I always thought of blogs as being narcissistic, business related, or as my sister's, a way of keeping in touch or memorializing.

But, by necessity, I am learning a lot about myself. I find I need to get my thoughts out, and it helps me to know that someone else will read them. So I have created this little space for myself, to express the things I have trouble saying (be it emotional or physical trouble), to share what I'm going through, and what I'm learning through it.

I absolutely welcome comments. It's nice to know how people relate to what I'm saying.
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Saturday, 13 August 2011

Ownership and acknowledgment vs Bragging and Boasting

Warning: bragging and boasting below! Ok, hopefully it will only be self-acknowledgment, but still, you've been warned!

Much of my therapy session the other day twisted over to the fact that I have a real problem owning my personal accomplishments, as do many many women in this world. We are taught (implicitly) that to toot our own horn is bad form, un-ladylike, and downright rude. After all, "pride cometh before the fall," and Icarus did fall. Boastful people are annoying as anything, and braggarts are rarely respected or believed. So we hide our accomplishments, don't express pride, and diffuse compliments and credit that is given to us. In effect, we dis-empower ourselves.

So I had a little chat with the aspect of my self which believes all that to be true. And she told me that nobody would like me if I took ownership of my success. Luckily for me, I was able to refute that idea, by recalling times when I have taken ownership and have not suffered for it (yes, I do actually talk to myself, and yes, it does help - it's part of how Gestalt works). You see, what I realized that day is that bragging and taking ownership of our accomplishments are not at all the same thing.

Bragging comes from a place of insecurity - it's like saying "Look what I did, that makes me great, now will you like me? Please see how awesome I am! Look at me, I'm here! Please like me!" It hides self-pity in the cloak of self-importance. And all self-importance ultimately does come from a very small and dark little place - it is quite simply overcompensation. I've done my fair share of that, mostly in my younger years. And no, it did not make me popular. Those kinds of actions rarely appeal to emotionally secure people. They appeal to people who are themselves insecure and are looking for someone behind whom they can hide. Bragging can also be about taking credit where it is not due. Trying to compensate for what we see as our own failures by taking credit for other people's successes.

 No matter how you look at it, bragging and boasting are inherently dishonest. They arise from a place within us that does not feel that we are enough, that we are not deserving, and that we are not ok. That what we really did was not good enough, so we have to make it bigger and better, and leave out all the stuff we're not proud of. That is not in any way shape or form taking ownership of our actions - in fact, because it is a twisting of the truth, it is shirking that. And the thing is, that little piece of us that is so down on us that it needs the attention from the rest of the world will never be satisfied, and will always be worried about who will find out the truth and how to defend its twisted way of seeing things.

Taking ownership of our actions, however, is harder, and is more rewarding, and leads immediately to a sense of satisfaction (or sadness, if we screw up) that is rooted in reality. It implies an honest and critical examination of our lives. And that, in and of itself, is not easy and takes a bit of practice. Fortunately, this resonated with me, as I did work on this about 10 years ago, when I changed my life completely. And it doesn't matter if I'd lost sight of it, or if I only continued to do it (which I did) in some aspects of my life. It's a practice that I am familiar with, and which can help me once again to grow, to feel better about myself, and to be yet a better role model for my child, and all the other children and students and adults in my life. And that realization is where the session led us.

Professionally, it is easy for me to take responsibility for my successes and failures. I know I am an excellent teacher. I know it, because I have seen the results. I have seen how my actions can transform a classroom, and how the children in that classroom thrive, and how the parents look at me with respect and appreciation. I know it because my colleagues are forthcoming with compliments, and they give and receive advice freely (yes, taking advice is part of being open to the fullness of reality - it is feedback, and shows us how we are in the world). I know I am impactful as a teacher because there are markers and observable outcomes that tell me so.

