A few days ago, I was paid one of the highest compliments I’ve ever heard in my life. A writer who I respect and admire read through some of my work and then said, “I hate you. You’re too talented and you should have released a book already.”
That seems backward, I know, but it was big for me. And it started me thinking: why do I accept some forms of encouragement but not others? Why do I look at things like this ecard and think, “this is relevant to my experience”?
I have a few extended family members who have always seemed to be encouraging. I always hear about them bragging about me. Usually, they’ve exaggerated my talents and they’re quite fond of introducing me to people with those talents attached. “Let me introduce you to this fabulous person. She’s a concert pianist. She’s also a published author.”
Now, I PLAY the piano, and I’ve had a few pieces of flash fiction published, but I’m already uncomfortable at an introduction like that, because it’s dishonest in its intent. And here’s the thing I’ve realized about it: it’s all about the person introducing me. I have become an object at that point — a talented freak to be flouted at dinner parties. Have these people heard me play the piano? Probably. Have they read any of my work? Probably not. And now I have the uncomfortable job of letting them all down lightly. “No, I’m not a bestselling author. No, you’ve never heard of me. No, you’ve never read anything I’ve written. No, I’m really not that special.”
The most humiliating berating I ever got was at the hands of one of those family members. After hearing I had changed majors in college, he told me, “You are a failure to this family. You have made a liar out of me. I’ve been telling all my friends that you would be a famous composer.” Well, no, you made a liar out of yourself by trying to predict the future. But do you hear what’s at the heart of it? This person couldn’t care less about me. All he cared about was that he could somehow attach himself to my possible success. He was already profiting from it by bragging to all his friends about how special and amazing I was. Was it nice that he had confidence in my talents? Maybe. Maybe not.
That particular brand of encouragement, repeatedly consistently over my lifetime, has been more harmful than good. I consider it discouragement, really. I tend to feel uncomfortable around the people doing it, and inside I’m usually thinking, “I am not your performing monkey.” I often do less work after that, rather than more. I don’t want that kind of attention.
So now, when someone compliments me, I tend to shy away from it. I might say thank you, but inside, I’m suffering an odd mix of emotions. I don’t know your intentions. If you tell me I’m good, I know I could be better. If you look at me with those “Wow, you’re so talented!” eyes, I feel like a freak of nature. I don’t know if you’re going to start inviting me to parties just so you can introduce me as “this woman who does those amazing things I was telling you about.” I’d much rather hear that you like my work or that it inspired something in you. Better yet, talk to me about your own work or process, and we can build each other up to do our best.
Writing all this down is strangely therapeutic. I’m chuckling when I realize I’ve come to the conclusion that the highest form of encouragement for me is to inspire jealous hatred in the people I admire. Whatever. I’m just happy I found something that works.
What encourages you? Do you remember a time when someone said or did something that greatly encouraged you?