Gemma had led a privileged life.
The daughter of high flying parents, aged 17, she was now being coached for Oxbridge. But all was not well.
As the exams drew near, Gemma was suffering major anxiety attacks that seemed to paralyse her. She could not concentrate on her studies, was falling behind with her homework and had taken to lying for hours on her bed, crying.
When she came to see me, it was clear that anxiety of the fear of failing her exams was overwhelming. Her parents’ expectations were so great, they weighed her down. She had never failed an exam before in her life but not getting into Oxford or Cambridge would be such a public humiliation. Her parents had told everyone what a star pupil she was.
It wasn’t that they didn’t love her or care about her. They did. They almost loved her too much. Gemma had had everything she needed. Classes in ballet, pony club, music tuition; every moment was filled with activities they organised for her. Her future was organised by them too and Gemma looked genuinely shocked when I asked her one simple question:
‘What do you want to do with your life?’
‘I don’t know’ said Gemma, and I had the impression no one had ever asked her that question before. Set one goal after another, Gemma had never had to think for herself and had never had to try for anything.
We did some work around anxiety management and some positive mental rehearsal to get her through the exam nerves. What I really wanted to say to Gemma was:
‘It’s time to become an adult now and take control of your own destiny. Life is scary sometimes and the future will hold many challenges for you but only you can decide how you choose to respond to those challenges. The skills you will learn now from overcoming your exam nerves and fear of failure will create the confidence and resilience that will carry you into your future and will open up many new opportunities.
Whatever life throws at you, Gemma, you were born with the inner resources to deal with it. Don’t be afraid to fail. In fact, if you don’t ever fail, you are simply not trying hard enough to break out of your comfort zone.’
Knowing the natural resistance to this kind of direct advice, what I did instead was get her to relax very deeply and tell her a therapeutic story. This is the story I told:
In a distant land, far off and a long time ago, there lived a king and queen.
They ruled with kindness over a country that flourished. But the king and queen were not happy. They longed for a child as an heir to the throne; a child who would continue their benevolent lineage and provide the future security and confidence the people needed.
After many years, something wonderful happened. The queen found she was pregnant and, after a trouble free pregnancy, gave birth to a healthy black haired daughter they named Princess Kalli, meaning ‘darkest and most beautiful one.’
All went well. The child thrived and was surrounded by love. If Princess Kalli cried, all her needs were attended to by her personal courtiers. She was a happy baby. But, as she approached her ninth month, her parents became distressed and full of anxiety. Kalli was trying to walk and, in her efforts, was falling and getting covered in cuts and bruises. The king and queen, intent on protecting their beautiful daughter, instructed the courtiers to carry her everywhere. No harm must come to this most precious of children.
And so it continued until, one day, many, many years later, with the king and queen now old a frail, the threat of invasion came from a neighbouring land. The king called for Kalli. ‘You will have to lead the troops into battle’, he said. ‘You must head up the army and motivate them to fight or all will be lost.’
‘But I can’t do it’ said Princess Kalli in despair. ‘I’ve never fought any battles. What if I fail? I can’t even walk. Someone must do it for me.’
‘There is no one’ said the king. It’s up to you now Kalli’ he said, and the princess saw that he was right. The time had come for her to step into the adult world despite her anxiety. She ordered a carriage and horses to be brought. Her loyal courtiers tried to carry her to it.
‘Stop’ said the princess. ‘I must do this myself’. ‘But princess’ cried the courtiers, ‘you may fall and hurt yourself.’
‘I would rather fall than my country fall’ said the princess.’ And with those words, she raised herself onto her fragile legs and tumbled forward onto the floor. The courtiers rushed forward. ‘Leave me’ cried the princess and she tried again, pulling herself into an upright position and falling once more. But with every fall, she worked out how not to do it and tried it a little differently next time until finally, she succeeded and was able to put one foot in front of the other without losing her balance.
Battered and bruised, she now stood tall before her loyal soldiers.
‘Fight as you have never fought before’, she told them. ‘Do not be afraid, for fear will paralyse you. The shadow is much larger than the monster. Freedom and independence are prizes worth fighting for. Never give up. If you fall down seven times, get up eight and you will prevail. You will succeed.’
And that is exactly what happened. With a fierce determination fired by the powerful words of the princess, the soldiers took to the battle field. Many were struck down but rose again and again. All focused on the prize and finally the enemy ran for the hills, defeated.
After the battle, Princess Kalli assumed her rightful position as head of the army. She would never be the same again. No one needed to carry her anymore. A crisis that threatened to destroy her world had made her stronger in so many ways.
Now Princess Kalli stood on her own two feet and she had earned the respect of all the land. Now she had lost her fear of failure. Many mistakes lay ahead of her. But princess Kalli failed her way to success.
And, in that way, princess Kalli became the wisest and strongest leader her land had ever known. Her light shone brightly and, in allowing herself to shine, she gave permission for those round her to shine too.
The kingdom flourished as never before.
And all were happy.
When does support become control? How does love start to overwhelm and disempower the object of that love?
The helicopter parent means well. Every moment is managed and filled with activity but the child is never allowed to fall and never allowed to fail.
And how much of that fear of failure is a projection of the anxiety and fears of the parent?
When working with young people, I sometimes wonder if I have the right client in the room.
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