Thursday, December 05, 2013

Day 5: Challenge

Did you take on a new challenge? What was it? Is there any challenge you deliberately avoided? What do you want to do to challenge yourself in 2014?

(Note: this will be a long post.)

On New Thrills
The word "challenge" has a special place in my dictionary. I believe that challenges come in many ways, but the way we handle them depends on how we see them at the first sight. For the past several years, I have learned not to label things as neither "difficult" nor "easy", but simply "challenging". Apparently, such state of mind helps me to take things in a more lighthearted and welcoming manner, with no unnecessary over (or under) estimation.

I am pleased to say that I did take a new challenge this year, which may even be life-changing. Starting over a career was particularly challenging, especially because I used to be so unsure about how good will I do in journalism. To finally being able to do journalism works in a regular basis is apparently very fulfilling, and I cannot be happier. 

My (at that time) prospective boss were right after all, when she said to me in the final interview, "Working here, you will encounter plenty of challenges along the way. I know you would like it, though, because you seem to like being challenged." 

True, there is something about challenges that I simply cannot get enough with. Maybe it is the sense of accomplishment, or possibly the rush of gratification for simply trying and giving my best shot. Challenges give me something to aim for, and they elevate my self-esteem once they are done.

On the other hand, I believe that challenges can also be alarming, that is if one takes it by incorporating others’ achievements into their benchmark, ending up with them making comparisons. I agree with Kristin Neff, Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, when she stated that comparing ourselves to others has been a means to generate self-esteem, and it is not seen as good enough to be average.

Arguably, this is how we start being the worst critic for our own self.

On Making Comparisons
According to social comparison theory, we compare ourselves to others in an effort to make accurate self-evaluation and produce further self-enhancement. Nevertheless, I have always felt uneasy with the notion "If others can do it, I (or you) can do it, too". It may sound discouraging, as the statement provokes the spirit of competition and conquering challenges, yet I could not really reason such discomfort, until very recently.

Comparisons may be a promising source of motivation, but it feels personally awkward for me to determine my self-worth using others as points of reference. Often times, instead of motivating, it gets me questioning my own worth, and eventually drags me into the abyss of self-doubt. 

It is not so challenging to say, "Oh, I am nothing compared to X, she is effortlessly good-looking, she has a GPA that lands her the job I have always dream of, she had been travelling to every destination I put in my "places to go before you die" list, she can get her hands on things I want to own but can never afford, her non-academic achievements are unbeatable, and look at that gorgeous boyfriend of hers…" and it goes on.

Apparently, there are two kinds of comparisons: upward (observing those who seem to have it better than us regarding qualities that we desire) and downward (observing those who seem to have it worse). Thomas Plante, Ph.D., former President of Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality of the American Psychological Association,furthermore explains, "We often feel better about ourselves and our lives when making downward comparisons, and feel bad about ourselves when making upward comparisons."

I believe that the core problem of comparisons comes down to the concept of gratitude. Many of us have been taught to be grateful "because there are a lot of less unfortunate people out there". I never quite able to grasp this concept, because what is the point of being grateful for your own life if you have to firstly take a glimpse of others’ just to be able to do that?

Even as a kid, I was happy to have a lollipop in my hand not because my other friends did not, but because I could taste it and it tasted good. Under that notion, should I then be grateful for my lollipop because I had it and others did not, even if it was because they prefer chocolate or ice cream to lollipops?

Sometime in 2013, I realised that measuring own strength and weaknesses through other people’s achievements is simply unfair. It is a losing battle, because I have always been aware that each individual in this world is unique, yet somehow I forgot that it contributes to who they are and what they could be.

Instead, it would only make me pity myself for being unable to be what others are, or to get what others have.On another hand, even if I want their accomplishments, but would I be able to walk on their shoes and die trying?

The Upcoming Challenge
To encounter self-criticism as one of the possible harms of comparisons, Neff coined the term 'self-compassion’, highlighting two problems that stop us from obtaining it. "One, when we criticize ourselves, we reinforce the illusion of control… It’s scary to admit how little control we sometimes have. Two, we really believe that we need self-criticism to motivate ourselves… [W]hen we are in a self-critical place, this is the worst possible mindset in which to do our best," she affirmed.

I believe that, although comparisons may still be relevant to some extent, it is time to start looking inward, to appreciate who we essentially are, the particular life and experiences we have, and what are we capable of as an individual, among other personal highlights.

Making peace with our own self, I suppose, is a lifelong challenge. Nevertheless, acknowledging this feels liberating, because I know that I have better alternative than to succumb to the (subjectively) vague concept of motivation and gratitude. Now that I am aware of the vicious threat of comparing myself with others, and how it interferes the way I am being genuinely thankful, I establish this notion as my main homework in 2014.

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