades, playing a musical instrument, or competing on the sports field, young people are told over and over that they must focus on goals and success for the sake of their future careers. After all, what could be more important than achievement?

Would it surprise you to learn that I think this obsession with achievement is a toxic attitude that does more harm than good?

What’s Wrong with the Achievement Mindset?

I was raised by two teachers in a goal-oriented family in which academic achievement was everything. My parents stressed not only that I had to do well at school, but I had to do better than other people as well. 

When I studied something, it wasn’t because I was curious about the world. If I’m really honest with myself, I studied hard because I wanted to shore up my ego. To put it another way, I just wanted to feel worthy. I remember being ashamed around age 12 when I got 90% on a Geography exam. I felt I should be doing better than that. My peers noticed that I took failure personally and, in the way only children can, bullied me mercilessly as a result.

It wasn’t only me who felt this way. In fact, the school system encourages us to equate our worth as people with our academic results

Think about it for a moment. Someone who gets good grades is called a “good student,” implying that they are hardworking, morally upright, and a good person. Someone who struggles or does poorly in any subject is called a “bad student,” implying that they are lazy or stupid, and even that they are a bad person.

Even for us “good students,” equating self-worth with achievement is a terribly dysfunctional way of thinking. I actually know a number of people from my time at Cambridge University who are still traumatised by their school experience years later. For me, it took a lot of self-reflection and a memorable talk with an ex-girlfriend to learn that I am more than just my work.

The Achievement Mindset Infects Everything

It’s bad enough that this mindset sucks the joy out of learning and puts pressure on students academically. But that wasn’t enough masochism for me! I also applied the same toxic mindset to my hobbies.

People who know me know that I played the French horn for years, most recently as principal horn in my local orchestra in Berlin. It might surprise you to learn that I have always hated practising my instrument. I only wanted to get the notes right so as to feel like I had played well after a concert, not struggle and fail as I worked out how to play.

If my aim had been to achieve proficiency at the French horn, then practising wouldn’t have been an issue. I would probably have enjoyed it. Instead, I was focused on the results of playing well rather than the process of getting to that point. It wasn’t about getting good at the instrument; it was about executing a perfect performance and earning praise from others. As my horn teacher put it:

“You’re only as good as your last concert.”

I am sad to say that this attitude led me to miss out on much of the joy of practising my craft for its own sake. Even today, I am so easily sucked into the achievement mindset that I no longer wish to play my horn in orchestras.

Real Motivation Comes from Within

Having shared my struggles with the achievement mindset leads to the following question: why do so many people think that focusing on achievement is a good thing?

One reason is that getting good results is motivating. If you want to get good grades, you’ll push yourself to work harder, right? That’s somewhat true, but it’s only half the story.

Psychologists distinguish between two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. The achievement mindset is an example of extrinsic motivation. You want to do well so that you can get validation from outside of yourself, such as winning a prize, getting a good grade, or receiving praise from other people.

Extrinsic motivation isn’t good for you in the long term. It leaves you dependent on others to shore up your ego. If you ever stop getting this validation from others, your motivation crumbles.

If you want to be happy, cultivate intrinsic motivation. Here, your motivation comes from within your own life, not from someone else. You work at something because it interests you and you want to learn more. You want to master a new skill and are eager to pursue it no matter how much work you have to put into learning it. 

Intrinsic motivation is motivation no-one can take away from you. And it’s the complete opposite of the achievement mindset.

How I Broke Free

So we’ve learned that an achievement mindset pushes you to seek your reward from the end goal, not the process itself. It also sets that reward outside of yourself, making you dependent on external sources to feel good about the things you have done.

How can you break the pattern and focus on utilising intrinsic motivation instead?

There’s no perfect answer to this question, but I can speak to my own experience. The key for me has been to focus on systems and habits instead of results. Let me explain.

Through life experience, I’ve learned what I value. Here’s a (non-exhaustive) list:

  • Eating healthily
  • Sleeping deeply
  • Having time at the end of the day to rest
  • Avoiding toxic relationships
  • Being my own boss

Let’s take the first item on that list: eating healthily. Ok, so I’ve identified that this is a value of mine, and that it’s important to me. The next step is to create a series of habits and systems that makes eating well easy and predictable. 

Note: my attention is not on eating perfectly every day (= achievement mindset), but rather on creating the dietary habits that align with my values (= intrinsic motivation).

