At the beginning of this month, round about that time in January when everyone was eating home-made salads for lunch and updating their CVs, I met a friend for dinner (vegetarian, cheap and alcohol-free). We sat across from each other discussing our hopes for the year, and the best ways to go about realising them. We talked about some of the personal and professional disappointments of 2016, and the steps we would need to take to ensure 2017 ended on a better note.
At one stage, I offered some advice on my friend’s career, naming a potential employer that she should contact, telling her that her talent and her intelligence would be a boon to any organisation. The next day, she went ahead and did it. And the employer wrote back, inviting her to a meeting. And as she prepared to go to the meeting, she messaged me to thank me for the prompt and the encouragement. I was impressed – with her and with me. And I wondered how it was that my advice for another person could be so effective.
At first, I thought it might be something to do with the fact that we’d discussed the problem, and the actions necessary to solve it, out loud. We all know that by verbalising an ambition or an intention, especially in front of a peer we respect, we are halfway to doing it. If she hadn’t emailed the employer, even after we had discussed it at dinner, it would have been slightly embarrassing, an admission of inertia. So yes, that’s definitely one reason why my advice was effective. But it’s not the whole story. I have told people of my plans and ambitions and resolutions before and still failed to achieve what I set out to do. I have announced my intention to begin diets and write books and create sitcoms, and then I have abandoned those schemes, unperturbed by the fact that my friends will now think that I am a failure. Ultimately, I am attempting to achieve these goals for myself, not my friends and loved ones. So that simple saying-it-out-loud trick isn’t the only reason the advice worked for my friend…
As January chugged along, it dawned on me. There was a crucial difference in the advice I gave to my friend and the kind of internal advice I regularly give to myself: kindness. When I was encouraging my friend to arrange that meeting, I told her how brilliant she was and how lucky the organisation would be to have her. But when I give myself little pep talks, they veer into lists of why I’m awful pretty quickly. Instead of telling myself that I’m brilliant and deserving, I tell myself that I am on the precipice of failure. My internal advice would go something like this: “You’d be a real loser not to contact that employer; if you don’t get up and send that email first thing tomorrow, you’ll have messed up 2017 before it’s even begun.” I would never say that to my friend. It’s so mean. And I would never be that mean to anyone. Except, of course, myself.
When I give myself little pep talks, they veer into lists of why I’m awful pretty quickly. Instead of telling myself that I’m brilliant and deserving, I tell myself that I am on the precipice of failure
One of the most interesting aspects of getting older is the realisation that you keep learning stuff, stuff about yourself and other people, stuff about life. When I was in my twenties, I presumed that I’d have all this figured out by the time I reached my early thirties. Now that I’m here, I realise that I’ll never have it all figured out and there is always an opportunity to learn more. And this is my first big lesson of 2017: I need to be kinder to myself.
I feel almost embarrassed admitting it. Surely, it’s the sort of lesson I should have learnt in primary school when my teacher encouraged each pupil to write out her best qualities. Or if it passed me by then, why didn’t I pick it up in a magazine or on an episode of Oprah or on Instagram? As lessons go, it’s pretty basic… But hey, to employ, another truism: better late then never.
Some people are probably born knowing that creating a series of interior monologues in which you regularly warn yourself that you’re on the verge of becoming a “fucking loser” or a “stupid failure” is not an effective way to motivate yourself. But it took me until I was 33. Before that, I was cynical and I thought tough talk was the way to get through to myself. But I was wrong; actually it made everything worse. I became discouraged before I had even begun and if I did slip up, I punished myself unhelpfully.
So this month, I’ve encouraged myself with kindness, adjusting my inner pep talks and going easy on the admonishments. It’s such a simple shift, and while it’s too early to say whether it will help me achieve my professional and personal ambitions, I can confidently report that it has helped me to feel happier.
So, as January ends, here’s some advice I learnt late: be kind out there. Especially to yourself.