My youngest was reading to me before bed the other night, another Mo Willems pick from her school library. She read the words with gusto, and her intonation was spot on. I layed beside her, marvelling at how this small person reads words. Words. When did this happen?
Somehow, she went from words meaning nothing, to words meaning a whole lot. Perhaps, one might say, that she learned how to read.
Now before she could string letters together and sound them out, we didn’t fault her for her ignorance. She simply wasn’t capable of doing that yet. She hadn’t learned. She didn’t know. Lucky for us, she picked up on it pretty quick and it didn’t take much to ignite the passion to sound out signs and book titles. Before we knew it, she went from not reading, to reading.
Some kids though need more help. Letter sounds are trickier for some kids than others, some brains mix up words or letters. Some kids struggle to sit still. Some are shy or fearful of making mistakes. Even though it may take more work, the striking majority of kids will leave school with a proficient level of literacy, they will have learned how to read.
Do we fault the kids who have a harder time? I sure hope not. I hope we send them to the resource teacher for extra help, and that teachers take what little extra time they have to help those who struggle. Not everybody is instantly good at everything. Learning takes time.
Now what does this have to do with therapy? Well, as a counsellor I see a fair amount of people who come to session and shame themselves because they haven’t learned how to ‘read’ emotionally or relationally. People attend sessions feeling like they should just know how to do this stuff, as though being human is all the training they need to be proficient at feeling and relational literacy.
But learning takes time. And practice. And modelling. We need help to lay the building blocks of understanding feelings and how to connect, these things (for most people) don’t just magically happen. Sure, there are a few anomalies for whom these things just magically click (kinda like the kids who read at age 2), but for the most of us – developing a sense of what we are feeling, learning how to name it, and engage it safely, this is a learned and practiced skill. And if we haven’t really learned it or had a chance to practice, why would we be good at it?
Learning how to be a good friend, good partner, or a good parent also is a skill. Some people seem to get how conversation flows back and forth, and can naturally attune to others. But for many folks, these skills haven’t been well developed or expertly honed.
So my hope as a counsellor is to help my clients be gracious with themselves for the things they haven’t yet mastered, and to help them cut themselves some slack when they get down on themselves for not being able to do these things better. Where would you have learned how to do this? is a question I ask often in session. Just like I wouldn’t expect my kid to read without having learned the basics, and without lots of practice, I wouldn’t expect clients to know how to navigate big emotion or to skillfully navigate relationships without some basic skills and lots of time spent fine-tuning them.
So, before you start shaming yourself for all the things you can’t do, maybe slow it down and ask yourself if you’ve ever really learned how – and if you’ve had enough practice to really be proficient at the task at hand. Perhaps using the same kind of gentleness that you would with a child may be a helpful way of responding to your own self.