If you’ve never heard of the parenting book Love and Logic, the popular text gets into what it calls the “Three-Legged Table of Self-Concept.” I know, I know. One more simple analogy that’s supposed to cure everything wrong in your relationships. But this one makes sense.
Your table is only strong when all three legs are strong. Or put it this way: Your table is only as strong as its weakest leg. And if that leg is too weak, your whole table will collapse. What are these legs we speak of? They are the implied messages that we give to our children.
This analogy is especially helpful when we’re talking about adult children. If you were raised in an environment where these legs (again, our implied messages) were not strong and stable, then you probably grew up to be an adult who is unhappy, unstable, and lacking in the skills needed to bring their life back to a healthy balance.
A potent message, right? It’s probably making you worry how strong your legs are. But you can’t check these legs until you know what they are. Here’s a quick summary of the three legs, or messages, of self-concept:
1. Unconditional love: this is the love children get without attachment, no qualifications, and no reservations. It is what they should expect to get from those adults who raise them. Children receive unconditional love no matter how bad they’ve been, how many mistakes they make, or how many times they drive their caregivers crazy.
2. Unconditional positive regard: with the love comes positive reinforcement, the message that children can succeed at whatever they try their hand at and can handle whatever situation comes their way. My favorite quote from the book goes something like this: parents shouldn’t “tremble in fear that children see what we do.”
Children take in everything—everything!—a parent does, whether it’s through what they say, how they act, or even what energy they’re giving off. Built up, accumulated over our childhoods, the sum of these messages affects us as adults.
3. Unconditional encouragement: a caregiver’s praise lets children know they are supported and encouraged. It lets them know that the caregiver is on their side, an unconditional ally. Such proper encouragement breeds respect, and respect builds confidence and self-esteem.
When these three legs aren’t there—when parents are irresponsible with their love, positive reinforcement, and encouragement—children end up feeling worthless, unsupported, unsure, and unbalanced. Then fast-forward to you as an adult child.
- Do you find yourself yelling at your kids?
- Feeling a lack of intimacy and connection in your marriage?
- Fighting with co-workers and bosses at work?
- Feeling out of sorts with your friends?
All of these symptoms could point to feeling worthless, unsupported, unsure, and unbalanced when you were a kid.
What should you do if your table is unsound? Check your three legs. Do you regularly feel like you’re lacking in love, positive regard, or encouragement? Then it will be up to you to “re-parent” yourself, retraining your brain to think differently about yourself and interact differently with the world around you.