No More Gold Stars: Chapter 4 – Whose rules? Whose values?

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The Locus of Evaluation

Our rules and assumptions are about a huge range of issues. We will have them about love and marriage, parents and children, crime and punishment – I could go on! If you suffer from Gold Star Syndrome, however, a lot of your beliefs are likely to revolve around the judgement of others, ranging from people passing in the street or following you on social media, all the way through to deceased ancestors or God Almighty. Forgive me for stating what you may think is obvious: you don’t start life awarding Gold Stars to yourself. In the first place, they are given to you by others, who have judged you. It is only later on that Gold Star giving becomes internalized.

Carl Rogers, the founder of the Person-Centred model for counselling, expounded a very useful concept which is relevant here. It is the concept of the locus of evaluation. His theory is that this is either external (we pay attention to the judgements of others) or it is internal (we pay attention to the judgements we make ourselves). The psychologically healthy person will have a balance between the two. If we don’t pay any attention to the judgements of others, we’ll be constantly clocking up speeding fines, nicking stuff from the supermarket and getting up the noses of our nearest and dearest. We will be lawless and entitled. If, however, we swing too far in the opposite direction and allow the judgements of others to inhibit us or drive us, we’ll be deeply lacking in self-confidence or anxiously over-performing or both! We may have reached a point where we have lost sight of the original external locus of evaluation and, even within the internal locus, have become adept at beating ourselves up, basing our judgements on those which originated with others.

For example, our personal moral code may insist that we give a considerable percentage of our earnings to charity. We are convinced of the importance of altruism and would say that this is based on our own judgement – but where did the idea of such generosity come from in the first place? It may well have arisen spontaneously, springing from our own compassionate spirit and, of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with such a belief in itself. It becomes problematic when the belief is one that is actually driven by an external source which we don’t fully own. Then it may lead us into a punishing process of internally judging ourselves for never giving enough.

Examples of Internalized Rules

I have worked with clients brought up as Christians, for whom a rule about altruism has become very problematic. They know they should ‘love their neighbour’ and they are familiar with the idea of ‘pouring themselves out’ for others, but somewhere along the line, a vital part of Jesus’ teaching has been edited out. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbours as ourselves, not more than ourselves. There is a vital inclusion of equality here and this is essential to our wellbeing, if we are to avoid burnout. We cannot continually give to others and pour ourselves out for their benefit, if we do not also nurture and cherish ourselves.

I often wonder if the Brownie Guide and Cub Scout  laws gets mixed up in this:

 ‘A Brownie Guide thinks of others before themselves and does a good turn everyday’.

‘Cub scouts always do their best, think of others before themselves and do a good turn every day.’

Personally, I have nothing against Jesus or his teaching on this point. I do object, however, to the Brownie Guide and Cub Scout framing of these ideas as laws. This is an inappropriately powerful way to express ideas that are implanted into children at a very impressionable age. These are good examples of external rules that may have become internalized at an early age without, if you like, ‘informed consent’. Unfortunately, in the case of Jesus’ teaching, guidance which is essentially healthy seems easily to get distorted in a way that can become damaging. In the case of the Brownie Guide and Cub Scout laws, the requirements themselves are, in my view, suspect – something I might return to in another chapter!

I must do my best, think of others before myself and do a good turn every day!

If Roger’s concept of the locus of evaluation sounds plausible to you, what’s the way forward? How do you free yourself of an external locus of evaluation or an internal locus of evaluation which has become sadly confused by external judgements?

Help from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

First let’s seek help from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. (ACT) ACT is a refreshing and compassionate development of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which has many strengths and helpful strategies. The aspect I want to dwell on here is Commitment. In ACT, we are asked to commit to our values – so a crucial step is to work out what they are. There are many questionnaires and lists of values on the net but here’s one that I particularly like, devised by Dr Russ Harris, the writer of ‘The Happiness Trap’ and ‘The Happiness Trap Pocketbook’ , both excellent guides to the principles of ACT. The latter is a shortened and illustrated version of the original full-length book.

