Friday, January 24, 2014

Word of the day: Lapse


 noun \ˈlaps\
: an occurrence in which you fail to think or act in the usual or proper way for a brief time and make a mistake
: an occurrence in which someone behaves badly for usually a short period of time

Years ago one of my daughters neglected to do something she should have, and ended up in a bit of a mess. As she wailed about her situation she finished with the moan, "...and now you'll never trust me!"

The good part, of course, was that she clearly wanted to be trustworthy. The funky part was the blanket statement. Never?

"Oh, my," I said, as gently as I could, "There are many things I can trust you with. I trust you to choose good friends, I trust you to be basically truthful, I trust you to brush your teeth at night, and I trust that you want to do the right thing here. The fact that you didn't do this one thing doesn't mean you're a total failure, or that you're completely untrustworthy. It means that in this one area you had a lapse of judgment, and in this one area we need to do some work."

Blanket statements can be smothering, yet we all make them at times. After I snarl at a child, I throw on the blanket statement that I'm a bad mother. The truth is that I'm not a bad mother; probably all that happened was that I had a good-mommy lapse. After forgetting something important on my to-do list, I may throw on the blanket statement that I'm an idiot. And yet I'm not an idiot, I've had a memory lapse.

Remembering to draw a distinction between an incident about which I feel bad and a perpetual state of being is huge. If I label myself as a failure, a fool, stupid, irresponsible, a bad parent, or lazy, I attribute a permanence to a behavior that isn't actually justified. What's more, once a label is in place, confirmation bias takes over. Confirmation bias is that "I think A, therefore I start to notice A all the time" thing that happens to all of us. The problem is that when we start seeing A, we tend to stop seeing B. If we label ourselves as, say, a failure, then we become more aware of every event which confirms our opinion, and we overlook information that would disprove (or at least balance) it.

Similarly, if I decide that someone is a jerk, chances are that he or she could change for the better and I wouldn't even notice. I'd be too busy noticing every negative thing that person does.

There are people whose pattern of behavior is so pervasive that it's almost impossible to avoid concluding that the person is, in fact, a jerk. But the odds of getting that person to stop acting like a jerk go way up when we notice his or her occasional non-jerky behavior, comment upon it, and thus reinforce the good.

If we want to be better parents, or to at least have a shot at becoming better human beings, it's worthwhile to learn to pay attention to when we berate ourselves. If you wouldn't let someone else talk to you the way you talk to yourself, STOP. Feel bad for a while, but remember that most of the time, in most situations, you aren't the bonehead you've just accused yourself of being.


  1. Thank you...I look forward to heading to your blog and looking for new entries. You have great insight and are so authentic. Thank you for adding to my life

  2. just the other night, we were discussing the word lapse at the dinner table. it had, though, come up in a talk about pre- and post-lapsarian...

  3. I learned a long time ago to not use the blanket statements "never" and "always". It was a hard lesson to learn, but I've not forgotten it.