I think childhood stories about Good and Evil can do society a great disservice. They are misleading and oversimplified. I realize that media aimed at children is most often simplified, but often ideas of Good and Evil aren’t portrayed as simplified, but as the simple truth, as in a truth often looked at as more complicated than it actually is. And even if children do somehow recognize the ideas presented as simplifications, they often still treat them as bedrock truths on which they build their developing world views as they get older.
The main idea that I think is neglected in children’s entertainment is that we are all human and that “villains” are just humans too, not some special breed of human. “Villains” are not as obvious and noticeable as they are portrayed in stories for children. And villains are often not universal—different groups consider different people villains. Heroes and villains are not two neat categories on which everyone agrees. I mean, on which every good person agrees, of course.
When I imagine a stereotypical cartoonish villain, I have an image that immediately materializes. He is tall, dressed in black, with a long cloak, and a curly moustache. He speaks in grand, carefully enunciated phrases. He has a vaguely foreign accent, perhaps from somewhere in England. Now, I’m probably combining several different villainous characters. They don’t all have cloaks, for example.
But notice that appearance: starkly different, with subliminal symbols like dark colors to connotate evil. Also, very importantly, a markedly different and foreign way of speaking. Why do so many villains have foreign accents? I don’t think it’s even as complicated as marking certain nationalities as “enemies;” there have been villainous characters in American media throughout the past century with Russian accents, for example, but not in every case, and it’s not as if every story featuring a Russian villain was overtly political, where it would be relevant. There are many villains in American media, after all, who are merely British, and the UK is an ally and not really seen as villainous (unless the story is set during the American Revolution, of course). So, I think the main reason for giving villains accents is just to distinguish them as not like us. Showcasing the way someone talks is an easy and classic way to just say “they’re different from we are.”
I think it is a frightening truth to a lot of people to realize that every “evil” person in history has been human, and since we are human too, we have the same potential for cruelty. So we create ways to separate humans into different groups to protect notions of our inherent innocence and virtue—or, in other words, the idea that we could never do something as heinous as that. People don’t want to think that if they themselves were born at the same time, in the same place, and under the same circumstances as some historical villain, they themselves could have committed similar crimes.
The main example of this idea that stands out in my life is an occurrence at a lecture I went to on a specific women’s concentration camp in Nazi Germany that has since been turned into a museum. The lecture highlighted how apparently “normal” the female guards were: they had social gatherings, got their hair done, were interested in new fashions. But they were also Nazis enforcing genocide and torture. A main idea that the current museum on the camp’s site also emphasizes is how these women were merely human. This is not said to lessen the seriousness of their acts in any way—it is said to emphasize that cruelty and terror is a human problem, not a problem confined to certain groups or types of people.
I think that is such an important point, and a necessary one to acknowledge, especially when discussing why the Holocaust could even happen and how to prevent persecution, prejudice, and oppression now and in the future. However, one particular woman in the audience of the lecture was aghast when confronted with that assertion that the Nazis were human. She repeatedly spoke out, saying things like, “No, these women were monsters! We can’t call them anything less!” She insisted that it was just incorrect and even offensive to label them as similar to you and I.
I don’t know who that woman was, I don’t know her background or history, and I don’t know what experiences or preconceived notions she was bringing to that lecture; I’m not making a statement at all about her as a person. I see her ideas though as very widespread and prevalent. Fear of “evil” is really fear of humanity, but it is often masked and covered up. Even the word “evil” is evidence. It is seen as a separate, even tangible and external thing that we can name and point out.
I don’t say all this to be pessimistic or make the doom and gloom rain down. I just think it’s most helpful and healthy to just acknowledge the reality and act accordingly. Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away. I think we can address humanity’s potential for evil, but it requires really accepting it first.
I have stumbled onto something significant. It involves objective correctness. Here is some context: I’ve realized before that people often claim there is a perfect or correct way of doing something when in reality there isn’t. This can range from diets to spiritual practice to careers. There is no one-size-fits-all life, but people act like there is. (A note on spiritual practice: I’m thinking even within a particular religion, not even getting into the issue of Truth. For example, some people could think there are a certain number of hours one must devote a week to studying the foundational religious texts, a certain number of hours for service, a certain number of hours for worship. There is a certain mode of dress and certain articles of clothing that are not allowed. None of these additions might be doctrinal. These are just ideas about the actual “right way” of doing things. It can differ between countries or regions of the same country.)
I think a lot of my doubt and uncertainty comes from listening too much to other humans. Let me explain. I get too sucked in to living in a society subjectively that I buy into the messages I’m seeing or hearing without question or skepticism. For example, I used to be less skeptical about ideal beauty and physical appearance, especially seen in the media. I would glance over the magazine covers at the grocery store checkout and think, “It’s not only entirely possible to look like that but I should look like that.” Later I found out about the absurd level of manipulation of those images. Even the movie stars on the cover don’t look like that—even though they may have a team of people working on their appearance and fitness and diet, they still don’t look as perfect as that cover shot. The photo edited out more fat and sculpted their body and erased blemishes and undereye circles. Was I being taught in school or told directly by people, “Ideal beauty as seen on magazines is what you should aspire to and is a good, realistic goal”? No, it wasn’t that literal. But seeing images there and in ads and in movies etc. etc. etc. sent me that message. Those are the types of messages I’m talking about—the implicit ones that people subconsciously ascribe to.
And see, it isn’t just me. If everyone else in the world vocally criticized those cover images, it would be one thing. But either people say nothing or they confirm that that ideal is achievable. I think people underestimate the power of socialization and of being immersed in a cultural environment. You absorb the morals and ideals without people necessarily preaching to you.
