It is a word that we use all the time, a harmless word. There is not enough room for everyone. You can never have enough coffee in the morning. However once we compare it to ourselves, it has the capacity to diminish our self worth.
Growing up, I was the stereotypical “good girl.” Well mannered. Respectful. Hard working. I wanted everyone to like me. Everyone!
“Wow, you’re a scholarship student. You must be so smart.”
“Wow, you’re so good at swimming. You must be a natural.”
At the time, I had no idea how damaging these statements were to me but they were forming mental restraints: I was good. But was I enough?
My mother was often strict and uncompromising in her ways. Getting a 95% at school would mean there was room for improvement. “Who got 100%?” she would reply. Praise would only be received when I was good enough. When I was perfect.
Over the years, I fixated on my performance at home, at school, at work, at ballet class. I learned to rationalize “not good enough” as a perfectly acceptable reason to my inability to meet the demands set upon me. I learned to accept that I would never be good enough. And I became perfectly okay with that. So I gave up on trying to be good at mathematics. I put away my ballet shoes. I focused on the things I was “good” at and refused to waste more time on the things that I was not.
But somewhere between the classroom and the cubicle, the rules changed. I slammed into a work world that doesn’t reward you for good intentions and perfect manners. My beliefs that qualities are set in stone didn’t prepare me for a constantly evolving world. The requirements for adult success are different, and my confidence took a beating.
I often got very defensive to any criticism because a critique threatened to expose my flaws, much in the same way failure does. And for a long time, flaws and failure were the same thing. Criticism was a declaration of my worth or ability.
I had gotten so used to trying so hard to please everyone, that the slightest criticism was perceived like an act of injustice. “I am doing all these efforts to be nice and perfect and this isn’t enough?”
Because in my “good girl” image it was almost impossible to accept my shadows. And when I did, I immediately felt unworthy. I was not a good enough writer, a good enough cook, or a good enough girlfriend.
My constant hunger for approval means a constant need to prove myself. So I found it nearly impossible to leave a job half-done or to leave work to the next day. I put in long hours redoing tasks; chasing an ideal only I could see. That “good girl, together” image was just an emotionally draining mask and I felt like an imposter behind it.
Similarly in my relationships, when a friend or loved one would tell me something that remotely implied “I’m such a terrible person” I got into fight or flight mode. I desperately needed to protect that image otherwise they’d see me for who I really am and give up.
We live in a world where everything from dating advice columns to commercial ads tells us to “Just Be Yourself.” But what does this even mean? Who are we really? Is this a constant state – an unchanging personality that potential friends, lovers and employers would instantly love if you could only let it shine? Or are we malleable?
As Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, puts it: “many of us carry around a "fixed mindset": the implicit belief that our abilities are preset. That triggers anxiety because we feel we must live up to our innate abilities. It soothes us into putting little effort into things we think we're naturally good at. And it causes us to avoid new challenges, in case they expose our limitations.
By contrast, a "growth mindset" — which can be learned — sees talents as developing, and early failures as feedback showing that progress is being made. You can Just Be Yourself, in a sense, but a "yourself" that's inherently always changing. To succeed in this scenario, the key is nurture, not nature.
The notion of personality, talents, and skill-sets as fixed, Dweck demonstrates, creates a culture of obsession: will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?
My quest for perfection was a double-edged sword: I was either on the lookout for imperfections in myself or in others. I tend to be largely overcritical of any misstatement or flaw and see it as vitally important to correct people who are close to me when they make a mistake. This all-consuming need to find fault with others and myself was exhausting. It was an emotional landmine.
I used to believe my ideal mate would put me on a pedestal and make me feel perfect. Even more destructive, I believed that if a relationship requires work, something is fundamentally wrong and that any difference of opinions is due to one’s partner’s inherent character flaws. But the “perfect partner” and other toxic cultural myths, like “true love,” do not exist. What we can hope for is a partner who can recognize our faults and lovingly help improve them, someone who encourages us to learn new things and become a better person.
So is it possible to transition from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset?
The truth is, it’s not easy to just let go of something that has felt like your self for many years. But more than anything, the “growth mindset” creates a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval. The growth mindset says all of these things can be developed. All — my skills, my relationship, and I — are capable of growth and change.
There is nothing wrong with trying to do certain things in the right way, as long as this need does not hinder your lives and can actually help you achieve great success. We all struggle with fear and discouragement at times. Admitting that you might sometimes behave like an angry bitch, a liar, or an arrogant, self-conscious person is OK. Just as long as you remember those things don’t define you, but there are constantly moving pieces of you.
Mindsets are always in flux. One day you can have a growth attitude, and the next you’re thinking in fixed terms. I never thought I would be good enough to get into writing, or that I would ever be able to speak Chinese. It wasn’t until I found Dweck’s research that I took a hard look at my thoughts.
Today, I’ve learned it is important to praise the action, not the attribute. My boyfriend did a fine job at it last week when he surprised me with a box of my favorite cupcakes after completing a language proficiency exam.
“What are these for? I haven’t even passed yet.”
“For working so hard these past months, silly.”
And that was enough.