You Are Better Than You Know

 “Be careful how you are talking to yourself because you are listening.”  (Lisa M. Hayes)

When I first encountered George Eliot’s Middlemarch in my undergraduate days—a book that among much else explores the ideal we aspire to versus the real we attain—it was Dorothea Brooke who intrigued me. A young woman all fired up to reform the world and save humanity, Dorothea (after an unfortunate marriage choice and other muddles) must ultimately settle for doing good in a hundred smaller ways. Eliot doesn’t disparage Dorothea for what she fails to accomplish, but pays homage in the closing lines to her unwavering resolve to help people:

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. 

Tertius Lydgate (BBC 1994 series)
Tertius Lydgate (BBC 1994 series)

Recently, revisiting Middlemarch via the excellent 1994 BBC miniseries, I found myself drawn to Tertius Lydgate, the doctor determined to reform the haphazard (and hazardous) medical practices of his day. He, too, suffers an unhappy marriage, and his bent to self-righteousness doesn’t endear him to the local medical establishment who are jealous of his intelligence and ambitions. In summary, he fares less well than Dorothea:

Lydgate’s hair never became white. He died when he was only fifty …  He had gained an excellent practice …  His skill was relied on by many paying patients, but he always regarded himself as a failure: he had not done what he once meant to do.

I had forgotten this part of the book, or it had slipped off my Teflon-coated twenty-something self. Lydgate’s harsh appraisal of his life surprised me. He endures much, accomplishes much, and is generally a very admirable character. That he regarded himself as a failure saddened me. Where did such a negative self-assessment come from?

The Beginnings of Negative Self-Chatter

When I was a first grade teacher, I learned a number of things:

Copyright Michele Teras
Copyright Michele Teras

1) You cannot possibly repeat yourself enough;

2) You must always be in two, preferably three, places at once;

3) Take note of who the miscreants are on Day 1, then win them over.

But the most profound thing I learned was that somewhere between the end of kindergarten and the middle of first grade, we begin to measure ourselves against others, and to form a picture of where we fall on the human continuum. We start to judge our abilities, and those judgments are not often kind.

This ability to assess situations and people, to form judgments is developmental and necessary. If we couldn’t distinguish between the trustworthy and the unreliable, between a safe course of action and a dangerous one, we would not survive long. But its corollary is that we

often rank ourselves and our efforts against heroes past and present—Alan Turing, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai—and conclude we are inferior. I saw brilliant kids falter as they began to realize other kids were brilliant, too, and I understood the question they silently asked: Just how much more brilliant, and what does this say about me?

Reconciling Our Ideal and Real Selves

Like Dorothea Brooke or Tertius Lydgate, we each harbor an ideal self. Someone who makes their mark on the world in some profound, indelible way. The scientist who discovers a cure for cancer. The lawyer who takes on the big corporate interests and scores a game-changing win for environmental legislation. The writer whose novel brilliantly reveals the truth of our times. The teacher whose passion for learning changes the lives of her students forever. Our ideal self embraces the challenge, works tirelessly, brusheslove-self-don-quixote-tilting-at-windmills-capture off setbacks, laughs in the face of adversity, and is beloved by all who champion the good.

If this seems an exaggeration, consider the thousands of films and books that feature a protagonist who against all odds takes on the impossible challenge and succeeds. We are drawn to these stories because in their characters’ indefatigable courage and devotion, we glimpse our best true self.

But the movie/book invariably ends and we’re back to real life in real time. A world where meals need fixing and kids need caring. Where cars break down and furnaces die. Where our control is limited and our efforts often go unremarked. Where the best-laid plans fly right out the door.  And rejection truly hurts.

In this world, the rose-tinted glasses are off and we bump up against our very human limits not infrequently. In this world, we are not always so kind to ourselves. How could I be so stupid as to miss that opportunity? Only an idiot would have done that. Everyone else knows how this works except me. We threaten to kick ourselves for being too slow, too timid, too naïve, too lazy. Like my first graders, self-accusation follows self-assessment, and doubt follows both. But does all the negative self-chatter actually bring us closer to who we hope to be, or does it just bring us down?

Try A Little Tenderness

Writers, let me assure you, have ample opportunities for negative self-talk. We must constantly convince strangers who never asked us to write anything to look at what we’ve written. To read our short story, our novel, our screenplay. Most of them don’t, and many won’t even respond. We work in solitude, producing a product that is always subject to subjectivity itself. Your book is brilliant on Tuesday, godawful on Wednesday. Thursday, you salvage what you can, dump the rest, and continue. Any serious writer will vouch for the fact that the writing life is a constant zipline between ecstasy and despair. They will also tell you that they never quite “get it” the way they envisioned it. The ideal remains in the mind. The real is love-self-2nd-anne-color-saying-a622e70b25c04c3989562d851625641awhat tumbles out on the page. Yet somehow, out of this maelstrom  good books are born. Sometimes, even great books.

