The Art of Radical Self-Congratulation

confidence_S(This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.)

I was having lunch with my friend Jenny recently. She told me she just got a promotion at work, which I knew she had long desired. But Jenny didn’t look too excited. When I congratulated her, she said, “Yeah, but it’s a job nobody wants. I’ll need to manage all these people who don’t get along. And the deadlines are just insane!”

I tried to convince her that being promoted was actually wonderful. But she brushed it off, and asked how I was doing. I told her that a reputed magazine just accepted an article of mine.

“Congratulations! How exciting!”

“Yeah, but I write too slow. I’m not making any progress on my book.”

“C’mon!” Jenny leaned closer. “Give yourself some credit for…”

She paused. We both went silent for a moment, looked at each other, and burst into giggles. Yep, it just hit us that we both played an absurd game with ourselves — downplaying a victory, turning it into a problem, so that we can continue biting our nails about… something.

I used to be the worst offender when it comes to depriving myself of credit, all the while not having a clue about what I was doing. All I knew was that life felt like a long, hard climb up the Himalayas. Any “achievement,” no matter how amazing it looked before I got there, turned out only a shaky foothold up the rock face. There was always a bigger climb right ahead, or a looming avalanche that I’d better get prepared for.

If you could see inside my head, you probably would have thought that I lived hand to mouth and was about to get kicked out to the street. Let me just say that wasn’t exactly… ahem… the reality. In the life outside of my head, I had a comfortable home, a well-paying job, a Ph.D., and a dog who could almost walk itself.

I wish I were the only person who lived in such split reality. But the truth is that many people I know, especially women, are pros at living a double life. Our mind is wired to look out for dangers. No matter how beautifully the sun is shining, the mind insists that our happiness should not be too complete, lest the aliens take over once we are not watching.

My mind keeps giving me the same pep talk: “Just wait till I fix this one problem, then you can be happy.” But that promise has been broken so many times, that I know if I allow myself to believe in it, my life would be an endless fire-fighting drill. New “problems” are always on the horizon. And before I know it, I’m shrunken into an anxious mess.

After falling for my own trick over and over, I finally saw it as what it was. I see that if I wait until everything is perfect to experience celebration and joy, I’d have a better chance sleeping in a mountain cave hoping to be kissed by a prince.

That was when I decided to turn my old habit on its head and start practicing, as much as I can, what I call Radical Self-Congratulation. Mainly, it involves doing the following.

1. I praise myself for everything well done.
I mean, really, everything. Not just things that fit the dictionary definition of “achievement.” When I take a walk down the street, I say to myself, “You walk so well, Natasha. You almost never trip. Awesome!” When I read a book, I marvel, “You’re a great reader, Natasha. How do you make sense out of the piles of random letters? Amazing!” The truth is that even the simplest domestic chore requires a cognitive system so sophisticated that an average human like me can put any supercomputer to shame. When I take the time to appreciate the wonder that I am, every moment of being tastes more delicious.

2. I turn a fault into a merit when I fail.
An absent-minded cook, I set the kitchen on fire more often than producing any edible bites of food. I used to deliver long tirades of reproach at myself after yet another blackened pot of beef stew. But now whenever I find the urge to self blame, I simply say, “Wow! Natasha, I bet nobody can make a worse-tasting dish than you. That’s a rare talent indeed!” It makes me giggle. And believe it or not, giggling and being frustrated at yourself simultaneously is something very hard to pull off.

3. I pat my anxious mind on the back.
I tried talking myself out of it when I felt anxious. I tried meditating and breathing myself back to calmness. They rarely worked. Now, instead of fighting against it, I praise my mind, telling it what a great job it’s doing and how much it’s protecting me from potential threats big and small. Because it’s true — my mind is a genius. It’s helped me survive the disorienting earth life for 32 years and deserves all the recognition in the world. And like a Labrador with a bully stick, my mind quiets down after it gets acknowledged for being smart and useful.

4. I say “I love you” to myself every day.

I realized that ultimately, the level of recognition I’m willing to give myself only reflects the extent of my self love. So I say “I love you” when I get up in the morning, and I say it when I go to bed at night, to my most intimate partner in life, myself. It’s my before-the-meal prayer and my greatest shower-singing hit. Sometimes it is genuine. Other times I’m lying through my teeth. But slowly, that three little words feel more and more truthful, until one day I found myself simply stating a fact.

If these practices feel over the top to you, they probably are. In fact, they are so different from my old habits that the latter, without getting their usual kick of reinforcement, gradually wither away.

The result? I have more good-hair days, and according to me, more pleasant for myself to be around. Even at the times when I revert to my old self, like that day at lunch with Jenny, something feels so out of sync that I, myself and me all rally to have a good laugh at my own expense.

So my dear reader, I invite you to give Radical Self-Congratulation a try. How about starting… right now? And don’t forget to let me know what happens!

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