Adrienne: Most of us are familiar with what it feels like to experience shame or embarrassment… but when was the last time you actually stopped to give yourself credit for a job well done? Today, our Wellness Columnist, Scott McPherson, is here to tell us about how measuring our successes can do us more good than accounting for our failures. Hi Scott.
Scott: Hello Adrienne.
Adrienne: So, we’ve talked before about how common it is to beat ourselves up with our thinking. Are those thoughts the act of us ‘accounting for our failures’?
Scott: Yeah. We’re mostly judging ourselves in some harsh, comparative way, based on what we don’t have, or can’t do. And those negative measurements lead to bad feelings.
Adrienne: So can the measurement of our growth or successes create good feelings?
Scott: Yeah. Our negative tilt is mostly by accident. Everything from parenting, to school, to coaching, naturally focuses more on correcting what’s wrong. But other than mindfulness work, our cultures don’t really train us to give compliments, or to assess the strengths of others or ourselves.
Adrienne: What if people haven’t had a lot of success, or don’t feel they have grown?
Scott: Even if our life was materially better in the past, if any of us looks back 10 years we’ll see a version of ourselves that was, overall, far less capable than the person we are today. It’s just that we’re so busy beating ourselves up that we forget to account for the fact that along with our failures, we’re also growing wiser.
Adrienne: Okay, so I understand you have an exercise that can help us measure how much our experiences have taught us?
Scott: Yes. The first thing everyone will need are some ‘markers.’ To help people grasp what a ‘marker’ is, I did up a list of the 7 most common ones my students choose. We probably only have time to cover five today. And people can make their own lists too. But if folks like these, they can find all 7 listed on my blog at relaxandsucceed.com.
Adrienne: Okay, so what is our first ‘marker’ for growth?
Scott: I tend to see people during periods of transition. So I often meet people who are in the process of reinventing their idea of what a ‘good job’ is. So a person might start a company. But a sense of hyper-responsibility can mean they end up torturing themselves by trying to keep up with every bit of work that comes their way. Then, after 5 years of experience, that same person can have grown to learn that saying ‘no’ is actually a valuable skill. Others might start off seeing the job with the highest pay as the best one. But, after 7 years of being tortured by a bad boss, that same person can think a ‘good job’ is one where we don’t spend our work day being abused.
Adrienne: So it’s the redefining that creates the growth? What other kinds of things do we redefine?
Scott: Another example is that 10 years ago, a lot of us would have had a much different idea about what defines ‘strength.’ So maybe a 30 year old man thought it was about being muscular or tough. But 8 years later, that same guy can have suffered a spinal injury. Now he’d be happy to walk, let alone lift weights. At that point, ‘strength’ to him can have nothing to do his muscles. For him strength can end up being about his ability to overcome depression, or to face the psychological stress of his daily physio. So even though a person’s body might be weaker, they can still feel stronger as a person. Or maybe someone thought ‘strength’ was shutting out their mother because of something she said. But 5 years later Mom has cancer, and suddenly ‘strength’ is the ability to forgive. These are not minor achievements when it comes to our growth as people. These changes can change the course of our lives.
Adrienne: Okay, so we can look at how we’ve redefined our notions of ‘work,’ and ‘strength.’ What’s number three?
Scott: Ah, ‘Beauty.’ Most of what we start with are ideas that were taught to us by our culture, I’m sure that’s no surprise to you. So a 22 year old woman can torture herself with the idea that beauty only exists under 110 pounds. But by 30, with more maturity, ‘beauty’ can be all about self-respect rather than weight. Or, maybe a younger husband thinks his wife is beautiful because she’s so pretty. But years later he can realize that what really makes her beautiful is the smile lines around her mouth and eyes, because those mark all the laughter they’ve shared with their kids. Again, these re-definitions represent a lot of growth that really improves our lives –if we account for it.
Adrienne: Are they all external measures of us– like how much we like a job, or how strong we are? Or are some more focused on changes in how we feel inside?
Scott: They are. For instance, a lot of us will redefine our idea of ‘romance’. When we’re young, a lot of our ideas around romance are external. They revolve around gifts, or sex, or big displays of affection. But as we mature, ‘romance’ can be something like: a husband staying home alone with the kids on Valentines, so his wife can go out for a super rare night out with her girlfriends. At that point the ‘romance’ comes less from the pomp and ceremony and it’s more about the couple’s ability to really see each other, and to recognize each other’s needs.
