High Standards or Unrealistic Expectations?

Therapy is not for people like me

Yonit was very, very embarrassed to be in the Kav L’Noar therapist’s office. “Therapy should be for people with actual problems, like a childhood trauma or a marriage breaking up or some clinical condition”, she said. “It’s not for people like me! Look at me, I have everything! I’ve always had everything! I grew up in a beautiful home with everything I needed. My parents were always there for me. I graduated high school as valedictorian and now I work as a cardiologist. My marriage is good. I have three healthy kids. I’m even fine with my appearance- how many women do you know who can say that?”

I feel so spoiled and guilty

The therapist smiled and just asked “so what has brought you here?” Yonit shrugged and said- “I’m here because even though I have every reason to be happy, I’m just not. I feel so spoiled and guilty about it, but that’s the sort of person I am- I’m hard to please. If a decorator paints a wall, I’ll find the spot that needs another touch up. If I go out to a restaurant, the food will never be as good as the reviews promised. And when I look at my own life, I see the things that aren’t as I want them to be.

High Standards

The other week, my husband and I went to a parents’ evening at our daughter’s school. The teacher was singing her praises, talking about what a wonderful student she is and how much all the other girls look up to her, but all I said was that I’m still annoyed that she refused to try out for the gifted child program. She is so smart and has so much potential that’s being wasted and the teacher just didn’t seem to care. But afterwards my husband said that I was being ridiculous and that if I’m not careful I’m going to let my high standards and negativity destroy our family. So that’s when I decided to call you.”

“Tell me about how it was growing up,”

“Tell me about how it was growing up,” said the therapist. Yonit rolled her eyes. “I already told you, my parents were always there for me. You’re not going to find any skeletons in the closet. I had a typical, suburban, 70s childhood.”

“I’m not looking for skeletons”, answered the therapist. “I just want more of a picture. So tell me about this idyllic childhood?” “I was very into roller skating. We lived near a roller rink and I spent a lot of time there. My mother didn’t approve though. She thought I should be studying and not skating. Now I understand where she was coming from!”

“What did she approve of?”

“What did she approve of?” asked the therapist. Yonit was silent for a while. “It’s hard to remember,” she said finally. The therapist asked if there were any other things that Yonit could remember that her mother did not approve of. Yonit immediately laughed and nodded enthusiastically. She ticked them off on her fingers, “my hairstyle, my clothes, my music, my friends, any time I scored less than 100 on a school assignment or test, the state of my bedroom, my table manners or lack of as she would put it…”

The therapist didn’t say anything, but she held Yonit’s gaze. Yonit shifted in her seat. “I guess she had high standards just like I do”, she conceded, “but that’s a good thing.”

When standards are impossible to meet

Over the next few weeks, Yonit and her therapist spent more time exploring her relationship with her mother and how it influenced her. Yonit came to understand that the standards that had been expected of her weren’t just high, they were impossible to meet. Whatever she did would never be enough. And Yonit started to remember how much criticism was always in the air at home, not just of her but of everything. Even during this reframing process, Yonit remained loyal and sympathetic to her mother. “She was one of those women who’d been forced to leave school much too early. She didn’t have my opportunities. She’d been let down by everyone. She must have been deeply unhappy herself and I just never knew it.”

Seeing the good

As the sessions continued, Yonit quite naturally started to draw parallels between things that she remembered being said decades before, and things she would hear herself saying to her own children. This worried her. “I will always want my kids to aim high and push themselves to be the best they can be. But sometimes I’m critical just because I’m tired and grouchy and had a bad day myself. I don’t want them to feel that they can never satisfy me. And for my part, I want to learn to truly appreciate them.”

Setting high standards without unrealistic expectations

Yonit and her therapist spent the remaining sessions working on acceptance. Acceptance of herself, of imperfections, of her family. She practised listening to her children without judgment or expectations. She practised saying positive things without a ‘but’ at the end, and not just about other people but also about TV shows, someone else’s garden, a photograph, whatever she came across day-to-day.  In the last session, Yonit said to the therapist, “I came for fear of the damage I might cause. I didn’t realize that in fact my family was already hurting. But now things have turned around, the atmosphere at home is so much lighter, and I feel hopeful about the future. Seems like therapy is also for people like me after all.”

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*All names and identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality. Picture is for illustrative purposes only.

#parenting #counseling #therapy #highstandards #unrealisticexpectations

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