This brings me to what I stumbled upon. I was journaling and thinking about this subject, about how obsessive I get about finding the “right” way to do something. It permeates my life to the smallest of tasks. It started today with trying to decide whether to write in a physical journal, on paper with pen, or type it in a word processing document. An old advertising slogan sprang to my mind: “There’s no wrong way…to eat a Reese’s.” I loved it. It was a great symbol of this attitude I wanted to have. For a lot of actions, there isn’t a right way, so just do anything! Just act. Just do it. There’s no wrong way to do it. It’s very comforting to me.
I decided to look up the slogan because I realized I hadn’t really heard it for awhile and wondered if it was an old campaign. When I googled the phrase “there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s,” the first entry on the results page was a post entitled The Right Way to Eat a Reese’s. Excuse me? But—but—there’s no wrong way!!
“Yes, there is!” smugly reply some vastly superior, wise individuals.
The preview text for that post:
Either using your fingers or your teeth, break the peanut butter cup cleanly down the center to make two equal halves. Then, you can enjoy your Reese’s in two separate portions. Many advocates of this style argue that it allows for the perfect balance of peanut butter and chocolate in each bite.
Are you serious?! This is an ordinary type of candy! What big difference could it even possibly make to eat it this way?! Why are you complicating this?! Who are these “many advocates” and why are they devoting so much time to preaching this ridiculous overly complicated mode of eating candy?!?!?!?!
I don’t really care about the literal peanut butter cup: I care about this habit that people have of making everything have to have a “correct” practice. The candy is just a symbol of this aggravating practice. I am especially bothered that this insistence of a “right” way is directly opposed to the whole slogan! I wouldn’t have as much of an issue if it were some chocolate bar whose slogan had nothing to do with a correct way of consuming it. But people can’t just let things be and accept that “there’s no wrong way” to do certain things. They have to have the superior information!
The truth is that many things don’t have one superior mode of completion or practice. They are actually most effective when tailored to the individual! Think about something like diet and weight loss, one of the main things people want to push as having One Right Way (often through fad diets): people have different metabolisms and body shapes, are different ages, have different physical limitations, and have different strengths and weaknesses. There just isn’t one way of eating and exercising that works the exact same way for everyone! It just doesn’t exist. Some people have knee problems and can’t run. Losing weight rapidly on a reality TV show isn’t effective long-term. People don’t have the same access to gyms and nutritious foods because of financial limitations.
It just seems like people so often derive their worth from doing things the “correct” way. We must somehow be taught this principle for so many people to believe in it. People are just so threatened with information that contradicts their beliefs in the “right” way, whether it is regarding politics, health, parenting, religion, careers, money, etc. There are an absurd amount of voices preaching an ideal way of behaving for each of these subjects! You’ve got hundreds of voices telling you how to think about politics from myriad news channels, magazines, and websites alone. Then you’ve got at least that amount telling you how to eat. And then how to parent (or whether you should or shouldn’t have kids). And then what The Meaning of Life is. And then the right amount of money to have. And then the right way to get that money. And then and then and then and then.
I believe the greatest amount of strength actually comes from finding worth and validation from inside yourself, not from outside sources. It’s often so difficult, but to be truly strong and resilient, I really think we have to learn to tune out or disregard most of the voices constantly blathering out there in the world.
It’s been hard enough for me to accept that authority figures I’ve trusted in the past say things I actually I don’t agree with. It’s hard enough to realize that and think, “I don’t agree with what they’re saying.” But then it’s another hurdle you have to get over to realize and accept they don’t even have to negatively affect you. You can hear them criticizing or contradicting your values and actually not be bothered because you have a shield of self worth.
I really want to improve in this regard. I used to want apologies more from people. I wanted them to admit that they hurt me. Now I’m seeing that instead, I could accept that their actions don’t even have to change if my perspective does. I don’t have to feel that pang of shame if they insult me intentionally or unintentionally. I don’t have to listen to them.
We already tune out a lot of voices. A lot of people we can just say, “I don’t agree with them” and move on. But when those people are close to us or are authority figures we’re taught to trust, it’s much harder. But I believe it is possible to not be threatened by someone else’s condemnation of you.
I wonder what the percentage breakdown is of people who need to hear the “traditional wisdom” (don’t settle, always look for ways to improve yourself, raise your standards, etc.) vs. people who are harmed by it, whose self-esteem is made worse by it because the opposite message would actually help them?
I ask this because I believe I have often been in this latter group. Ever since I realized I actually needed to hear the opposite advice (take time to recognize your strengths, accept yourself where you are instead of offering yourself conditional acceptance once you become someone else), I’ve wondered why the prevailing advice/wisdom is tailored to a different sort of person.
(Note: I do think these two sorts of messages can complement each other and can go hand in hand. From what I’ve observed, however, the idea of accepting yourself and considering your strengths seems to be given so much less attention and weight, as if mentioning this idea will just cause everyone to give up any effort toward self-improvement.)
Does the majority of people really need the message most often dispensed? Are there really more people who are lazy and arrogant? Or is that the only “help” people know how to offer, so it’s a case of “when all you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail”? I think we all can always find ways to improve, but it’s actually discouraging and antithetical to progress to only dwell on what you lack and shame yourself for who you are. It seems like a case of fearing one extreme so people stick to the other.
In church, I took every sermon and lesson to heart. I absorbed the message that to say an exhortation didn’t apply to you was the height of arrogance. Really, the people who said they didn’t need to hear a certain lesson were in fact the ones who needed it most!* (*Apparently, according to the speakers I listened to.) Every call to be more charitable, offer more service, be far more strictly obedient, focus on the godly more than the worldly, etc. I interpreted as being aimed at me. Now, it’s not that I thought, “Well, no-one’s perfect, so theoretically everyone could always have room to grow with any of these habits.” No, I thought I was in desperate need of improvement on all of these things. I was in dire need of being corrected so that I could become more grateful, in surrendering my will to god’s, etc.
