By Marilyn Brant
But there's more than one way in which we can skitter at the edges of honesty and hide the truth from ourselves. The world won't be as quick to criticize or to call us out if we're downplaying a strength and, more than likely, we'll even get praise for our modesty. But, just as we should never be foolish enough to believe our own press or fail to see the publicity spinning wheel for what it is, we, likewise, shouldn't make a habit of internalizing our self-depricating statements, particularly when we know we don't mean them.
I think about this sometimes, especially when I'm actively trying to deny an ability I have. My high-school years were marked by two such assertions: (1) that I wasn't athletic and (2) that I wasn't a storyteller. In moments where I was quiet enough to listen to the inner voices and be honest about my actual gifts and flaws, I knew I was wrong to fight so hard against both of these. To keep claiming again and again that I was exactly who I said I was. Someone who hated gym. (Wasn't this proof enough of my lack of athleticism? Sure, I might love to dance, but didn't REAL athletes freakishly enjoy running laps and playing games like softball?) And someone who couldn't tell a story to save her life. (A TRUE storyteller would be able to express an anecdote aloud with ease, not just write it down, wouldn't she? And she wouldn't need to burn through half a dozen drafts to get the paper version just right either...)
So, I ignored any signs that might contradict these two arguments, even though there was a persistent side of me that suspected if I really challenged my denials -- point by point -- my claims wouldn't entirely hold up.
But I know now why I did it. Why, in many ways, I'm still denying these two areas to be strengths, despite having been a competent enough dancer to be chosen to tour Europe with a performing group one summer during college...or a decent enough storyteller to be multi-published in fiction. Because to own up to having some natural abilities -- to really embrace them as strengths -- would require my having to take full responsibility for developing them. If I tried but failed in some way (i.e., didn't get a place on the team or had a manuscript rejected), my ego couldn't soften the blow of defeat by blaming it on my lack of aptitude. But if I could insist that I had no gifts at all in these areas, then any small bit of progress I made was a triumph. I could pat myself on the back for overcoming great obstacles and doing something not remotely innate. I could convince myself that, of course, I'd have to work 3x harder than those natural athletes or storytellers. If I succeeded, then it was only as a result of my work ethic. But if I didn't succeed, well, I'd have a ready excuse to justify that failure, wouldn't I?
It's difficult for me to fight this tendency to immediately negate a gift just because I'm terrified of the personal/societal expectations of owning it. Better to think of myself as an overachiever than to suspect the reverse: That for too many years I may have actually been underachieving. That I possessed more strengths than it was comfortable for me to admit, and that I even squandered them at times because I wasn't willing to believe they existed. That my greatest weakness had nothing to do with either athletics or storytelling, but being too afraid to tell myself the truth about what I could really do well and what was genuinely out of my grasp.
In A RETURN TO LOVE, Marianne Williamson wrote something famous and beautiful on this subject, which even Nelson Mandela quoted her on. She said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? ... Your playing small does not serve the world."
Perhaps not every person who reads this will have experienced something similar. (I don't doubt I carry around more fears than most, LOL.) But I'm hoping there are some of you out there who'll immediately think of a gift of your own that you've struggled to openly claim. Maybe it's baking or painting or playing a killer game of Texas Hold 'Em. Having an aptitude for poetry, math, tennis or jewelry design. Possessing more musical talent or more computer knowledge than you ever use. Whatever it may be, telling yourself you don't have it -- when you do -- doesn't make it disappear. So take that first frightening step...whisper it aloud. Say, "Yes, this gift is mine...now, what am I going to do with it?"
Marilyn Brant writes contemporary women's fiction and romantic comedy. Her latest novel, A SUMMER IN EUROPE, came out from Kensington Books in December 2011. About the story, A Bookish Affair wrote, "Oh this book is like sitting in the sun in the middle of a Roman piazza while eating a big scoop of gelato. It's lovely and something to be savored... Sigh, this was so good; like a vacation in a book!" (Marilyn likes this quote a lot and hopes it's true. :)