Stage 1 of this journey for me was to cut out processed foods as far as possible. I started reading labels and taking pride in avoiding buying foods with added sugar. I learned that if I don’t buy them, I don’t eat them. This was easy to do and felt good. But I still missed meals some of the time and even still ate junk food occasionally.

Stage 2 was copying a system I learned from an ex-girlfriend. She had a habit of cooking food the night before and taking leftovers to school or work the next day. I noticed that I lacked the willpower to cook every day, and started copying her system. It was easier to take those leftovers and eat them instead of junk or snacks. But I was still sometimes too tired after work to cook every day.

Stage 3 was to learn about meal prep. These days, I go shopping on Saturday mornings and prepare a huge batch of food on Sunday evenings. I then eat this food over the next 7 days. I find that I save time, money and energy this way — all while eating better more of the time. 

I am sure that I will continue to refine my dietary system over time. But if I were to try to abstract some general principles of breaking free from achievement mindset out of my personal experience, they would look something like this:

  1. Know yourself well enough to know what you value.
  2. Establish a regular system or habit that helps you get what you value. It doesn’t have to be perfect; just start somewhere.
  3. Test your system against reality. Inevitably, you’ll fail a few times and learn from those experiences.
  4. Make a better system on the basis of your learning. Take pride in making your habits as functional and aligned with the real world as possible.
  5. Repeat and improve your system over time. This will help you acquire a feeling of competence, or self-efficacy as psychologists would say.

Rid Yourself of the Achievement Mindset

It is my contention that everybody learns the achievement mindset in school, and those who deny this are probably the ones who suffer from it the most. The achievement mindset is so ingrained into our culture that it’s hard to even become aware of it, let alone rid yourself of it.

Learning to motivate yourself with systems which reflect your values will help you infinitely more than trying to impress other people with your performance. But before you establish habits or systems, the key to starting this journey is to become aware of how the achievement mindset manifests itself in your life:

  • Are there areas in your life where you focus too much on the goal, ignoring the steps you’ll take to get there? 
  • Do you beat yourself up for being a “bad student” in any area of your life?
  • Are you addicted to the high of “achievement” in any area of your life?

Consider if there are areas in which your focus on achievement is holding you back. If you do that, you’ll be one step closer to ridding yourself of this toxic mindset.

Geoff Walters is a six-time entrepreneur and founder of Universal Owl. He has been fascinated by the subject of personal development for ten years, and enjoys passing lessons from his own life experience to younger people.

Areas of interest include wealth creation, nutrition, chess, classical music, psychology, communication and languages.

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How Universities Infantilize Teens, and How Parents Can Fight Back

How Universities Infantilize Teens, and How Parents Can Fight Back

The time between the ages of 16 and 25 can be a period of fast-tracked emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth for many young people. They may look like fully capable adults, but their cognitive reasoning skills are still very much tied to the outside world, especially to parents and educational environments. 

Just like anyone, young people in this age group can make mistakes and they can get hurt. As parents, it’s hard for us to sit back and let that happen, no matter how big or small those mistakes might be.

A university shouldn’t have that problem, though. These institutions are supposedly preparing our teens to lead successful adult lives. Instead, they infantilize students more than most parents, encouraging an attitude of helplessness and fear instead of strength and independence.

It’s Easy for Parents to Infantilize Their Kids

Parents often infantilize their children by telling them they have choices, then subverting those choices when children try to exercise them. “You can choose any toy you want at the store. Oh, except the one you just pointed at, that one’s too noisy.”

There are right times and wrong times in a child’s development to be a watchful and cautious parent. It’s during the teen years that these efforts often come across as infantilizing, leading to terms like helicopter dad, tiger mom, and snowplow parents.

For me, as a single parent of three, it was critical to our survival as a family that I provided guidance and safe spaces for my kids to become as self-aware and self-reliant as possible. I quickly learned there was no one-size-fits-all method for doing this. 

Every person has a unique learning language, including our own kids. I had to tailor my approach to each child in order to provide instruction without needlessly infantilizing them.

How Universities Promote Infantilization

Children receive instruction from outside the family, too. The most common sources are daycares and schools. We expect a certain amount of this external instruction when our kids are younger, but by the time they’re old enough to go to university, parents know we have to start cutting the cord.

Unfortunately, it seems universities haven’t gotten this message. They continue to teach obedience and avoidance of adversity instead of promoting strength and autonomy. Not only is that counter to what parents try to do with their children, it’s also harmful to students themselves.

Schools systematically infantilize students by monitoring and controlling their every waking moment. Denying them the ability to set their own schedules or form their own study plans is only the beginning.

