The other day I was leafing through the book What Happy People Know by psychologist Dan Baker. He speaks about his work with women with eating disorders and how he learned that focusing on their eating habits didn't work in helping them change their behavior. He found that the greatest thing he could do was to support these women in realizing and playing to their strengths and inevitably the other stuff took care of itself over time. This concept of not focusing on your weaknesses but playing to your strengths struck me with its simplicity. And I almost kicked myself there in the bookstore aisle. How could I not have learned something so simple?
For many reasons, growing up in a "sin"-focused environment being one of them, I learned that weaknesses were to remain the focus until they're overcome. If there's some deficiency, it's my job to make it right. But apparently, the brain doesn't respond so well to this. It puts more stress on an already stressed system and you end up spinning your wheels. Instead, it is better to shift the energy into what you already do well, and nurture that. This improves self-image and a sense of competency which then allows the other "weaknesses" to either disappear or be worked with from a more positive foundation.
To put this in context, I just went to have my first day with the munchkin I've been hired to work with for the Summer. As mentioned, he's 3 and he's "mildly" Autistic. Now, I have worked with Autistic children in the past. And I really wasn't very good at it. But somehow, I thought this was a "weakness" on my part. I thought that I should be able to do this. Just like the other day when I thought that I should be able to do Quadratic Equations. We know how that all turned out. But I digress.
After four hours with this child this morning, corralling him, keeping his attention diverted from getting into mischief, engaging him in constant interaction, attending to shrieking, punching and kicking meltdowns, the mother tells me that this was a "good day". She says, "At least he didn't bolt." Bolt?! Apparently he runs into traffic. You can't take your eyes off him for five seconds.
She must have read the overwhelm on my face. "So, what do you think?" she asked.
"Well, I don't think I'm going to be able to meet your needs here." And that was it. That's all it comes down to. He has needs I'm not going to be able to meet. I have many strengths for working with children, but they aren't going to fit this particular situation. And that's okay.
So, I hugged her, wished her well, told her she's an amazing mother (parents of Autistic children everywhere have my deepest admiration) and said it was okay, she didn't need to pay me. I felt privileged just to have had the learning I had and to meet them. And I was on my way, smiling that life cares enough to give me opportunities to learn about my own ignorance.
I now know it's okay for me to play to my strengths, to focus on the things I do well and to let go of the rest. What a relief!