External validation was my favorite drug. Until my 50s, I often put more value on what other people thought of me than on what I thought of me.
As a child, I think I got most of my strokes for what I did rather than for who I was, so I developed a thirst for recognition and validation and I had a heckuva time getting off that performance wheel. Many people had many different experiences with my father, but my experience was that being around him made me feel inadequate and driven to prove my worth. I became so driven in fact that I drove myself into Chronic Fatigue Syndrome at age 21 and never fully got out of that mess.
I still enjoy external validation but I hope I no longer need it to feel OK. I’m willing to say things that are unpopular if I believe them to be important. I prefer receiving compliments to criticism, but I’d rather respect myself without any applause than to hate myself with the applause of fools. I’d rather get one compliment from a wise man than the adulation of idiots.
Receiving compliments remains a reason for why I create but a greater reason for my productivity is that I want to share things with the world that I think are good and true.
Compliments used to make me high and in seeking out that intoxication, I often made a spectacle of myself. I remember a couple of times in the 2000s that I felt so happy that I stepped on the gas and got speeding tickets.
I was talking today to a friend with a similar history of foot-in-mouth disease and we tried to figure out what was going on that led us to say so many hurtful things. We concluded that it was anxiety. When we felt uncomfortable, we were more likely to blurt out things that caused pain. In a calm state, by contrast, we tended to socially conform. When we resolved to keep our mouth shut, we usually didn’t get into trouble, but the combination of anxiety and an overpowering urge to make a joke often created offence.
I used to believe that Judaism’s step-by-step moral code (halacha aka Jewish law) was the best way to make a better world, but now I believe that helping people feel connected to their best selves, to other people and to the universe is the most effective method for tikkun olam (repair of the world).
As a reporter, I’ve interviewed thousands of people, and the inexperienced Americans were often giddy at the prospect of being asked questions while other peoples tended towards suspicion. It was the rare person I wrote about who conveyed an air of indifference to my coverage. These people journalists love because the vulnerable are a burden. It’s too much responsibility when strangers quiver over our random words.
Dennis Prager has noted that Protestants often deflect a compliment while Jews often ask for more. For some people, their immediate reaction to a compliment is to try to sign the person up for their free newsletter. They have the mindset that everyone is a prospect. For others, a compliment brings up a fear of becoming visible in the world. These people want to stay in their cave. The healthiest people are gracious when winning or losing in life while the most fragile are easily knocked off stride. I’ve often reacted to a compliment by trying to suck the person dry for a maximum of love and attention out of the fear that no more nurturing will come my way. “I have this image of you as an infant sucking a breast dry because you have no confidence that another feed will come along,” said a therapist. If the woman complimenting me was hot, I usually yearned to rest my head in her neck and go for the gusto. “Here at last is someone who understands me,” I would think. Fans were the best. I wanted to become so great that I only interacted with fans.
About 20% of the people I’ve known reacted to compliments with the suspicion that I was trying to con them (half the time they were right). A tiny number of women reacted with tears that I appreciated them.
Everybody I’ve known is more vulnerable than they initially appear.
Over the past few years, I’ve worked to give myself the attention and understanding I used to seek from others to feel OK.
In many cases, people aren’t even aware that they’re treating themselves in an abusive or neglectful way.
Look at Brandon. When I ask him about ways he may be treating himself poorly, he responds, “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs,” oblivious to the fact that that what he’s doing to himself psychologically could be just as damaging.
In these cases, recognizing and identifying the destructive behaviors is essential.
Let’s start off with abuse. There are three primary ways that people psychologically abuse themselves.
The first is criticism. People beat themselves up all the time. Some of the more general messages might be, “You’re worthless” or “What’s wrong with you?” More specific (and more subtle) examples might be, “How could you have screwed up that presentation?” or “You’re not talking enough, you’re so boring.”
These messages are toxic. Would you talk to someone you care about this way? Why would you treat yourself worse than a loved one?
Another way people abuse themselves is by putting pressure on themselves: “You’re not working hard enough,” “You’re not making enough money,” “You need to lose more weight.”
When you put pressure on yourself, it carries the underlying message of, “You have to do this or else…” You may not be saying these words, but that’s how our primitive minds interpret this pressure.
It’s like having a drill sergeant in your head.
A lot of clients I’ve worked with feel like the pressure is their friend. “If I didn’t put pressure on myself, I wouldn’t get anything done. I’d just lay around all day in my sweat pants eating bon bons. The pressure helps me accomplish things.”
In reality, the opposite is often true. Pressure can be a motivation killer. Remember how much more enjoyable it was reading a book for fun than when it was assigned for homework? Discipline can exist without pressure. You can be free to work on things with a sense of joy, instead of a sense of a heaviness. Some clients have told me that when they stop putting so much pressure on themselves, they actually become more productive…
Identify Source of Abuse
Where do these abusive habits come from? Often the way we treat ourselves is based on messages we get when we’re younger.
Maybe your mom made you feel bad about yourself.
Maybe your dad got excited when you got good grades and was bummed out when you didn’t.
Maybe your grandmother ignored you as a form of punishment.
Maybe your dad had epilepsy and unintentionally terrified you each time he had a seizure.
Maybe you had an older brother who got all the attention.
Maybe your mom was depressed and you were preoccupied with making her feel better.
Maybe your dad was irrationally anxious and you never felt completely safe.
Maybe you were one of eleven kids and you made yourself invisible because you saw how overwhelmed your parents were.
Or maybe your home life was relatively trauma-free, but you were bullied in 7th grade, went to an ultracompetitive high school, or your college girlfriend cheated on you.
There’re many different reasons why you could have come to develop this inner bully. Sometimes it can help to understand why. Sometimes it doesn’t matter.
There’s often an irony in learning about the way you abuse yourself.
When I point out to clients that they seem to beat themselves up a lot, they often respond, “You’re right. What the hell’s wrong with me?”
When I point out their tendency to pressure themselves and the impact it has, it’s, “I need to change this immediately!”
And with those that terrify themselves, “I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to stop this!”
It goes to show that the mind is so clever, even awareness of these tendencies aren’t enough to change them.