Expectations that kill: A case for parenting in India

I grew up in a home where girls were not really expected to soar to heights in their career, and were expected to be demure little things stirring the porridge in the kitchen. While that came with baggage of its own, I believe I narrowly escaped the catastrophe of what intense academic pressure could do to you.

My masters thesis was about the perception of school in children, and even in my current work, I come across children and teenagers facing academic and career issues.

The problem is not the stress they face, because each  situation in life will have stress, but it is the peculiar way that patentable expectations have become so set in stone that question their rationality is never a question.

‘Make my parents proud’ was written by almost each 9th std kid who answered my Masters thesis survey. This meant that he or she wanted to keep scoring impossibly high and end up in an IIT or an IIM or be an MD. Anything else was unimaginable.

The parent is a child’s first reference point of the world. We take our parents very seriously. In this country, all the more so because of the culture of obedience. It becomes very difficult for us to fathom that our parents have unrealistic expectations from us.

The result: We start to feel that the problem is within me. I must be dumb or stupid. Or else, why can’t I score like my elder brother or my neighbor’s kid?
Pretty soon, I start to doubt my self image and become a bundle of nerves. Extreme anxiety can make me kill myself. But I will not dare question my parents.

An important part of childhood is to explore and understand yourself. While we like sending our kids to expensive classes and buying world class toys for them, we do not let them be free and think. The result being that a 15 year old cannot answer a question as simple as ‘what are some things you have been good at since childhood?’

How can he, when all he was told is how bad he was, how he was letting everyone down, and how he must do better still.

India is facing a parenting crisis. Right from setting realistic expectations to handling failure to managing the sexuality of the child, we are not at all up to the task. While many parents, especially parents of children with special needs are in fact learning these things, the masses seem to still be following the age old rigmarole.

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Here’s some facts to wrap your head around if you are a parent: each child is not going to be an engineer or a doctor or an IAS officer. If money or a good career could buy happiness, 36% of India would not be depressed. 30% of young people have mental health issues.

The question before you is this, can you accept a child for his unique strengths and capacities or would you want your child to be a self-hating bundle of anxiety? Or worse, dead?

India Rising: But to what end?

Ever since the BJP Government came into power, with its development agenda, we hear news of growth and development everyday. From the news that our GDP is more than China’s (but what that may mean is still debated, as stated in this article), or whether it’s about newer investments in India, our Prime Minister’s efforts at bettering foreign relations, to newer roads, flyovers and more money put into development infrastructure, it’s all to the slogan of ‘India Rising’.

But can you eat money?

Last I checked, you could not.

We always forget the human development indicators in all this. What’s the point of high rises and big roads if your people are unhappy and unwell? We are losing more and more merit to nations like the US because our policies of education and employment are forcing Indians to leave for greener pastures.

Our basics of poverty alleviation, education, health and mental health – have a long way to go. According to a WHO report, we are one of the most depressed countries, with suicide as second leading cause of death. That way, the only thing that seems to be rising, is unhappiness. Farmer suicides are a constant problem. It looks like materialism and vote bank politics are not a permanent solution.

Does this mean we give up infrastructure development? Of course not. But that will only improve our structures. What about the functionality of these structures? What about the users of these structures?

The expenditure on mental health is 0.6% of the health budget, not even of the GDP. Clearly, our allocation to human development and quality of life indicators need to improve, which of course includes gender ratio as well.

Sports (apart from cricket) are suffering, with football clubs like Pune FC and Bharat FC are shutting down. Our LGBTQ population have little or no legal protection from harassment. Moral policing is on an all time high with police raiding hotel rooms used by two consenting adults. We are becoming more and more intolerant about diversity, which used to be our strong point, and more and more leaning towards safeguarding ‘our kind’ and our thinking with imposed bans and bandhs for reservation, or against helpful laws.

We need a people-friendly government. A policy and police system we can approach and don’t have to be scared of.

