Uplift and misery

I love my family. We’re all so weird, but we understand each other. Look at what Shra and Devin did for Halloween:

Devin dressed up as George W Bush, and Shra was Kim Jong-Il.
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Not only that, but they made pumpkin helmets for their poor kitties!
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I was sitting in picture-book class today and we were workshopping our homework. Some of my classmates really got chewed up and spit out with the criticism; there were people who were doing extraordinarily good work, and there were people whose work was, well, extraordinary in a different way, but they all got slammed – at least they must have felt like they did. I have to say, these workshop classes are such great opportunities, but I really have mixed feelings about them. Workshopping leave one feeling so incredibly vulnerable. That’s fine, but the format doesn’t always leave room to recognize and assuage that vulnerability. Ideally, every time we workshopped, everyone would get that much-desired approval and that pat on the head before the critiques are launched, but there’s never enough time. Sooner or later the teacher dispenses with “we’ll start out with only good comments first” and everyone pretty much gets just criticism. Some people are better at taking it than others; some days seem to be better than others. Much depends on how invested you are in your piece; if you feel like it’s really you — the way we all tend to feel when we think we’ve done something really worthy — then you’ll be much more likely to interpret critiques of the work as personal attacks. It’s just hard to run a workshop class without someone getting hurt or crushed or offended, and I think teachers need to work constantly at being cognizant of that. Not everyone is practiced at receiving criticism, and even if you are, the sting of a careless comment can linger for years.

Right. Enough on that. Writing and arts teachers keep that in mind!

What I sat down to write about is how tonight’s workshop got me thinking about my own ego. It’s funny because it wasn’t even my homework we workshopped today. But I guess I’ve been in enough similar situations that that being-critiqued feeling rises easily in me, nauseous and familiar. I’m not one of those people who gets super defensive and makes the whole class uncomfortable with heady arguments in favor of my own work. But I feel like, possibly, my reaction to criticism isn’t the same as everyone else’s.

When I was growing up, I was ridiculously good at everything I did. It sounds horrid, but it’s true, partly because I managed to avoid doing anything that I wasn’t good at. So, for example, I nearly always skipped out on or stayed an outsider during PE; I still have no idea how to swing a baseball bat or how to play basketball. At least until middle school, everything I tried, I conquered, and I did all this without needing to struggle or work hard. As a result, I grew used to being the best at a lot of things, and I grew used to receiving praise with little effort. Middle school, high school, and even college were much the same; things got harder, but I could still always get by. If it was something I liked, I worked harder, but only because I wanted to — not because I had to.

I am feeling the consequences of this early ease of approval now, in the way I respond to criticism. Any time I do anything, from writing a paper to baking a cake, I feel like I deserve to be lauded. When I don’t get the gushing approval I’ve come to expect, I feel gypped, offended, or hurt. But I’m used to doing well without working hard, so instead of thinking, “Maybe I should try harder next time,” I just think, “This person doesn’t appreciate my talents.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the gut reaction is the same. For a non-competitive person, I’m awfully keen on being the best at everything, and it’s extremely hard for me to accept that I might not be.

But grad school is changing all of this. I’m not any less offended or crushed by criticism, but I’m becoming more and more used to not being the best – in fact, to not even being in the top group. I used to think I was going to launch myself upon the world some day and take it by storm with my extraordinary talents, but I’ve become so worn down by my own failure to be the best in grad school that I’m now overly self-conscious and insecure about almost everything. Over time I’ve actually come to feel that I’ll never be good at anything I try; that no matter what I pursue, I’ll never be anything more than better than average. This internal combination of extreme egotism and extreme insecurity has proved a strange and counterproductive mixture. I’m so used to being the best, now that I feel like I’m never going to achieve greatness, I don’t even want to bother to try. I’m so used to succeeding without trying, moreover, that I’ve still not yet internalized that greatness comes from practice and not from innate skill (at least for all of us but, say, maybe Mozart), so I feel no impetus to self-improve. I just feel like I’m going nowhere and there’s nothing I can do about it.

I realize that’s a weird statement, coming from someone who’s constantly working at different pursuits and taking classes in different things and etc. But for every new inspiration, I also get a parallel sinking-stomach-feeling that tells me it’s all pointless and I’ll never be any good.

So the really bad thing about this egotism-and-insecurity cocktail is the way it makes me feel about criticism. I’m generating so much internal criticism now — radio station KFKD is always playing in my head – that I hardly even need criticism from outside sources, and in fact I become more and more desperate for praise. I really desperately want someone to tell me that oh my gosh, I am so amazingly good at ______, it’s a wonder I’m not already published/working/famous etc, and there’s simply nothing I need to do to improve my work! I know this is completely unrealistic, moreover undesirable, but having already pre-determined mentally that I’ll never amount to anything, I just long for someone to tell me otherwise. About anything at all. And yet I know it won’t be any use, because I have such a wonderful and supportive family and such a beautiful constellation of friends that I do have people feeding me this kind of encouragement every day, and yet I still feel like a failure.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at satsumabug.livejournal.com.]

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