In avoiding the extreme of thinking advice didn’t apply at all, I think I thought it applied too much. It would have been much healthier to acknowledge, “Hey, I’m actually pretty good at this already. This isn’t something I need to focus on more. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m already doing.” But I never did 1) because this was connected with arrogance in my mind and 2) honestly, this concept—to accept yourself as you are—was never discussed or taught, to my knowledge. I don’t have any memory of hearing the idea, and if I actually did hear it and just don’t remember, then it was because it was one small speck of an idea compared to multitudes of more prevalent ones.
A note on what I even mean by “accept yourself as you are.” By ‘accept,’ I mean ‘recognize your inherent worth regardless of faults.’ It means seeing the good in yourself and seeing that you are worthy of love. It does not mean thinking that you are flawless or better than other people. I’m not sure why, but I think that people are confused about self-acceptance and do think it’s that last idea. I’ve seen people scoff at the idea of self-acceptance because they point to people who are arrogant and say, “Heh, they don’t need to think any more of themselves!” Self-acceptance is not arrogance!
It’s one of those paradoxes that in order to make progress, I think it’s best to have a good measure of self-acceptance. Or in other words, in order to change, you have to like the way you are already. When you don’t feel that your worth depends on changing, it is easier to change.
Now, back to the subject at hand. I would have liked it a lot better and been a lot more well-adjusted had the message of unconditional self-acceptance been taught alongside and in conjunction with ways to improve. But self-acceptance, let alone unconditional self-acceptance, was absent.
I suppose if I had asked certain church leaders why it was never emphasized, they might have said that if they taught the principle of being satisfied with one area and seeing no immediate need for improvement, then people who actually did need to work on it would use it as an out and say they’re fine as they are. The people who didn’t need that advice would actually end up applying it to themselves inappropriately. Well, plot twist, that exact thing still happened. The people with low self-esteem who didn’t need the message of “be constantly vigilant of ways to improve!” applied it to ourselves.
This isn’t just me. I have talked to so many people with similar experiences. And this isn’t just a religious thing. I have a good friend who is similarly sensitive to the suggestion that he desperately needs to step it up and clean up his act. He had a critical boss who only told him what he absolutely needed to do better. The friend already had plenty of self-doubt and worried about his perfectionism. If anything, he probably needed reassurance of the good hew as doing so he could focus on continuing to do it (instead of being distracted by worrying about other things). Even if he could work on something (because no-one is perfect), it would be a lot more manageable thinking there are just a few things in need of improvement combined with a solid foundation of capability. Without any positive feedback though,he thought he needed to work on everything.
A major stress appeared when the boss told the employees that they were carefully monitored on the security footage to see if they were working hard enough. Were they dawdling? Standing around? chatting? The camera would catch it.
Now, people have different learning styles and respond differently to rewards or punishment. To some people, the threat of punishment, via being found out by the security cameras, would motivate them to work harder. Others, like my friend and I, are thrown into a spiral of stress and shame. This boss was treating everyone like they had the same issue and psychological perspective.
Perhaps a key is that people see a problem and they want one objective solution they can apply to everyone. It’s harder to actually get to know people and learn their motivations and perspectives. It is (by far) easier to just give everyone the same generic advice.
I think of people as a garden. Different plants need different amounts of sun vs. shade and specific kinds of care. Imagine planting a huge garden with all kinds of plants—trees, flowers, shrubs, ground cover—but putting them all in full sunlight with the same amount of water. Lots of plants would just die. There are temperate zones and deserts where succulents thrive. There are rose gardens and tropical forests. There are hydrangeas that change color based on the pH of the soil. Not everyone needs the same counsel. we are more complicated than that.
It might be coddling to only tell people their strengths and that they’re flawless, but it’s cruel to limit feedback to their flaws. Your perception becomes warped when you don’t see all of the factors at play in your personality and behavior. We need these two perspectives, what’s good already vs. what needs improvement, to see traits and skills and weaknesses in context.
1. Do you think most people need to hear the “be more ambitious and work harder” advice? Or is that just what people think they should say? Or another option?
2. What would you have liked to hear more as a child/in your formative years?
3. What advice has actually been beneficial to you?
“Recognize what the truth is,” Old English. From a sermon in 1014 by Archbishop Wulfstan.
Clichés usually annoy me, but an exception to this is when I see an oft-repeated phrase in a new light. Today that phrase was “the truth will set you free.” I’ve always interpreted it as talking about finding out the Truth. Living in illusion makes your vision of reality cloudy, of course. Realizing the Truth sets you free of the chains that have been holding you back. There’s of course the original Biblical context, said by Jesus, and then there’s the modern twist, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” Both of these to me clearly are talking about a general Truth.
What I realized today is how meaningful this phrase can be to me as someone who has a lifetime of practice of repressing my emotions and hiding my feelings. A main thing that makes me suffer is my habit of holding my tongue when someone hurts me. Often their offense is unintentional, so I don’t feel justified speaking up—it’s me who’s being overly sensitive, after all. I’ve lived my life by the idea that it’s better to mitigate pain by staying silently hurt instead of holding the offender accountable: after all, if I don’t speak up, only one person is hurt, while if I do, then two people might be.
