Unlearning the Fixed Mindset

Disclaimer: I’m assuming you have watched the video in my last post. If you haven’t, this post may be a bit confusing.

So, after I watched that video the first time, I cried. I cried because it all made sense. That’s me. That is why I feel so weak and stupid and pathetic. Performance praise.

I recognized so deeply that as a child I was trained to see my actions as more important than myself and my results as equivalent to my ability. I am what I do, and if I do nothing, I am nothing. 

So, you see, I need to achieve in order to justify my existence. If I cannot succeed, I am worthless.

It seems innocuous to tell children that they are getting A’s because they are smart, but I know so many people who cried at their first A- (and B, and C, and D, and F). We saw our struggles as our limits and we fell into failure spirals as we tried to push past them.

So, I’m sitting there, holding my phone, calling out, “Now what? I need more!” This woman has taught me how to keep kids from following me to where I am, but is that it? Do I just write off the rest of your own life because I can’t prevent the adults around me from making me into a paralyzed adult?

And I stare at the screen. And it goes black to save power. And I cry.

Some time later, it occurs to me that the only thing I can do- the only path I can see- is to remake my childhood. To willfully enter that environment again. To find something in which I have no training or skill, something in which I am a novice, as I once was with the alphabet or long division, and start again.

I need to set myself up for failure and struggle, frustration and despair, but respond differently this time.

I must be both the child who needs to be told how to interpret her performance and the adult who comforts and emphasizes future potential and the long, winding road to come.

It was terrifying (is still intimidating), but that is why I am learning pottery now. That is why I go back every Friday and try again, and fail, and watch others fail, and succeed, and watch others succeed, and struggle, and fight, and endure.

Because I haven’t given up on myself. Because I am going to learn to value the process. Because I am going to learn to value myself.


Performance vs. Process

Well, this is what I was trying to avoid- dead air. Sorry, everyone.

I think that it would be worthwhile to post a video that covers the performance/process dichotomy that I’m wrestling with in pottery class. It is about schools and childhood, which makes sense because they make up the bulk of formative experiences for many people. We learn who we are, how we fit in, and how to interact with others through our time in school.

It’s called “RSA ANIMATE: How To Help Every Child Fulfil Their Potential” and RSA posted it. (Sorry that I can’t embed a player from my phone.)


Sharing the Spotlight, Part 3

It’s hard to say where I am with this issue right now. When I try to ask myself “How do you feel about your husband surpassing you in something by a wide margin? How do you feel about him becoming very skilled in an area that you have very little experience in?”… when I ask these questions, all I feel is chaos.

Here’s what I know so far:

  • It is good for him to be driven to learn and grow.
  • I want to be supportive, but I’m not there yet.
  • Most of my issues come from feeling insecure, as though lack of skill is the same as lack of value.
  • I don’t need to be the best at everything.
  • I can’t succeed at everything, and that’s ok.
  • Sometimes, factors besides talent and effort determine how well someone will do.

So, where does that leave me now? I think I should feel better than I do, and that I should be more secure. After all, no one around me is expecting me to pursue the same thing as my husband. All of the people around me truly do expect me to find my own way and live my own life. There is absolutely no pressure for me to learn this skill too. There is also nothing preventing me from learning it if I wanted to.

I am completely free to do what I want here, so why do I feel trapped?

I guess I’ll just move onto the next assumption.

3. Performance is the same thing as ability.
One of the common responses to high performing children is to immediately equate their performance with their ability. “You got 100% on that test- you’re so smart!” It seems beneficial, or neutral at least, but it can really set those kids up for future problems. After all, if I succeeded because of my ability, then when I fail, it must also be because of my ability. If I do well because I am smart, then I fail because I am dumb.

Sometimes, people who believe in this connection will work even harder than before once their performance drops, because they are terrified of feeling like a failure. In my case, I have pushed myself very, very hard before and still failed at my task. I have crumbled down in despair because I had internalized the performance=ability correlation. I have gone to some very dark places because my value and ability were tied to my performance. I was worthless. I was empty. I was very close to ending it all. Because I had nothing to pursue and nothing to offer but pain.

I’ve been aware of the jagged, rusty edges on this assumption for a while, so at least with this issue, I’m not wandering in unfamiliar territory. I know in my mind that my performance doesn’t reflect my value. In my heart… I suppose that it’s fairly clear as well, but there are days when the old thoughts are triggered, and all at once, I’m back in my old mindset, staring down some new “failure.” It’s a process, and I am definitely making my way on this issue. Step by step, each time that it comes up, I just keep going.

