Teacher Tales: Stop Your Self-Loathing!
“Yes, Eleanor loathed herself yet required praise, which she then never believed.”
-Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia
Our creative minds constantly help us “give birth” to ways of expressing our deepest thoughts and feelings. Certainly, we should at least be on friendly terms with our minds. Unfortunately, we often fight our hardest and longest lasting battles with ourselves. We negate our feelings. We pick our writing apart like ravens on carrion. We may even get to the point where we start to hate what we’ve written. Far too many artists I know will take a failure to heart, and endlessly beat themselves up for way too long.
Why do we do this to ourselves? It may be partly due to our childhood lessons about humility and conceit. Most of us were told, throughout our childhood that it wasn’t nice to brag about things. We were told that we had to be a good sport; both a graceful winner, and a graceful loser. Somehow, we tacitly came to accept praise as something to be shunned, lest we are accused of having a big ego. Fortunately, age and wisdom garnered from experience help us to temper our emotional balance.
I have seen this in adult students and middle schoolers, too. While I’m not often surprised by young students who have difficulty accepting sincere praise, I am surprised- kind of, sort of- by adults who find it difficult to believe someone is giving them authentic praise. Perhaps these adults are conditioned to think receiving praise pushes them, unwillingly, into the spotlight. Maybe they’re concerned that some kind of harsh criticism will follow the unsolicited praise.
The middle school kids might have difficulty accepting praise for any number of reasons. Changes in appearance, teasing / bullying, hormonal changes, and even status inside their peer group can directly, and strongly, impact young students’ self- esteem.
In my 5th grade class, I had two young ladies who were the very best of friends. To say they were inseparable doesn’t even begin to describe their closeness. They would often dress in the exact same outfit…. right down to hair ties and shoe laces. Apparently, during the summer before their fifth grade year, the one young lady hit a growth spurt- to the tune of six inches, while the other girl stayed at the same height.
I routinely noticed “growth spurt girl” slouch down around her “twin”. Since she was now taller than even most of the boys in the class, she garnered a lot of attention. She never seemed comfortable in her own skin. Of course, her perception was a normal experience in child development, but it didn’t lessen her perception that “everyone was staring at her”. One day, she came to see me during lunch. I could tell she was upset, and on the verge of tears. Apparently, some of the boys had teased her about her now being “Big Bird”, and even her “bestie” hadn’t come to her defense. Her confidence was gone.
I complimented her for coming to me, rather than retaliating against the bullies. She looked at me, and in a barely audible whisper asked me if she was a “baby” for telling the teacher. It made me pause for a moment. My mind finally made the connection between the emotional fragility of this student and the kind of self-loathing artists and writers so often experience. Sometimes, no matter what positive message we hear, we can’t always translate it inside our hearts.
My advice to those of you who can’t seem to accept a compliment is this: Take it. Relish it. The person who is giving you the compliment is impressed with something excellent you’ve completed or achieved, and doesn’t need to say anything at all. It’s perfectly fine to acknowledge that someone appreciates you for something wonderful you’ve done. Just don’t keep telling me all about it every ten minutes.