sage advice so often scorned

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.

Discussion questions

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?