Value Yourself

Once, I had a student who started the semester by telling me that she was a terrible writer, that she had a great deal of trouble writing. Of course I believed her, and I planned on giving her extra help – until I actually saw her papers, which were perfectly normal undergraduate papers. What I learned, during our conferences, is that she had a tendency to use what I call the “preemptive put-down.” She would put herself down first, as though expecting me to put her down. As though putting herself down would somehow head off a put-down by me, or someone else, I don’t know whom.

I understand the preemptive put-down because I’ve certainly done it myself. I’m sure you have as well. “This dress is so ugly, but it’s the only thing that wasn’t in the laundry basket.” “It’s a first draft, and it’s awful – seriously. You shouldn’t even look at it.” “I’m terrible at public speaking,” or “dancing,” or “throwing knives at people blindfolded.” Whatever.

The preemptive put-down is a way of putting yourself down before anyone else can. It’s a way of not being hurt, only it doesn’t work, does it? For two reasons. First, because you feel as bad about yourself, having just put yourself down, as you would have felt if someone else had done it. And second, because when you put yourself down, other people tend to look at you strangely, to start wondering if in fact the dress is ugly, the story is awful, you’re terrible at public speaking (in which case why are you on the panel anyway?).

So much of what we think of as reality is perception. There’s real reality – like rocks, and if you don’t think rocks are real, try kicking one. Then there’s perception – Google stock is worth buying, that woman is beautiful, that speaker sounds smart. And perception can be influenced (unlike rocks).

Motivational speakers know this, and it’s part of how they make their living: people tend to take you at your own valuation. If you ask for things and believe you deserve them, you get them with surprising frequency.

So you must, must, must value yourself.

But we don’t, do we? There are several reasons, but perhaps the most frequent one is that we were taught not to as children. Because no one wants children to be “spoiled.” That was a kind of mantra when I was growing up – that my brother and I were spoiled American children. We didn’t know what it had been like, how difficult it had been, in Hungary under the communists. And of course we didn’t. We were just trying to get on with our American lives. I’ve seen that attitude in a variety of settings, and I think it’s partly cultural. Once, at a playground, I saw an older woman who was obviously Eastern European lean over and say, to an American mother who was playing with her daughter, “She’s a little spoiled, isn’t she?” As though it were the most natural thing in the world. In the South, there’s a saying: you’re not supposed to get above your raisin’. (Which makes me wonder, is this an aspect of cultures for which defeat still rankles? This concerted attempt to keep its children down?)

I think this sort of message has a terrible effect. I did not receive it as strongly as many others do, but I remember times in my life when I did not try something because I simply assumed that I would not be good enough, that I did not deserve whatever it was – the scholarship, the prize.

Here’s why I bring all this up. If you’re going to be a writer, you absolutely have to learn to value yourself, because writing is hard enough without the preemptive put-down. There are plenty of people out there who will put you down. Your job is to build yourself up, however many times you need to. And to get better, and better, and better through all the rejections.

Because you know what? Putting yourself down is a profoundly unattractive habit. People start to wonder if you really are as awful as you say, or if you’re just asking for compliments. (If you need compliments, I recommend the following method: “I so need a compliment right now. Can you compliment me? Any kind of compliment will do.” If you are with a reasonably decent person, you will get a compliment. As I mentioned, people tend to give you what you ask for.) And putting yourself down is cowardly. It’s a way of making yourself safe, of hurting yourself before anyone else hurts you. Although, again as I mentioned, it doesn’t actually work, does it? It doesn’t make you feel safe, just sort of sad.

So how do you value yourself? It’s difficult to change your mental state, but it’s easy to change your actions. And changing your actions changes your mental state. So you must act as though you are valuable. You must act as though you are the best friend you’ve known and loved since childhood. When your best friend is sad, what do you do? Tell her how wonderful she is. When your best friend is sick, you bring her soup. You listen to her, you care about her, you buy her presents on her birthday. You draw her bubble baths. (All right, maybe not. Think of yourself as a friend even better than your best friend. After all, you were there when you were born, you will be there when you die. Who is closer to you than you are?)

If anyone insults her, you stand up for her.  You never put her down or allow anyone else to do so.  If she puts herself down, you tell her to stop.  You tell her you won’t tolerate such behavior.

And you would be honest with your best friend. If the dress really was ugly, you would tell her, you wouldn’t let her wear it, you would take her shopping for another. You would certainly not stand there and insult her! You would tell her the truth and help her become the person she wants and deserves to be.

The more you learn to value yourself, the better your life will become. The more you will have the courage to change it, to make it the life you want. Valuing yourself doesn’t make life easier – life is always going to be life, you know? But it allows you to participate and compete. It is your “yes” to life, your “I’m going to give speeches and dance and throws knives at people blindfolded.” (After knife-throwing classes, of course.)

