Why you're so hard on yourself
Have you ever noticed that the people you know who are the most worried about looking pretty are usually your most attractive friends?
As it goes with most of life's issues, there’s an episode of Boy Meets World that speaks to this idea. Topanga tries to prove that she doesn’t care about what she looks like by cutting 6 inches off of her hair on one side, and then has a full-blown identity crisis, realizing she’d never considered what life would be like if she weren’t considered “attractive.”
You’re hardest on yourself in your strengths.
What about this one:
Who are the people you know who are most self-conscious about singing in front of people?
The good singers (who aren’t quite sure yet if you think they’re good singers).
People who KNOW they’re bad at something don’t need any validation. They don’t mind entertaining people with their horrible abilities. Don’t believe me? Find your local Thursday night Karaoke special.
Why are you so hard on yourself in your strengths?
And who are the ones who are hella competitive at a game of basketball or kickball in the neighborhood?
The athletes. (By the way, I used to think the fact that I didn't care about winning at sports meant I wasn’t competitive at all...I've since learned that I just know better than to waste a heartbreak on something I was never going to win in the first place.)
You’re hardest on yourself in your strengths because you need something to define you.
Or think back to high school and college: who were the ones consumed with keeping tabs on their GPA?
The good students. The overachievers. The smart kids.
You’re hardest on yourself in your strengths because you know you’re meant for more.
You get my point, right? When you know you’re good at something—the place in your life where you get a lot of compliments and praise from other people—that’s the place where you get really hard on yourself because you’ve got a sense of identity to maintain.
Your identity gives you a place in the world and answers the question we’re all dying to figure out:
“What is my purpose?”
Something you did or said gave you the rush of satisfaction; it feels like you’ve found what you’re meant for.
Of course, the problem isn’t that we’ve found something we’re good at—that’s a beautiful, life-giving thing! The problem is how quickly this ceases to become something about us, and we become about this thing.
As soon as we put our identity in something outside of ourselves, we begin to tighten our grip on it.
This self-identification could really be about anything—accomplishments, relationships, even religion. We fight to maintain our grasp, because now, losing this (status/relationship/faith) would be a threat to how we understand ourselves in this world.
Trust me, I’ve tried on all three. They all work about the same way, and they all end with me trying to figure out what’s wrong with me, why I’m such a failure, and when everyone else is going to figure it out.
When I put my identity in my relationship status, it meant that I put the entire weight of my sense of self on another human being. No pressure, right?
We can all agree that’s not fair to another person.
But what about when you do this to yourself?
What about when you narrow in on one specific place that you’ve decided needs to provide your entire sense of identity? You start to make demands on yourself, you raise your expectations, and you force yourself to perform until you once again like your identity.
When you’re that hard on yourself, how is it that you bring yourself reassurance in that area?
What do you do to get your identity back, securely where you had it?
Well, you remember that at least you made more sales than that slacker over there, right?
You remind yourself that you scored more goals than Jake in the last 3 games of soccer you played against him.
You conclude from a quick crowd-scan that your hair looks better than at least 50% of the other women in the bar.
Comparison brings us temporary relief from the slump of self-defeat, because winning means we’re worth paying attention to again. At least we know we’re not at the bottom anymore. As long as we’re better than someone else, we get to hold onto our identity—our thing stays our thing.
Another way this insecurity pans out is fishing for compliments.
Sure sure, of course you’ve never done it, but let’s think about your friend who does. (wink wink)
Sometimes your friend doesn’t even realize she’s setting herself up for that team-rescue effort out of the Self-Pity-Pit, but before you know it, she makes one comment about “I could never look that good,” or “I wish I could sing like that,” and the whole gang has joined together to fashion a rope out of compliments and praise to pull her out of that pit.
But the thing is, that’s really just another form of comparison. Really what she’s asking from her friends in this scenario is for assurance that she is just as good as those other people.
But that’s really not the answer.
You’ll never find what you’re looking for in your strengths by comparing yourself to others.
Because what you’re looking for in your good-ats? You’re looking for identity. You’re looking for you.
You’re looking for life.
Oh MAN if that doesn’t light a little fire right in your belly I don’t know what will!
Listen, the reason you’re hard on yourself in the areas where you’ve put your identity is because you know you were meant for more.
You were meant for so much more than comparing yourself to other people who are good at similar (or the same!) things.
You were meant for so much more than hiding your true self behind a smaller version of who you are. You were meant for more than hiding behind your accomplishments, than forgetting about yourself outside of another person, than losing yourself in a religion.
What were you meant for?
You were meant to pursue your strengths to the best of your ability, and make them accessible for as much of the world as you can.
Put differently: you were meant to be alive and to bring others to life.
But as long as you’re settling for comparing yourself to others to know what you’re good at, you’ll never really find life.
Accept the voice of criticism, and recognize that you don’t have to be the best to do the damn thing. Don’t let comparison, competition, and perfectionism hold you back—follow what you’re good at and watch yourself and the world around you come alive in response.
We all want to be a part of something greater. We want the joy of offering our strengths to the world around us and making it better than it was when we started.
But before you can be a gift, you have to first know what you have to give.
Fear will try to hold you back. Fear will keep you from moving forward in every opportunity it gets. But I bet if you’re honest with yourself, most of the things you’re afraid of are already present in your life now.
When you’re really alive, you get to be you, with all your strengths, and you get to enjoy those things that used to be identity-givers before. You don’t have to hold them so tightly, because you know they’re supplements to who you are—but they’re not you.
The places where you know you’re meant for more, it turns out, can free you up to figure out who you really are.
So instead of being so hard on yourself, just acknowledge that you want to contribute everything you can to this world in this one precious life you have. And then instead of listening to that inner critic, smile, thank the voice for its exceedingly good taste, and move forward with the joy of knowing you are chasing the exact thing you were meant for.
You are exactly where you are meant to be, dear friend,
and you have exactly the strengths you were meant to have.
Go use them. Go live.