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The Deep End
Are you standing on the edge of the pool?
“Mom, I want to go to swimming lessons EVERY day!” Before we left our house for the pool, my daughter Grace was ready to be an Olympian. When we arrived at our destination….notsomuch. You can bring a strong-willed girl to water, but you can’t make her swim.
My kids took swimming lessons for the first time this summer. Week after week, we’d pack up, go to the pool, I’d pay. Then, my daughter would sit on the side of the water watching her twin brother but refuse to go in herself. In many ways, we’re all Grace—perched in her swimsuit on the edge of the pool. Ambivalent. Dying to jump in, refusing to get wet.
Managing mixed feelings is hard—especially when our emotions are at odds with each other. Grace was excited. And she was scared. I think that’s many of us in the face of something new. We want it. And yet. . . when it comes to taking action, we hold ourselves back. It’s a mysterious undertow that keeps us safe and stuck in the status quo.
Change is complex. Most growth trajectories in life don’t follow a straight, linear path. They’re a spiral or a curve. Transformation is a staged process, not a sudden switch. Sometimes, the path we follow doesn’t seem to make logical sense. Moment-to-moment motivation wanes. Confidence shifts. We had a good initial run with swimming in June. Grace was a champ during her first few lessons. Then, one day, she decided she was done.
Some days I felt discouraged. I was frustrated, too. None of my shrink-parent jedi mind tricks seemed to work. So, I relied heavily on my trusty standby: empathy. I placed myself in my little girl’s pink Crocs and thought back to my own experience as a novice swimmer. I failed my first year of lessons. My primary problem: I hated bobs. It really bothered me to get my head wet. To this day, I can’t stand cold water. With this in heart and mind, as I sat with Grace, I couldn’t really blame her for not wanting to get in. A few days I was sitting there in a bloody sweatshirt myself.
I understand Grace’s personality intimately—it's identical to my own. She has a will of steel. It’s one of her/my greatest strengths and liabilities. We can do anything we put our minds to, but execution will be precisely when and how we decide. Not a minute sooner. No other way. As a parent, I choose my battles carefully—especially with my daughter. I knew that pleading or cajoling would only make my mini-me dig her heels in more. So, I gave her some space. The more mental turf she got, the more her excitement and desire had room to grow.
When someone isn’t doing what we wish they would, we often try to convince them against their will. We explain how and why we know best. Frankly, this strategy sucks. In most cases it only makes someone double down and strengthen their case against doing things differently. If we really want to help people change, we need to honor their ambivalence. Roll with resistance—fighting it is futile and will usually create further frustration for all parties involved.
Brute intellectual force won’t move someone over the tipping point for taking action. To make sustained meaningful change, people need to internally cross the fulcrum, powered by their own reasons and motivation. Change is hard. In order to make it happen, we have to really want it. We have to be willing to do the work. When someone does something simply to placate or please, change rarely sticks. Relying on external motivation alone is a huge risk factor for regression.
Sometimes when we’re met with someone’s ambivalence we mistake it for resistance. I understood Grace’s protests at the pool weren’t defiance. She was a frightened little girl setting a limit and exercising her power. In moments of my own frustration, my job was to keep my feelings in check and not take them out on her. To help me maintain my chill, I needed to rescript the story I was telling myself about the behavior I kept bumping up against on the surface. She wasn’t giving me a hard time. She was having a hard time. Viewing her refusal through a different lens, I could clearly see she was demonstrating behaviors that I’m working to instill in her for her safety, protection, and ultimate success—tuning into herself, using that data to set boundaries, and clearly communicating her wishes. I wanted to reinforce those strengths and accept where she was at. And, I needed to nudge her outside of her comfort zone too. Both, and.
As I parent, and in my work as a psychologist, the tension between acceptance and change is everpresent in my mind. The dialectic is magic. I’ve seen time and time again how it unlocks growth. Validate and challenge. I fully accept my daughter as she is. And, I will never stop pointing her toward her full possibility and potential. Fully enough and always more. Part of my job as a clinician is to determine the correct ratio of acceptance and challenge someone needs at any given moment, on any given day. I dose my interventions accordingly. Attunement is an art and a science. What can they handle? What do they need? Sometimes I overstep. Other times I don’t push as much as I should. I’m not perfect, but I calculate my timing and calibrate my responses as best I can.
This week, I decided that I needed to bump the dose of challenge with Grace. So, I scooped her up mid-protest and carefully placed her in the arms of her teacher on Monday. I knew the handoff would be as uncomfortable for me as it was for her. She cried. I died a tiny bit inside. And then, before we knew it, we were both fine, smiling in the sunshine.
She can do hard things. I can too.
As I listened to her shrieks of joy in the water, I sat back and realized these lessons at the pool this summer . . they weren’t just about swimming. They were about empathy, growth, and change. They were lessons in love. Lessons in humanity.
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