How We Learn What We’re “Good” and “Bad” At

We’re expected to know what we’re “good” and “bad” at, although in western society it’s often frowned upon to actually bring up the positives. These two opposites are classic pillars in job interviews. “What are your greatest strengths? Weaknesses?” Only when directly asked do we feel allowed to discuss what we think we’re good at—otherwise, it can come across as bragging and arrogance. This is true even if the person we’re talking to likely agrees with us! (Talking to Mom is an exception, of course).

However, in many circles it’s widely accepted and even encouraged to discuss what we’re bad at. Whether we call it self-deprecation or modesty, women especially have been in situations where talking badly about ourselves is expected. We’re supposed to wallow in complaints about how our arms are too big, our butts aren’t big enough, we “could never run a marathon” and how envious we are of the woman with the seemingly perfect partner, kids, wardrobe, you name it.

Part of this complaining helps us feel connected to others (usually women). Part of it is a means of fishing for compliments (from women and men). In reality, there’s nothing wrong with vocalizing what we don’t think we’re “good at,” but if it’s excessive or dramatically overrides vocalizing what we are “good at,” it can do a real number to our confidence and self-esteem. Remember: How you talk about yourself is a challenge for your brain. Your brain, in conjunction with your body if applicable, is now on a mission to prove you right.

It’s All Relative

How do we learn what we’re good or bad at, anyway? Good and bad are both very subjective words. It’s almost certain that there’s someone out there who’s better looking than us (because that’s subjective, too!), richer than us, smarter than us, has better calves than us, is kinder than us, and so on. It’s also nearly a certainty that there’s someone out there in worse shape than us, not as wealthy as us,  not as intelligent as us, has less toned calves than us, isn’t as kind as us … and so on.

We learn what we’re “good” or “bad” at by comparing ourselves to others. That’s it. It’s all relative. We can’t be “good” or “bad” without comparing ourselves to other people—yet these qualities become a self-defining part of our selves. How f*&#@d up is that?

Judgment Day

There are many ways we compare ourselves to others. Some are fleeting and the other person never knows. Some are hardcore and televised for the world to see. Sometimes you may be “right” in that specific moment, like if someone beats you in chess. Yes, in that moment and in that game, they were better than you. You might think you’re a “bad” chess player in comparison now, especially if they beat you quickly. However, there are countless reasons why this could have happened. Maybe you were more stressed than them, maybe they got better sleep than you, maybe they’ve had countless competitions and this is your first so you were nervous. You could beat them tomorrow—or not.

We also compete and compare throughout the day. That person on the treadmill next to you went longer and harder, so now they’re the “good runner” and you’re the bad one. You glimpsed someone’s abs and perceived them as tauter and more toned than yours, so now they have the “good abs” and yours are bad. Somebody else seems to constantly win radio contests, so they have “good luck” and you’ve never won, so you have “bad luck.”

We’re also heavily conditioned by society, media, our surroundings, our background and more to accept what’s good and bad. Oftentimes, it’s completely nonsense. Sometimes it’s harmful. You know “Becky with the good hair?” Not personally, of course, but you know exactly what Beyonce meant when she wrote those lyrics. “Good hair” is inherently straight without “too much” curls or kink. It grows quickly, any baby hairs are non-existent or well-controlled. Basically, it looks like a white woman’s hair. That’s what’s considered “good hair” in western Black culture. Now how f*&#@d up is that?

Let’s Drop These Words

Okay, “good” and “bad” aren’t really “bad words” by themselves. “Good job!” “Having a bad day?” and other such sentiments are so common we don’t even think about them. Humans love to group things into categories, and seeing in black and white / good and bad helps us make sense of things. It helps us make sense of the world. It helps us try to define ourselves in a messy place, and we really, really want to figure out who the hell we are. Are we a good person? A bad person?

We’re both. We’re all enigmas. We’re not really “good” or “bad” at anything—we just see ourselves as good or bad depending on who we’ve compared ourselves to. When you’re the only one who can do a headstand in yoga class, you’re the best. You’re good at yoga! But go into a class where everyone is doing walking handstands and you can’t even hold a regular handstand, and suddenly you’re the worst. You’re “bad” at yoga just like that.

Good and bad. Beautiful and ugly. Smart and stupid. The vast majority of adjectives are all relative and highly subjective. They’re useful words in certain contexts, but should not be used to define yourself. And don’t let others define you with negative adjectives, either. Choose the positive ones, and don’t be afraid to claim them. Say them aloud. Tell people what you’re good at and share in the positives of one another instead of the negatives. Tell other people their positive adjectives, too!

Isn’t a world of people with a little higher self-esteem and more kind words better than one stewing in negativity and fear? What’s so scary about those positive words, anyway?