“People won’t like or admire you for your weaknesses,” a teacher of mine once explained. I was whining about my insecurities in another course, plopping myself down on her office couch for a long session of moaning. But this time, her voice full of both tenderness and impatience, she told me to stop. “Enough with telling people about your worries, insecurities, and fears of failure. People won’t like you because of your weaknesses. They’ll like you despite them. Stop selling your vulnerabilities as if you’re proud of them. Enough with the whining.”
I repeat her words often.
Have we become too eager to tell everybody what’s wrong with us? Why do we use it as our opening conversational gambit? More unnervingly, have we increasingly come to regard our imperfections as our primary self-definitions?
Look, I’d hate to go back to a world where people you never met whack you on the back and boom, “Hiya, pal! I have two cars, three perfect children, and a fabulous job. Who are you?”
But should we be drawn to into conversations with strangers who disclose, in a self-deprecating manner while cutting ahead of you to get a refill of Pinot Grigio, “Hi, I’m sorry, I’m not good at meeting new people because I grew up as an insecure middle child, have a daughter with dyslexia as well as a son who is lactose intolerant, and also my spouse and I have been having trouble lately because I’ve been on this weird diet even though you couldn’t tell from looking at my arms, right, but ‘hi!’ anyway!”?
For years our culture has taught that there’s a big difference between bragging about your accomplishments and strengths and asking for sympathy for your frailties and sensitivities.
But I’ve been wondering: Are they genuinely, significantly, and effectively different?
Both are bids for attention. Both are ways to make an impression. Both are requests to be treated as an exception. Both are annoying. Both, when translated as subtitles, can mean, “HEY, I’M AN ALPHA PREDATOR!” or “LOOK AT ME! I’M THE INTROVERT, REMEMBER?”
I’m starting to see “sharing” as the “S” word. You might remember from George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion”– which was adapted into the hit musical “My Fair Lady”– guttersnipe flower girl Eliza Doolittle was trained by her mentor Henry Higgins to eschew talking about personal matters in favor of keeping to general conversational topics such as the weather and everybody’s health, because “that will be safe.”
In her first social encounter, however, Liza gets into trouble, because she really starts talking about peoples’ health problems. She declares that while her aunt reportedly died of influenza, she believes “They done the old woman in” because “them that she lived with would have killed her for a hat pin.”
It took me a long time to realize “vulnerable,” “insecure,” and “adorable” were not the same thing. This is a tough lesson, especially for women.
Even if we’re no longer encouraged to imagine ourselves as simpering waifs waiting for rescue by princes on white horses, we’re still encouraged to believe that femininity and insecurity are braided together. The problem is that the braid becomes a rope we use to tie ourselves down.
If boys are taught to mask their emotions (being male is no easier than being female), girls are taught to use emotions to manipulate. A little girl with a tear in her eye will be coddled; a little boy with a tear in his eye will be told he’s just fine.
My favorite story about a child given a different piece of advice was told by a Berkeley professor. Many years ago, he said, a terribly English family was putting in pegs for their tents while setting up in a camping site next to his. The daughter–around age six– whacked her hand and started, quite understandably, to cry.
Her father, employing the kind of tone used by Montgomery addressing the troops, simply looked down at his daughter and said, “Act the man, Emma.”
After a startled moment, Emma indeed stopped crying and rather more cheerfully than not resumed her duties.
I bet she’s a Member of Parliament now.
This is not to say that we should all thrust our natural reactions or responses so deeply underground that they are irretrievable, but instead to suggest that we don’t expect to be cherished, soothed, or celebrated every time we are hurt, disaffected, or inconvenienced.
When in doubt, consider Emma: Keeping working, stop whining, and make yourself proud.
This piece was first published in Psychology Today