[This post is excerpted from Why Smart Teens Hurt. To learn more, please take a look!]
As a therapist and creativity coach, I’ve worked with countless smart, talented, creative adults who had very little to show for all of their potential. A common pattern emerged. From an early age, they believed in their ability and saw themselves destined to have a career as some sort of artist or intellectual. Brimming with ideas, they would start some project with enthusiasm—and quickly abandon it. Very quickly. One might even say, at the first signs of difficulty.
Rarely would it come to them to say, “I’m stopping because this feels too difficult.” They had other ways of explaining their early abandonment. The project was too painful to work on. The project had no juice to it. The project had a plot hole in it the size of a flying saucer. The project too closely resembled something that already existed. The project straddled too many genres. Etc. Of course, each of these rationales might well have been a truthful part-explanation. But in larger measure, it seemed to be that the experience of difficulty produced sudden panic followed by uncontrollable flight.
The sequence looks to be: enthusiasm, followed by the experience of difficulty, followed by some sudden, painful, deep doubt, followed by panic, followed by abandonment. This psychological dynamic plays such havoc in the lives of smart, creative folks of all ages!
Picture two divers. The first diver dives in and calmly holds his breath underwater. The second diver instantly feels as if he is drowning. What is the difference between the diver who can stay under water for minutes and the diver who gasps for air immediately? The second is in a panic—but what is the source of that panic? A near-drowning experience? A lifetime of being told “You’re no good at anything!” or telling himself, “You aren’t very capable”? Who can say? What we can see clearly is a terrible problem: the way that perceived difficulty can instantly create a sense of panic.
Of course, the ensuing panic then makes you that much less capable. One of the tasks in Army basic training was entering a hut full of tear gas carrying, but not wearing, your gas mask. No soldier wanted to do that or thought, “What fun!” But the soldier who thought, “Okay, I can do this” found the task doable. And the soldier who thought, “I can’t do this!”, who doubted his ability to tolerate a few seconds of tear gas, would panic—and of course then fumble with his gas mask, fail to get it on, and be forced to rush out of the hut choking and gagging. That panic made his fingers not work properly.
How is it that experiencing difficulty with one’s work can produce such out-sized panic? We’re not talking about swimming underwater or tolerating tear gas, just having some troubles with the next sentence of your novel or some troubles dreaming up the next step in the theorem you’re creating. Why does this feel so very dangerous? What we have is a great example of how our warning system against danger, our nervous system that produces anxiety, can make bad mistakes.
It mistakes troubles with the next sentence with disaster, with danger, with something out-sized and terrible. No single artifact of evolution causes us more consternation or more pain than the way that our warning system turns a challenging moment with our novel into a confrontation with a tiger. The result of this “warning system misunderstanding” is that only a small percentage of smart adults are as productive as they would like to be or know that they could be.
Teens fall into a different category of effort, because they are not yet facing adult tasks like writing a dissertation or studying for the bar exam. Objectively speaking, their abandonments matter less. But subjectively, just as much damage may be occurring. The stakes may be different, but the dynamic is the same: enthusiasm followed by doubt followed by panic followed by abandonment followed by a serious hit to one’s self-esteem.
You would naturally like your smart teen to follow through on the things that he or she begins and it can prove highly frustrating to watch your child abandon things willy-nilly “without even trying.” But it isn’t that he isn’t trying. Something else is going on, the “something” that we’ve been discussing, the way that difficulty produces panic.
How can you help? By sympathetically announcing that the projects we tackle can make us anxious the instant they feel difficult to us. That anxiety is natural and normal and does not signal disaster. Explain that coping with difficulty will not only prove a life-long challenge but his primary challenge, since, being smart, he is going to set himself demanding challenges that will require his ability to tolerate anxiety. He will want to do big things—and with that may come big anxiety. Help your smart teen to see that this is natural and even inevitable and nothing to panic about.
What is your relationship to hard intellectual or creative work? Do you immediately provide yourself with an escape hatch—“Oh, that’s a stupid assignment!” or “I’m not good enough to try that yet!” or “My drawing is so embarrassingly terrible!”—and stop? Or do you dive in smiling, as if you were made for the water?
The theme is tolerating imperfection. You are not perfect—and you can’t be. Your work is not perfect—and it can’t be. You will experience successes and failures as a human being and the work you create will run the gamut from terrible to excellent. Don’t lose your chance to do excellent work by abandoning work the second doubt creeps in or you face some difficulty.
Difficulty is coming. Don’t let that certainty put you in a panic. Don’t let “I don’t want to do that—that’s too hard!” become “I will not do hard things.” Have as your mantra, “I can see this through.” Relax into the process, breathe, surrender, and accept. Hard things are hard—but don’t turn that truth into so scary a thought that you send yourself into perpetual flight.
This post is excerpted from Why Smart Teens Hurt. To learn more, please take a look!