Many schools force students to surrender their cell phones at the start of class, yet teachers are free to use their devices all day. Some even require students to ask permission to use the restroom, denying them control over their own bodily functions.

One of my children struggled with not being allowed to leave her desk without permission from the teacher. A simple request to get her jacket felt like a ridiculous restriction to her, especially since she was raised at home to be more autonomous in accomplishing simple tasks.

It’s through situations like these that universities preach empowerment and human rights while simultaneously denying the same to their students. This is perhaps the result of overcrowded schools or overworked teachers, but the damage is still being done to our young people’s sense of independence.

Kids and Teens Can Be Capable, If We Let Them

As a single parent of three children, I had to prepare myself early on for the arrival of teenage rebellion. This was going to be different from the terrible twos rebellion. I would be dealing with complex young adults, each with different styles for receiving, processing, and delivering information.

I found success using the most direct method I could think of: actions create consequences. By working with my teens and showing them the ins and outs of cause and effect in the real world, I realized I could curb a fair amount of rebellion before it started.

I encouraged my kids early on to be self-aware and self-sufficient in as many ways as possible. This presented problems when they went through the public school system. The environment there promotes a herd mentality, which was precisely the opposite of what I was teaching.

To offset this, I encouraged my kids to be accountable at home and let them know that this attitude should continue everywhere in the world, including at school. It’s this sapling level of self-sufficiency that I think had the most impact on my kids, both when they were young and as they grew up.

Thoughtfulness, autonomy, and a good understanding of how the world works, it all adds up to a stronger young adult, even when they’re faced with the infantilizing environment of universities.

Encouraging Individuation

Our job as parents seems pretty clear: support our kids, give them the tools they need to be self-sufficient, and be mindful of infantilizing them as they grow older. Our job isn’t to protect them from adversity, it’s to give them the tools they need to face it and grow from it.

Universities should also encourage this attitude. After all, that’s what we want from adults, right? Strong and thoughtful and autonomous. Heroic, even. Teens can handle this if we give them the chance, but right now, the second most abundant influence in a young adult’s life — their time spent at school — actively tries to destroy individuation.

We need to start lessons in autonomy young, long before our kids consider going to university. It’s only natural that teens and young adults will often lack impulse control. They may say or do things and don’t grasp the ramifications immediately. They may lack the ability to see the end game in their words or actions. But that’s ok. It’s part of the learning process.

As a parent or educator, it’s important to remember not to swoop in and rescue, deflect, or deny this behavior, but to model appropriate behavior and guide young adults with respect. Eventually, they’ll be flying on their own. 

If we teach our children how to behave, then let them practice, eventually they will manage life’s ups and downs. Create controlled environments at home where kids can voice their opinions and engage in responsible behaviors. Once these habits are in place, encourage them to practice their independence outside of the home, with friends, and at school. More importantly, provide open channels for communication and offer feedback as necessary.

Ultimately, it’s far more advantageous to find that balance between treating kids like adults and helping them reach that level of maturity than it is to keep them oppressed.

Shannon Llewellyn is the health writer for Universal Owl. A Cordon Bleu chef who always enjoyed writing on the side, she recently made the transition into writing full-time.

Her spare time is mostly taken up with running, meditating, yoga, and being grandma to Sammy.

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Self-Esteem is an Unhelpful Concept – You Need Self-Efficacy Instead

Self-Esteem is an Unhelpful Concept – You Need Self-Efficacy Instead

You’ve no doubt heard teachers, parents, or coaches talking about the importance of self-esteem. Maybe you’ve even had a professor tell your class that you are all special.

This kind of thinking comes from a good place — wanting to ensure that young people have high self-esteem and feel good about themselves.

But self-esteem is an unhelpful concept with no practical value. Accepting empty platitudes does nothing and leads nowhere. You’re far better off putting in the effort to learn real skills to build self-esteem from the inside out.

Let me explain.

Why We Talk About Self-Esteem Today

In the 1980s, researchers in education noticed that children who were more successful also had higher self-esteem, meaning they agreed with statements like “I am special” and “I can do anything I put my mind to.” So, the researchers thought, if we could only boost the self-esteem of all children, then they’d be more successful.

The idea became popular in schools, self help books, and parenting guides, and it’s still common today. It became so prevalent that people think they’re entitled to that empty praise, no matter what they do.

Here’s the problem: the fact that children had high self-esteem was the result of their success, not the cause of it. Trying to boost self-esteem doesn’t necessarily result in people being more successful. It might make them puff up and feel good, but that sensation is fleeting.

