COW and Spinach

October 4, 2011

Last night in my Principals of Counseling seminary class, we discussed Carl Rogers’ theory of child development. According to Rogers, everyone is born with OVP, Organismic Values Processing. Sounds kind of strange, but basically it’s the way babies experience the world: if they are cold or hungry, they cry. If they are fed and cuddled, they smile and coo. They evaluate everything in the world based upon how they feel. Their experience is their reality, and they aren’t going to make sure mom is in a good mood before they start screaming.

As children grow, however, they all have COW put on them. Conditions of Worth. As much as we parents wish it weren’t so, we don’t love them unconditionally. The child starts to become socialized that life is not just about making them feel good and happy. I think there’s a healthy part of this: people who base every decision on feeling good turn into narcissists, oblivious to the world around them. They don’t care how people experience them.

There can be a negative side to this too. If we have too many COWs put on us, we lose our ability to process what makes us feel good and happy.

All this talking and thinking brought back some memories for me last night.

When Lucy was born, almost 13 years ago, I fell into postpartum depression. I think it’d been building for years, and the postpartum thing just was the last straw. I found myself in counseling, talking to my shrink about how sad and lonely and anxious I was. I had been piling COWs up for years. Natural ones from family of origin, church-imposed ones, self-imposed ones. My mindset was “I should be happy. Christians shouldn’t struggle with depression. I need to trust in the Lord. I don’t have enough faith. It’s not okay to be angry. Put on a happy face, and then people will love you! Put up with people who want to control you; it’s the Christian thing to do!”

My COWs were many.

I remember my therapist asking, regarding a specific situation, “What do you want?” And I found that I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t know what I wanted. And to my horror, there were a lot of areas in my life where I had no idea what I wanted or liked or anything. I had, as my shrink explained, an “external locus of control.” I looked around me for cues about what I liked and didn’t like, in order to please those around me. My Organismic Values Processing ability was gone.

As I wrestled with these issues, I remember one day fixing Lucy her lunch. She was a little over one year old, and eager to try new foods. I decided, idealistically, that I’d fix her some sauteed spinach with her lunch. I cooked it, cooled it, and put it on her little high chair tray. She happily grabbed some and shoved it in her mouth.

And then it happened.

Her expression changed to puzzlement, then disgust, and before I knew it, she had spewed that spinach right out of her mouth.

And a light bulb came on for me.

Here she was, one year old, and she knew what she liked. And she knew spinach wasn’t one of those things. She didn’t look at me and think, “Gosh, I know my mom means well and wants me to get all my nutrients, I’m going to pretend this tastes great so I don’t hurt her feelings.” No. She spit it out. And I wasn’t offended. I laughed! And I learned something from my little girl in that moment. I recovered a little sense of the goodness of knowing thyself. And having freedom and safety to express what thyself likes and doesn’t like.

These days I have a much stronger “Internal Locus of Control.” And I have a clearer sense that God made me how I am and His Spirit lives in me and I can trust the two of us to define me in ways that I enjoy and that bring Him glory. What a better way to live.