I didn’t grow up in a rough environment. I grew up being told, almost every day, that I was special.
I grew up with lots of love from my family.
I got a good education and good grades.
I got lots of feedback that I was intelligent, talented and could do all kinds of things in the world.
So how is it that I ended up self-doubting, not really doing my thing in the world, and had to fight like hell to find my way back?
What happened? How does it happen to so many of us?
I don’t know the answer, but I have some ideas about the strains of the answer for me.
One strain has to do with what Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck has uncovered in her pioneering research. Her studies show that when children are praised for their innate abilities (i.e. “You are so smart. You are so good at math”) they become paralyzed by the compliments. Rather than becoming more confident, they become averse to doing the activity again, because they are afraid of disproving the compliment. They become afraid of falling short, particularly as the level of challenge increases. Sound familiar?
On the other hand, children that are praised for their effort (“Wow, you worked so hard to learn that –great job!”) learn to link effort with validation and love, and they go back in, again and again, for other challenges. Rather than getting caught up in ideas about their intrinsic abilities (am I good at this or not, smart or not, etc.) they fall in love with the process of working at something to get better at it.
I’ve written about this before here, because when I read Dweck’s research it so strongly resonated with my own experience. In my childhood, I was so used to being told I was brilliant and amazing, so used to being at the top of the class that I found it very difficult to stay in the game when I wasn’t.
As my talents put me in ever more competitive environments, excelling at anything came to involve lot of trial and error, and receiving a lot of negative feedback. I wasn’t used to that, at all. I found it intolerable, emotionally, creatively. I stopped doing the creative things I loved, like dance, theater, and to some extent, writing poetry. I turned to more left-brain pursuits where my performance felt less high-stakes, and that was one of the major turns I took away from my authentic self and my right work.
The other thing that happened was that I lost my spiritual connection. For me, playing big and making an impact has always come from a spiritual foundation. For me, achievement itself has always stemmed from a spiritual foundation.
What I mean by that is this: when I get down on my knees in the morning, and say, to a power greater than myself, “I want to be of service, I want to bring more light and love and sanity into this world,” when I have a regular connection to spiritual texts – from book of John to the Tao De Ching to Pema Chodron -then…big ideas start flowing.
With those ideas come inspiration and motivation that give me a magic carpet ride into action. And with all of that are tears in my eyes, and a sense of poignancy and gratitude about the miracle that I get to do this next thing, that I get to serve and live and express in this particular way.
I remember the first time I realized, with some shock, that spiritual connection translated to all kinds of achievement in the secular realm. These ideas and sense of purpose I would receive through my spiritual life would win me all kinds of awards, and got me into the most prestigious schools. This seemed like a big secret most people didn’t know about – the secret of what actually can bring achievement and success. It’s certainly not the only road to worldly success, but it’s seems much more pleasant than the toiling and scheming one. When I fell out of that spiritual connection, I lost my access to the guidance and inspiration for sharing my voice in the world.
The third thing that happened had to do with my environment. Though it had many, many strengths, my university was not, for me, a particularly empowering or supportive place. I just never quite found my voice there, my creative self or my leader self. I’m not sure why this is – I think it had something to do with being suddenly uprooted from everything I knew to go there. I think it had something to do with the patriarchal and conservative nature of the culture. And it had to do with the way my need for a very safe environment for my creative work couldn’t be met there.
All three of those strands: the need for praise I brought into adult life, the loss of spiritual connection, and the environment I was in – each contributed to a piece of loss of self. I can see that now that I’m on the other side. I can see how each piece created the other – how, for example, my university context contributed to that loss of spiritual connection, how stopping my creative pursuits was such a painful denial of the the truth of me that it then became uncomfortable to face my life during that spiritual time – so the spiritual time fell away.
Right-path-hood, connection to self, is a virtuous cycle and a vicious one. When we gain one anchor in our lives that connects us to our core, authentic selves, we literally gain energy to create more of that. When we lose some strand connection to ourselves, we are weakened by that, and are therefore much more likely to lose more strands soon.
As a coach, I never ask my clients “why” questions, because “why” sends us into the past and sends us into an analytical mode — neither of which are so potent for making change in the present. Most of all, I don’t ask why questions because it immediately sends our minds into hypothesis-making, and we tend to make up answers in order to answer the question asked. Our “why” suppositions, full of projections and denial and oversimplifications, are usually wrong.
But as I teach my course on Playing Big, and as my work increasingly grows in this direction of helping women recover their voices, I want to know why. I want to pull back the camera, go up for the birds eye view, look at the landscape, and ask: “Why? What happened here? How did so many of us lose and shut down our voices, or turn away from our right paths? What is the primary, fundamental cause, if there is one, and what are the secondary ripples that happen from there? Why are so many of us still paralyzed in sharing our voices in the world?”
Why? What happened for you? Please tell me in the comments.