‘WHAT A PIECE OF WORK IS (HU)MAN’
It is said that we all of us exist on three separate planes – how we see ourselves, how others see us and how we really are. This came startlingly to the fore recently and caused me much introspection and self-reproach.
I just finished a session with a group where I think I came across as too forthright and this left me with a sinking feeling of self-doubt. While doing my job had I expressed my views too strongly and alienated some in the group? It forced me into feeling that there was a combination of them shooting the messenger and my misplaced assertiveness, unsure of myself like a lonely child in the school playground thinking ‘they don’t like me.’
If you have a Netflix account have a look at the The Mortified Guide. It’s a comedic docu-series that looks at the biggest issues of adolescence — from first loves to fitting in to dealing with your neurotic family — as adults share their childhood writings and art in front of total strangers. Each episode tackles one childhood theme, exploring that theme from a variety of adolescent experiences — from the hilarious to the heart-breaking.
Watching it takes me back to my late teens when as an exchange student I spent a year in the United States. During that year away from home to complete my senior year of high school I kept a diary in which I religiously journalised each day. Much like the people in the Mortified Guide it is part hilarious and heartbreaking but probably more than anything else shallow, affected, and pretentious – such is the way of a young mind. Well my young mind at least – no Anne Frank here I am afraid.
I am mortified when I read it today. There are many common themes which emerge which give me a glimpse into where I was in my life at that time, vis a vis how I viewed the world and myself. One was when meeting people who I liked, valued or was impressed with characteristics I attributed such as ‘attractive, clever, popular, wealthy etc’, I would gush with awe over them and then conclude with the pièce de résistance “AND THEY LIKE ME”. Obviously, it was a surprise that these people on a mini- pedestal could like someone like me, whatever that may have meant. Were they seeing the real me, the me I wanted them to see or me, the naked truth?
I guess at some points in our lives, we question ourselves as to whether we are worthy. We doubt about decisions and choices we made or simply feel “I am just not good enough for that.” This is self-doubt and we all have it in spades when we are adolescent, old enough to self-sabotage by comparing ourselves with others and internalising negative messaging. It’s not surprising that we make these often negative comparisons because we are living in a world of competition. We can easily compare our work performance with colleagues or simply swim or drown in the overwhelming ocean of social media. It’s easy for us to envy others’ lives and think that we are not doing just as great as them. And when we look at the person on the treadmill next to us in the gym and they look like a million dollars, running twice as fast whilst barely breaking sweat – let’s face it, it’s tough! Of course some level of self-doubt can be good because it indicates an understanding of what you may need to improve in order to do a better job, or it makes you humble or forces you to try harder (run faster, be fitter lose a few kg). However, persistent fear and self-doubt can hugely affect your life, in a bad way.
This statement of surprise -“and they like me” - tells me more about me than about them. The phrase appears frequently in my diary of 1982. Whereas someone with less self doubt may have recorded “and, naturally, I was a hit” it more than likely would not have even received a mention as that was a matter of course. I would validate my self-worth based on the acceptance of others. It is not important why I felt like this, just that I did, and whether that was an inherent trait, a means of self-preservation or a result of my experiences, this became a default position, one that took me a long time to become detached from. For whatever reason it would have had a purpose at that time in my life but not now, especially not after my meeting this morning. So today I must watch my thoughts in case I slip back into this distortion of perception that my worth comes from others’ responses.
When I coach clients, I use an introduction that I borrowed from another coach because I love its sentiment and the way it sets the mood and scene for personal growth.
“There is nothing wrong with you. You are already whole, perfect and complete. There are just some little pebbles stopping the flow in your life. Those pebbles (Ok…some are boulders.) are beliefs and behaviours that might have been true at some time in your life, but are no longer true and are not working for you. It’s our job to figure out what they are, change them and get you unstuck.
Today I do not consciously seek validation from others (not to say however that I don’t want it or like it). But, I try to ensure that I validate myself through leading a life which I can be proud of; where I am true to what I believe and am working with integrity. When I use this as my compass it works well for me but it doesn’t stop the teenager inside me and feelings of self doubt surfacing occasionally. But every so often I can’t help hoping that that’s the way others see me too ‘Oh, frailty, thy name is (wo)man’, as Shakespeare so succinctly nailed it!