Self-Esteem 101: Don't Grade Yourself
It starts very early in life.
Even young children do it. We are “graded” by others and then we spend the rest of our lives rating ourselves. Are we good or bad? Did we pass or fail? Are we “A” daughters or “B” husbands? Are we good enough, smart enough, pretty enough—it’s a long list of comparisons and contrasts.
Most of our education uses the “stick and carrot” of grades to motivate students to do their work. Getting an A on a test or an “E for excellent” on homework is the carrot. Obtaining a D or lower is the stick. It works pretty well for about 80% of the students. It keeps the kids in line and it encourages them to work hard. To some degree, it is a one size fits all approach to education.
Of course, this doesn’t work for everyone. Some individuals are not motivated by the carrot of good grades. Some individuals are motivated by the process (experience) not the outcome (grade). They have to enjoy what they are doing, in order to want to do it. The end result is not so important to them. These kids don’t always do well in school, even though can be very smart!
As parents, we often employ the same carrot as our schools. If Joey gets a goal in soccer we cheer. Of course, we praise effort too. But, everyone knows who wins and who loses. In baseball everyone knows who got the most hits. Everyone knows who came in first, second, and third on swim team. Competition, like grades, motivates kids (and adults) to work harder for results. But it also places effort and outcome in comparison with others.
Even non-sport activities abound with evaluation. Everyone knows who is the most graceful in ballet class. Every art student knows who draws the best. Everyone hears the best voice in choir (and the worst one too!). I remember being asked to stand in the back in chorus. You guessed it—it wasn’t because of my operatic voice!
Despite all of our parental efforts, praise and punishment permeates much of what we do. It’s not all negative. After all, we want to “reinforce” behavior we want to see more of. And we want to reduce behavior that we don’t value. This is quite natural and has many good consequences.
It’s not that competition or evaluation is “bad”—(You see, here we go again with good and bad!). It seems to be a natural facet of the human mind. We compare and contrast things with each other all of the time. To some degree, we notice how things relate to each other. This idea of relationship resides in the form of appraisal.
But what about the negative consequences of this motivational scheme? We internalize this process of judgment into our view of ourselves, into our minds, and into our view of life. If I get an ‘A” today, perhaps I will get a “B” tomorrow? What goes up will come down! Who defines success? Today I look “young”; tomorrow I look “old”. Long after everyone else has stopped giving me a grade, I continue to evaluate, compare, contrast, judge, and rank myself. This way of thinking is often a recipe for unhappiness and suffering. When will I ever be enough?
As adults, many of us continue to “grade” ourselves. If things turn out well, we made a good choice. If the outcome was negative, we must have made a bad choice. If we receive praise, we are happy. If we receive punishment, we are unhappy.
It doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to employ a different template.
Life provides experience which brings awareness and growth.
In addition to this evaluative process that seems so familiar to us, we can also look at our life’s experiences in a more neutral and non-judgmental way. In this approach, I ask myself “What have I learned from this experience?” When I ask this question, I begin to describe my experience and reflect on my choices, behavior, and responses in a more objective way. My goal is to become more aware of myself and the world around me. This enables me to take more mindful action.
I view my experiences in life as part of my development and growth as a human being. There is nothing to compare myself with! It is just what it is, experience.
In this model, life is more like a seminar without grades—not even pass or fail! It becomes about learning for learning’s sake. The goal is to grow and develop into the human being that we aspire to be.
More about this way of thinking in future blogs….