I’ve held myself back so much by neglecting to recognize choices that I have. I haven’t acknowledged my options. I fallaciously think that there is only one (negative) outcome for a hypothetical action; I assume it will turn out badly, so I don’t even think about doing it. Instead, I should use my creativity and imagination to think about how it could actually turn out well. To use a specific example: Someone might hurt my feelings unintentionally. When I get the inclination to speak up and express that, I assume that they will not understand and will lash out at me for being too sensitive, then stay mad at me for an extended period of time. Then we will both be in a bad mood. Really, they could actually be receptive. There are also multiple ways for me to speak up; for example, usually focusing on my feelings is more effective and well received than focusing on the other person’s actions.
Anyway, back to the phrase. For so long, I haven’t even considered that speaking the truth of how I feel could turn out well. Part of it is selectively remembering times when I actually dared to be honest about my feelings and it didn’t turn out well, and a huge part of it is my people pleasing habits. I have always derived my idea of self worth from other people’s approval of me. I have made myself generically “nice” and often bland so as to fit in and be liked by most people. I have blamed myself always if someone was upset with what I said, no matter how well meaning or seemingly innocuous. Recently, I’ve been able to start to shed this harmful paradigm and realize that I have so much less control over others’ emotions than I had previously thought. I have begun to acknowledge that often no matter what I do, I cannot satisfy certain people. One saying regarding this that I like: “You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there will still be somebody who hates peaches.”
Due to being a people pleaser, I have always avoided conflict. The minute I realize something I say could lead to a disagreement, I shut down and dismiss the idea of saying that thing. Only now have I begun to say, “OK, so the other person disagrees. Then what can we do? What can I say next?” This coincides with realizing I can speak the truth of how I feel. It’s an option! It’s not the end of the world if the other person doesn’t understand!
I’ve been reading a very helpful book about people pleasing that pointed out that the habit of blaming ourselves for others’ reactions every time comes from an erroneous view that life is fair. (There are a lot of things I see are illogical, and I can accept that mentally, but emotionally I reject it. This is one of those things.) If someone overreacts to what we say even though we were as reasonable and diplomatic as possible, that can be distressing because it shows that life isn’t fair. To protect ourselves from this harsh truth, some of us blame ourselves for the outcome. We cling to the idea that somehow there was something we could have done better. If we just do it better next time, they won’t react unfairly. This preserves the idea that life is fair; it just means we who screwed up.
Anyway (again), I had this thought today that seeing the option of being honest about my feelings is so freeing to me. I can speak the truth, and it can set me free, no matter how the other person reacts! This is honestly a startling revelation to me. For the longest time I’ve always blamed myself if someone else didn’t understand a point I was trying to make. If I couldn’t convince them, it was my fault. Now I’m finally seeing that maybe they’re just narrow minded or stubborn! Thanks to the internet, I see this all the time: people just naturally avoid information that contradicts their deeply-held beliefs, and they will squirm and wriggle around any point you make, no matter how well crafted, in order to avoid being wrong. It’s unfair to me to always judge myself based on someone else’s willingness to listen and understand! That is out of my control.
The marketing campaigns of major industries are based around the idea that you derive your worth from other people’s opinions of you. They of course didn’t create this idea: society is saturated with it, and ads are just milking the idea. Ads in general seem to promise happiness from their products but, more specifically, they often allude that using their products will garner you the treasure that is others’ approval: open up a bottle of this soft drink and you have an instant party with adoring friends, shave your legs with this razor and you’ll win the attention of men, etc.
We absorb the ubiquitous toxic messages that our worth is predicated upon others’ positive opinions of us. As a result we look for esteem from outside of ourselves instead of from within. I think any esteem from without is going to be weaker and more ephemeral than any self-esteem cultivated from within yourself. This is what I’ve seen in my own life, at least: any boost in confidence from someone else’s praise more easily dissipates, especially if it’s contradicted by someone else’s criticism.
I am not advocating abandoning noting others’ opinions of you completely—constructive feedback can be good! Neither am I advocating constructing an echo chamber that builds up false confidence. What I am advocating is being selective about whose opinions we value.
I don’t know how common this is, but I usually filter out positive feedback and focus on negative feedback, to the detriment of my mood and mental health. I will value an opinion about me from someone I barely know over the opinion of a true friend who knows me well. I can definitely deconstruct this habit and see that it’s not an accurate way of viewing reality, but I still struggle with it. I think I’ve been way too prone to suggestion most of my life and have absorbed implicit messages from my culture about whose opinions I should value.
It can be disappointing to realize how much in life can depend on others’ approval of you—so many dreams that people want to come true, for example, strictly depend on it. Common ones like landing a dream job, getting married, or traveling the world all rely on it: someone either has to approve enough of you to hire you for that job, or people have to be interested in a product you’re selling if you try and create your dream job (people have to want to buy what you’re selling and people have to believe in it enough to give you a loan to even start your undertaking); someone has to like and love you enough to spend their life with you; and traveling requires money, so, once again, you need to be hired somewhere, receive a loan, etc.
Maybe it would be healthier to dream of things that don’t require others’ approval—like self-acceptance and inner peace through rooting out toxic thought patterns (which is, I suppose, what I’m trying to do!). Maybe the traditional dreams are just symptoms of this toxic cultural idea of worth derived from others’ approval.
I recently saw this tweet:
20 Things That Women Should Stop Wearing After The Age of 30
1-20: The weight of other people’s expectations & judgments
This is, of course, good advice for any gender and any age group, but I appreciate that it’s riffing on those ridiculous posts that dictate what women should/n’t wear in order to be respected by others. There are ridiculous, arbitrary standards imposed on us by others; the way I see it, we can either wear ourselves out trying to live up to those standards (which, I think, is usually futile because those standards conveniently shift just enough from person to person, guaranteeing that you will never fully succeed in pleasing everyone), or we can reject and ignore them and replace them with our own.