I am constantly surprised by the random approach to life that many people seem to take – as if it is a juggernaut that simply shoves them along in whatever direction it happens to be headed. I highly recommend occasional times of deep reflection to consider what our values are and what we want to commit to. Please note that I am not talking about goals here. Goals are the stuff of Gold Star Syndrome. When we strive towards goals, we feed our addiction – we award ourselves a Gold Star for achieving a goal and we castigate ourselves when we don’t.

Let’s return to the value of altruism for a few moments. If we value altruism, we will, of course, be looking for opportunities to be altruistic and that might, for example, include running a marathon for a favorite charity. If we are focused on our value for altruism, however fast we run in the marathon, however much money we raise, we will be content. If we are focused on the goal of doing a marathon, we are more likely to be concerned by our finish time and whether we meet our fund-raising target. We are less likely to be content with simply having completed the run and raised some money.

Photo by Sherise VD on Unsplash

You can argue, of course, that being focused on the goal will make you train harder, fund-raise more vigorously and run faster on the day – and you may be right – but the side-effect of that will be to continue to feed your addiction! You cannot give up an addiction without accepting some of the discomfort it was helping you to escape in the first place. Maybe by pursuing your value rather than a specific goal, you won’t ‘do as well’ as you might have done and you will have to live with a bit of disappointment or chagrin. Good. That’s important. Humility is a great antidote to Gold Star Syndrome. What we are learning to accept is that being the best or even the best that we can manage, is not essential to our happiness. Our values can stand alone. It is not necessary for them to be validated by our stunning achievements.

This week, then, I recommend finding a time to really ponder your values. Where did they come from? Are they really yours? Are you happy with them? When you have worked out what they are, make the commitment to pursuing your values, independent of specific goals, and see how that feels. Enjoy!

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This Post Has 8 Comments

    1. megharper

      You’re right, Louise, the changes to the promise were very welcome. I’d still say the law is problematic though! But I very much appreciate the work Guiding and Scouting does in other respects – there is so little youth work happening at all these days!

  1. Cassy

    Thanks very much for this Meg. As I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear, this resonated a lot for me!

    1. megharper

      Let me know when it doesn’t, Cassy! 🙂 Thanks for continuing to follow!

  2. Babs Ratcliffe

    Very interesting. I don’t think I actually relate much to the Gold star thing as without wanting to get the violins out so do excuse me but…. My upbringing was at best neglectful and uncommunicative and at worse physically and mentally abusive. I have to say the upside of this was that eventually…. I have got really comfortable with comparing myself only with other myselves (? 🤣) I’m a poet I make stuff up 🤷‍♀️ And… learning to not be too bothered about not being that good at some things, despite wanting to be. It kind of freed me up to think a different way. Don’t remember getting rewarded for anything so I did my own thing from a young ages. But I get what you’re saying. The psychology of “reward” is fascinating- it’s interesting that a few autistic people that I know get quite angry when praised. But thh he en I remain failrly convinced that many of them are way ahead of me in knowledge and awareness!!

    1. Meg Harper

      Hi Babs – this is such an interesting comment – could inspire a whole new post – I’ll add it to my notes! I haven’t forgotten that I want to talk to you! I’ll message you on Facebook soon!

  3. Veronica Zundel

    Only ever went to one Brownies session and was put off by a) the fact that they wore brown shirts which was a trigger for a daughter of Holocaust refugees and b) that one was meant to swear an oath of allegiance to God and the Queen – I didn’t believe in God at the time and I wasn’t too sure about the Queen! (as for oaths, I think I was already an unconscious Anabaptist…). However my parents were very generous people and that gave me certain expectations of myself, also becoming a Christian locked me into a ‘redeem the time’ attitude, which I have never succeeded in actually fulfilling, but which just makes me guilty all the time!

    1. Meg Harper

      Brownies was a bit of spiritual conundrum, given that we all danced round the toadstool in the Fairy Ring and our sixes had fairy names. I was a Kelpie which I thought was definitely the best of the bunch. So gold star to me! We competed for the ‘Best Brownie’ badge. I fear my nails and lack of a clean handkerchief often let me down on that one. ‘Redeem the time’ is a fascinating phrase – what’s that about? Maxing every moment?? There’s got to be more to be said about the influence of Christianity in all of this.

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