“Who is this competent person?” I sometimes still ask myself, especially when unexpectedly subject to compliments.
“Your name came up in the meeting today,” my boss tells me.
“Oh?” I ask warily.
“Yeah, everyone was really impressed with the work you’ve been doing.”
“Oh.” I never quite know what to make of that, even to this day. It’s truly gratifying, but the wariness never quite fades.
I’m thirty-one years old, for Buddha’s sake. Just because I spent the first seventeen of those years as an inveterate troublemaker doesn’t mean I should be forced to continuously mistrust people’s opinions of my worth for the rest of my life. It doesn’t mean I should always have to doubt that worth myself. Does it? For those first seventeen years, if my name came up in anyone else’s conversation it was probably in relation to the headache I had given them, more often for what I stubbornly refused to do than anything I had actually done. (Although what I said with my smart mouth was probably also a frequent complaint.)
It’s a puzzler how this transformation came about. How did I go from a kid who refused to help anyone, including herself, to someone who tries her best to help anyone? How did I go from refusing to do anything that could remotely be called “work” do having a to-do list longer than the Tripitaka? And when, oh when, am I going to get over the vague feeling of surprise and discomfort anytime anyone manages to confirm my value or praise my competence?
Oddly enough, I don’t really have a low opinion of myself. In fact, the source of all that youthful obstinacy was the high regard I had of my own opinions. Doing that work was stupid, I was certain, and therefore not worth my efforts. It was my confidence that got me into so much trouble.
Rather than learn to accommodate other’s expectations, I learned to expect disapproval. Compliments, if any, always came with a “but” and approval was predicated on an “if.”
“Monica, we know you’re smart, but…”
“Monica, you’d get good grades if…”
Over a decade later, I’m still listening for that “but” or “if.” Of course, that doesn’t mean I never wondered if all those critic weren’t maybe just right about me. Or maybe they were wrong. Maybe I wasn’t smart and there was no “but.” Maybe I wouldn’t get good grades “if.” However, mostly I just thought they didn’t understand and didn’t really want to understand. The second part is what hurt most. So I consoled myself with my own authority on how best to run my life, for better or worse.
Very often, it was for worse. It took a while, but I finally figured out doing everything my way wouldn’t work for the rest of my life. I’m aware that my confidence got me into a lot of trouble when I was young, so now I study, learn, self-question, reflect, and seek advice. I try to work with and for people rather than around and against them. I guess that strategy worked out pretty well because I suddenly turned up competent. Who would have figured?
Yet when someone else confirms this for me, I still feel a little bit squirmy, a little bit like a fraud. “I’m not the helpful one,” I think. “I’m the troublemaker. Aren’t I?” Maybe I can be both.
I guess that goes to show we are not what we think. We are not what we think we are, either. We are products of our karma, to be sure, but our futures are malleable, our so-called identities are an act of will.
That cliché about the road to hell and good intentions is just a lot of bullshit. Intention is just our will at work. Sometimes it doesn’t always translate into good actions, and often when it does it takes time. I set out to be better than I was, to be useful, helpful, competent, caring, and compassionate. I screwed up a lot despite my good intentions, but from those screw ups, I learned. Without the right intention, I don’t think I would have learned anything and I know I wouldn’t have kept trying. Now every once in a while people tell me that I’ve met with some measure of success. That’s gratifying. It makes me feel good, if skeptical.
Of course, I’m still a troublemaker. However, I take that as a good sign. After all, it’s one of my core competencies.