Be Careful With Them
This post got me to think about a lot of different things. Mainly, I think about the toxicity of external validation, something I wrote about here: http://www.middlewisconsin.org/on-the-very-triggering-but-oh-so-important-topic-of-diet/
But I also think about how much social media has fed this addiction. I think it is why so many millennials I have worked with were looking for feedback all of the time. I admit that the way their generation was raised and how they were taught is a big factor as well, but measuring self-worth in likes is something that I believe is extraordinarily detrimental.
Much of my need for external validation in my youth was the result of being the target of bullies and of a culture that values girls based on how well they conform to conventional beauty standards and interests deemed feminine. I developed skill as an artist and writer initially because it gave me something to hide behind. It was a safe refuge for a fat kid who wanted nothing to do with playing house or carting around a babydoll. I was more interested in insects than flowers, but I didn’t even explore the insect world in my art (or at least nothing aside from butterflies) until fairly recently. As much as I may have projected this aura of apathy, I really was influenced heavily by the assessment of others.
According to American literary theorist Kenneth Burke, two facets of human nature are that we are rotten with perfection and goaded by a spirit of hierarchy. Therefore, we tend to be obsessed with being the best (not merely our best), and are always measuring ourselves against others. These traits can be useful to us as we learn about ourselves and the world around us, but they often turn counterproductive as we advance in life. I also am thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I think that many privileged people (as in everyone who has advanced past basic and safety needs) get stuck on those next two tiers: love and belonging, and self esteem. A recurring cycle of measuring up against others can get in the way of ever reaching self actualization.
The other thing I am thinking about is a concept I would discuss with students in a class on interpersonal communication, and that is this idea of four selves. In this concept, each of us is described as having these four selves: the self only we ourselves know, the self only others know and we do not know, the self that is known by both ourselves and others, and the completely unknown self. That last one was always hard for me to wrap my head around, but I would say that maybe, sometime in the future, something happens, and you act in a way that neither you nor anyone else could have expected. I have since had such experiences where my unknown self became known. I have been surprised by my ability to cope with certain losses, as others have as well. I might joke that I wish I would come to know that unknown self who comes into great wealth ;)
Anyway, there are so many layers to this topic. The important take away, as you have said, is to do things that bring us joy. I am someone who believes in an afterlife because of certain experiences I have had, and I have come to believe that it is more than just how we treat each other in this life that impacts our experience in the next; it is also dependent on whether or not we have found enjoyment. I am not saying this to entice anyone toward enjoyment based upon the promise of some spiritual reward; enjoyment should be its own enticement. I just think true enjoyment is so important. That isn’t to place the kind of pressure on anyone that they must be happy all the time. Eww. When I look back at my twenties, I think the song “Fake Happy” by Paramore reflects much of my experience. I think I really tried to find enjoyment based much more on what others around me enjoyed. Granted, the longer we’ve been around, the more things we try, the more likely we are to identify those things that really make us happy.
I really like the idea of the graded and ungraded self! They are the selves that want approval and don’t want approval. But there’s also defiance… and defiance is important. I was talking to a student once who was a really innovative musician and videographer, his work was amazing but a lot of the students in his class found it unsettling and didn’t respond the way he’d have hoped. So we were talking about audience response and what drives us to create, and how ultimately, it takes a bit of a “fuck you” attitude to be an artist. Not in the mean way. But in the way above of Jerry Seinfeld laughing at the young comedian’s worry and saying “it’s your life.” It’s my life, I’m driven by fascination to create, I put enormous work into this, I care — if others want to grade me on it, whether A+ or F- doesn’t matter because my answer is still that kinda not-mean “fuck you” — you don’t get to judge this. You can talk about it, do what you want with it, just don’t come to me like, “good job!” Because I already know what I’m worth.
I’ll link here to my piece on Alfie Kohn and Severance in case readers are interested — https://amyletter.substack.com/p/the-grim-barbarity-of-punish-and
I'm of the 'If I ask you I'll listen to your critique' school. Which, of course, means if I haven't asked I seriously don't want to hear some picky-pants yadda from passersby. Guh, unsolicited picky-pants yadda is the worst. As always, my dear one, you have given me brain food. Thanks!