“You can be whatever you want!” On dealing with high-expectation anxiety

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.”

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9 Responses

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

    1. 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. 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. 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. 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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