Adrienne: If number four was ‘romance,’ does that make number five– ‘love?’
Scott: It does. And these are some of the big ones. At 24 a woman can think that love is sticking with a violent husband while he sorts out some demons. But by 30, that same woman can think ‘love’ is leaving that husband, to ensure her kids aren’t exposed to that abuse. At 45 years old, ‘love’ can be someone handsome and financially stable with no kids. By 65 it can be someone with 5 kids, who was financially wiped out by the pandemic, but they make us laugh and they make each day fun.
Adrienne: Ok, so I know there are a couple more ways we can look back on our growth but, since we’re short on time, maybe you can tell us more about how people benefit from doing these exercises?
Scott: I’d love to. Because most people only self-talk to themselves about their perceived deficits. We get mad at ourselves for what we can’t do, what we don’t know, what we didn’t achieve.
And all of that blame just leaves us feeling way smaller than we deserve to feel. But, when we stop and look back to see what we’ve learned, most of us can easily see that we wouldn’t want to go back to being the more naïve person we used to be.
Adrienne: Does recognizing that make it easier to forgive ourselves for past mistakes?
Scott: For sure. Because we can see our innocence. Looking back, it’s easy to see that we just didn’t have enough life experience to fully appreciate what was happening, or what we were really doing. Plus, if we learn to forgive ourselves for our innocent mistakes, we also get a lot better at forgiving others for theirs. That’s why this is such a great exercise for bosses and parents.
Adrienne: So most of us are taught to criticize ourselves into a better performance. But what we should really be doing is giving ourselves a bit more praise?
Scott: Yeah. The criticism is like putting a plant in the shade because we’re mad it won’t grow. What we are better off doing is looking for any growth that did happen, and then we want to shine all of the light we can on that. We want to nurture that growth. It’s like the song ‘White Rabbit,’ by Jefferson Airplane. Except instead of it being ‘one pill makes us larger, and one pill makes us small,’ it’s that; recognizing our growth makes us larger. And criticizing ourselves makes us smaller. And the best part about that, is that we are in near total control over which one of those we do.
Adrienne: Very interesting stuff Scott. Thanks.
Scott: You’re very welcome.
Adrienne: Scott McPherson is our Wellness Columnist. He teaches mindfulness in Edmonton. You can find that list of seven questions at relaxandsucceed.com, and on Twitter and Facebook.
Sorry for the last minute deferment of the column yesterday, but that’s what COVID-related news does to things. Below is this morning’s short meditation, followed by the notification and eventual transcript of today’s CBC Column. 🙂
For those of you doing the Meditations in Gratitude series, in yesterday’s installment we were essentially thanking the world for all of the conveniences of modernity. Now we can use today to thank the world for everything that it held onto. And keep in mind: we can’t do these casually. For these to work we must do them earnestly.
Become present today. As we move about the world, rather than spin our own egocentric thoughts, let’s turn our attention to the outside world and watch for signs of anything with history.
Maybe it’s an old house we admire. Maybe it’s Mom’s old can opener that doesn’t work well, but it was Mom’s. Or maybe it’s a toy that links us to our childhood, or a beloved TV show we watch thanks to reruns. We are looking for things that create value to us personally, via the narratives we tell ourselves about those things.
As long as we find examples of this value throughout the day, it doesn’t really matter what we find. This exercise is not about the subjects, it’s about our attention. This meditation teaches us to be conscious and aware, and done right it’ll keep us meditating where we might otherwise be ruminating. And that alone makes for a valuable meditation. Enjoy.
For those who may be unaware of it, I regularly have the pleasure of discussing mindfulness practices with Adrienne Pan, the co-host of Radio Active on CBC Radio One. You can listen via AM740, FM93.9 (in Edmonton), through the CBC Listen app, or via the web on Radio One at CBC.ca. We’re normally on Tuesdays, at 5:20pm, although this week we’re shooting for maybe 5:40 today (Wednesday). I’ll update the time here once I know it.
Once the show has aired, if there is an audio version available I will add a link to it here. A listing of all of the columns is here. For those without audio versions, I will attach a transcript of the column to this post, after its airing.
If thinking about our mistakes and faults makes us weaker, then thinking about our strengths and achievements will make us stronger. Today’s column focuses on some key areas of growth that we often forget to account for when assessing our performance in life.
Consider checking us out. If you’ve never heard the CBC Radio Active show before, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. They have a great team.
Take care everyone.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.