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Forget praise, criticism and comparison; you hold all the validation you need.
Real confidence has nothing to do with knowing you’re doing things better than others or even doing them correctly. Healthy self-worth, hand-in-hand with humility, is grounded in the trust that you are being your best in all the situations life brings you. Realise this truth and enjoy freedom!
The Shackles of Approval
If you measure success in terms of praise and criticism, your anxiety will be endless.
-Lao Tzu (via John Heider)
Do my friends admire my outfit? Do my colleagues respect me? Did I embarrass my family at the reception? Will I get loads of claps on Medium?
Over 2500 years ago, Lao Tzu warned that navigating life by the winds of approval and disapproval leads to tears. Imagine the power we hand to others when we vest their thumbs with the ability to swing our moods and our sense of self-worth simply by pointing up or down. And yet we do.
We don’t need to disregard what others think. In fact, that would be silly, closing us off from very useful information. The key is to respect their input as data without giving them the steering wheel for our life or the control panel for our emotions.
It’s difficult, especially for those who grew up in judging households where the love of their carers felt sharply conditional. It takes work, but the effort is worthwhile. Options include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), 12-Step programmes and somatic work. These and other practices help us question our grooved internal stories and interpretations. They may also allow us to separate the strong feeling of being judged from the sense of existential threat.
In the end, we can’t reliably control others’ beliefs and actions, so changing our habitual inclination to do so frees us for more effective pursuits.
The Waste of Comparison
I spend too much time looking sideways and not enough looking forward.
Even when we free ourselves from seeking approval, we may still use comparison with others to judge ourselves or the fairness of the world. Why did my sister get a bigger piece of cake than me? I wish I had a house as big as his. How can I look as good as her? I want as many followers as Tim Denning!
My partner shows admirable self-awareness when she recognises that comparison is an inefficient activity. Time spent looking ‘to the side’ at others neglects the view forward to her own goals and how to reach them.
Evolution probably hard-wired our penchant for comparison. ‘You don’t have to run faster than the lion, just faster than the guy next to you.’ Although it served a survival and reproductive purpose, our comparing instinct could still be counter productive in our hyper-triggering modern environment.
The Stoics encourage us to cultivate a powerful capability: ‘Learn to love what you have.’ And this doesn’t refer only to material possessions. It includes yourself. Recognise the worth you have right now, irrespective of how you compare to other people.
The Blindness of Progress
Not every comparison looks sideways. The forward gaze directed to the future often compares our current conditions with a desired set of better ones. Many say this ache for progress is the engine that has driven human advancement — giving birth to civilisation, technology and all they bring. Yes, and…
At some point, too much focus on the future crowds out appreciation for and understanding of the present. Since any progress starts now, ignorance (ignoring our current situation) undermines the growth we seek. And that’s not the worst part. Any future moment will eventually be the present, so our continual devaluing of the current moment risks leaving every hard-fought advancement hollow. We reach the time for celebration only to ignore it, because we’re already consumed by the ‘need’ to get to a still better position.
[Observe] what is actually taking place in our daily life, inwardly and outwardly.
So perhaps we should re-examine this forward gaze. We might benefit from less focus ‘forward’ in time or ‘forward’ on a path of progress and more attention ‘forward’ to see what’s in front of our noses (and within our hearts) now.
You may be richer, smarter, prettier or more charming tomorrow. But none of this means you have less worth today. This ‘you’ and that future ‘you’ are two points in a single process — life. That process has intrinsic value throughout.
The caterpillar, the cocooned pupa and the butterfly share a single life, each a ‘re-birth’ of the previous one. The later stages could not exist without the earlier ones. None is of greater worth than the others. This is equally true for each moment you pass through in life.
The Here and Now
If the team from East Lincoln Primary School lost 2–0 to Manchester United, would they have failed? Surely we would trumpet their achievement, a group of children with limited speed, endurance, skill and experience battling to such a close contest with one of the world’s top teams.
As a group and as individual children, they must have done their absolute best. They have nothing to be ashamed of. They can take pride in their loss.
Always do your best.
–Don Miguel Ruiz
In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz concludes with this one. Commit to always do your best. He echoes our grandparents, who told us this was all we could do — our best.
When we know we’ve done our best, we can hold our heads high. No need to beat ourselves up or second guess our decisions. We can rest confidently (and humbly) in our own self worth. Yet it seems we often fail to meet this standard — our best.
But Don Miguel is saying more. ‘Best’ is not our theoretical best. It isn’t the pinnacle of performance we might achieve if our biorhythms were at their peak, our night’s sleep was deep, our diet was optimised, our mood was bright, our family was behind us, the weather was ideal and our fairy god-mothers had given us every other required blessing. Neither is it matching our historical best.
No, our best is the utmost we can do in this particular situation, in the personal condition we are currently in. Our best is the best we can do, in these circumstances.
You Always Do Your Best
The week after the Manchester United loss, the East Lincoln Primary School team might lose again, 6–0 to the North Blinking Primary School team. No single issue explains this unfortunate result. Each child might have been ‘a bit off’ for one reason or other. Their teamwork didn’t ‘click’. The star player may have even thrown a frustrated tantrum at a refereeing decision, earning a red card.
Obviously, the team’s fans would prefer the star hadn’t done this. They can easily imagine a world in which she kept her cool and went on to lead the team to victory. That key player certainly didn’t match her theoretical best. At other times, she’s performed much better. But whatever reasons lay behind her tantrum, there they were. No matter what weakness or poor reaction let her down, there it was. Given these facts, given this situation — within and around her — what she did was the best she could.
We always do our best. I think Don Miguel is encouraging us to see this, to realise it. Of course we make mistakes. Yes, we behave poorly sometimes. We can be lazy. All of this is true, and aiming to do better is good. To take responsibility is right.
But taking responsibility doesn’t require beating ourselves up. We can admit fault and look to behave in ways that make the mistakes less likely. It’s part of life, and every part of life’s process has worth. The version of yourself that messes up is no less valuable than the one that gets it right the next time.
This goes against what most of us have learned. We need frequent reminding to settle into this understanding. Even when we do, we may be slow to realise it applies not just to us but to everyone. Everyone always does their best, given their current internal and external situation.
So have confidence. Know that your worth is intrinsic. Take part in life’s celebrations and deflations, by all means. But also realise: no failure diminishes you; no success elevates you.
And remember this is true for others too. Consider it a door to compassion. See our common humanity in doing the best we can in the beautiful, chaotic swirl of conditions life gives us. The version of ‘us’ that turns up is a part of the overall situation life delivers. Beneath and throughout them all is life itself — what we are and what we share.
It may not be easy: throwing off the shackles of approval, reducing the waste of comparison, re-orienting from the obsession with the future, valuing and loving ourselves as we are, accepting and loving others as they are. It is part of life’s process. I know we’ll do our best!