“There were about 10 percentage problems Aunty. I got everything right Aunty. I think I will get 100% Aunty”, Manju was telling my mother about how she did in our third grade Annual math exam, her pigtails bouncing as she spoke with enthusiasm. My mother looked at me with a mixture of disappointment and anger after she left, “Look at Manju, How perfectly she speaks. She’s going to get A+ in all subjects”.
In a month , I got my exam results with an official promotion letter to 4th grade. My math score in the high 90s. That year Manju failed math. She was not promoted to 4th grade. Schools don’t hold back a child to repeat a grade for trivial reasons…. they do that only if the quarterly report cards and annual exams together paint a very bad picture.
All year Manju had been painting herself a wonderful child in all respects and my mother had been singing the “Look at Manju…Be Like Manju” song. “What? She told me she is going to be 100%. She failed?” mother exclaimed with surprise.
Boasting didn’t run in my family. My parents didn’t boast. My grandparents didn’t boast. So when we heard others indulge in self-praise, we believed it without question thinking that they did have something we didn’t….. Often basing our self-worth relative to what others projected.
The experience with Manju was an extreme example .. still didn’t learn from that until much later. Over the years we have let others determine our self-worth. Let’s call them “under-miners”. These under-miners impacted our self-worth is these ways:
1) Self-praise ,with an implicit comparison ,with an intent to invoke jealousy E.g My son earns $$$ knowing fully well that the other person’s son makes way less.
2) Veiled insults
3) Offering unsolicited suggestions to improvement, for real or imagined issues, with an intent to prompt feelings of inadequacy. E.g. “If you are so thin how will you manage childbirth…put on some weight”
4) Openly pointing out your problem areas (usually speaking out of context)- The classic “You have a pimple in your chin”…”You have gray hair”..(really!?! We have mirrors people!)
I do not know all of the motivations of these under-miners..but some are:
1) Extreme love and pride for themselves/children/loved ones
3) Low self-esteem and low integrity
More often I have found that these people are motivated by jealousy like Manju’s mom who cut 6 inches off my hair without my permission.
I can still remember her telling me while I stood in her kitchen drinking a glass of water (after playing with Manju), “Your hair is tapering at the end. It looks like a rat’s tail” . Without any preamble she took a scissors and cut off the end of my pigtails. My mother was furious when I came home with only half the hair that she sent me out with. ‘How dare she cut your hair’ she seethed.
But there were several other incidents that mother has been manipulated into figuratively ‘cutting my hair’. Like my weight “‘problem'”. For all my teenage and early 20s , the constant barrage of comments were on how thin I was. I was always made to feel inadequate about my body. My mother fed me all fatty foods my teenage years and still I gained no weight and hovered around the low 40 kgs. My husband gave me an order(years before our marriage) : “I atleast want 55 kgs”
(The above are excerpts from two letters to me – Proof of weight gain request)
Then I moved to the USA , got married, gave birth twice and over the two decades went from 45 kgs to 60 kgs. I reached the goal of ‘atleast 55 kgs’ and even exceeded it by a good 5kg! ( Overachiever !) Now I am too fat according to these same people who criticized my thinness years ago. My epiphany came when I looked at one person’s eyes and saw joy when she pointed out my “excess” flesh with glee and snide remarks. I realized that I was conned into self-sabotage.
Nowadays no one addresses me directly on my weight….maybe because they feel the “duck off” vibe emanating from all my pores …they address my mother instead, “She (your daughter) has put on some weight”. My mother visibly humbled , slightly ashamed goes, ” Yes, she has”. I wished she said, “She’s fine the way she is” both now and 20 years ago.
(above pic taken Mar 2015,where Wii Fit tells : I am perfect at 60kgs too!). Yes, my ‘center of balance’ is slightly off but my mental balance has never been perfect ….ever since I disallowed others to impact my self-worth.
Here’s my formula to preserve/guard your self-worth and those of your children/loved ones.
1) List all your (or your child’s) strengths – Intelligence Quotient, Emotional Quotient, and Physical attributes, achievements, the acts of kindness you have performed , skills, special talents, friends, family support etc.
Feel proud about it!
Most importantly be grateful.
2) List all your (or your child’s) weakness
Identify areas that can be improved – Chart a plan to improve
Identify areas that you cannot change – e.g Height , Skin color, singing skills- Accept it
Identify mistakes in the past that contributed to the weakness – e.g Missing an opportunity to go to college and study- Forgive yourself and move on.
When the under-miners attack:
Type 1: Self-praise – Control feelings of envy. Recall your strengths. Do not get into a competition with the under-miner. Be gracious in your praise of them. Remember to be grateful for all you have.
Type 2: Veiled insult – Depending on the nature of the relationship with the under-miner, the location, the witnesses around etc. the tone of the response can vary. The underlying message should be “Duck off”.
Type 3: Unsolicited advice for a real or imagined problem – Assess if there is a real problem. Are they your well wishers? Do they really care about you ? If yes, then accept that advice. Thank them. Ask them how they can help you. E.g. Ask them for money to buy an exercise machine if they tell you that you should exercise.
If the problem is imagined (or your perspective on the matter is different) – Firmly tell them what’s on your mind- Or ignore.
Type 4: Pointing out your problem areas – Tell them you are aware of the issue and ask them if they want you to return the favour and point out some issues in them. Either now and in another time that its inconvenient to them.
The biggest challenge is to determine who is self-praising or giving out unsolicited advice without an intent to undermine you. It’s a trail and error method ..so for the first time you encounter this situation give the “maybe-under-miner” benefit of doubt , while remaining on guard.
Euripides, a tragedian of classical Athens, wrote (translated to English):
If speech were got by purchase, there is none
Would care to lay out money on self-praise.
But since the bounteous air provides it free
There’s none but dwells with pleasure on his merits
Real or fancied, for it cost him nothing.
So please remember, It costs these under-miners nothing to self-praise , to get you jealous, to make you feel inadequate, but if you let it affect you it will cost you a lot.
Please share any insights , or the tactics you use to deal with annoying under-miners.