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Friday, November 17, 2023

Validating Our Worst Selves

As sometimes happens, I had a pretty lousy week (by the standards of my particular forms of privilege). I missed a day of work, the news was getting me down, I'd accidentally inconvenienced a couple of people, I wasn't getting much sleep, I had no drive to accomplish household tasks--the sorts of problems that really should be taken in stride. Instead, by Thursday I'd worked myself into a state of fierce self-loathing. 

Today I felt much better, thanks almost entirely to simply cuddling with Sylvia through Thursday night. As we drove to pick up groceries today, I made light of my maudlin mood of the days prior, mocking myself by saying things like "Oh, I've been so mean to people over the years" and "I've been a complete idiot so much of my life" and "I've accomplished nothing." I said it in a tone that tried to suggest I knew such feelings were silly, but Sylvia saw through me, as usual. She admitted that she sometimes felt that way too, but then she said something that hit me like a bombshell: 

"Why do our negative thoughts get all our internal attention and validation?" 

Yes! Why? All my life I've validated my worst feelings about myself while at the same time dismissing or devaluing the positive assessments of other people. I'm not alone in this. 

I wonder what percentage of human beings validate their bad feelings about themselves, and what percentage enjoy a healthier, more balanced view--not narcissistic, but a view that accepts their good and bad qualities without feeling undue self-loathing or overweening pride. Furthermore, I wonder that genetic traits or environmental conditions make the difference between mental health and depression and other disorders. 

I've written a few times about how much I loathed my first job after graduating from the University of Alberta: driving a truck full of automotive parts to different garages on the south and west sides of Edmonton. I had that job for three years, applying for other jobs all the while, and the longer I was there the more I began to believe that I'd never do better. (To give myself some credit, I recognized, even as an ignorant twentysomething, the inherent value of any job that in some way helped the community; I didn't feel as though I was "above" the job, just that it didn't suit my interests or skills.) 

For several months of this three-year period, I was living with my parents and commuting to Edmonton with Dad. After one particularly rough day, I confessed to Dad that I thought there must be something wrong with me because even after years of trying, nobody wanted to hire me. (I'd gotten the truck driving job thanks to Dad.) 

"Earl, that's bullshit," Dad said forcefully, startling me a little. "You're a very smart kid, but these are tough conditions. It won't be long before you find something much better suited to all the things you can do." 

Dad's no-nonsense clarity helped quite a bit that day, and he was right; it wasn't long before I moved on to better things, though not without some amusing misadventures. 

Sylvia's question today has helped me realize that I need to investigate why I've given so much weight to the ways I've failed other people, the ways I've failed to live up to my expectations of myself, the ways I've hurt others--almost always unintentionally--and yet, NOT always unintentionally, and when you hurt someone, what do your intentions matter anyway? 

This is turning into a screed, so I'll conclude with this: If you've ever had feelings like mine, I hope you'll give yourself a break. Believe people when they say nice things about you; don't devalue their judgement or support. I'm going to do my best to take my own advice. 


Jeff Shyluk said...

Negative thoughts are a defence mechanism. Our unconscious mind seeks to protect us from our failures by egging on the conscious mind into accepting negative realities. If we didn't do this, we'd be blindsided every time something went wrong. By focusing on negativity, we maintain some control over failure.

Maybe validation is slightly too strong a term, but certainly you need to accept your negative instincts. Ignoring them is worse than encouraging them, which is why we tend to have a negative bias.

Put into Star Trek terms, consider when Kirk got split up in the transporter into light and dark components. It's two-bit pop psychology, but the metaphor stands: Animal Kirk got all the charisma and motivation, while Pensive Kirk retained intelligence and introspection. Note that I'm intentionally not going into Good Kirk and Evil Kirk: that's reserved for the trip to the Mirror Universe. In that world, Good Kirk was able to fit into the Mirror world while his Evil counterpart was easily discovered and captured in our world.

In the despairing Mirror world, Kirk is able to spark hope for the future, something that the long series of vindictive snarling space admirals from The Undiscovered Country onward through to TNG notwithstanding, the Federation has achieved more or less.

You want epigrams, here's a good one: "Hope is not a feeling. Hope is a discipline." This is a purely cognitive exercise that transposes the subconscious aspect of hope - the indefinite idea that somehow things will improve - and places it instead into the realm of conscious action and therefore control. You create hope by doing physical things that foster hope, and the more you do them the better you become at hoping. That's how you counter the negativity, which tends to reside in the dark subconscious realm.

Sean Woods said...

Your commitment to your values and general good nature uplift all those around you.