Health Column

by Sifu (Dr.) Rikin Patel MD

Recently, I completed a course on behaviour change related to pediatric nutrition. I was reintroduced to the concept of “Ego Trap” coined by Dr. Dough Lisle, a PhD psychologist at Stanford. Here is a simple example we can relate to. A young martial artist who wins their sparring division for the first time raves to all their classmates about it after. They left out the part that in all 3 rounds their opponents were immediately disqualified for head contact. Now when the next tournament comes along, the student realizes they have created an unrealistic image of themselves and fall into the “Ego Trap.” This forces them in the opposite direction, avoiding competition in fear of not being able to live up to the expectation they have created. In simple terms this is a dilemma where we created an image of ourselves only to avoid the situation later in fear of realizing it is not accurate. The basis for the Ego Trap is our need to increase our “status” to increase our likelihood of survival.

This dilemma can also be created by parents unknowingly who want the children to succeed. Children and teens underperforming in any area of life is a concern for parents, but particularly school, which I see often as a pediatrician. Eager parents who genuinely want the best for their child give them status by saying “you can be the best _____ in your class or go to a top school or be a professional athlete or musician IF you just do your best” thinking it’s going to be motivational force. Parents though often have an overestimation of what their children’s “best” means.

Using the example of a musician. The child starts young continues to work hard over years and improves and get to the 80th percentile compared to kids their age. Now as it often happens someone in life comes along with tremendous talent surpasses us in a much shorter time (i.e. Bruce Lee started his training at 13 years old, which is considered “late” by many martial artists). The child realizes that with their best effort they can get to the 90th percentile but won’t be the “best” because their new competition has blown by them in a fraction of the time. This creates a big dilemma. Even though this child may do the best they possibly can, fearing the loss of status in the eyes of their parents the one logical solution to the dilemma would be to stop trying. Again, we see the Ego Trap, a crushing motivational dilemma that happens whenever expectations get too high.

Fast forward back to school. Research shows that if parents set an expectation that is lower than the child’s potential (i.e. only expecting a B average due to different circumstances), that children in fact know they can do better and now are determined to prove their parents wrong. Now a desire to excel has been instilled where now the Ego Trap melts away and the pressure has been lifted. Remember there is no more fun to a child than to outstrip the expectations that have been set for them. Part 2 will share how this dynamic can be applied to all of us to succeed at WFKA.