Up until now, I have chosen to accept standards imposed upon me. Instead of recognising that certain standards are both arbitrary and unrealistic, I have bent over backwards to try and satisfy them. I have even imagined them sometimes–no one was even espousing them in reality and I was making assumptions about how people would judge me. Classwork was frequently a struggle for this reason: I assumed that the grader or professor was going to size up my entire character in general based on one assignment. I therefore put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. Instead of thinking, ‘Even if that is true, that would be an unfair, incorrect judgment on their part’ and ignoring the threat of harsh judgement, I decided to put my all into preventing them from thinking that I was worthless. (This, by the way, is faulty thinking because I have never been a super villain who can control others’ thoughts. Even though I can influence others’ thoughts, I can obviously never control them. I think it’s a kind of magical thinking to believe that I can. Plus, I do not aspire to be any kind of super villain, and an attempt to control others’ thoughts seems pretty maniacal!)
I distinctly remember one specific assignment that distressed me enormously because of this insecure thinking and assuming that someone would determine my character based on one assignment. When I look back, I can see that this kind of thinking heavily contributed to me becoming deeply depressed and having to take time off of school to recover. There were a lot of factors that went into the depression of course, but this was a major one. The assignment in question was for a class during the semester that radically changed my life and set me on a new path because of the downward spiral of depression I fell into (it lead me to fail my classes and drop out of school).
The assignment was for a class I was really interested in and passionate about, a cultural history class. It was one iteration of a weekly assignment where we would pick an artifact from a certain epoch, first describing it literally, then explaining the historical context, and finally analyzing how it was a symbol of the time period in general. The unit was 1200 A.D. and my artifact was the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II’s falconry treatise. I spent a good amount of time researching a unique artifact. However, my fear was that whoever read my report would assume that it was the first thing I found, my analysis was BS, and I was not sincere. That was seven years ago now, but that illuminated manuscript artwork has been etched in my mind ever since! I recognised it immediately when I revisited it moments ago:
As I said a few paragraphs above, it’s been up until now that I fretted so extremely about others’ opinions. I’m finally turning it around. I think we are all subject to these doubts as a result of living in a culture that tells us we’re only worth as much as others approve of us. I do wonder though why it has affected me so extremely. I think the main reason is that I very easily recognise and then, unfortunately, internalize implicit messages. Someone doesn’t have to tell me directly that my worth depends on others’ approval; I glean the idea from actions and words infused with the idea, like ads.
If I’m talking about the origins of fretting so seriously about what others think of me, I can’t in the name of honesty neglect religious influence. From an early age, I learned that I should think and behave in a way that god would approve of. My focus was not on getting rewards, but I still internalised the message that my eternal fate depended on his approval. I sat through lesson after lesson that taught that it was crucial to care what god thought of me: every action came with a label of divine approval or condemnation, and those who didn’t care were foolish. Obedience to god’s commandments was paramount since life was a test that tried your devotion and faith.
I was about to say that this combined with my intense fear of disapproval from authority figures caused me so much sorrow growing up, but as I give it a second thought, I don’t think those two things were combined: I think one caused the other. I think my fear of god’s disapproval fueled the panic I felt when, for example, I thought a teacher was mad at me (e.g. I have memories from Kindergarten of feeling ashamed when the teacher thought I was being disruptive). I learned to “fear” authority figures (as it’s phrased in the Bible) through my beliefs about god. God was supposed to be the ultimate authority, a perfect and just judge, and that’s why I could trust that his opinion of me was correct. What god thought of me was the objective truth. I wanted to be a good person, so of course I wanted him to approve of me.
I can’t remember one lesson on cultivating self-esteem and self-love. Maybe I did have one or even multiple ones, but the point is that if I did, it wasn’t memorable and was drowned out by the more frequent message that I needed god’s approval. The more I think about it, the more I see how frequent the message was that worth is dictated from divine external sources. Even if I felt a spiritual confirmation of my worth, that was from the spirit, who communicated on god’s behalf—it still wasn’t coming from within but from without.
I am only beginning to understand the psychological effect this all had on me—so desperately wanting approval from not just an authority figure but from a paternal one who had, at least in the past (e.g. in the Old Testament) killed people whom he disapproved of! Of course I was scared of being considered “wicked” when god had destroyed people he considered wicked. I still think the strongest confidence comes from within, but what would have been the difference if the person whose approval I craved was female, or mortal, or my age? In other words, more like me? It’s strange to think about the effect of trying to win the approval of someone who is so different from you.
Let me be clear: I understand the bountiful messages about god’s love, redemption, and forgiveness. I understand that not everyone was affected the way I was by certain religious teachings. However, the fact is I was affected, very seriously and negatively. Those teachings moulded my psyche in a major way, and I have to work so hard to unlearn bitingly harsh thought patterns. Again, I understand that the same teachings don’t affect everyone the same way, and so many people, if they heard my story, would dismiss me as simply misinterpreting facts and taking things the wrong way. At this point, to be frank, I really don’t care if people think my suffering is my own fault because I had a skewed perception or cherry picked teachings—those teachings were still ubiquitous. If anything, I think I tried my hardest not to cherry pick and instead tried to evaluate everything, not just what was pleasant.
I am still unweaving the complicated origins of my fear of disapproval. I am glad to say I am making progress, and being able to write about this is proof of that.
Have you struggled with caring too much about approval? Why or why not?
Why do you think the message that worth is contingent upon approval is so ubiquitous?
How have you rejected unrealistic standards, real or imagined?