It’s good to have good structures to live in, and travel by. But it’s even better if these structures are complemented by basic needs, of which, it’s high time that education, sanitation, livelihood, health and mental health were made an important part. It’s imperative to have human conditions of happiness and satisfaction. Concrete can only do so much.

Are we rising where we need to?

Are we rising where we need to?

In Sickness and Health

I’m down with a bit of flu, some bit of fever triggered by throat infection. I have noticed that I am snapping a lot and not being my usual collected self with family, may be even friends.

I am irritable because of fever and body pain and a few complaints. This – after getting access to medication the day i fell ill. Also, the day after was the weekend so I did not have to go to work. And i do not have to for a while now. This, after I am getting all the rest I need, am at the liberty to eat and sleep as I see fit, and am gradually getting better.

Compare my situation to someone who has had an illness – chronic or acute, mental or physical, without privilege.

If a flu can make me snarky, what can constant pain do?

Yet, we want all patients to be nice, sweet, obedient, playing the victim. If they are angry, hostile, rude or in anyway not how we expect them to be – rosy – we do not treat them well, consciously or unconsciously.

If a flu can trigger hostility and bring down inhibition, stronger stuff definitely can?

Why do we want cute little victims?

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Has being a savior become more important than being a humane health professional?

Statistics, Stories and Storytelling

So, at the end of my two year course of clinical psychology at TISS, I had to intern somewhere. In the absence of the full-time maid, Jyothi, I sourced a work-from-home internship with the Bapu Trust, Pune. I would analyze their community mental health data from home and submit reports.

I had to use SPSS and excel and basically a whole lot of descriptive statistics. Now, I have a sort of love-hate relationship with math and statistics. Such that, I do know these branches of science and measurement are vitally important to know how well we are doing a particular venture or project, but at the same time, feeling I might not be great at it. Now, I was marginally better at statistics than other math, but it was still rather elusive.

However, my internship turned out to be fun, because the actual calculating was done by the software. I had to call the shots. THAT is an empowering feeling. I had to say what units of measurement what would be used, what would be compared against what – and then I had to make a simple yet impressive report of it.

Because of being at TISS for two years, I have learned and engrained something – it is good to do good work, but it is as important to evaluate it. In our curious little world, we have more money for wax statues than real people. In the shortage of funds reeled towards social betterment, we in the field have to be thorough about producing results. And even if money were not a constraint, knowing how well you’re doing with an initiative is just good and honest practice – and you’d rather have that as a quality if you want to work for social upliftment.

Slowly, I started to not get befuddled by the humongous amounts of data, but actually find parallels between my internship work and reading a story. It was as if, a type of analysis I choose, is a plot twist I am choosing and it will eventually lead to an ending. Then I play with the numbers the other way around, and an even clearer picture emerges.

Working with raw data and making sense of it is also like story-telling. A whole lot of times, we are fascinated by one aspect of the story we want to tell – maybe the beginning, maybe the ending, maybe the protagonist. But we fill in the other details along the way and try to make the whole story appealing. Similarly, I know where my data comes from and what is expected of the results. Then I fill in with different analysis and voila – I see that in a particular community women with depression benefit better from group interventions than adolescent boys.

I have always pondered and advocated that psychology and therapy be bought down from its elite status to a tool of mental health available to everyone. Bapu Trust and the work they do is a dream come true in that sense. I see hope in wanting to freeing psychology from its elite status, because they are doing it day in and day out. And they are creating a mentally healthy community by doing so. You could claim I am saying that because I am just impressed, but I have statistical proof for it.

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My new year evolution.

The norm is usually to make new year resolutions a day or so before the new year, and stick to them for a period of time, ranging from a day to a week, to a month, depending on how serious you were.
I stopped making resolutions many years ago, when I realized that I felt doing new things in between the year, and so I initiate new things and behaviours, regardless of the date.
What I would like to do today, is to resolve to take away some things, undo some actions and reduce some behaviors. Therefore, I’m going to subtract what I perceive as toxic, because often, when we keep adding new agendas, we forget to discard the useless ones. My evolution will take place by discarding what isn’t useful any more.

