This week has been quite a surreal one for me, as my first book, Mindfulness And Emotions, hit the bookstore shelves. This came with a mixture of apprehension and joy.
On the one hand, it was wonderful to see a two-year project – co-written with Dr Eugene Tee – completed and “out there”. That said, I noticed a torrent of thoughts running through my mind. “Ah, that chapter could have been better … I should have made a stronger point there … that part could have been better explained….”
As the flood of frustration flushed positive thoughts away, a wise piece of advice came to mind: “Whatever’s done is finished – let it go.” I then began to wonder what drives us to be so self-critical. Why is it so difficult to celebrate our achievements without adding some caveat or qualifier?
Many of us look to our upbringing for answers to our emotional struggles. There is some validity to that: Parents want us to be successful, to be the best we can – but what happens when we show pride in our accomplishments? Don’t boast, they say. Talk about mixed messages!
Another reason we might shun self-praise is because we feel that, if we pat our own backs, our friends and colleagues will see us as arrogant and boastful. “Pride comes before a fall”, we’re told. On the other hand, humility in the extreme can lead us all to misery.
I know whenever a friend or loved one achieves some success, I try to be effusive in my praise. Not only does it make them feel good, but I get a sense of satisfaction from expressing my admiration for another. The joyful exchange lifts up all concerned, and the fault-finding mind is, for once, compelled to take a break.
An uncle of mine once explained that, when we give out praise, it can make the recipient big-headed and conceited. “If you say, ‘well done’ every time it’s deserved, what’s left to drive a person?” he’d argue.
I thought he was dead wrong and, years later, I found that psychological research agreed with me. When we praise people, it’s not just the other person who benefits – we also get a boost of joy and happiness. Furthermore, receiving praise actually increases our drive to do better, to be better.
Of course, there’s a caveat: The praise has to be genuine and specific. For example, offering a simple, “Well done” might feel nice to receive, but if we say, “Well done for passing your exams. Your hard work really paid off,” it validates the person’s efforts and shows them that it’s worthwhile to continue to work hard.
So what happens if we take another approach? Let’s say your child comes home with a 95% pass on an exam. You reply, “Ninety-five, ah? What happened, the other 5% got lost on the way home?”
By focusing on the negative – whether with ourselves or others – we reinforce negative thought patterns that say, “You’re not good enough, no matter what you do”. The more these negative thought patterns take hold, the harder it becomes for positive, joyful thoughts to arise. As we all know, being miserable is no fun.
But if we hope to be kinder to others, we first need to be kinder to ourselves. I’d wager that most of our suffering comes from unnecessary negative thinking, but with a little practise, we can overturn our negative automatic thoughts.
For example, the next time someone pays you a compliment, instead of dismissing it, try simply saying, “Thank you for saying so – I appreciate it”. It might feel strange at first, and that just goes to show how much the mind has been conditioned to react less positively than it could.
If you’d like to be a little more expressive and kinder, you can set yourself a target. Over the next week, try to compliment five different people on something you genuinely admire about them. This can be as simple as saying, “I like the way you had your hair cut – it really suits you.” For those of us without hair, you can say something like, “I admire the way you’re always ready to help others, no matter how busy you are.”
Whether it’s a personal strength, accomplishment or clothes that makes someone look fabulous, it’s amazing the difference it can make when we practise offering positive thoughts and words towards ourselves and those around us. Sure, it can take a little time, but it can be deeply liberating.
With that in mind, I’d like to thank my good friend, Eugene, for being a fantastic co-author and adding countless fascinating insights to the book. I’d also like to thank me for including several lame jokes into the mix, and for editing the manuscript more times than I care to count!