I always think about things in a historical perspective. I love learning about history, and it often stands out to me how often good ideas are not appreciated in their time. I apply that to today and wonder what ideas are going to have to wait to catch on, and who is going to be celebrated by future generations while they are denigrated in the present. Popularity is really a poor measure of the worth of an idea, especially when you realize how much hate certain ideas get when they are first introduced.
One of the things that makes me angriest is the habit people have of automatically reinforcing the status quo by denying problems that exist and progress that could be made. People often seem to have an almost Leibnizian view that nothing could really be that bad. Or, rather, nothing they participate in could really be that bad! After all, I’ve seen person after person detest a certain outspoken public figure, thinking that that certain person is “what is wrong with the world,” so they will admit that problems, such as those which the figure symbolizes, can exist. But that figure, such as a politician, naturally has views that oppose their own. The views that they themselves have cannot, apparently, ever be in need of improvement. It’s other people who are parts of other groups who have the problematic views that need to be changed.
This taps into a larger problem of the human condition: automatically rejecting any evidence that contradicts your worldview. People like to protect and insulate their ideas so they don’t have to reconsider them and experience the pain of cognitive dissonance. This is why people fail at being empathetic so often, I think: they’ve built up their worldview around their personal experience and what has worked for them, so if someone with a different experience speaks up and points out that the worldview in question is not all-encompassing, i.e. it doesn’t work and account for every situation, the person gets defensive and shifts the blame to some failure on the other person’s part. (Let’s say some advice works for one person but not in the experience of another. The person for whom it doesn’t work gets blamed for obviously doing something wrong, when maybe the advice itself is bad and ineffectual.)
That brings me to my main point: trailblazing is no fun, because people often don’t like new ideas that contradict their worldviews. A trailblazer must often sacrifice popularity and approval in their lifetime, because new and radical ideas are often not accepted. Maybe they will be mentioned as a forerunner in a future history textbook, and their work and ideas will be seen as beneficial and astute. But what comfort is that in someone’s lifetime, especially since they do not know for sure how they will be remembered or what achievements their efforts will produce? People of the past who are famous now for striking out on their own and raising their voices for a good cause were probably very lonely in their lifetimes. They probably had a lot of self doubt.
I say that “trailblazing is no fun” not because I think the intent of trailblazers is to waltz through life and simply be fun seekers (or that every trailblazer has the intent of being a “trailblazer”); rather, I am trying to recognise the steep personal cost of being bold and revolutionary. Some people have a thicker skin than others. For some people, it is less of a problem to not be universally adored because they don’t see others’ approval as a measurement of personal worth (which I think is healthy). However, I just wonder about the people with big, new, beneficial ideas who also struggle with things like people pleasing: how do they cope? How do they feel? How do they balance the faith they have in their ideas with the inevitable rejection they must experience?
I imagine it must wear on a person to be constantly criticised. It must wear on a person to be constantly made to feel like their ideas are worthless and wrong, or even harmful. It must be discouraging to be made into an oversimplified caricature for an opposing side and meant to represent Everything Wrong. Imagine, on a very small scale, what that would be like: imagine talking to just one person who only repeated back distortions of what you actually said or just kept asking “What?” or saying, “You’re wrong and worthless and bad.” Now multiply that by thousands, or millions, or billions. How would you handle it?
I imagine being a trailblazer requires a thick skin and a focus on the group of people you are helping, not on your own feelings. But that must be exhausting to ignore your feelings. Even if you don’t acknowledge them, you’re still going to have emotions. I think it would affect even the most selfless person who is focusing on other people 100% of the time. I think we are all at the mercy of our often irrational emotions, no matter how much we try to put them aside.
People forget this often, I think. They treat other people as unfeeling machines who only talk and never absorb criticism—they can become inhuman in their eyes, not prone to the same self doubt and hurt feelings that we all experience. This is a byproduct of conflating a person with ideas, I think. People disagree with an idea, but instead of addressing the idea, they attack the person espousing it (a clear example of this is using ad hominem attacks or name-calling in a debate). A person becomes a metonymy for an idea. Ideas don’t have feelings—they’re tough and durable—but humans do, and the proverbial messenger often gets shot.
I see in these issues the best and worst of humanity at odds with each other: the passion for inciting positive change and helping others vs. ignorance, knee-jerk negative reactions, and cruelty. It can be aggravating to watch the constant battle between these sides.
How do you think people cope with the personal cost of trailblazing?
Are you a trailblazer? What is it like?
What about human nature do you think makes progress difficult?
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Beetle in a Box thought experiment is a fantastic analogy to me of the subjectivity of experience and the language we use to describe it. (All of the people in a group have a box with a ‘beetle’ inside. However, they can only look in their own boxes to get an idea of what exactly a beetle is—they cannot look in the others’ boxes. Therefore even using the word ‘beetle’ to describe what is in a box is pretty useless because it is not a universal term and can vary wildly from person to person. Yet people will still use the word.)
I think one hurdle to understanding different philosophies that exists to me is that so many philosophers seem to use terms akin to ‘beetle’ without clearly explaining their terms or acknowledging that they could well be basing their thoughts on their own limited experience. It seems to be a human tendency to assume others think and perceive the way we ourselves do—after all, what else do we have to go on? We can listen to other people present their thought processes, but we never truly experience them, and lived-in experiences seem to influence us and our outlooks more. (Or maybe this is all just me! Maybe there’s some dramatic irony going on because in saying that we perceive things subjectively in this specific way, I am revealing my own subjectivity and habit of doing this!)
I don’t know how objectively it’s even possible to perceive things, but I do try to as much as I can, such as with thought experiments. I try to pull myself out of the entrenched views that I have that I’ve been conditioned to believe.
