Measuring up (part II)–justifying mediocrity

It has always been a struggle, both as a parent and as a therapist, to watch kids justify their behavior.  There is lots of explanation and theory about why people do this, but trying to conceptualize this in a way that made sense for a kid has been difficult.  I’ll get kids in the office that cut class because other kids do it.  That smoke cigarettes or pot because “everyone is doing it”.  Steal because it is “what we do”.  It turns into the justification for every act that is self-destructive, counter-culturish, or against the wishes of parents, teachers, therapists or any other adult.  We have all tried the extraordinarily lame “if they were jumping off a bridge would you do it too?” comment.  That aaaaaaallllllways seem to make a difference, doesn’t it??!!??  Kids who are in this frame of mind are very immune to reason.  I have tended to feel that what I had to say makes little difference in what happens outside of my limited time with them.  It dawned on me the other day when I was having that same sort of conversation with a kid that what I was dealing with is the flip side of the other self-esteem issue that I often deal with–the measuring up issue that typically effects adults (see blarticle on Measuring Up in the May, 2007 archives).  Instead of trying to measure up to other’s inordinate expectations of them as adults often do, these kids seem to have internalized a negative sense of themselves that is soothed by comparisons to other’s negative and self-destructive behavior.  They then use that as a justification of behavior that adults are trying to get them to stop.

 For example, I have had very smart kids who dumb themselves down to other kids as a way of fitting in.  The identity of being “the smart kid” may be too uncomfortable to him or her.  If you are feeling depressed and not good about yourself, it is, in a way, easier to purposefully sabotage your academic progress and do poorly (or set yourself up to do poorly) rather than risk the possiblility of doing well, getting complements etc.  I have kids who smoke pot and justify their behavior because all the other kids are doing it.  Never mind that you have mental health issues that are effected by the THC, and that you have demonstrated poor judgement while on it.  Instead of measuring yourself against the best that other people expect from you or the best that you observe in others, they seek the worst/least in others and allowing themselves to drift down to that level.

This has been seen in classrooms for years.  If you get a kid with some learning issues and without much of a backbone and put him in a special ed class full of kids with disruptive behavior, you can bet dollars to donuts that the kid will begin to display significant behavior problems.  You put a kid with mood issues in the hospital and they learn how to cut.  Instead of lifting themselves up, or displaying leadership to the kids around them, they fall in line with the negative aspects of things and begin to copy those negative behaviors, justifying it as “what everyone else does”.

Truth is, not everyone does it.  Not everyone smokes pot.  Not everyone has sex.  Not everyone else steals.  Not everyone else curses like a truck driver.  If you gather around yourself a limited number of people who engage in negative behavior, then your world will appear to you as if “everyone does it”, when, in reality, you have purposefully selected a group of kids to justify your behavior.  That is very different from “everyone”.  You have supported your mediocrity by selecting to hang out with mediocre people.  You know that 4 ft yard stick in my office???  I have one that is 2 ft long, too.  That, it seems, is the analagous symbol to those who purposefully figure out how to NOT live up to their potential.  If you compare yourself to a room full of idiots, it’s much easier to feel smart.  Problem is, you start acting like an idiot.  If you compare yourself to a heroin junky, smoking pot seems almost good.  It’s just a mind trick you are using to justify what you want to do.  It’s a stupid argument.  Just as stupid as that typical parental bridge comparison.

The question that I pose to you is, what are your strengths and weakness?  How are you going to capitalize on your strengths so that you can do well in life?  How are you going to work on your weaknesses so that you grow in those areas and develop them into strengths?  How are you going to keep you from falling into that trap of self-justification  with the two ft yard stick so that you don’t end up justifying your way out of school, or into a psych hospital, or into juvenile hall, or into a grave???  You certainly have the ability to do all sorts of self-destructive acts.  The question is . . . why?  What are you trying to say???  What are you trying to hide about yourself???  How are you going to communicate these issues in a (God forbid) straight forward, positive manner that may actually result in some positive change in your life?????????

Your choice.

I’ll be waiting.

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