This is as close as I’ll ever come to a rant, but I really care about this.  When you’re around me, don’t give me the preemptive put-down, because I’ll call you on it.  As your friend.

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29 Responses to Value Yourself

  1. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    So true. Wonderful post.

    And it’s truly distressing and heart-wrenching when you come across a writing student who is *wonderful * and could have a serious career but cannot seemingly believe that about themselves.
    JeffV

  2. This is wonderful. I think everyone should read this – it happens so often. I even know men who do this, though I think women do it more often in my experience. Thank you so much for sharing this with the world!

  3. Pati Nagle says:

    Thank you!

    What a wonderful essay. You’re so right!

  4. Thank you, my dear. How did you know I needed to read this today…?

    Here in England (especially among, but not limited to, women), the preemptive put-down is practically a cultural institution. I’m going to do my best to spread this essay far and wide.

  5. Agreed with Terri on all counts.

    I think it goes further here, though. The pre-emptive put-down is necessary because otherwise people WILL think poorly of you. At least, it’s the impression I receive all the time — that to not apologise for something that’s actually perfectly fine (a meal, an essay, a dress) leaves you open to a put-down that will be delivered sarcastically, caustically, and which you will be expected to swallow with good humour. I’ve been trying to work on this myself, by very slow degrees, but it’s a protective habit more easily picked up than put down.

  6. Jane Yolen says:

    I have an associated problem: deflection. The minute someone compliments me (on clothes, on speech, on writing etc.) I deflect the nice words by qualifying them. “Oh, this old, thing. . .it’s a talk cobbled together from something I’ve given before, oh–I’m really just midlist. . .” And I have to push myself just to smile and say, “Thank you, I’m delighted you like it.” Otherwise, I am not only devaluing myself, I am devaluing the person who complimented me.

    Hard lesson learned.

    Still learning it.

    Thanks for the reminder, Dora.

    Jane

  7. Thank you for this. Like Jane Yolen, I tend towards deflection. But instead of diminishing the compliment, I will turn the entire conversation over to someone else as if I absolutely can’t stand anyone saying nice things about me. I wonder if I learned this from being a twin? We were each other’s PR. She told everyone how great I was, and I did the same for her.

    On a related note, my mother’s side of the family is obsessed with not “overstepping” or doing anything that would make people think that YOU think you are better than you really are. Just yesterday my mother admitted that her mother did not want her to go to college for that very reason. My mom was the first one to go–and they tried to convince her not to.

  8. Like Jane Yolen and Jennifer Writer, I tend – er- used to tend to deflection. It took me years to build up the courage and habit to simply say thank you. Now I am working on the pre-emptive put down. And laughing at and with myself, kindly i hope, wondering how long it will take to drop that..

    thanks for the cheerleading!

  9. Teresa says:

    A related behavior is ending sentences with question marks when you are speaking. Many more women seem to do this than men. I’ve had female writing instructors who talked like this, and it drives me up the wall. It’s as though the person is asking permission to speak. They are implying, what I’m saying really isn’t that important, but I hope you’ll listen to me for just a little bit. Make a commitment to what you are saying. Take a stand. Claim the power of your voice and don’t apologize for it. End your sentences with periods.

  10. This is wonderful, Dora. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I just forwarded it to a few friends.

    There is definitely a difference between arrogance and self-confidence. I wish we taught people to celebrate what they are while understanding we’re all works in progress.

  11. Jeff P. says:

    I had to laugh out loud when I got to the end and you said this is the closest you’d ever get to a rant. A very intelligent, well thought out, beautifully written and levelly delivered rant.

  12. Jeff P. says:

    Oh, and I identify 100%. I thought so little of myself that when I graduated high school I hadn’t even applied to college. Why bother? I’ll just go to the little community college that takes anyone, anytime.

  13. beth says:

    I found this via Nathan’s post, and I’m so glad I did. I needed to read this today. Thanks!

  14. Merc says:

    This is wonderful. Thank you.

  15. Maery Rose says:

    I once asked my mom, “Why didn’t you ever congratulate me when I won a contest? Or give me a compliment?” And her answer, “I didn’t want you to be spoiled.” Now when friends compliment me, they see the confused look on my face and say, “You can’t even take that in can you?” I like what you say about keeping in mind how you would treat and talk to your friends and at least do as much for yourself. G!

  16. Another aspect to this: bragging, tooting your own horn, being full of yourself = bad.

    Interacting with others, all that’s left is emphasizing the negative. I don’t talk about the latest sale or how I wrote through a sticky problem or — heaven forbid — the joy I receive writing. I talk about car problems.

  17. Mike Allen says:

    You’ve just held a mirror to one of my worst habits. It’s funny because I tend to think someone who constantly speaks with confidence is compensating — when it’s relentless, it rings false. Yet skewing too far the other way always backfires. (“No, no, no, you weren’t supposed to agree with me….”)

