The other day, my mentor asked me, “Are you proud of yourself?”
I had just finished running my new course, Unconventional Tools for Healing, for the first time and was telling her how pleased I was to get some really lovely feedback from the participants.
I stopped for a moment and reflected on her question. I answered honestly, and felt myself holding back tears as I responded:
“I don’t think I know how to be proud of myself.”
The first time I ever remember hearing, “I’m proud of you” from any of my family members was in an email from my father after I’d finished cancer treatment. I’d been writing a blog throughout my treatment and he responded to one of my posts, telling me he was proud of me.
I cried big, wet tears for about 20 minutes. I didn’t realize how long I’d been waiting to hear that from him.
The insidious fallout for children of emotionally immature or abusive parents is that we often don’t learn what it feels like to take a moment to be proud of ourselves. If we’re hyperfocused and hypervigilant on being the good girl or boy and keeping all the plates spinning in the air, we never learn to stop and take stock of what we’ve achieved.
That moment of feeling pride is important. It’s a moment of rest, reflection and integration before starting the next task.
But in the day in and day out nature of extreme emotional caretaking, there is no rest and there is no moment to reflect.
If this is what “normal” was for you as a child, then stopping, reflecting, and being proud of what you’ve achieved can feel uncomfortable and perhaps even a little anxiety provoking. There’s no awareness of the importance of resting and feeling proud of your achievements before taking on the next challenge.
Here are some signs that you might never have learned how to rest and integrate:
You feel anxious of uncomfortable when you have nothing to do. Your brain wants to know, “what’s next?” and you quickly find something to busy yourself. (This can also manifest as ADHD.)
You think that your achievements are just the bare minimum of what you were supposed to do. I finished chemo? Well, I had cancer I was supposed to. I launched a successful online course? Well, I was supposed to, that’s what you do when you have your own business.
You think that all of the success you’ve achieved might be because of a fluke and not because you worked hard and deserved it. The good things that happen to you are courtesy of chance. The bad things that happen to you are your responsibility.
You don’t think your needs matter or are worth taking into account and this includes your need for rest and integration.
You feel that you are not enough. You feel like you have to go above and beyond every time and that nothing you do is ever quite good enough.
You think that you are too much and you need to work on toning it down.
You believe that if you take time to rest, you will be chastised for being lazy, needy or selfish.
If any of these feel familiar, then please let me be the first to tell you:
Rest, my child.
You deserve to rest.
You deserve to take time for yourself to reset, realign, and heal.
You deserve time only for yourself, with no responsibilities for anyone or anything else.
And furthermore, I am proud of you. Even if you don’t feel like you’ve lived a life that’s anything special or you’ve done anything particularly praise worthy, I am proud of you.
I am proud of you because you have made it this far through some pretty tough shit. You’ve survived some things that probably temporarily broke you, and you’ve picked yourself up and put the pieces back together.
Lately, I’ve been working on unhooking from praise and criticism in how I evaluate myself and my work. I’ve been examining my own unhealthy relationship to praise and how I’ve chased “gold star stickers” as validation for most of my life.
This started in elementary school when I would get praise for doing well academically. There’s a meme that made the rounds a few years ago that was so spot on for me, it made me cringe in recognition.
Oh yes, all of the above. 100%
The challenges that “gifted and talented” kids face later in life can be explained by Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset vs fixed mindset. A growth mindset is where you believe intelligence is malleable and can develop and grow over time. A fixed mindset is one where you believe intelligence is fixed and static. It turns out that when we praise kids for specific abilities or achievements (“That was a great essay!”, “You’re so smart!” or “You’re such a good athlete!”) as opposed to attributes or intrinsic qualities (“Wow! I’m impressed at how hard you worked on that!” or “That was tough but I’m proud of how you stuck with it.”) we inadvertently stunt their growth mindset and drive them towards a fixed mindset.
Ability-based praise leads kids to believe that labels like “you’re so smart” are true for them and these attributes quickly become part of their self-identity. While this doesn’t seem bad at first glance, when we attach too strongly to something as part of our identity/ego, we then become terrified of it being stripped away. This causes us to default to a fixed mindset in order to preserve our precious identity and we learn to fear the inevitable failures that come as part and parcel of a healthy growth mindset. If trying something and failing becomes something that threatens who we think we are, then failure becomes a painful ego distortion rather than a normal part of learning and growing. The result is that the kids who were praised for abilities are much less likely to want to try challenging tasks than the kids who are praised for attributes, and are more often up for a new challenge.
As one of the “gifted and talented kids” my parents praised me up, down and sideways for my academic achievements. They bragged about it to friends. They told me I had such a bright future ahead of me as a result. They pulled me out of one school and put me into another to better match my intellectual prowess. It quickly became part of my identity and a great source of my self-esteem.
However, the problem with self-esteem is this — what happens when we can no longer do esteemable things? What happens when for some reason or another, we can’t perform at the level that we’ve come to expect?
Let me tell you, it feels like crap.
It feels like shame.
It feels like existential failure.
This became suddenly and abundantly clear to me when I lost a good deal of my cognitive function due to “chemo brain” almost overnight. My memory, information processing abilities, recall, vocabulary, and other markers of intelligence were all severely impacted by chemotherapy and I found myself unable to be the “smart kid” anymore. How could I be the smart kid when I couldn’t even process what someone was saying to me, let alone remember any information that would help me craft a response?