What is Self-Esteem, Anyway?

One problem with projects that try to boost self-esteem is they fail to adequately define what the concept is in the first place. Self-esteem is vague and covers a whole range of different ideas, including:

  • Self-confidence: the feeling that you are capable of taking on new things and doing well at them.
  • Self-worth: the idea that all humans have inherent value which should be respected and appreciated.
  • Ego boosting:  bigging yourself up to make yourself feel better.

These concepts have their place in our lives, but mixing them up only serves to confuse people. If you want to feel self-confident, for example, pursuing bravado or boosting your ego will not help you.

Self-Efficacy is More Important

If self-esteem isn’t helpful, then what is? In both my personal experience and based on the evidence from psychology research, what really makes a difference to people’s state of mind and the way they approach life is confidence.

When I say confidence, I don’t mean bragging or hollow swagger. I don’t mean faking or pretending that you have abilities that you don’t. And I don’t mean putting other people down in order to make yourself feel better.

Real confidence is the result of competence. It comes from having faced challenges in the past which you have overcome, and from feeling that you are capable of facing new challenges in the future.

Do you remember learning how to ride a bike? Figuring out how to swim? How to do long division for the first time? Before you learned these skills they seemed scary, like something you’d never be able to do. But with practice you were able to manage them.

Once you mastered those skills, they seemed easy. You felt confident doing them. You increased your level of self-efficacy in these areas and earned self-esteem as a result.

How to Build Self-Efficacy

Self-esteem isn’t something to strive towards or look for in life, it’s the result of building self-efficacy. So, what do you do to become a more capable, more confident person? There are a few key ways to build yourself up, and they have nothing to do with empty platitudes or flat praise from teachers.

Commit to a Long-Term Process

One of the reasons that building self-esteem became so popular in schools is that it’s seemingly a quick fix that can be applied to groups of people. If you build self-esteem, there’s no need to change teaching methods or purchase expensive new equipment, no need to look at how confidence develops over years. Teachers only need to say complimentary things to their students, then they’ll do better.

The truth is that building self-efficacy takes a long time, especially if you don’t feel sure of your abilities. Building confidence is a process that takes years and requires a lot of commitment.

Learn New Skills

There’s no better way to improve your confidence than to try out a new skill. Whether it’s learning a language, trying your hand at a craft, or taking up a creative hobby, there’s immense psychological value in acquiring a new skill. When there is something you start off not knowing how to do, then practise and overcome that challenge, you feel more capable of doing new things in the future.

I have always thought of myself as someone who was good at academic tasks, but bad at physical ones. I was always terrible at sports and hated being forced to exercise as a kid. When I was an adult, though, I found myself enjoying cycling, running, and lifting weights. These skills weren’t beyond me — they were just things I hadn’t learned before. Learning them and growing my skills made me feel not only physically better, but also like a more capable person.

Learning a new skill also requires that you accept your failures. You aren’t going to be good at everything straight away. You’ll learn to see that something you’re doing isn’t working, then change your approach to something different. When you are able to accept this try-fail-retry cycle, you’ll be less intimidated by new challenges and more satisfied by your successes.

Acknowledge Weaknesses

Finally, there’s one aspect of confidence which is highly underrated, and that is acknowledging your weaknesses. This might sound counter-intuitive, as most people think those who are confident only talk about what they’re good at and don’t have any areas of weakness. In reality, that simply isn’t the case.

No one is skilled at everything. Pretending that you have strengths or skills you don’t possess won’t benefit you in the long run. If you don’t know what your weaknesses are, you can’t learn to overcome them to become more competent.

True confidence includes honest acknowledgement of both your abilities and your limitations. It involves knowing that just because you’re not good at everything doesn’t mean you can’t improve. It also doesn’t mean you have nothing useful to offer the world.

You Don’t Need Ego, You Need Competence

Building self-esteem has to be done from within. Bathing in the empty praise of others does nothing to improve you as a person, nor does it build self-confidence or self-efficacy. Feeling like you’re entitled to self-esteem is essentially saying you want people to tell you you’re great without earning those compliments.

Do you really want that? Do you really want to be told you’re talented, intelligent, and successful, or do you want to be those things through and through?

To be more successful in life, being told that you’re great won’t cut it. You need to go out in the world and learn skills, whether it’s food preparation or effective communication. That’s how you gain self-efficacy, that’s how you build self-esteem, and that’s how you improve your life in the long run.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.

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