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.