My daughter passed along an exchange she encountered as part of her MSW curriculum:

Supervising therapist: What day is it?
Intern: Monday.
Supervising therapist: What day is it?
Intern: Monday?
Supervising therapist, exuding just a bit of impatience: What day is it?
Intern: I’m not sure, but I thought it was Monday?
Supervising therapist: It is Monday, and you knew it was Monday, but because I did not acknowledge that you were right, and you value my opinion, you doubted–in less than fifteen seconds–what you knew to be true. Or you began to wonder if you understood the question, and all I did to rattle you to that degree was ignore your correct reply.

There’s a lot to unpack there, and it got me thinking about all the times my correct answers have been ignored. When the Lady Violet series (first six books published on the same day) generated a (temporary!) revenue bump, all my accountant wanted to know was, “Why aren’t I seeing that money in your savings account?” Not, “Gee, can you make this happen again?” or, “So where are the vacation expenses, because you def earned a break?” or maybe, “Guess that 180-year-old house of yours finally got some attention?”(It did, long overdue.)

Lady Violet Investigates — Book OneNope. Just, “But what about your savings????”

When a friend’s auntie went to see the doc, the big takeaway was, “You’d better lose weight, or else…” though Auntie is active, fit, socially engaged, well loved, and only a twitch or two outside the insurance company straight-jacket weight limits. She’s responding to the challenges of healthy aging with fourteen right answers, and the doc pings her on the one that’s not perfect yet.

A few of you have commented on the frustration of bringing home perfect grades, a job well done, a mission accomplished, and being met with, “Where’s the extra credit? The promotion? The cash award?” Your spot-on, unassailably right answers weren’t even a blip on the screen.

When my doc looked at my cholesterol figures–above the prescribed limits by about 25 points–she shrugged. “Your liver numbers are perfect. Your C-reactive protein isn’t bad, and your A1C is within normal limits despite your age and weight. One number taken out of context doesn’t define your health.”

I wanted to hug her, because it felt as if she was seeing every time I got on the dreaded tread desk to trudge off another mile. Every time I set the alarm because that’s what good sleep hygiene required of me. Every time I added soluble fiber to my tea because that can help buff the labs in the right direction too. She saw my right answers, and that means she saw me.

The social workers call it, “Strength based programming,” when the approach to a solving problem is based on what the client is doing well, what questions they can answer correctly without trying. I suspect strength based programming works in part simply because it starts with the client being seen as a whole person, capable in a lot of regards, but in the grip of some difficulties.

That’s very different from an approach that treats a client as somebody who has “poor parenting skills,” or, “anger management issues,” or, “financial illiteracy.”

I want to do better, going forward, at seeing and acknowledging where other people are already getting it right, and I want to do a better job of staying away from the people who insist on defining me exclusively by my faults, failings, and wrong answers.

Who sees your right answers? Has there been a time when your one wrong reply was allowed to define you?





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11 comments on “Ignor-ance

  1. This isn’t really as wrong answer as much as an incorrect perception. I was a single mom with 2 young boys and an officer in the Navy. I’m annual performance review began with these words: “We all know where your loyalties are.” Which was true; my boys were my first priority. Except… I’d never missed a day of work or had even been late because of my sons. I was really taken aback and had no earthly idea how to respond. My one “wrong answer” lead to an unjustified and potentially career-killing perception.

  2. That was thoughtful and lovely, Grace. Thank you. I was not as aware as I should have been as an older sibling; I focussed on “flaws” or “weaknesses” in my younger siblings, wanting them to be as perfect as I thought they could be, and received well-deserved resentment in return. I tried to do better as a parent.

  3. Mmmmm, good question my family definitely saw my failings. It wasn’t “congratulations on all those A’s.” It was ,”why do you have this A minus?!” for a report card.
    I definitely learned that the only way the be perceived as acceptable was to be perfect. And that’s so hard to unwind or unpack and to step back from as an adult!!

  4. I like your doctor’s reply to you, wish there were more like her. As for being put-down, I don’t count it unless it is someone whose opinion I value. People put other people down for a lot of reasons, and one is to make themselves feel superior.

    There’s probably been several where one wrong reply or event defined me to another person, but I don’t let it define me to me, if that makes any sense. I have my strengths and weaknesses like everyone else, and I also have my lines in the sand.

  5. I don’t have a ton of people who see my right answers… my friend and my Mom. And I adore them for it.
    I have a lifetime of “one wrong reply” being allowed to define me.
    Instead of medically exhausted, I was lazy.
    Instead of blaming doctors for giving me too much medicine that made me eat more than my body required, I was ugly and fat because of my laziness.
    And, the string of traumas just goes on from there.
    But, I am glad to be recognizing it and working on undoing all the lies.

  6. I see I am among good company. In my family I could never measure up, emotionally, physically, intellectually. When I did measure up or exceed expectations there was no acknowledgement, none whatsoever..In my late sixties and early seventies I have looked back and seen that much of it was flat out untrue. I am still trying to wrap my head around that.

    On the other hand, I had an English teacher in 9th grade who graded me only on content (poor spelling and grammar, not to mention poor penmanship), low and behold I started trying harder. I was ultimately saved by word processing, spell check & grammar check so that when I went through my Masters it was a slam dunk. There was also my choir director who kept me on and moved me up because (I believe) I was trying so hard. That was a gloriously happy time in my life, a person with a regrettable lack of talent.

  7. Very insightful.
    My parents always saw the glass as half empty so positive reinforcement was not part of my childhood.
    I have a dog trainer who provides thoughtful, positive feedback to me which I accept and work on.
    I have tried to show my daughter the benefits of looking past negative comments to see and acknowledge what she’s doing correctly.

    Have a good week…I bought all of the Lady Violets week one!
    Just love her.

  8. As usual, a very insightful post Grace. The grade part hit hard for me. I’ve got what is now called dyslexic tendencies – slight dyslexia but enough that my parents weren’t sure I’d learn my alphabet and numbers. My baby brother was a child prodigy and reading chapter books by the time he was in kindergarten. Yet. I worked my behind off academically. I almost always got As but if I came home with a B it was the end of the world. The Prodigy? He barely earned Cs because he was bored. He didn’t get fussed at at all since it was the school’s fault.

    Thank goodness I learned from this and we had better conversations with our kids.

  9. I like the term strength-based programming. “Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee;…They go from strength to strength,…” ‭‭Psalm‬ ‭84‬:‭5‬, ‭7‬ ‭KJV‬‬

    You have written about persistence recently. I would be the one stubbornly insisting on Monday, adding that yesterday was Sunday, then wondering if I’d be able to work with my supervisor, even if and maybe especially if I were wrong.

  10. I got the “too loud” label as a young girl, even though I was excruciatingly shy in any company where I didn’t confidently know the rules.

    I’d say “sometimes loud” was probably true. But I carried around an assumption that I was irritating and grating and always needed to talk less for far too long. I still feel that way, sometimes.

  11. My parents were not really able to find the good, but as they aged I saw them try with grandkids. When I’m tired (which is unfortunately frequently) I find that finding the thing done right is a very big parenting challenge for me. I assume had it been modeled and had I benefited from being seen for the right answers, it would be easier, even reflexive, but I try to be conscious and do my best.