Double-Edged Advice

The most important thing I ever learned in psychology came from my intro psych professor at the University of Michigan in 1985.

“Whatever else you learn in this class,” she said, pausing to gaze at each one of us, “remember that anything that has the potential to help, also has the potential to harm.”

I think about that caution almost daily, and as far as I can see, it’s still universally true.

The question of help versus harm is always with us. It comes up frequently in parenting advice in general, and stepfamily advice in particular – a double-edged advice of sorts – offered with the intention to help, but carrying a potential for harm.

For instance, the most common stepfamily advice helps families to reduce conflict and increase acceptance during the initial transition. But when these “peace keeping” strategies are used in an ongoing way, they interfere with the family’s ability to develop authentic relationships and strong family bonds. Continue reading

The Good-Enough Stepmom

Last night at dinner, my husband asked when I was going to share my first post. “When it reads like an essay from The New Yorker,” I said, half joking, half hoping he’d get distracted by more spicy green beans or chicken fried rice. He paused, sensing that I wasn’t eager for more input, and then added gently, “You know, Nancy… ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good.'”

I didn’t appreciate the reference (a loose translation of Voltaire) or his implication that perfectionism – a rigid attachment to an impossible standard – was getting in the way of my goal. He was right, of course, but I didn’t want to accept it, because it felt like a fatal flaw.

Eventually, I realized that getting stuck in perfectionism isn’t usually a big problem. It’s just one more unskillful behavior that tends to show up under stress. We’re all at risk for perfectionism when we care deeply about an outcome, are unsure of our abilities, and fear that someone would reject us, if we allowed them to see our flaws.

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