I try and imagine, for example, what aliens would think about different facets of the planet if they were to visit and observe it: facets of my city, my country, my world. I seem to picture these aliens as being fair-minded and perceptive. I imagine them being quite confused about our customs and the entrenched prejudices and biases that inform them. They would be able to understand the reasons behind our actions that we don’t always consider. I imagine them seeing things more clearly and having questions like:
why do they keep separating things into twos? (i.e. binary oppositions)
why do they treat those humans poorly when the only observable difference is superficial?
why do they lie about their motivations when their motivations are so clear?
I use aliens because they would not have a stake in the matter—they would have no reason to get defensive, so they could see things more honestly. They wouldn’t try to make excuses.
I have thoughts and actions that are in a blind spot too—i.e. I don’t yet notice the error of my ways. But I find myself growing ever more frustrated in general because I see so much prejudice and injustice in other people’s opinions and behaviour, and they seem to be oblivious. They do not seem to be assessing their viewpoints regularly and thinking critically about their beliefs. It causes so much conflict, confusion, and consternation when people try to communicate with one another.
The problem isn’t having biased views, per se. We all have illogical, inaccurate views. The problem is never examining them and never having the intention to change them if you notice them.
I didn’t always consciously hold challenging assumptions as a priority. I think I’ve always been empathetic, but I didn’t used to exercise as much thought and apply it as much as I do now (and hopefully I’ll exercise even more thought and apply it even more in the future). It is something you must put effort into changing. It has to become important to you. I think the default is to not question and to look at things on a surface level; you must opt in to looking deeper.
I wish that people wouldn’t react so hastily to opposing points of view but instead pause and take time to consider them, even ask questions to better understand them instead of assuming the worst. I wish people would be more skeptical and challenge information more instead of simply accepting it as fact. I guess I just wish people would consider what aliens would think more and adjust their views accordingly.
There is a principle, popularized by Abraham Maslow, that if all you have is a hammer, then every problem begins to look like a nail. I identify with this. My figurative hammer is shame. I have the ingrained habit, perfected over the years, of addressing every problem in my life by shaming myself. I find some way that a problem is my fault, I think because it gives me the illusion of control over the situation. The truth is, lots of problems are out of my hands and are influenced by other people’s actions, which I cannot control. (There are of course problems that are my fault, but even those don’t require the high dose of shame that I prescribe myself.)
Shame is a paralytic, not a motivator. No major change in my life has ever come from shame: I have only ever changed my habits or behaviour if I had some positive goal motivating me. Shame makes you run away from something, not work toward something, and that is why it fails.
I see shaming in action every day. People are starting to call attention to it more (so much so that even the very word “shaming” has become a bit of a cliché buzzword), and I am actually very grateful for the increased awareness of the futility and unhealthiness of shaming. People shame to try and inspire change (which doesn’t work) or just to worsen the mood and self-esteem of others, which is absolutely useless and pretty cruel. Many people, though, don’t shame others but instead choose to shame themselves.
So why do some of us excel at shaming ourselves if it is, at best, futile or, at worst, cruel? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I can think of some reasons:
We copy other people’s actions
Strong is the urge to mimic others! We see people shame and experience people shaming us, and we learn that that is supposed to help, so we do it too.
We are introspective to a fault
We are in our heads so much that it is difficult to extricate ourselves. We are so used to examining our own motives, faults, habits, etc. that it is hard to see that we are not always the cause of every difficulty.
We don’t want to be arrogant
Instead of building up a false sense of confidence, we go to the other extreme and foster a false sense of incompetence.
Blaming someone feels satisfying
It (over)simplifies situations and makes them feel more manageable and easier to address.
Part II: Empowerment
What exactly does empowerment mean? To me, it means being able to recognise your strengths as well as the power and control that you do have—an accurate recognition of what exactly is in your control is crucial. Becoming empowered can often negate the feeling from shame that most things are in your control, actually. How does this make sense? Empowerment causes a shift in consciousness: instead of actively trying to make things your own fault, you more accurately perceive what is or isn’t your fault, and your focus often shifts from certain features of a situation to others. Being introspective to a fault leads you to believe that you are responsible for more things than you actually are, and empowerment lets you cast aside useless, inaccurate notions of responsibility and focus on the probably completely different things that actually are in your control.
Now, let me be clear: this is not a post about dismissing the very real problems people have that are in fact out of their control. Some people complain too much and fault others for what they are responsible for themselves. This post is not directed at those people; this post is directed at people who shame and place blame on themselves when things are not their fault.
I am not suggesting that more things are in your control than you think: on the contrary! My idea is more that you often can’t control your circumstances, but you can control your reaction to them. And pointing out that there are problems in your circumstances caused by other people is a valid, constructive reaction a lot of times. I’m thinking, for example, of pointing out that people are prejudiced and treating you in an unfair way that is illogical and not backed by evidence. Thinking that being bullied or discriminated against is your own fault because you deserve it is not accurate—blaming yourself would be misplacing the blame. (It is actually a pet peeve of mine that some people will not recognise actual problems faced by other people just because they don’t personally experience those problems. My message is not to “just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and take responsibility.”) Think about it this way: if you do not address a problem’s source, you will not solve it. And if you misidentify the source and say that something is your fault when it is not, then you are not addressing the real source and not solving the problem.
What do I mean when I say that your focus will shift from some features of a situation to another? One example is that your focus will shift from the cause of a situation to your reaction to it. Instead of assigning yourself blame, you will instead see all of the various other ways you can react to the situation. Instead of automatically saying, “This is my fault,” you will say, “This isn’t my fault, but what can I still do to make this better, or at least feel better about it?”