So here is a short list-

1) Less emotional dependence- although I do not do this with every relationship in my life, but within some, I become extremely dependent, and I can’t often control. Vulnerability in close relationships is good,given that it’s mutual. If not, you feel indebted and unwanted. So I’ll choose carefully whom to be vulnerable with, and only if they are equally unguarded with me.

2) Less procrastination- If at all I take on too many tasks, then I should be able to do each of them on time so that I don’t delay. I’m spending this week clearing many backlogs so as to have a fresh start. When things are happening on time, I have a sense of control, that makes me feel healthy.

3) Less bunking- This applies to lectures as well as aerobics class. Sometimes, it may feel like a stretch to attend everything, but I must try my best to do so. I miss out a lot when I can’t go. I’m sure that I can use my time well.

4) Less whining- I’m trying my best to not complain, and rather put across what I feel in a more constructive way. If you believe like I do, that everything is energy, and that it can change forms, converting it from negative to positive is not only possible, but also important. This will also help me develop as a therapist.

5) Less hatred- Hatred, unjustified or justified, is toxic. I will try to understand and work with my prejudices and biases. Even if hatred or anger is justified, it harms me more than the person it’s directed at, so I will let go, yet, obviously, maintain self respect.

So, as the picture below illustrates, I will look at this year and the people in it, but with love.

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Happiness is simple. Simplicity is profound.

It is twelve thirty in the afternoon, yet, the dense cloud make it appear like early morning. It’s pouring outside, with just the hint of breeze that I like. And there’s purring inside – two kittens we have recently adopted (Fem and Nur) are talking, in their sleep. My tortoise, Neo, is eating his lettuce and taking a walk in the rain. An unfinished painting is staring at me, competing for my attention. I will finish it and put it on my  painting blog today. (http://20days20artworks.blogspot.in/)

A bookmark is poking out of the initial few pages on the book I’m currently reading, The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard, suggesting how far behind I am on my reading goal. But, i give my self the allowance for lag, because I’ve been busy – not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. I have gone through a roller coaster ride of worry, sorrow and anger ever since February, and it took me this final exertion to realize a few things.

To realize, that we can’t control everything, and to try to do so would lead to frustration. What we could do instead, is want and wish for change so bad, that it has no choice but to happen. To realize that, if you want things and you wish for them in the right way, you get them. Maybe you do not get them in the exact way that you want, but the Universe/God works its mysterious ways, and gets you your wish, by an albeit unconventional route. To realize that, to be happy, you need nothing else, but the wish, desire to be happy. The desire moves you to do things that makes you happy. Happiness is that simple, and that profound.

A new phase of my life begins tomorrow – Masters. I am going to meet lots of interesting,  hard working people, and its going to be a great two years, academically speaking. Many of my friends are interning, working, going out of town, coming into town, breaking up, getting into relationships, taking a break from their partners, taking up celibacy (!), marrying, engaging – it seems like movement of tectonic plates – so much change!

These 5 – 10 years will be full of change, and if I wish to be happy, I have to accept things as they come, and realize that troubles once over may surface again; That nothing ends once and for all – including joy, happiness.

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From the heart (read: mind) of a Psychology student.

Yeah, I was asserting in the title, that be it a lament, like the one which you will endure in the text below, or spurts of joy, all originate from the mind, and not the heart. It just pumps blood, and being the Shahrukh Khan of the body, by being at the right place at the right time, has stolen the show. Anyway, so what’s on my mind right now ? Lot’s of stuff apparently  and it falls into categories too – reflection, angst, frustration, and maybe, insight.

