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 email@example.com and tell me about it. Like I said, I need more models and ideas for how I can do this more for myself.
When I was 32 years old, I found out about ACE at one of my lowest moments.
I had been referred to the social worker at the UCSF Cancer Center to help me find charity options to help pay for my cancer treatment. We talked a bit about my current work and financial situations, as well as my health and family history.
After I gave her the lowdown she stopped, put down her pen, pursed her lips and asked, “Have you heard of the ACE study?” I nodded my head no. “ACE stands for adverse childhood experiences. They’ve found that people who score a 4 or above on the test are at an increased risk for cancer and other diseases. Let’s see how you score.”
I’m a 4 on the ACE scale. Not the worst score possible, but enough to statistically put me between 400 and 1200% higher risk for things like diabetes, cancer, heart disease, obesity, smoking, broken bones, depression, and COPD than people with ACE scores in the lower range.
So what’s the connection? From what the scientists have found, there are several different causes.
Early childhood trauma or neglect causes the brain to become wired differently and the “fight or flight” mechanism is left permanently in the “on” position. This causes the body to be constantly flooded with cortisol, and too much cortisol is no bueno for the body. It causes an inflammation response which is the underlying cause for everything from weight gain to fibromyalgia to cancer.
Another connection is epigenetics. We all know about DNA, but our DNA isn’t necessarily always “turned on” or translated into proteins.
Let’s look at an example from evolution. Since we all evolved from the same cells, you have genes in your DNA for all the body parts and functions of every species we’ve evolved from. For example, all land creatures evolved from fish. You have a fishy great great great great great great….great great grandpa somewhere in your evolutionary history. Fishy grandpa had DNA that coded for gills, which allowed him to breathe underwater. Since you’re not a fish, you don’t need gills, but you still have the gene for gills in your DNA. (In fact, at one point in your embryonic development, you had gills. But just for a hot minute.) Now that you’ve evolved into a land mammal, you don’t need gills. So, that DNA isn’t turned on in humans.
This is epigenetics – the ability to turn on or off certain strands of DNA. In people with high ACEs, certain genes that allow for certain diseases may be turned on as result of the adverse childhood experiences. Or certain ones that protect from diseases may be turned off. This is especially true if your mom or dad had substance addiction issues or were going through trauma when you were conceived and in utero.
Believe it or not, our genes can be affected even if mom or dad had trauma way before we were even conceived. More recent studies show epigenetic information is passed down just like genetic (DNA) information. Epigenetic information can encode not only for physical changes, but also for psychological characteristics like hopes and fears.
The last connection, and the one I’m most interested in, is belief systems. Belief systems can be passed down culturally, epigenetically, or in the case of many ACE households, by having a parent repeatedly and consistently tell you that you are not good enough, worthless, unloved, or unwanted. No matter how resilient you are, if you are 5 years old and are told you are not good enough or unlovable by the head honcho in your life, it ends up worming its way into your subconscious.
So, how does a belief system end up giving you cancer? There are two mechanisms by which this works.
The first is that our bodies are inextricably intertwined with our emotions and our belief systems. Emotions, belief systems, and self-concepts are not merely patterns of neurons firing (although that’s part of it) but they are also housed in our organs, connective tissue, and even our bones. If you have a belief system that you are weak and worthless, this can easily play out in your immune system and you can be one of those people who are constantly sick and unable to fight off even the smallest virus, which can lead to chronic infections with things like Epstein Barr, the main cause of fibromyalgia and Myalgic Encephalopathy (a.k.a. chronic fatigue).
If you believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with you and you are unlovable, your body may not attack the routine cancer cells that crop up daily in your system. Or it may fundamentally integrate that voice of your mother or father telling you that you’re not good enough, and your immune system may start attacking your own perfectly good body parts, causing an autoimmune disease, just to prove mom or dad was right.
The other mechanism is sort of like the evil twin version of “The Secret”. Many physicists now agree that consciousness and observation have a huge role in creating our reality. We can use this to create and manifest all sorts of crazy and amazing things, but the reverse is also true. We can also create disease and terrible circumstances. If it’s true that you can manifest abundance and joy in your life, you can also manifest lack, unhappiness, and disease. Manifestation isn’t just something that happens in the outside world, it’s and inside job, too. You can manifest a disease just like you can manifest getting fired.
For example, people who have had a spouse die have a 66% greater chance of dying within the first three months after their spouse’s death. Grief, loss, and the fear of being alone manifest incurable disease in their bodies.
Conversely, in a study of people who have gone into spontaneous remission from late stage cancer, the one factor that all the subjects had in common was a realization that they were connected to a larger consciousness. They had a realization that they were connected spiritually to everyone and everything and they had all the resources from that vast and all knowing consciousness to fight their disease. At some point soon after that, their cancer disappeared. The change in their consciousness manifested spontaneous healing.
In my work I’ve found that a two-pronged approach to belief systems has helped to heal many of my clients. First, I get to the root of the belief system. I find out family history and what type of adverse events they experienced and then I “tune in” and find the exact phrase or set of beliefs that their body has decided to act out through their illness or disease. Most of the time, we all want to just feel listened to, validated, and loved. Once we do that on a cellular level, the body feels like it can release the old belief system or programming. At that point we can replace it with another belief system that is better for the client’s health and highest good.
The second way is to reconnect or remind the client’s body of its spiritual nature and connection with the Source. We are all spiritual beings having a human experience. But despite our physical appearance, we’re all still connected to Source Energy (or God, or Universal Consciousness, or the Big Wow) and the deeper that connection, the less chance that these human fears and beliefs can resonate and set up shop in our physical bodies, causing imbalance or disease. Once I reconnect the direct line to Source, clients start to feel calmer, symptoms start to resolve and general well-being improves. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.
If you’re interested in finding your ACE score, here’s a link to the test:
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.