“I Can’t Do Anything” Vs. “I Can Do Everything”: Learning to See Yourself Clearly
“The wisest man would be the one richest in contradictions” – Friedrich Nietzsche
There are plenty of people (especially on the internet!) who are quick to call others ‘stupid’ - whether it’s for having a certain political stance, failing a Mathematics test, typing “your” instead of “you’re”, or not knowing that it was actually Bob Dylan who wrote All Along the Watchtower, chances are you’ve been called ‘stupid’ at some point by someone.
Of course, this word may be used light-heartedly among friends with no negative consequences, but it is not hard to see that use of the word ‘stupid’ can be hurtful and confusing for the recipient, even if it wasn’t intended to be so. Sadly, however, making sweeping generalisations about the character of others and using negative labels like ‘stupid’ is all too easy for us to do, even if we don’t consider ourselves part of the problem. This is reflected in a well-known concept in Psychology known as the “fundamental attribution error”, which is a kind of judgment error that people often commit when they explain others’ behaviours by making broad assumptions about their personalities or dispositions rather than by acknowledging external factors that may have contributed to their behaviour. Think back to a time when you encountered a grumpy or rude stranger on the street - did you think that they were probably just having a bad day, or did you think that they were probably a mean, bitter person? Many of us may jump to the latter conclusion and commit this error without even realising it.
Beyond the fact that we sometimes judge others unfairly, one of the biggest problems with being prone to making sweeping dispositional attributions is that many of us also make such attributions about ourselves. Even if we rationally know that the occasional grammatical error does not really reflect the entirety of our intelligence or indeed our worth as a human being (remember: these are not necessarily one and the same), the fact of the matter is that when we do not perform up to our own or others’ standards, many of us feel and call ourselves ‘stupid’ – we become permanent failures in our own eyes.
‘Universalising’ and ‘personalising’ failures in this way by turning an isolated event or a single trait into a core feature of who we are is a classic reflection of low self-esteem. While some of us only feel temporarily down about ourselves when we consider ourselves to have failed in some way, those with low self-esteem will often dwell on these failures – phrases like “I suck”, “I’m stupid”, “I’m nothing”, “I’m useless”, “I’ll never amount to anything” become almost like mantras that drag esteem further and further down and keep us in a state of depression and/or anxiety.
Now, if you feel that you might be suffering from severely low self-esteem, depression or anxiety, the best course of action to take is probably to talk to someone you trust and consider seeing a counsellor or psychologist. Many of us, however, can start to tackle this problem head-on by ‘catching ourselves in the act’. Instead of dwelling on the fact that we did badly on one test or even that we aren't (and never have been) very good at a certain subject, we may instead recognise that we have both strengths and weaknesses, remember that there are many external factors that go into our successes and failures beyond our own abilities, and allow ourselves room to grow in our own time.
Take note that this is not the same as telling ourselves that we are in fact great at everything and simply blaming everyone and everything else for our perceived failures (this is known as the “self-serving bias”). While good-intentioned people may often tell us to that we can accomplish anything, universalising and personalising our successes (as may be the case in people with very high self-esteem) also has its pitfalls – a study by Baumeister, Heatherton & Tice (1993), for instance, concluded that when people with high self-esteem face some kind of threat to their ego or self-worth, they have a tendency to overestimate their abilities, take bigger risks and set unachievable goals. This inevitably leads to frustration and failure as their excessively ambitious goals are not met.
It seems, then, that consistently believing we can’t do anything (a reflection of very low self-esteem) or consistently believing we can do everything (a reflection of very high self-esteem) does not lead us to a place we want to be in. Instead, what we need to realise about ourselves is that we are all multifaceted. You - like me, like your teachers, parents and peers, and like that grumpy person on the street - all have good and bad days, and we all have strengths and weaknesses. Failing a test or being bad at one subject does not make us irretrievably stupid, just as one success or one strength does not make us invincible! By all means, look at where you went wrong when you feel you’ve failed and celebrate when you succeed, but don’t necessarily take either event as a reflection of who you are and who you always will be. As with most things, it all comes down to balance. Recognising that we have both strengths and weaknesses while acknowledging that many factors play a role in our achievements (or lack of them) is an ambivalent state that can be hard to swallow at first. However, really taking this understanding on board certainly can go a long way in helping us see ourselves – and others - more positively and clearly.
Baumeister, R.F., Heatherton, T.F., & Tice, D.M. (1993). When ego threats lead to self-regulation failure: Negative consequences of high self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(1), 141-156.
*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.