Monday Musings…. Balancing on the Wire of Well-being

Do you find yourself often worried about what others think of you? I think this is the plight of simply being human. It’s not just a grade school or high school thing. It seems to transcend time and creep into adulthood.

The need for acceptance and approval can be crippling for some and can trigger all kinds of negative self talk. No doubt, our social media world compounds this, as people strive for likes and followers, and base their worth on these numbers.

There is something very curious about the human condition that willingly positions well-being, precariously balancing on the high wire of approval.

Do I look good in this outfit?

How do you think the presentation went?

Look at me finishing my 10k run.

Did you like supper? It was a new recipe.

I spent hours cleaning and organizing the garage – what do you think?

And I could go on. These are common questions that many people ask, without really thinking about it. It’s like a reflex or is it? You know the desired answers are that yes, you look good, you’re smart and amazing, a great cook and you work so hard. And with those comments you sit back, sigh, and say to yourself that all is well in the world. You’ve conditioned yourself to ask and expect these responses in order to feel good.

But what happens when the person you asked comes back with a less than favourable review: I think those pants are a little too tight. I couldn’t really follow what you were saying. Good for you - I just cycled 32 k. Hmm, I’m not a fan of green peppers. Well, I might have put those boxes over there. What happens to your inner dialogue now? The well-being wire is generally a little shaky.

Some people will rebound and shake it off, dismissing the comments and carrying on. Others though, really take this to heart and ruminate on those statements, chewing them over and over, until there’s a mess of doubt, fear, resentment, and a whole host of other negative thoughts and emotions swirling in their head space. You knew what you wanted to hear; but more so, what you needed to hear to maintain your mental equilibrium. And therein lies the problem.

Needing the acceptance and approval of others is something you've learned because of the reward you get, namely ‘feeling good’ about yourself. And so, you hunger after those feelings, repeatedly performing ("look at me" tactics) and asking in order to fill your dopamine bucket of perceived joy. It doesn’t take long to become dependent on the opinions of others for your sense of security. When you base your worth on their comments though, it's easy to see how easy it is to become discouraged, despondent, and perhaps, even depressed.

As an educator, I see this all the time. So, I teach my students the important principle of learning. The theoretical definition of the term tells us that learning is a relatively permanent change due to experience. Your experiences shape your thoughts, emotions, and behaviours; but you are a malleable being – the mold can be reshaped. And so it's entirely possible to change the negative head space you may find yourself in, especially as it relates to processing other people's comments.

Now before I continue, I want you to know that I believe asking someone's opinion is very important thing to do. I actually regularly solicit this from my students and take note of their comments and criticisms. It gives them a voice and me an insight into their experience in one of my classes. So, I’m not saying the solution to not letting yourself be affected by others’ comments is to never ask or to completely ignore them. No! There is a way to still invite the opinion without the response controlling whether you fall off the wire of well-being.

Here is how you do it:

1. Seek feedback, not approval. There is a difference. Approval demands positive appraisals – you only want to hear good things, because to hear the negative, technically means you’ve failed in some way. Nobody wakes up and says, today I want to fail! But deep down when you’re unsure, you’ve learned that positive/comforting comments can cover that fear and so you don’t correct what you probably should. You simply keep going willfully ignorant of changes that could make you better.

2. Carefully choose whose feedback you seek. Whose opinion really matters to you? Is the person you ask, someone who will be honest and gracious? Is this someone who won't just give false platitudes, but will actually help you to grow? The choice matters because if you ask random people (like on social media) you can’t be sure that their responses are accurate, let alone worthwhile. When you choose the right people, even the negative comments won’t send you over the edge, because you realize the person wouldn't have said it to intentionally hurt you, but rather to protect and guide you moving forward.

3. Face the reality. No one is perfect. But here's the truth: everyone is a work in progress, no matter how old you are. There is a universal law of decay, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that infers that ultimately everything falls apart. Your body will age, your endurance will wane, and you must face the fact that what once was, is never more, regardless of the flattery you desire. Your efforts may fail and your best laid plans may come to nothing, but it's your interpretation of your reality that will either move you forward or set you back.

4. Learn from Feedback. Feedback often points out your imperfections. And there's definitely some people who just like to rub that in your face by pointing out your flaws.This can be tough when you’ve put in a lot of effort to improve a current state or when you’ve worked hard to reach a goal. Once you’ve considered the source (point #2) and then realized there is always room for improvement (point #3), the seemingly harsh criticism may in fact be exactly what you needed to hear.

5. Ask for feedback in the right way. You may think this point should have gone earlier, but I look at it as a logical extension of point #4. It refers to the follow-up question(s) you should ask in response to the perceived negative comments that came your way. What you will learn from asking the right questions, can truly improve your sense of well-being. Here’s what I did with my students last semester who were the first ones taking a brand-new course that I designed. Midway through the course, and before the pandemic restrictions, I asked them three questions: What do you want me to keep doing? What do you want me to stop doing? What do you wish I would do? Their answers were anonymous and I told them I wanted them to be brutally honest (back to point #2). In a nut shell, I had way more “stop doings” and “wish I would do” statements than praise. Was I discouraged? No! They gave me the truth! My goal is to make their course the best learning experience that gives them what they need to succeed in the future. I also took that feedback and read them the list of improvements they suggested, letting them know I heard their points and was going to make changes moving forward. The bottom line is when you ask for feedback, don’t word it in such a way to only get praise. If you pay attention, you’ll see how often you’ve done this. Instead, realize that in order to slow that decay (point #3), the solution is to continually ask and seek out ways to learn and improve. That is good for your mental health!

So, once you’ve changed your mindset by asking for feedback from the right people, with the right intentions, and reflecting on the potential for improvement, simply repeat. Your well-being will no longer be dependent on the praise of others.

When you do find yourself getting discouraged by what others are saying about you, however, take heart that there is One whose ear is always available and who will speak the Truth in love.

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© 2020 Connect the Thoughts: Charlene Mahon