Our own worst enemies

A few days ago, a friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to a TED talk by the psychologist Guy Winch. It is, as with almost all TED Talks I’ve watched over the years, a compelling and entertaining presentation about the importance of what Winch calls ‘emotional hygiene’. He provides simple examples of the ways in which we all learn to deal with physical hygiene – brushing our teeth, putting plasters on cuts, and so on – but his point is that we have no similar standard educational reference points (either from family or school) when it comes to looking after our emotional and psychological well-being. And this is despite the fact that loneliness, failure, rejection and negative thinking can cause as much damage to our health, daily life, and indeed life expectancy, as a physical illness or injury.

As it happened, this was not the only video to cross my Facebook feed this week which related to questions of mental health and self esteem. Strayer University have recently released a video on self-criticism and definitions of success, in which a series of individuals are asked to rate their own personal success (however they choose to define it) on a scale of 1 to 10, and justify their answers to camera. Their nearest and dearest – friends and family – are then asked to rate these same individuals, and share the results. In every single case, the people rating themselves had been extremely self-critical, citing personal failures, inadequacies, guilt at not acting, and so on. And in every single case, their loved ones rated them brilliantly, and explained how loving, supportive, hard-working, caring and humble they considered them to be.

In my various lines of work, these things are crucially important. For every student who arrives in the classroom thinking they have all the answers, there are twenty who are terrified by their lack of knowledge and shamed by their inability to engage as fully as they might like – whether or not they actually do lack the necessary skills and information to progress. Writing is a fascinating, frustrating, exciting, desperately lonely pursuit for most in working in the humanities, where articles and books are often single-authored and your contribution is being assessed by panels of anonymous reviewers, publishing syndicates, peers, professional critics, and so on. Standing on a stage or concert platform in front of an audience of hundreds, whether you are speaking, singing or playing, requires the calm and courage to look your would-be judge and jury in the eye (quite literally) and then do what you do to the absolute best of your ability. And in that real-time performance, too, appearing confident is a crucial part of the act.

Caravaggio's 'Narcissus', gazing at his reflection in the water

In almost all of these scenarios, we are usually our own worst enemies. Winch outlines a compelling example. He talks about a woman who, after a messy divorce and years of recovery, finally feels ready to go on a date with a man she’s met online, a man who seems clever and charming, and obviously likes her. Within ten minutes the date is a disaster and the man leaves. The woman calls her best friend to explain what’s happened. ‘Well, what do you expect?’, her friend says. ‘You have big hips, you have nothing interesting to say, why would a handsome, successful man like that ever go out with a loser like you?’ You’d hope, of course, Winch goes on, that a best friend wouldn’t actually say that. But that’s exactly what the woman is already saying to herself. And we are not good at treating ourselves with the same compassion as we would expect from a truly good friend.

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people refer to themselves as stupid. Or seen them take their first tentative steps in realising that just because something doesn’t go exactly as you hoped it would, it doesn’t mean that you are worthless and that all your hard work has been in vain. I have lost count of the number of times I have said to people – sometimes the same people, over and over: be kind to yourself. You will get there. It’s ok to not be perfect first time.

And I have also lost count of the number of times that I have had to tell this to myself, or had friends gently reminding me of the fact. I am delighted that so many things in my life are good, happy things, and that I am successful in what I do. But that has involved risk-taking, and self-belief, and bad days, and things going wrong, and moping about on the sofa feeling like I was useless – just like everybody does, now and again. So for those fighting dark thoughts and black dogs, remember that being kind to yourself is your most valuable tool. For those with an exciting and risky path ahead (whether that’s in connection with professional activities or private pursuits), remember that one little slip is not the end of it all. And for anyone who has convinced themselves that the People Who Are Good At Things must never feel like this, must have been positive and self-assured from the start… take heart. We all have moments of self doubt and disasters, regardless of how ‘successful’ we might seem. Practise some good emotional hygiene, as Winch suggests, and see where those positive thoughts might take you.

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