Common words eluded me. Facts and figures and ideas that I’d known by heart were murky at best. And my auditory processing was shot — if someone said something to me verbally rather than writing it down, I had no memory of it. Which made me feel like an idiot when I couldn’t remember something they’d said to me mere hours before. “Don’t you remember? We JUST talked about this, Megan.”
It was a huge slap in the face. And while I’ve recovered a good deal of my cognitive abilities, they’re still not what they used to be. But that sudden loss allowed me to look at my core identity as “the smart one” and how deeply it had been ingrained in my sense of self and ego. Only then could I look at whether that served me or not, and make some conscious decisions about what I wanted my self-concept to be.
So, what’s the antidote to this relentless quest for the gold star fix? And what does it have to do with British reality TV?
I realized after chemo brain hit me hard that I needed to shift my identity to be about attributes rather than abilities. For example, I have a thirst for knowledge and a love of learning rather than “I’m smart.” Or, I am compassionate, curious and open-minded about those in my life rather than “I’m a nice person.” Can I love reading and not be smart? Sure can! Can I be compassionate with someone’s suffering and still have good boundaries and say no? You betcha.
During the pandemic, I’ve been binge watching two British reality TV competitions: “The Great British Bake Off” and “The Great Pottery Throwdown.” These shows touch me in a way that I couldn’t quite name until one recent episode of “Pottery Throwdown.” One of the contestants, Roz, was asked to do a task that was way out of her wheelhouse. She finished the task but came in last in the judging. As she’s speaking to the judges about coming in last she says she’s embarrassed. Keith, one of the judges, looks at her with tears in his eyes and says, “Never feel embarrassed, Roz.”
What he’s saying to Roz here is that she should be proud of herself, she should be proud of her attributes of persistence, resilience and grit rather than be embarrassed about her abilities (or lack thereof) at this specific task. You can see the interaction here:
My love of these British reality competitions comes from the culture on these shows of being proud of trying your best, going out of your comfort zone, and being resilient and gritty. These are valued more on these shows than whether you came first or last. It’s not about the gold star or the winner’s ribbon, that’s just icing on the cake. (Yes, I made a baking pun, just for you my fellow GBBO fans.) The core values of these shows are about how extraordinary it is for people to show up with uncertainty, put in the effort, and try something new without knowing how it will turn out.
No wonder I love these shows, they’re models of growth mindset that I desperately need. They feed the part of me that wants to see this in action, the part of me that wants to soak up all of these examples of how to value attributes rather than abilities like a sponge so I can turn around and do the same for myself and others.
Here’s my challenge for you this week — try to think of a time when someone praised you for your attributes rather than your abilities. What did they say? How did it feel?
If you can think of one, please comment on this post or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me about it. Like I said, I need more models and ideas for how I can do this more for myself.
I hate that sinking feeling in my stomach when I realize I’ve messed up. Or when I put something out there in the world and all I get in response is crickets.
Feelings of doubt and worthlessness creep in. “Uh oh”, I think, “That’s not good.”
I failed. I tried, put in my best effort (or maybe not even my best, maybe I even half-assed it) and it flopped. I’ve let myself down, I’ve let others down.
This isn’t a good feeling.
So, how do you get past that? How do you learn to fail and not let it get you down?
1. Acknowledge that it was your best effort.
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” Maya Angelou
Many people miss he first part of this quote, I’ve seen it online as “When you know better, you do better” many times, but that’s actually missing the point. “I did then what I knew how to do…” That’s really saying that given the circumstances, your knowledge, your emotional state, your options at the time, you made the BEST effort you could given all of those contingencies. Notice that I didn’t say your best effort. Given the perfect circumstances, a lifetime of wisdom, and a feeling of complete calm and confidence, you could have undoubtedly rocked it. But this is real life. Perfection is an idea, not a reality and you are living in reality. So, don’t just look at the failure, look at what you were dealing with when you put in that effort and give yourself some slack. You were doing the best that you could do then. Now that you know better, you’ll do better.
2. Salvage the good parts and learn the lessons
A failure can make you feel like crap for a while, but you know there are some nuggets in there that worked and some that you can improve next time. Once you can forgive yourself and process your emotions around the failure, it’s time to take it apart and try to see which parts actually were successful (I promise that there are a least a few parts that were good!) and which parts need to be reworked. Forgive yourself AGAIN for doing the best you could in that moment. It’s okay that there were parts that worked and parts that didn’t. That’s how we learn, you try several times, keep what’s working, and revise the parts that didn’t work as well.
3. Be resilient
Lastly, and most importantly, try again. Studies have shown that the most consistent indicator of success is resilience, knowing how to try again after you made a mistake. Doing anything (especially something new) is a process, a learning experience. You’ll be less likely to make mistakes after many attempts, but that first few tries can be brutal. None of those people you’re comparing yourself to started out doing things as well as they do now. None. Of. Them. Most likely, you just aren’t aware of their first (and most likely crappy) attempts because of exactly that! They were crappy and unsuccessful. But I guarantee you that that’s where they started, just like you. So, yes! You are just like your mentors and biz crushes, because you start out doing now what you know how to do, and when you know better, you’ll do better.