It is so very tempting to accept other people’s praise and absorb it as though their opinion matters, but then what happens when they don’t like what you’re doing, when they don’t approve, when they throw brickbats rather than bouquets? I can’t afford to take other people’s praise too seriously, I can’t afford to let it shape my own opinion of myself.
It is a constant struggle. (Well, maybe not literally constant, as I don’t constantly get praise from people, but I’m sure you get the drift.) It feels really nice when someone offers a compliment, when someone notices me, when out of all the people on this earth somebody notices me and says well done – it’s a nice feeling but I know that there will also be times when people don’t like what I say or how I say it, when people don’t approve of my behaviour or of my creative work or of my choice of hairstyle or whatever, and if I rely on their opinion to shape my own view of myself, then I’ll be going up and down like a see-saw depending on whether they say well done or boo hiss.
One of my favourite books is You Are Special by Max Lucado, about these wooden people called wemmicks, who go around giving each other stickers all the time: a gold star if you’ve done something well, or a grey dot if you’ve failed. The story follows Punchinello, a little wooden person who was always getting grey dots. He meets another wemmick and is surprised to see she doesn’t have any stickers on her at all – neither good nor bad. It wasn’t because people didn’t try to give her stickers, it’s just that, as she explained to him, “the stickers only stick if you let them”.
I’ve already written here about the teacher at high school who gave me a discouraging response when I showed her a story I’d written. That grey dot was absorbed deep into me, and it took many many years before I started to come out of my shell again – and this was thanks to people who offered me gold stickers to compensate.
And I’ve been thinking recently about the novel I started writing and dropped (and now restarted) and about various grey dots/gold stars that went into that equation – there was a friend I’d shown some of it to, who said it was good, but strangely I completely forgot about that until my husband mentioned it in conversation recently; I did remember emailing a chapter to another friend, not because of wanting comments on the quality of writing but because of wanting to check the authenticity of something I was describing there, and for some reason her reply never reached me, which I found really hard at the time – so painful that it took all my courage to bring it up when, months later, I saw her, and she was surprised because she was sure she had emailed me back to say it was really good!
A grey dot that I really think I should have ignored was from the writing group I was in at the time. It was basically a group of writers meeting once a fortnight in someone’s home, taking turns to read out some of what we were working on and providing feedback to one another. I found it helpful to read out bits of the novel there, it helped me to keep going. And, yes, I enjoyed the praise when it came… and I think it’s not bad to enjoy it, it’s just a question of how much weight you give it. Because if you let those stickers stick too strongly, the grey dots will stick strongly too.
There was something a bit experimental I was doing in the novel, and when I read out that bit I got some very grey dots from the others. Oh no, that’s just not the way it’s done…
Tough. I’ve got the novel out of the cobwebs now and I’m going to write it the way that comes naturally to me, because, well, that’s the only way I can write.
That’s part of the difficulty with accepting people’s comments – when they praise you, it feels nice, but when they disapprove of you, well, the you that they’re disapproving of, it’s all you’ve got. I once read a book called Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? by John Powell, in which he quotes from an actual conversation he had with someone when he was writing the book, and this person said to him: “I am afraid to tell you who I am, because, if I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it’s all that I have.”
As part of my growing, I’ve learned to be more open with people about who I am – but the only way I can do that is if I don’t allow their opinion of me to become too important to me. If I need people’s approval in order to feel I have value, then I will be more loathe to risk showing them the bits of me that they might not like. But deciding not to let the stickers stay on – there lies freedom to be myself and to show my real self to others. Like what you see? That’s great, but please don’t expect me to gush about it too much, because, you see, I can’t let this become my source of self worth, because then I’ll feel worthless when you discover the bits of me that you don’t like. Because those bits are also part of me. And this me that you see – it’s all that I have.