Like the lives of children teachers do change. Like the lives of people biologists and doctors do save. Like the social injustices lawyers and activists do right. Maybe we don’t always stop the bad guy, win the girl/boy, and save civilization, but we are better than we know.

Last week, I found this card in a store: Talk to yourself like you would to someone you love (Brene Brown).  The words surprised me in their resonance. As if their author understood my struggles, knew my vulnerabilities, and was kindly urging me to give my heart a rest.

Talk to yourself like you would to someone you love. Maybe we just need to cut ourselves some slack. Stop lambasting ourselves for all the ways (we think) we fall short, and begin counting all the ways we succeed. Offer ourselves the kind words we would offer a colleague, our children, a friend.

Eliot tells us the world regarded Tertius Lydgate as a man who “had gained an excellent practice,” a man whose “skill was relied on by many paying patients.”

But Lydgate only saw that “he had not done what he once meant to do.” Pity.


Never Cease Being Amused

“As long as you can laugh at yourself, you will never cease to be amused.”  (Anonymous)

Some months ago, a friend shared a story at a party. The NGO she works for is part of a global project involving a half dozen other NGOs. Right in the middle of a networking weekend, no one could get access to the project’s shared online folder. People from Amsterdam to San Francisco were frantically e-mailing each other: Where’s our data?! When the dust settled, it transpired that one of the participants had moved on to another job and wiped the old files from his computer to gain usable space. Unfortunately, he was listed with Google as the administrator on the folder. When he erased his copy, he unwittingly erased all the members’ copies.

comedy-oops-button-5-ways-to-avoid-embarrassing-moments-on-social-mediaEveryone at the party had a good laugh over this little tale of digital mayhem. Probably because: 1) we could all imagine ourselves doing something equally stupid, and 2) we were relieved we hadn’t been the one to do so in this instance.

Since then, I’ve often found myself chuckling over this incident and wondering if its innocent perpetrator saw its humorous side—after all, no one was hurt and though it was a nuisance, the remaining NGO members were able to reconstruct the folder from their individual notes. I hope he can laugh as we at the party laughed, but I’m doubtful. We tend to suffer the embarrassment of our mistakes for a long time. Sometimes to the grave.

There’s a lot of pressure to perform to perfection out there. Mistakes are anathema—heads will roll, et cetera—yet who among us doesn’t make them?

To compound the problem, we are vulnerable to something psychologists call the “Spotlight Effect.” When we think we’ve screwed up—called a prospective employer by the wrong name, tripped over a cord as we made our way to the podium to give a speech, sent the wrong manuscript to an editor—we tendcomedy-credit-writingpad-com-embarrassing-moment-615x461 to freak out, imagining that everyone saw, that everyone now thinks we’re awkward, stupid, incapable. This magnification of our own mistakes has two negative effects: 1) To avoid any risk of humiliation or rejection, we become much more guarded in what we say and do; 2) As a consequence, we drain a lot of the joy from our lives.

Tragedy + Time = Comedy

My husband once set his hair on fire while trying out an expensive cigarette lighter in a posh department store. My friend Pete swallowed a piece of ham tied to a string while doing an experiment on peristalsis. I hauled around my three-week-old son at the bottom of a Snugli, like a sack of potatoes, until a woman in the supermarket told me there was a little button-in cloth seat for newborns. Embarrassing? Well, in the case of the peristalsis experiment gone awry, maybe more frightening than humiliating. The point, though, is that these anecdotes, told and retold over the years, have become the source of much hilarity and bonhomie. As comedian and writer Steve Allen said: Tragedy + Time = Comedy. Our most embarrassing missteps become our funniest stories, the ones everyone asks us to repeat.

But what if we just cut to the chase and start laughing at our foibles the moment we spill the lasagna all over our lap, drop our cell phone down a restaurant toilet, forget to attach the CV to our job application? Life should come with a beeper, warning us when we’re about to screw up, but it doesn’t, so we need to adopt the ability to laugh at ourself.

My dad could be ornery, and he was not much with the compliments, but he could always laugh at himself. It’s probably the most important thing I learned from him. I remember one time in a restaurant, he was fixing his coffee. “Geezus, this cream is thick,” he remarked as it fell in chunks from the little pitcher into his cup. “Oh no,” my mom cried, “that’s my blue cheese dressing. I asked for it on the side.” Now, my dad could have blamed his mistake on the low lighting or the waitress’s failure to set the blue cheese next to my mom’s plate or the stupidity of a restaurant that would put both cream and blue cheese in identical pitchers. But he just laughed. Because it was funny. Because there’s no point in pretending you didn’t do what you did. Because no one is perfect. And then he ordered a fresh cup of coffee.

Mistakes—we all make ‘em. So, laugh it up. And if the people around you can’t cope with this very human reality, maybe you just need different people.