Impervious to cheerleading?
Got a very encouraging email today from one of my newer supporters.
In the last couple of years, I have acquired a few of these people. They're sort of like mentors, in the sense that they are partly giving advice, and partly cheerleading. Cheerleading mostly consists of them finding gentle but firm ways of telling me repeatedly that I have a warped view of my own accomplishments because of my toxic adviser's manipulation tactics.
Yes, some small part of my brain has a conversation that goes like this:
Are they just saying that to be nice?
Why are they being so nice to me?
Are they just being nice because there are so few women in science?
And part of my brain says:
Um, no. They have no reason to just be nice. So, they must mean it. DOES NOT COMPUTE. DOES NOT COMPUTE!!
But no matter how many nice things these cheerleaders or various strangers say to me, I still suck at taking any compliments about my work.
They say, "That sounds really interesting! What a great project! What nice results!"
And I say, "Well I think it's interesting. And it's very nice of you to say that, thank you."
But what I'm actually thinking is, I should really let this poor polite person get on with their day so they don't have to pretend to be interested in my project any longer.
It's really kind of sad. Supposedly this is one of the symptoms of "depression" - warped thinking, the inability to perceive positivity. So even though I'm feeling better than I was, I think this is a symptom I have had my entire life.
I just really have no idea how to genuinely thrive off of compliments. Applause, okay, I can enjoy that. Who doesn't like that? Gifts are fun too! But from a young age I had it drilled into my head that when people say nice things, it's just hot air and you should always ignore it. Worse than that, compliments could be dangerous - you might become arrogant and lazy!
I think this is partly related to gender roles. Girls are supposed to be seen and not heard; be helpful around the house instead of playing outside until after it gets dark. If someone gave me a compliment when I was little, it was usually for something meaningless or shallow, as in, "What a pretty little girl you are!" (and aren't most little girls pretty, anyway? isn't this something everyone says? doesn't the impersonality of it make it automatically meaningless?)
Then again, I was also the kid who openly disagreed with compliments. I distinctly remember being chastised by my mother after a random visitor to the house complimented me on something I was doing.
He said, "You're very good at that!"
I was probably about five years old, but I looked directly the guy and said, "No, I'm not."
I remember being baffled when my mother told me that it was more important to say "thank you", since it seemed like a direct contradiction to her general attitude.
Although she occasionally says it to me now (about things like cooking, for example), she would never have used the phrase "You're very good at that" about anything that mattered to me when I was growing up. For example, from a young age, I loved writing, but she always said she couldn't understand why I liked it so much because I wasn't very good at it.
As if enjoying something and being good at it are mutually dependent, or something.
I was taught that, just because I enjoyed doing a particular activity, and even if other people said I was doing well, that was never enough to determine whether I was actually good at it. I never won any awards, and I really wasn't a straight-A student. Therefore, I wasn't really very good at anything, as far as my parents were concerned.
So maybe it's partly because my adviser has not been exactly laudatory, and this is the pattern I learned from my family, but no matter how much positive feedback I get from other people, most of the time I feel like this is all well and good but the existing evidence suggests it might not matter much, practically speaking, in the long run.
Which is sort of the point, I think - the idea of living in the moment of a genuine compliment is to get that little glow, I guess, and say for right now, I am doing just fine, and all that matters is right now.
I was raised to worry about the things that last, though, in the sense that actions count for more than words. Reaching your goal, in my family, is more important than enjoying the process.
Which is stupid, because most of life is really about process, and reaching your goals usually just means moving on to the next one. If you just live from achievement to achievement, you're going to spend very little time actually enjoying anything.
And yet, science is set up so that certain types of goals are all that matter. You don't get credit for developing methods, unless they're published. It doesn't matter how much fun you had or how long it took. Process is nice, but achievement is what matters in the long run.
So while compliments can almost always be taken back or easily forgotten, if somebody is really willing to go out on a limb and do something to get you where you need to be, that's meaningful.
But I think these people are genuinely trying to do something by being my much-needed cheerleaders. I just can't quite get it through my thick head how to use positive feedback as persistence protein instead of discarding it like corrupting candy.