“You can be whatever you want!” On dealing with high-expectation anxiety4 min read

Whether you are autistic or not, if as a child you were highly verbal, there’s a good chance the adults around you praised you for it and sug­gested you were smart enough to “be any­thing you wanted to be.” Your capa­bility to become a lawyer, a sur­geon, a writer or what­ever you liked was a direct con­se­quence of your then-current ability to string sen­tences together. That is Neurotypicality in action.

Sure, maybe you were a bit awk­ward, or maybe you had a hard time dressing on your own, but you could speak– and man, do people value speech.

This affir­ma­tion, this reminder the world was your oyster, was always meant as a good thing. Of course being able to chose a life path without being lim­ited by your own intel­lec­tual short­com­ings is a good thing, and of course telling someone they are smart is good, too. It builds self-confidence, and if the person being told is a girl (or per­ceived as a girl, anyway), it also teaches them that beauty isn’t their only option. Warm feel­ings all around. Right?

Well, not nec­es­sarily.

Telling a child they are smart because they are more advanced than their peers in a spe­cific domain is actu­ally not the best idea. As a rule, praising a child for some­thing that they are and not some­thing that they do is not helpful. Children build much of their self-identity through their social inter­ac­tions, and a parent valuing some­thing the child doesn’t have much con­trol over (their sup­posed “intel­li­gence”) can become a source of stress.

The child will inte­grate that who they are is “a person who is smart because they are more advanced than their peers,” and once the peers catch up, the child will expe­ri­ence a lot of dis­tress over what will be per­ceived as an iden­tity loss.

Which sucks.

Highly-verbal chil­dren that were told they could be any­thing they wanted and who happen to be autistic get an even harder deal. Whether they were diag­nosed early and this was said to them as a way to convey that the diag­nosis didn’t define them (as if…), or they weren’t even diag­nosed yet, this type of praise did set up high expec­ta­tions. And more impor­tantly, it set them up for failure.

Virtually no one that ever existed could do and be any­thing they wanted. It doesn’t happen. I don’t mean to say that no one is ever happy, but merely that living in an imper­fect world is all about man­aging your expec­ta­tions and learning when to settle. And when the entire world is built for a neu­rotype you don’t share, things are even more daunting.

For an autistic person that’s been led to believe they could be any­thing they wanted, failing at any­thing can be an enor­mous source of shame. Not only were they more likely to take at face value this sort of affir­ma­tions, but they also encoun­tered more chal­lenges– and, often, more set­backs.

Realizing they need to quit a toxic job or can’t study in their favorite field, for instance, can be dev­as­tating because of the added guilt. If they are so smart, why can’t they make it work? If they can be any­thing, why not this? Are they just lazy or not trying hard enough ?

This sort of thinking is of course a slip­pery slope that leads to gar­gan­tuan amounts of masking, low self-esteem, and the infa­mous autistic burnout.

Which sucks even harder.

So, should we never tell chil­dren about what their future may hold? And if we’ve been praised in a sub-optimal way, is there no hope?

We actu­ally should, and there actu­ally is. And as a highly-verbal person (you were warned), I think rephrasing is key.

If you are a person who inter­acts with chil­dren, a good way to boost a child’s con­fi­dence in their own ability to nav­i­gate the world could be praising their actions (not their qual­i­ties) and asking their opinion. Instead of, “You can be what­ever you want,”, maybe try, “You do a great job of expressing what you want. Have you thought about what you’d like to do when you’re older?”

By asking a child’s opinion, you actu­ally show them you care about what they think and feel instead of just tossing an affir­ma­tion their way. As a self-esteem boost, you could do much worse.

And as for our­selves, here’s my favourite sen­tence on the topic: “What you can do has value.” Because no, we can’t be any­thing we want; we can’t do every­thing. But those people that we do become, those things that we do achieve?

They are not worth­less.

They have meaning, they have power, they have value – and they should be treated as such. Acknowledging we have limits is not being lazy or “not trying hard enough”– it’s being a func­tioning adult. Which beats, any day, a vague “any­thing you want.”

9 Comments

  1. Though, the kids who are the youngest of a Big batch, will be ignored even if they have a genius intel­lect🙄🙄

    1. Author

      Sorry to hear that mate. I didn’t expe­ri­ence that specif­i­cally but I can only imagine how frus­trating that must be.

  2. Felt this way when I had to leave col­lege after a week. Not even a week of classes. If I’m so smart, why couldn’t I be away from my family and live on my own?

    1. Author

      Same. I lived at my par­ents’ and campus was lit­ter­ally a bus ride away. I still quit after a few months. I hear you.


  3. Thank you for this! I feel like I’ve been spending the last few years grieving for the loss of that dif­fer­ence I was always sup­posed to be able to make in the world. Now I’ll be lucky to sur­vive… and while I can fer­vently mouth the plat­i­tudes about sur­vival as a mar­gin­al­ized person being a rad­ical act, I still want more for myself, feel like I should be able to be more, know that in a just world I *could* be more… but a just world wouldn’t need what I have t offer as much.

    If I hadn’t been raised as “gifted”, a “genius”, “so tal­ented”, and all that BS, maybe I’d be having an easier time set­tling.

    1. Author

      I totally hear you mate ! I think the word “grieving” is appro­priate for that whole process of let­ting go of what was a legit­i­mate life goal. Personally I try to remind myself that “making a dif­fer­ence” can be a little thing too : feeding stray cats, being nice to people, giving three bucks to some charity I care about. But I realize it’s reeeaally not the same as what we were promised we were going to do as kids and all I can say is : same, buddy. Hang in there, it gets easier.

  4. Thank you for this.
    It’s some­thing I’ve been dealing with for a very long time.
    💜

  5. As an autistic person who suf­fered a mas­sive burnout and life-threatening ill­ness, I learned to tell myself: “You are not chained to your poten­tial.”

    I used to think I was and I suf­fered because of it.

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