Although, please do not think that when I bang my toe against pieces of furniture (which happens rather often) I yell, ‘Oh damn you, Mistaken Visual Perception!’ No. I just say ‘Damn’. Or, ‘Hey Ram‘ if I’m feeling theatrical. So I’m approaching the last year of my Bachelors and will definitely continue studying psychology in my Masters, and so, as usual, I reflect. And then I have the dumb idea that with so much reflection, I might find employment as a mirror if Psychology fails me. But then I realize that I’d make a bad mirror because being stuck on a wall would turn my usual straightforward-ness into acid sarcasm that wouldn’t procure the best reply when asked, ‘Who is the prettiest of them all?’

So I leave the ideas of alternate employment and wonder about the pros and cons of being a Psy student. First of all, I would offer an affectionate smack to the teachers who went all ‘Psychology is about people, and people are everywhere, so imagine how awesome it would be to study it!!’ First of all, even sanitation is about people, and people are everywhere etc. Secondly, they did not tell that understanding people would not automatically be accompanied by acceptance. And so, although I could not blame someone for something (maybe it’s his genes, maybe its his environment – the Psy version of Maybelline), I wanted to blame them so bad, because, well, people do act rather abashedly stupid at times. And now, you can’t even call them stupid! Great! Because now you Know, with a capital K. Or, N, rather.

So now I understand people a little better, which leads to all the more impatience. Thus, when a girl in Aerobics class complains she didn’t stop eating the pastries until it was just too much because she didn’t realize when she got full, I want to say to her, ‘No, I’m sure your hypothalamus told you to stop when you were full, but you have issues when it comes to pleasure seeking sensations and you happen to find it in food!’, but of course, I don’t. I just give a sympathetic nod indicating that an indulgence once in a while is fine, after all, our Aerobics instructor’s income depends on it.

Then there are those people who get all starry eyed when you tell them you’re studying Psychology, and ask you if you could read their mind. You want to tell them that there’s nothing to read if they are asking such dumb questions, but you just say ‘I think, right now you’re curious about psychology and want to use it to get some unresolved questions answered’, and they gape at you like you pulled a rabbit out of your hat. You shake your head as if you’ve lost all hope and just let it go.

Then, there are some really questionable things within Psychology itself. One example is experimentation on animals, surely, unconditional positive regard just went flying out the window?

Secondly, the almost annoying interference that border on fanatic righteousness of what constitutes in being human. I’ll illustrate with this disorder we studied in Abnormal Psy, called schizotypal personality disorder. A person having it is cold and keeps to himself, but, isn’t antisocial, and does not harm others.If he is happy in being away from human contact, and he isn’t killing people, what the fuzzy flipflop is your problem? It looks to me that YOU are the one who has an OCD of diagnozing and simply can’t leave people alone. And what is the justification? That as a human, emotions are a primary, basic deciding factor, and if a person has an absence of those, why, he has a disorder, of course. Interestingly, homosexuality was a disorder once upon a time too, till they all had an AHA moment, where apparently, who you get coital with doesn’t matter as long as it’s human, consensual and adult. Happy realization!

And then,  there’s the frustration where you know what’s wrong but beyond the explanation, you have little. Like, we know that The Bystander Effect occurs, wherein, during an attack situation, everyone feels someone else will help the victim, but no one does. Now that I know this, maybe i will rush to help, but what of other situations where I’m not? Can you publish about the by-stander effect and make sure that people act in a less awestruck and more pro-active manner? It’s a rosy picture, but I don’t think that will happen.

The frustration isn’t just pertaining to others, but to oneself too. When you catch yourself thinking Dark Broody Thoughts, and the Psy Self tells you that worry is useless and so on, you just want to give the Psy Self a hard kick on its behind. Can’t you even brood in peace, you wonder?

But since I’m in a good mood right now, I’ll end this on a positive note, by saying that Psy has made me wiser, maybe acceptance is something I should learn from somewhere else. Over and out, before the Psy Self takes over and tries to convert me into a Willing Learner or some such crap.

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