Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Affirmation - the frosting on the cake

I've been incredibly taken by the above Sesame Street video the last few days. Though I'm a pale girl with stick-straight hair who heard about this on NPR (how white can I get?), I applaud this African-American puppet's message. And it's even sweeter since the song was written by a daddy for his daughter who was struggling to appreciate her awesome afro locks.

One thing I love about being back in America (the land of self-esteem) is how many encouraging messages I'm constantly privy to. Even though I've heard countless Brits deride my culture of cheesy encouragement and mock how AWESOME!!! everything is to Americans, I strangely enjoy the abundance of compliments flying around here.

When I moved to England in 2005 I was in for a bit of a shock. There are plenty of encouraging people in the UK, but in general, the main method of connecting with one another is through cynicism and self-deprecation rather than positivity and praise. As my high school counselor for at-risk students friend once told me, in America self-deprication is a signal of a mental illness: not liking yourself is suspect. But in England (and New Zealand actually), it's a mark of social prowess: liking yourself too much is suspect.

So when I got to the shores of the mother ship, I wasn't prepared to not be told how great I was every five minutes. I couldn't read people and thought surely they hated me because they didn't tell me straight up, "I like you Alisha!" I didn't realize yet that being made fun of was a signal of endearment or that most compliments remain unspoken but understood in the UK.

When Dan and I were living in New Zealand, our friends Mel and Mark (which sounds suspiciously close to "Mack" in a kiwi-accent) had us over for a night of Chinese take-out, Hong Kong cinema and as a grand finale, a self-saucing chocolate cake! Definitely evidence of kiwi-ingenuity, this cake is not only delicious and practical, but also a premium metaphorical vehicle.

After enough times feeling shot down by failed friendship attempts and wondering if the people I was working with thought I was the worst employee in the world when I first arrived in England, I slowly learned the lesson of the self-saucing cake (though the lesson was unnamed at that point). Instead of waiting for other people to frost me up real good with positive feedback, I learned to do it myself, with inner resources of proverbial chocolate goodness.

Instead of waiting for a new contact to gush about how wonderful they thought I was (rare), I'd just assume they liked me and get on with it. (And even if they didn't like me, I learned not to care). Instead of waiting for a boss to tell me things were OK ever 5 minutes, I assumed they were unless told otherwise. Instead of waiting for a coating of sweet frosting, I'd just muster up some good British resourcefulness and create my own.

On Monday at Shari's over a yummy pie, a new friend of mine was talking about a phenomenon called "nurture shock", which basically means that kids who are overencouraged and affirmed too much (read: American kids) can actually be adversely affected. They can come to depend on constant approval or set their expectations of themselves way too high and be paralyzed by the reality that they're not perfect.

I will always be a "words of affirmation" girl and I enjoy encouraging people, so that's never going to change. But I do recognize value in learning not to be dependent on affirmation and positive feedback. Going through an affirmation drought was difficult as first, but in the long run was a great way to confront hidden insecurities and my need to please people; I had to dig deep, be my own self-saucing cake and then get over it.

It's nice to be back in the land of positivity. But looking back I am also thankful to England for teaching me a thing or too about not being so dependent on external affirmation. I'm also thankful to New Zealand (and the Gregans specifically) for introducing me to this saucy little delight.

This is kind of a big question, but do you think you depend on other people's affirmations to keep you going? Do you think you're a people-pleaser? Or do you just want the recipe for the now infamous self-saucing cake?


The Wilsons said...

As a fellow "words of affirmation" girl, I very much enjoyed this post & I too am learning not to rely on external affirmation!! LOVE THAT PUDDING!!!!! YUM X

Melissa-Jade Gregan, said...

Thank you for sharing this babe, and mark will be so happy to have his pudding baby mentioned online!! I want to say how much we LOVED you guys. Kiwis typically think of Americans as...overwhelming, and sometimes a little insincere. But getting to know you we really came to realise that its not the case most of the time. you guys are all about building people up - and as you know, that is RARE here in kiwiland. So you left us feeling less terrified, loving americans - you guys in particular - and we have been trying to be much less cynical and more encouraging. So thank you darling Alisha and Dan. We send you love love love from Kiwiland. Glad you have made our famous puddings over there!! Yum Yum!

Lewy said...

This post is well timed for me, thank you for it! Oddly enough, I feel the same lack of expected encouragement here in LA (at least in "the industry" - not from friends of course!). It takes a lot not to get down on myself when I feel unappreciated or passed over. I'm emboldened by your post to make my own frosting. :)

amyrenee said...

I prefer my compliments in the form of creme brulee... Which, by the by, I had for the first time with you at that little cafe in the latin quarter in Paris. Oh, cie la vie!

A little hard to get to at first (you've got to break through that crunchy outer layer prepared by fire!) but smooth and sweet after that. It's well worth the wait.

Anna said...

A very interesting post. Being a UK citizen I would completely agree with your post. It is hard work living here sometimes however I am one of those people who does like to share a compliment amongst friends and love to help people. It makes such a difference to your mental health if you can try and recreate this at work. I must say I have met a lot of Americans here in London and each one has been a delight to be with. I also love your blog by the way.

Rachel said...

I really enjoyed this, too, Alisha. I I especially liked when you said, "Instead of waiting for a new contact to gush about how wonderful they thought I was (rare), I'd just assume they liked me and get on with it." I have struggled with this, but feel like I'm starting to finally feel comfortable in my own skin, which allows me to stop thinking about myself so much and really listen to other people.

On another note, I have read that book, "Nurture Shock." It was really interesting and I think helped explain some of my own underachieving perfectionism (which is not an oxymoron). =)

Jess Fouche said...

I'm definately a words of affirmation girl too, but I love the heart of what you shared- so right on. Also, love that video too and did you know that the dad (Caucasian) wrote it for his daughter who is adopted from Ethiopia? I love it even more for that- a dad actively doing what he can to teach his daughter to be proud of her uniqueness!

Rachael Randal said...

Speaking personally (as a Brit), I would definitely agree that as a nation we do rather religiously practice self deprecation with no self-saucing cake :-( But at the same time most of us inside are just craving for praise and affirmation from others. Worst of both worlds eh! Maybe I should move to the States to get some external sauce? Or maybe not - I might be deemed to have a mental illness ;-)

Anyway, some words of affirmation from this Brit: Your blog is AWESOME!!!

alisha said...

Thanks for all the affirming words going around everyone. ;) I swear I wasn't fishing for it!

Shannon of ** Happiness Is...** said...

I never noticed the lack of encouragement while I studied abroad in London, but now that I think of it, our British teachers were so harsh. Those were the worst classes!

Nadine said...

I love the metaphor of the self-saucing cake. I'm still learning that myself - that I don't always need affirmation, or validation. Speaking of, I sent you a really cute film on FB about validation.

alisha said...

Thanks for the validation video Nadine. :) It was really cute.

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