What else could I do? My life is on the line here, and it’s worth fighting for.

Sharing the Spotlight, Part 2

I’m still trying to work through my jealousy over my husband’s success and ambitions. At least, I think it’s jealousy. At the end of part 1, I was talking about how I feel like I need to be the best at everything, so it could well be jealousy of his talent. Of course, I also continued right on into my value, so maybe it’s insecurity. Or maybe insecurity feeds jealousy.

I don’t need to be as good as my husband is at everything that he does. We don’t need to be the same. It’s ok for us to have different strengths and experiences. It really is ok for for people to be better than me at things. I am ok, even if I’m not the best. (This paragraph is an example of repeating things that I do not yet believe, but want to believe, in order to grow more comfortable with the ideas.)

Anyway, I’d like to go into another one of the assumptions that are making my experience with this problem more difficult.

2. It is beneficial and necessary to rank individuals according to their ability levels.
This is part of the problem  for me- the belief that it even matters how good people are at particular activities. It’s difficult to escape from this assumption, because in some cases, it really does matter what skill levels people have. If I am paying someone to create a sculpted fountain for me, I have grounds for evaluating the skills and performance of a wide range of artisans. But on a day to day basis, does it matter how good I am at field hockey? Does it affect me at all to be standing in line with a talented singer, a poor comedian, and a mediocre florist? No, it doesn’t.

So, it’s difficult for me to deal with this one, because it contains both truth and lies. I can’t just write it off entirely, but I also can’t blindly accept it either. How can I break free from the need to rank people in this manner? It was part of my childhood, in education, music, sports, and more. It was part of college as well, where GPAs determine what programs one can be a part of, what dorms one can live in, how much financial aid is available, and more. It has been part of my employment history, with performance reviews and the inevitable sizing up of coworkers in the same department. If it’s so ubiquitous, how can performance ranking possibly be unnecessary?

And yet… continuing to use ranking systems to measure people by their performance ignores the other aspects of a given situation. For example, are low performers dealing with life issues at the time (depression, death of a family member, insomnia, illness, fighting with their roommate, etc.)? Are high performers doing unhealthy things in order to maintain their performance (caffeine addiction, lack of sleep, withdrawing from relationships, pushing their bodies past the limit, etc.)? How hard are any of them working to achieve the results, and is it better to be a hard-working low achiever or a lazy high-achiever?

I’ll keep working at it. Things will start falling into place eventually.

Sharing the Spotlight, Part 1

My husband is actively pursuing opportunities and training that will equip him to develop new skills and strengthen his existing abilities. This is admirable. And I don’t like it.

Why? Didn’t I just say that it was good? Why would I dislike something like that? Those are valid questions and legitimate signs of underlying issues.

*sigh* It’s pretty simple, at the core, but very difficult to deal with. Remember the success that I had as a child? I did very well in school, and because it was the predominant ranked activity of my youth, academics became an analogy for performance in other areas of my life: everyone has some degree of ability in the area, it is beneficial and necessary to rank individuals according to their ability levels, ability = performance, and so on. This may seem innocuous, but assumptions like that become dangerous quickly. I’ll unpack a few of these assumptions while I try to come to terms with the underlying issues that make me uncomfortable with my husband’s success.

1. Everyone has some degree of ability in the area.
This assumption comes from the mandates placed on students within educational systems- everyone has the ability to learn to read or to do basic arithmetic, for example. We teach these skills to everyone, because everyone is capable of learning them if they simply try hard enough. It was this kind of logic that won me attention during events like spelling bees, but this logic also justified coaches and gym teachers in telling me that I was capable of running a 4 minute mile or consistently hitting a softball (neither of which I have ever achieved).

Pushing everyone into a rigid mold in the hopes of making us “well-rounded” does not guarantee results. My body type is well suited for strength-based activities: I loved the weight room and routinely leg-pressed 550 lbs. (As an aside, 730 was my max, but it was an unsafe weight. 550 lbs allowed me to do 2-3 sets of 15 reps per day.) I am not made for speed or coordination, and I have repeatedly preformed below average in both types of activity. No matter how hard I tried, I could not line up my bat with a ball or throw a basketball into a hoop. No matter how much I improved, my running speed plateaued and refused to climb any further. I could not reach the standards being set for me.

So what does that have to do with the issue at hand? Well, regardless of whether I do or not, I feel like I should have some real competence in the areas that my husband is developing in. I should be good at them, and I should keep up with him, and I should be the best at everything ever. Because that will make me valuable.

Stupid, huh?