“So far, I have failed. What a miserable and devastating feeling. The worst.” These were my first words in a journal entry dated March 28, 2018. Perhaps you can relate. Perhaps you, too, have experienced the feeling of complete and utter failure in something you’ve attempted….whether in your life, your career, or your personal relationships. If so, how do you identify yourself? Do you identify yourself as a “failure” or as someone who maybe “can’t keep a job” or “can’t find a loving partner?” Or, do you think of yourself as dull and ordinary, but see others as maybe talented and extraordinary? What labels do you assign to yourself and others? Upon what labels does your identity depend?
In her book, “Mindset,” Carol Dweck explores the value of a growth mindset over a fixed mindset in overcoming perceived limitations and failures. In a growth mindset, one sees intelligence and personality as attributes that can be developed….while in a fixed mindset, such traits are seen as fixed, absolute, and inherent. Even so-called positive labels prevent growth. If we see ourselves as smart and capable, for instance, how do we cope in instances when we are not smart and capable and when our identities are threatened by our failures and the labels others also attempt to assign to us?
“We like to think our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.”-Carol Dweck
Often, I have found myself in a battle with who I see myself to be or how others see me. During a year-long separation from my husband in 2008 when I was considering divorce, he accused me of being incapable of commitment. I, in turn, accused myself of being incapable of unconditional love. I always thought of myself as a committed person who loved unconditionally, but was I? And what about my writing efforts? I often considered myself a writer, but others didn’t necessarily see me as one since I wasn’t on a bestseller’s list. And just maybe, I didn’t really see myself as one, either. Maybe I was afraid that if I tried to be on a bestseller’s list, I’d fail….and you’re not a writer if you’re not successful, right?
The problem with these thoughts is that people are not “absolutes” like we sometimes tend to think. Although we might see ourselves and others as being simply, always, and inherently THIS or THAT, the reality is that we are most often a mixture of seemingly opposing traits and abilities. We are not liars, but we sometimes might lie, for example. If we or someone else lies once and we call ourselves or others liars, then we are (in actuality) being unfair to ourselves and others….and those who do this to themselves and us, aren’t being fair to themselves and others, either. In order to grow, therefore, we must be willing to accept that we aren’t always THIS or THAT and sometimes we are something else. Sometimes, we are people we don’t want to be and don’t actually like. However, this also means that sometimes we might be—or have within us the possibility and potential to be—whoever we want and wish to become.
“It’s only not who you are until you become it. Burn all limiting perceptions, including your own. Write them on a piece of paper and light them on fire. Get up tomorrow and be the person you want to be.”
I have a friend who struggles with her family not taking her seriously as an artist. As a writer and photographer, I understand what this is like, as well. It’s demoralizing. Not only is it tough enough already to be doing work that so many others don’t value, appreciate, or understand, but to have those closest to you criticize it can be immobilizing. However, we must recognize the criticism for what it really is, first, which is a projection of the other person’s own thoughts and feelings about himself/herself. And second, that in order to overcome the limiting perceptions, we need to shift our own focus to growth. Because, the reality is that even if our loved ones saw us as the amazing and talented people we like to think of ourselves as being or would like to be, we still would need to grow in order to realize our full potential.
One of things Dweck notes in her book is that children who are praised for being smart and talented are often just as hindered as those who are told they are not. When we approach challenges not as “tests” of who we inherently are but as opportunities to learn and grow, that’s exactly what happens. We learn, get better, and grow into different traits, abilities, skill sets, and possibilities….and it’s never ending. That’s why we see well-known actors like Jim Carrey take up new forms of creative expression like painting or well-known and successful musicians get into acting. In short, it doesn’t matter what others think at all. It doesn’t matter if we get “moral” support from those around us. It only matters that we don’t share their fixed mindset, that we see challenges as opportunities to learn.
“You have to be it to see it. People who see themselves as ordinary will behave as ordinary people behave…and by behaving this way, they won’t be able to see others as anything else, either. When we see ourselves as students with an extraordinary ability to learn, however, we become exactly that…and we see others and ourselves in a whole new light.” -JS
One added benefit to a growth mindset that Dweck doesn’t cover in her book is that by giving up the need to see ourselves as “absolutes,” we not only are able to open ourselves up to new possibilities and growth, but we are able to open ourselves up to more intimacy in our personal lives, as well. Without the fear of failure and limiting perceptions of others, we are able to just be whoever we are in the moment, accepting ourselves and others as capable learners with whom we may grow through shared experiences. To put it simply, we develop our capacity for intimacy by letting go of the need to see ourselves in a certain way. The fixed identities we build for ourselves are not only walls that prevent growth, but they are walls that prevent love….of the self and from others. Furthermore, the fixed identities we assign to others prevent us from loving them. However, seeing our identities as ever-changing and evolving possibilities creates interest and we become explorers of the inner workings and complexities of other people.
Personally speaking, intimacy in personal relationships is something I’ve been working toward for the past ten years or more. Ever since those first questions arose over whether I was capable of commitment or loving unconditionally, I have recognized the importance of letting go of who we think we are in exchange for learning and accepting who we really are and being open to who we may become. Even as we accept others for who they may really be, remaining open to who they may become is just as important to the relationships we build with them. In fact, it’s the only way we can really build relationships at all. As I continue to work on this, I can’t help but think that what I write here is also likely to evolve, change, and be built upon and anyone who reads it gets to see me just as I am in this moment….knowing that it’s neither fixed or absolute. I could write something completely different and contrary tomorrow and it’s highly likely that I just might.