Last night, while doing what I do best, which is berating myself for all the things I can’t do, I realized what I was doing and took a step back. Watched a movie. Knitted a bit. Then I came back to my senses and, as if by magic, I found a few things that hit home.
I’ve been spending a lot of time on Dreamwidth lately, and after the movie and knitting I found this post: the ghost in the room, or, why modesty is a dirty fucking word. It cracked through a lot of things about me that I have blinded myself to. I’d really encourage you to read through all of the post and the comment threads I link here. When I look at myself, all I see are my flaws and the things I haven’t done yet. I see all the things I wish I were and am not. I remember in middle school and early high school I would get compliments on my capability with teaching myself computer and web design skills, but I would brush them off until I didn’t hear them. Exactly like this:
Someone offers you a compliment on something you have done or accomplished; ‘modesty’ forces you to demur and claim that your achievement wasn’t all that special; your complimenter, and all those who have heard the exchange, are left with the impression that because they value this thing you have done (and they must have valued it or they wouldn’t have complimented it), and because you claim that it wasn’t anything worthy of value, that their ability to accurately assess value is broken.
When I was 11 or 12, I taught myself HTML and some CSS and PHP, as well as how to make crude graphics so I could play with the other kids on the Internet. To me it didn’t seem like a big deal, just a fun thing to do, so I brushed off the compliments. I didn’t think they were true. After a while I became immune. I don’t really remember if anyone said they were proud of me in the last few years, because if they did, I wouldn’t absorb it. I didn’t have accomplishments, only setbacks.
Tutoring other kids in math class in sixth grade instead of paying attention to the lesson because it came so easily to me. Taking all of the available Honors/AP classes and maintaining a 4.0 GPA four years of high school—that certainly wasn’t good enough. Being in the orchestra for a year and being in the newspaper staff for a year and a half. Acing all the language classes I take, even learning German and Japanese alongside each other. None of this seemed like an accomplishment to me. I never did enough.
Part of what blocked me, personally, from seeing my accomplishments as accomplishments is probably what is addressed in this comment thread about ‘gifted’ learning. School has come easily to me for so long that, as one commenter posted:
The thing is – you often find that people in the gifted and talented set aren’t taught how to learn. I’ve ranted about this at length, but the short version: At school, you don’t just learn stuff, you learn how to struggle through and figure out how things work. Unless your experience of “learning” is simply taking in new information, understanding first pass, and doing it. Sure – things like music and art you need to practice, but things like maths and English, it’s just information storage.
That is exactly how I’ve gone through life. School comes easy to me, and I’ve had to learn how to learn—a little bit, since coming to college. It’s still easy for me. I don’t study very often, still, because I simply don’t know how to. I have never had to. It’s hard for me to comprehend friends and peers who spend almost 24/7 studying, and I know they assume I spend a lot of time studying, since they do, but I waste a lot of time instead. So I don’t consider things like “maintaining a 4.0 in high school” and “getting good grades” something to be proud of. It’s just what I do. I never took pride in my work, just saw what I hadn’t done right yet.
The same poster also wrote this:
Also – because you’re a Mensa member, or you’re brilliant at this or that, people start expecting you to be brilliant at everything. You’re not allowed to struggle through something even if you want to try, because “You’re smart, things come easy to you.” – it’s the huge weight of expectation on you. (citation)
It also makes me a little uncomfortable with sharing what I knit, because this is another area where I don’t think I “deserve” praise. I taught myself to knit when I was very young from a pamphlet from Michael’s. No one helped me, I had to decipher the instructions and diagrams myself. And I did, I even figured out cables. My skills since then probably haven’t changed that much. (Although I try a much wider variety of patterns now!) It was fun, not hard, so I don’t know what the big deal is.
And it isn’t just the huge achievements that need recognition. Every time you do something that’s hard for you, every time you transcend some personal boundary or cross some goalpost you thought uncrossable or work really fucking hard at something (even — especially — if you fail) or do something you thought you couldn’t do, it is an accomplishment, and it’s important to acknowledge it. Every time you receive a compliment and say “thank you” instead of “oh, it’s nothing”, you are striking a blow against a poisonous, toxic, and dangerous social model. And every time you do that publicly, you give strength to someone else who sees you do it, because by accurately valuing your accomplishments and achievements as accomplishments and achievements, you teach others that their similar accompishments and achievements are things to be valued — and thus, by extension, that they are to be valued. (from the original post)
I remember thinking last weekend, “Why is my mom telling me that she and my dad are proud of me for signing a lease? Isn’t this what they expected of me? Isn’t this what they expect every normal 21-year-old to be able to do?” And then I realized: this is a big deal for me. They’re making it a big deal for me. It’s not that I failed at something, it’s that I finally succeeded at something that is very hard for me. That is something to be proud of. The paper I’ve been working on all weekend? Instead of re-reading it in the morning and seeing all the things I could have done better, I’m going to re-read it and see all the things I’ve done well. I’m proud, really proud, maybe for the first time, of what I’ve written. What I’ve done. I worked hard, and I can tell that it is a much better paper than one I could have written in one sitting.
The knitting that I take for granted? Yes, maybe it’s harder for some people, and easier for others, but it’s time for me to stop underestimating what I’ve done.
What if, say, the constant torrent of thought that occurs in my mind didn’t berate me or pick on me, but consciously realized what I’ve accomplished and lauded myself for it? And then quieted down and headed back to do more fun, fulfilling work? I know that switching the inner monologue from things I can’t do well to things I’ve achieved will help me make peace with myself. I started crying when I realized how little pride in myself I allow myself feel, and how good it felt to let myself soak in my accomplishments for a moment. That’s got to mean something. That maybe I matter to me, and I should care about me.
Which is really the first time I’ve considered that I might matter.
Thanks for reading this far. It means a lot to me.
(Also cross-posted to my Dreamwidth account: syntaxofthings.)