I said at the beginning of this section that empowerment wasn’t just recognising what power and control you have but also recognising your strengths. This is a great way to combat self shaming. Strength is at odds with shame: Shame weakens your resolve and your self-esteem while seeing your own strength builds those up. Being able to know your strengths is a skill and is distinct from being arrogant. I think a key feature that distinguishes arrogance from simply knowing your strengths is feeling like you are better or worth more than other people. Recognising strengths does not have to come attached to comparison to others, and that is what separates it from haughtiness.
Empowerment negates shame and is more productive and healthy. We shame ourselves for a number of reasons, including to feel more in control of unmanageable situations. Being able to recognise what is and isn’t in our control gives us power.
Why do you think some of us shame ourselves so heavily?
I am a perfectionist, which means that I am rarely satisfied with my work. It does not mean that I do everything perfectly, am a high achiever, consistently do good work, or regularly accomplish my goals.
Perfectionism is a mindset that manifests itself in feelings and behaviours. I want to emphasize that those behaviours are not usually the expected ones when someone hears the word ‘perfectionism.’ I think that most people conflate being a perfectionist with being ‘type A’ or a high achiever, when that is just not the truth. Popularly, people think that perfectionists set high standards and then always achieve them when instead, they set impossible standards and never achieve them.
I used to take violin lessons. I told a new teacher that I had a hard time practising because I was a perfectionist. She clearly thought of perfectionism the way that most people do and answered, “Oh, that’s good! That means you’ll practice hard!” No, that’s not what it means. (If it did, I wouldn’t have let the teacher know it, as a disclaimer.)
It means that I will end up rarely, if ever, practising because I will always fail to perform at my expected level. It will be too painful to continue to practise while never reaching my goals. I will hate what I sound like and feel embarrassed.
Some signs of perfectionism include excessive double-checking and revisions to work. This makes a perfectionist invest a lot of time in one task that could take another person less than half the time to do. One thing that exacerbates the perfectionism is realizing what little output there is for the amount of time that went into a task. A perfectionist can spend hours on, for example, writing a few paragraphs and then will feel bad that such a simple task took so long.
Perfectionism breeds procrastination, not out of laziness but out of fear of not performing perfectly. Personally, I would put off assignments in school to force myself to only work a set amount of time on them. Otherwise, I would check and double check what I wrote for a long time. Sitting for hours constantly revising an assignment was maddening, especially with a constant negative commentary running through my head. It was incredibly painful, and procrastination was how I dealt with it.
Sometimes I would do more than procrastinate: I just wouldn’t turn in the assignment, even if I had worked a long time on it, because it fell short of my standards. I was so afraid of what would happen if I turned in sub par work. I was afraid of being judged by whoever graded it and thought that they would judge my character in general by my work. This lead to many bad grades.
Because of the popular view of perfectionism, I felt uncomfortable admitting that I struggled with it. I was afraid people wouldn’t believe me. How could a perfectionist do so poorly in school? If I were really a perfectionist, why didn’t I turn in perfect work? I would think back on my experience with the violin teacher or other times when people would confuse being an achiever with being a perfectionist.
Perfectionists can also be high achievers, but they are usually not satisfied with themselves. What to other people looks like outstanding work will seem like trash to the perfectionist author. Being a perfectionist means having a skewed view of reality and what ‘good’ work is.
Realising that you are a perfectionist and that the set of traits you have is a pattern that other people also have can be helpful. It makes you feel less alone and strange, and you can find tools to combat the problems. However, after the ignorance of thinking you are a special kind of incapable comes the realisation that you cannot trust yourself and your perceptions, which can be frightening (there are many types of mental processes this frightful feeling can be applied to).
As a way to combat my perfectionism, I’ve resolved not to mercilessly edit this post but let it stand.
1. Are you a perfectionist too? What do you wish people knew about it?
It all started when I stumbled upon the story of PonyHenge in Lincoln, Massachusetts. The Boston Globe reports that ‘a herd of some 30 wooden and plastic rocking horses gradually appeared on a sliver of farmland in the town of Lincoln’ and calls it ‘a whimsical mystery.’ The number and position of the ponies regularly changes and it is contested how exactly it started.
My favorite take-aways from the article are:
‘”It’s a spontaneous art production”, Pingeon said of the dreamlike scene’.
‘The rocking horses have a presence that falls somewhere between antique yard sale and spooky prank’.
‘“There is something about the quietness and mysteriousness of it that I just love”, Graver said’.
The story of PonyHenge delighted me—’whimsical mysteries’ are right up my alley—and I vowed to visit it one day. In the meantime, I wanted to see if there was anything similar in my area, so I started looking up weird roadside attractions. Cue an orchestra of sweeping strings because I found
This one isn’t a mystery (it’s an art installation), but it’s still whimsical enough for my tastes!
Visiting the sacred scene required a short jaunt up a winding path. When the bunnies came into view, I knew I was in for something special.
They had a quiet majesty about them.
Side note: To snap the first picture, I had to venture out onto the glass-walled walkway seen in the second picture. I am terribly afraid of heights, so my knees were shaking and I had to creep slowly forward to the edge. But I did it! And got a nice view of the bunnies as a reward. Looking up, I could also see a giant bunny in the distance, down another path.
I really want to start something like this, some sort of public art project! I’m guessing many people have contributed to PonyHenge, i.e. it’s not just one person adding horses, but I’m not sure how I could encourage similar participation among people around me.
Who did it better: PonyHenge or BunnyHenge (aka the question of the century)?
Have you seen any weird roadside attractions?
Any ideas for how to garner participation for a public art project?