One of my favorite novels is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let me Go. It’s a sci-fi thriller about the moral implications of human cloning and a few years after it was published, they made a film adaptation. I went to see a screening and afterwards, there was a Q&A with Ishiguro. In that conversation, Ishiguro said something that profoundly altered my view of life and how I approach my daily existence.
Before I go on, let me tell you a bit about my situation at the time — it was 2010, two years after my stage 3 colon cancer diagnosis at age 32 and I was still in the midst of the period where they were monitoring my cancer to see if it had spread and was going to pop up in any other organs. Needless to say, I spent lots of time thinking about my own mortality and the fact that there was a decent chance I wouldn’t make it to 35 or 40.
So, here I was, facing a possible death at way too young of an age, and trying to figure out how to live life with this new “normal” of having an array of genetic anomalies that could cause new tumors at any time. I was searching for answers as to why this was happening and how I could make sense of the last few years where my life had been turned upside down.
Okay, back to the story of Ishiguro’s interview and the insights I had that day.
In order to understand what Ishiguro said, you kind of have to know the plot of the novel. It’s a mystery/thriller and I don’t want to ruin it for you, so I’ll wait right here while you go read the 288-page book….
Oh, hello again! Finished it? Okay, good 🙂
Just in case you didn’t get a chance to read it, here’s my best attempt to give you the necessary background without any major spoilers. In the novel, there’s a small group of humans that, due to technical issues, will only live to be about 35 years old. (Hmm… seeing any parallels with my situation at the time?) This group of people doesn’t know this at first, until someone lets it slip, and only then do they realize they only have a few more years to live.
When asked why he wrote a sci-fi book, Ishiguro replied, “I didn’t see it as a sci-fi book. I came to the idea for this story as I was thinking one day about our lifespan. We only live about 75 or 80 years old, but what if that number was cut down to 30? Or 35? How would we live our lives differently?” He then continued, “I realized that it doesn’t really matter whether it’s 75 years or 35 years, that’s still a pretty short amount of time we have on this planet, relatively speaking.”
That’s the line that hit me hard… “That’s a pretty short amount of time we have on this planet.”
Whether cancer got me at 35, or I survived and made it to 75, it was still the same question. What was I going to do with my limited time on this planet?
I come back to this question often. How do I want to spend my time here? This obviously informs my longer-term goals like work, relationships, etc. But it also makes me think about things on a smaller scale.
Do I want to spend my days feeling afraid or anxious about my future? Or do I want to be in the present moment and look around to find something beautiful or amazing in the here and now?
How do I want to relate to the people in my life? Do I want to let them know how I feel about them each time I talk to them, even if it seems silly or overly sentimental?
Do I want to worry about my appearance, my likability, or what other people think of me? Or do I want to dance to the beat of my own drummer, know that I only have that beat for another few decades?
You only have a limited amount of time here. How do you want to spend it? What do you want the general tone of your life to be? How do you want to feel most of the time? Silly? Serious? Meaningful? Loving?
What’s something you can do today that will feel like you made use of your time today? Tell someone you love them? Spend some time enjoying the feeling of sunshine on your face? Or the sound of your favorite song?
This may be my last day here, or I may have another 10,000 days but the question for me is the same.
How do I want to spend my time today?
For I only have some number of days left. I don’t know how many, so the question is the same … what can I do to enjoy my existence here today?
Please let me know — what are you going to do to enjoy your time here on this planet today?
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.
We all have “inner critics” — that voice in our head that’s less than supportive, doubting, and sometimes even mean.
Our inner critic feeds off of self-doubt, imposter syndrome and shame. This is often an echo of the way that we were spoken to as children or a reflection of the value system we grew up in, like valuing hard work or piousness and thereby shaming “laziness” or “bad behavior.”
The main problem with the inner critic is that it keeps us from having a healthy version of the most important relationship we’ll ever have — the relationship with ourselves.
When we can learn to be our own cheerleaders, wise mentors, and caregivers, it makes life so much more pleasant. When we develop inner mentors and inner caregivers, we improve our relationship with ourself and see dramatic changes in how we interact with the world.
How do we convince the inner critic that they are wrong and that we truly are worthy, wonderful human beings?
One of the ways we can improve our relationship with ourselves is by consistently demonstrating our love and care for ourselves and by asking others to help us, too.
This is just like you’d do with a romantic partner – relationships need to be looked after and tended on a daily basis, and the one you have with yourself is no exception.
One way we can work on our relationship with ourselves is through our “love languages.” We each have a ranking of which love languages makes us feel most loved, valued and appreciated. The five love languages are Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, and Physical Touch.
(Mine are: “receiving gifts”, “words of affirmation” and “acts of service”)
Once you have found your love language profile, here’s what you can do to improve your relationship with yourself.
Find your top 2 love languages and do (or pay someone to do) at least 2 things per week for yourself. For example, buy yourself a small gift (“receiving gifts”), use a grocery delivery app (“acts of service”), get a massage (“physical touch”). Make note of the ones that bring you the most joy so you can do them again!
ASK for others to do things for you in your love language. For example, ask a friend to tell you 3 reasons they value your friendship (“words of affirmation”), ask a friend to surprise you with a gift sometime in the next week (“receiving gifts”), or ask your partner to do the dishes every night this week (“acts of service”).
This may feel weird to ask at first, but we have to get used to asking for what will make us feel loved. Plus, studies show that taking care of others increases people’s happiness. So we’re actually making THEM happier by asking!
Once you’ve made it a habit to buy yourself flowers every Sunday like Lizzo or get a massage each week no matter what, you will be well on your way to learning how to value yourself and understand that you deserve to be treated well and are deserving of all the love.
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.