    I can relate to the experience Amal describes; I was raised with it. Daring to speak highly of oneself was/is an invitation to mockery. Yet another thing to unlearn…

  18. Lovely poem, great work.I do however think we need at times to honor our survival skills and mechanics in behavior however unattractive they may look or sound to some.Becoming a better person is seeing through the masks to the faces of the the eternal.Past the voice the eyes the face the body hair and words.

  19. Sue Bolich says:

    What a wonderful post. I have suffered from both the preemptive put-down and deflection and have often had to stop and force myself not to do that. Finding self-confidence is tough enough without sabotaging yourself. Thanks for the reminder.

  20. I’m so glad this post seems to have been helpful to a number of people. (It took me a while to respond because of Boskone.) What struck me about the comments above was that Terri Windling and Jane Yolen described the exact same experiences as those of us who are not famous authors and editors, which makes me think that external success only goes so far in changing what is internal. (I bet both of your first responses to what I just wrote was to think something like “Famous, well, I don’t know about that . . .”)🙂

    I think Jane said something very important:

    “And I have to push myself just to smile and say, ‘Thank you, I’m delighted you like it.’ Otherwise, I am not only devaluing myself, I am devaluing the person who complimented me.”

    That’s exactly right. So one way to stop yourself is to realize that it’s not polite to the other person to reject a compliment in that way. It’s like getting a gift and then refusing to accept it. The correct answer to a compliment is “Thank you,” although sometimes we almost have to practice saying it. This is particularly important for writers, who often have to do something like this:

    Person at convention: “I loved your book!”
    Me: “Thank you. I’m so glad you liked it.”

    It actually took me a while to figure out how to respond that way, without feeling as though I should be saying, “Oh, that old book? I only wrote that because all my other books were in the laundry . . .”

    Theresa wrote, “Make a commitment to what you are saying. Take a stand. Claim the power of your voice and don’t apologize for it. End your sentences with periods.”

    I think that’s exactly right, literally and metaphorically.

  21. Jane Yolen says:

    Oh Dora dollink–you nailed it when you wrote: “I bet both of your first responses to what I just wrote was to think something like “Famous, well, I don’t know about that . . .”

    I think I say that because I keep forgetting that in certain circles I am well known. I only focus on the ones in which I am not.

    And that is another part of this whole problem. The corollary if you will. Recalling the negative stuff and not the positive, which feeds right into why we apologize for our successes. I remember my worst reviews and not the best ones. I remember bad publishing experiences and not the good ones. When I was a teacher at Smith College, I forgot the 98 students who wrote in their course evaluations that I was the best teacher they ever had and still remember word for word the one who wrote “Jane Yolen is an opinionated bitch.”

    Fascinating to find so many who feel the same way. (Just as a data point–are most of us female?)

    Jane

  22. Looking at the commenters above, I think it’s actually a mix of men and women. We don’t expect men to have self-esteem issues, but I think they do, sometimes more than women. But perhaps they’ve been taught not to express them.

    The one evaluation I still remember is the one, I’m pretty sure from a male student, that said “She has hair the color of fire.”🙂

  23. Vik says:

    Very nice article and best of all, simply written sans all the Freudian lingo.
    I was told repeatedly by my mother that I was “too short a guy” and then picked on by peers. Before I knew it, putting myself down became a part of me. Glad to be unlearning it!

  24. janeyolen says:

    Rereading this, the only thing I would believe is some one who said they were not very good at “throwing knives at people blindfolded.” The rest need corrective measures.

    Jane

  25. Doc Regal says:

    Elegantly said, “The preemptive put-down is a way of putting yourself down before anyone else can.”

  26. I’ve read this post several times since coming across a link to it on Karen Mahoney’s blog. I love it more than I can say. It makes me feel better, especially since I think our culture sometimes takes an extra step, and teaches its children that to think well of oneself at all is akin to extreme arrogance and is a surefire way to turn everyone else off. Somehow we’ve lost the distinction between self-aggrandizing and earning the right to be proud of ourselves.

  27. Paul Greci says:

    Great post. It’s so easy to fall into the self-putdown mode and not realize the far- reaching and far-lasting consequences of doing so. Thank you!!

  28. John Horne says:

    Nice post. I have an 8th grade girl studying guitar with me. She does not use the preemptive put-down but she does apologize for every mistake. I have forbidden her from apologizing for her playing. Ever. She seems to appreciate my confidence in her.

  29. mandy says:

    Thank you for the up building words, I sometimes find myself surrounded by people who don’t compliment you but are sure to tell you what you’ve done wrong or point out your faults. This can sometimes be very difficult to come over, being as how it is nice and refreshing to receive a nice confidence builder from time to time. I believe in my case I always look for something nice to say to a person just because I know that it helps and makes a person believe in themselves more, and I’ve always believed in doing onto others as you want done onto you. Again thank you for the article.

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