One of the most important life lessons I’ve learned is to listen to my own inner voice.
We all have that “still, small voice” inside that tells us when something’s not right — whether it be a subconscious distrust of someone but we can’t put our finger on quite why, or a family or personal situation that makes us uncomfortable, or simply a feeling that what we’re about to do is wrong or selfish. Call it a gut feeling, conscience, instinct or bad vibes, it’s important to listen to it. It’s our subconscious doing its best to keep us safe.
Now, there are two sides to this inner monologue of ours — the first is that tiny twinge of doubt and the second is logic. Overlaying all this is the training we’ve received as children which either suppresses this instinct or reinforces it. Let me explain…
We have a part of the brain, the amygdala, that appraises situations and decides if they’re dangerous or not. Usually, when it’s something new, something we haven’t done before, it tells us through uneasiness or outright fear, that we shouldn’t do that thing. But the amygdala is also alerted when we are not consciously aware — it may be someone’s body language, micro-expressions, a hyper-focus on our reaction or even the scent of their fear. We may not be conscious of why we feel uneasy, but subliminally, it’s the amygdala saying, “danger, danger”. Logically, we can see no reason not to do what makes sense, but that underlying sense of self-preservation contradicts what seems so obvious.
Then to complicate things, there’s our early training. When we’re taught as children to share our toys, be kind to others, don’t make fun of the weird kid, do as we’re told, we learn to ignore those twinges of self-interest. We learn to call ourselves selfish and forget to tune into radio station WIIFM, or What’s In It For Me? and we use left-brained logic to help us make our decisions.
But all too often, it’s those twinges of self-preservation that guide us to the right decision, even when it makes no sense. As adults, we say “yes” to things or offer to help, when really, we’d rather not, but in order not to look like a self-centred jerk, we take on more than is good for us and end up resenting the very people we committed to helping in the first place.
What’s an altruistic people-pleaser to do?
Here’s some advice I would tell my younger self.
“Self,” I’d say, this is your older, wiser self speaking. Listen up and quit bellyaching.”
- Beware of “psychic vampires” – those people who are takers, who drain your energy and resources. These include people who “collect” you because you’re interesting or attractive or useful. Avoid clingy people, needy people, self-centred people. This also applies to family, jobs and careers, organizations and social environments. As soon as you feel your energy or resources being depleted, find a way to leave these people in your rear-view mirror. It’s all very well to be altruistic, but there must be give and take – remember radio station WIIFM…What’s In It For Me? The bible says, “Love your neighbour AS yourself”, not “Better than yourself,” for Pete’s sake. You’re worth at least as much as the next guy and maybe more.
- Never be afraid to ask — for information, for something you want. We’re trained from childhood not to ask for things, especially those of us who are of the female persuasion. And especially if we’re older. The worst anyone can say is “no”, which means you’re no worse off than before. But what if they say “yes”? Isn’t it worth the gamble?
- Don’t give up too soon. Patience and persistence ultimately pay off. But they sometimes do so very, very slowly. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth the wait. Honest.
- Be your authentic self and you can’t go wrong. Beware of anyone who tries to change you to fit their picture of perfection. Also, you can’t change anyone but yourself, so don’t even try. There’s a reason you liked ‘em to begin with. Why would you want to change that?
- Never stop learning. When you get to my age, it’s your knowledge, skills and memories that keep you young. Your body sure as hell won’t.
- “I can’t” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. So is “I can”. Why not give it a try?
- There’s no such thing as failure, but there are lots of ways not to be successful. Look for the learning opportunity and give it another shot. One of the “right” ways might be next on the list.
- Sometimes love is not enough. Sometimes passion is not enough. This applies equally to interests, careers, hobbies and people. Know when to say “I quit”. Sometimes that’s the best option.
- Don’t compare your efforts to other people’s situation. You can’t know everything that got them where they are — luck, perseverance, determination, chance or focus. Look for where they excel in their habits and behaviours and model your habits and behaviour on theirs. Your motivations will be different from anyone else’s.
- Learn how to be funny. Humour, especially lateral humour and self-deprecating humour can defuse almost any situation, and it gets people to like you. You don’t have to be a stand-up comedian, but a witty sense of humour can pay huge dividends in personal relationships.
- Play to your strengths. If you love something, get good at it. Why put your life’s effort into something you hate?
- Be kind to yourself. Respect yourself. Would you have any respect for someone else if they had done what you’re contemplating doing? Think carefully about your answer.
Oh, and one more thing…
- Ask your grandparents their stories and write them down.
- Ask your parents their stories and write those down.
- Write your own stories as they happen. Include the details, who, what, when where and how, and most importantly why. Include the emotions you felt — all of them. You’d be amazed at how fast those memories disappear. When it comes time for you to write our memoirs, we’ll be really glad you did.
P.S. Just for fun, what would you say to your younger self? What life lessons have you learned that you think are valuable enough to pass on, through your memoirs, through teaching or mentoring, or simply as advice to someone who needs it? I’d love to hear what you think. Post a comment below and let me know.