Much of our personality can be attributed to the feedback we received as children. Throughout our most formative years we look to those around us to determine how to survive in the world. Thus, we are shaped by the positive and negative reinforcement we receive. While this process occurs everyday, even in our adult life, it is during the early years of life that these patterns seem to become most deeply embedded.
As I’ve sought to understand my habits, temperament, and coping mechanisms, I’ve set my gaze upon my earliest memories. As I’ve done so, I have discovered one important example of contradictory feedback that I faced regularly. The majority of positive feedback I got centered on my intellect. Labels like smart, intelligent, gifted, and excellent student were often applied to me. Conversely, I was often told I was arrogant, conceited, and a smart-ass. Essentially, as soon as I began to believe the positive reinforcement I was given, I was beaten back down. My older brothers were recipients of nearly identical treatment in the arena of athletics. Being exceptional athletes, they were regularly praised for their abilities. Yet, the more successful they were in such undertakings, the deeper entrenched became their reputation as arrogant, conceited, and hotheaded.
The result of this external conflict has been considerable internal conflict. One memory in particular made a substantial impact. Near the beginning of the sixth grade, I was quite interested in a girl. As sixth graders do, instead of talking to her directly, I sought information from her close friend. Upon inquiring as whether or not I stood a chance with this girl, I was told that she felt I was conceited. I know that was the exact word she used, as I remember having to ask what it meant. “It means being full of yourself,” she said. This came as quite a blow at the time.
Since then I have gone to great lengths to avoid giving even the faintest trace of that impression. The resulting behaviors have done little to serve me in achieving my goals and realizing my potential. I have generally avoided doing anything that might be perceived as a request for attention or acknowledgement. Being the center of attention was simply not allowed. The repercussions of this fear have been far reaching, dramatically reducing my self-esteem, and affecting the way I speak, dress, and interact with others.
I see this pattern play itself out in my life on a regular basis. When our friends come to us, seeking our help in overcoming an obstacle, we don’t hesitate to pour on the encouragement. We shower them with praise, extolling their strengths, past successes, and positive qualities. Should they begin to believe us, we are often ready with harsh criticism. We certainly wouldn’t want it to go to their heads, would we?
I’ve often felt that the only people who are allowed to like themselves are the underdogs. I certainly agree that we should rally around such people, providing them the positive reinforcement that they possibly never received. Yet, as a person of immense privilege and natural talent, I have believed for most of my life that I do not deserve to be happy, or to love myself. If encouragement is a limited resource, let’s save it for those who need it most. My hope is simply that we can learn to look for reasons to corroborate any evidence of self-confidence we see in others. I believe this would be a far more life-giving approach than succumbing to the fear that someone might begin to believe that they are more capable than they actually are. If we made a little room for some seemingly grandiose beliefs, they might just turn out to be true. It turns out that what one achieves in life is closely related to what they believe they can achieve. As its been said, “Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right.”
Bailey Patrice & Jonathan David