#53 Reward, Ridicule and Ruthlessness: Why you're too 'strong' to be successful
“Cut it the f*ck out, Elizabeth. I’m done with this whining. Get back to work and stop being such a stupid baby.”
That’s me talking to me, in my head, every day.
There’s no guidebook on how to talk to yourself, but I think that would’ve been quite helpful for me. Because my self-talk is similar to that of an old aggressive boxing coach in a movie (in the first half, before he softens up), or the angriest, most tired and impatient version of my mum. I’d rather have the coach actually. I often react with impatience, anger and frustration to my tears, tiredness and fear. I’m great at giving myself tough love and abusive self-talk because it’s effective. It shuts down the unwanted feelings, gets things done, and above all, it feels familiar. I don’t need someone to do this to me anymore, I’m proficient at doing it to myself, I’ve fully internalised this voice.
Tough love is necessary, and I can take it. I’m better off for it. I’m being honest to myself and I’m doing it with good intentions, for the right reasons. Deep down, I know it comes from a loving place. I have fears, doubts, insecurities. I can whine about them and lean into them, but that is a waste of time. Sometimes I just need to be told to get things done. Sometimes I just need to be pushed. Otherwise I’m just sitting in my weakness and feeling sorry for myself endlessly. And look how much I get done with it. Right?
Well, actually, I think tough love is making me weaker. More scared, insecure and miserable.
This is why I’ve changed my mind.
The reason I need tough love and a push to do something in the first place is when I’m feeling insecure and worried about it. Which is another way of saying: I’m scared of the outcome. I’m scared I won’t do well enough, and more importantly: I’m scared of the consequences of that.
I’ve been set up with conditional love from the start: reward for doing well, punishment and ridicule for not doing well. With this setup, it’s hard to want to attempt anything, when the risk is so big. This is where tough love comes in. You then push the person to do thing.
If you had a writing competition in school and you knew your parents would be proud if you won and ignore or tease you if you lost: you wouldn’t be running to enter. You’d be scared and want to avoid it of course: this is natural self-preservation. It’s a reasonable reaction to the situation. Tough love is the only way you’d be able to push forward.
I remember the children who enjoyed competitions, who didn’t even seem to take them seriously and it really confused me. Did their parents not love them? Did they not want them to succeed? How were they ever going to be successful in life if they were ok with any outcome? How were they ever going to get things done? How did anyone function without the holy trifecta of reward, ridicule and ruthlessness?
I still have this conditional love and triple-R (reward, ridicule and ruthlessness) setup in my mind. The stakes are exactly the same, for most activities I do: if I outperform and overachieve, I’m calm, I’m ok (reward). If I underperform or underachieve, I feel devastated, worthless, broken and ashamed (ridicule). And so doing anything gets harder and harder. And that voice in myself gets harsher and harsher (ruthlessness).
It’s funny that I’m running into a wall with this in my 20s. It’s worked well, so far. That aggressive voice has been the fuel behind so much of what I’ve done, and some of those results have been good. But as everything I do turns into a risk to myself, risks I’m afraid to take, consequences that are bigger, the voice just doesn’t seem to work anymore. What happens when you give up? When you say ‘fine, I’m worthless then’ back to it? When you get tired of playing the game, because the ‘love’ when you win doesn’t even feel that good or last that long anymore?
It might look like burnout, it might look like sadness, but I think it’s the realisation you’ve never been truly loved, and you never really truly loved yourself.
When you’re tired of the reward, you believe the ridicule and you consider the ruthlessness normal, the trifecta stops working.
If you’ve also only heard love being mentioned with ridicule, maybe it doesn’t matter to you. You instinctively brush it off, as a waste of time. You have better things to worry about, you have rent to pay. But what if I realised that love sits underneath the things I’ve been told to care about: work and results. Call love acceptance if you must, but it’s necessary to have, and we instinctively move towards it and away from things that endanger it, and when it’s so closely tied to work, work becomes hard.
It’s such a stupid setup, but I never questioned it. Making children afraid to lose doesn’t make them harder workers and more successful. It makes them terrified, self-abusing adults first, who just happen to use that anxiety productively sometimes. And eventually, they can become paralysed from that fear, unable to move forward as everything turns into a competition with themselves and every voice in their head is screaming and disappointed.
Being OK with yourself isn’t a certificate of attendance, isn’t a guarantee of failure, isn’t a lack of drive. And sometimes, being OK with yourself is the only way to compete in the first place.
I’m trying to be more like those ‘careless’ kids who enjoyed jumping and playing for the sake of it. I’m trying to remove the stakes and risk from places they should’ve never been. My weight isn’t an indication of my worth, my grades aren’t an indication of my worth, my money isn’t an indication of my worth.
Weakness can eventually be born out of tough love too, so I’m trying the other way now.
I’m slowly dissecting out the trifecta from my brain. Being accepted and loved is NOT a reward, sometimes underperforming is NOT a reason for ridicule, and ruthless self-talk is senseless abuse.
It’s actually easier to take bigger risks, attempt harder tasks when you’re not adding your own crippling anxieties to the list of risks that are already there. Stop telling yourself you’re a weak idiot, because you might start to truly believe it.
Tough love: aggressive self-talk to fight past fear of failure in an individual who has poor self-worth, no sense of security in the world and conditional self-acceptance to attempt a task that is triggering visceral fear and insecurity in wounds that have been perpetually opened and never tended to since they were born. Limited effectiveness that fades with time.
Unconditional acceptance: the promise of emotional safety, calm, warmth and support regardless of outcome. The balanced realisation of one’s capabilities and how they aren’t the only factor that determines outcome (only a small part of it). The realisation that one’s capabilities in this task are only a small part of one’s overall capabilities. The realisation that threat and fear of failure may be only perceived and not true (not everyone is your parent, not everyone is disappointed in your ‘bad’ results). The genuine attempt at tasks with pleasure and curiosity, not fear and dread.
Tough love is truly, absolutely, stupid. I’m still trying to tone it down and not automatically resort to it in every instance.
If you want to make it so far and want to try this too, I’d recommend trying unconditional acceptance intentionally with a friend (you probably already do), and then turning that same talk inwards. Accept that it feels cringe, scary and might even make you even feel a little sick. If you’re also conditioned to find acceptance and softness repulsive, it can take a while to power through. The process is worth it, if I ever get to fully being able to do it, I’ll let you know if the result is worth it too :)