As a parent, it is easy to see both my errors and my successes. My son is an empathetic, grounded, self-disciplined, creative, fun and funny person. He is also stubborn, a very slow starter, a selective listener, and has a tendency to attach himself to whatever electronic device happens to be around. But again, parenting, like teaching, is something I do with full consciousness. I have applied myself to both of these activities with my eyes open, doing the research, training, getting constant feedback, and seeing results. The main difference is that parenting is far more personal, and I am more prone to get sucked into guilt rather than being able to say "I did the best I could under the circumstances." And being proud of doing my best.

Academically, it is really very easy for me to take ownership, because the work is laid out, and it is easy to see what works and what doesn't. I am (or was, before the brain fog) academically quite gifted. It is as easy to relate stories about failing an exam because I didn't care as it is to talk about how thanks to my PSAT scores, I was sought out by several colleges in the states - and good ones, too. I will show my thesis to anyone who wants to see it, and I am not afraid to say that yes, I do know a lot more than the average person about child development, especially in the early years and early adolescence. I can take ownership of these things without any issue, because they are irrefutable. They are facts. Things that happened.

But personally - wow that's much harder. There are no obvious markers. No grades. No brochures in my mailbox seeking out a good friend. No employer reviews, or children whose growth I can asses. There's just me. So how can I know, how can I assess the reality of my situation? Am I delusional when I think I've become a good person, or when I think I'm being a good friend, or being strong? Will my friends hate me if I take credit for being a good person? Will they resent if I take credit for something? If someone else asked me these questions, I would answer without a doubt and quite simply - if they are friends worth having, they will not mind, or they will tell you in a way that will strengthen your friendship, and not destroy it.

At the end of the session I had a moment of real clarity. And this is more or less what I told my therapist:

I can actually take ownership of my role in all my current relationships, and this is why. Ten years ago, my life was very different. I was in a toxic on-off yet strangely monogamous relationship, I had pushed my family away from me, my friendships were full of manipulation and lies - to put it succinctly: I had no support system, no self-respect, and no direction in my life. I was a mess. There were circumstances, real and imagined, that led me to that point. Then, I had a very frightening experience that opened my eyes to my actual reality, and as I sought a way out, I slowly, painfully and joyfully began to build the life I have today.

Did you notice how I said I did it? I can own that now! I can say it - I built my life - nobody else did or could have done it for me. And that's what I realized. We are each of us building our own lives. What we surround ourselves with is only a reflection of who we are. Back then, I had a mutual attraction to other people who were self-destructive. Today, I have a mutual attraction to people who are committed to living life fully and openly. People who take and give support as freely as my previous friends destroyed each other. And the only thing that changed was me.

So yes, I do have a measure of how I am today as a person. It is the people who surround me, and the level of enthusiasm with which they are willing to pitch in and help me out. The commitment they show to our relationship, and the way in which they express their appreciation for my friendship. I know this is a valid measure, because it is such a direct contrast to how I was treated when I was not a good friend.

When I posted last week about the prize I won, I said "I am really very touched and excited, to have won a prize for something I did not do!" and immediately, two of the people mentioned in the post reprimanded me for that - for not taking credit for A)writing the story, and B) inspiring such support. So today, I will walk my talk, and say that yes, I won the prize. It was my story about the support I receive that inspired people to vote for me. And I am still touched and still thankful.

And I think that's the other big difference between acknowledging one's success and boasting. Acknowledging the reality of a success means acknowledging all the factors that played into it. And the truth is that nobody ever accomplished anything on one's own. Nobody. Ever. Thus comes the paradox (you know how I love paradoxes!) - taking ownership for something also means acknowledging the support received in getting there.

I am a great teacher because I've received excellent training, been in a school that shares my vision, and had great partners, and seen both great and terrible teachers in action. I am a great parent because I listen to people who are themselves great parents, and because of the research that has been done by so many into child development. I am a great friend because I have great friends. I succeeded in changing my life because I am tenacious and resourceful, but I could not have done it without the people who showed me what I was doing, and how I could become a better version of me. Everything I am is because of what I've done in relation to what's around me. And I can own that because I did the work in the guidance of my therapist. And that is how it works.

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