When I was ten years old, I thought I had quite the penchant for poetry writing. One of my friends recommended a website to me — poetry.com. At this website, she’d already been listed as a semi-finalist in a national competition for a poem she wrote.
Immediately, I wanted in. If Safiya could be recognized at the national level for her poetry, then so could I! I thirsted for that recognition with all the hunger my scrawny ten-year-old self could muster.
After a lot of hemming and hawing and biting of pencils, I wrote one entitled “Love,” which I modestly thought to be a very moving account of one of the most powerful feelings in the world.
I will spare you the full contents, but there was a couplet which rhymed love with dove.
It was not my finest piece of writing. Nevertheless, I was shocked, proud and happy when I received the email that announced I had also been selected as a semi-finalist! All I had to do to confirm my place and receive a placard bearing the words “National Poetry.com Competition Semi-Finalist,” engraved in classy italics whether I placed or not, was send in a check for $97.00.
I begged my mom for the cash. “Please, what if I actually win!”
My mom, bless her, had the unpleasant job of telling me that it was a scam. I have a very vivid memory of her gently reminding me that I, as a ten-year-old, was incredibly unlikely to place in a national poetry competition, especially with a poem about love, and that they just wanted to drum up the money from unsuspecting naive burgeoning authors such as myself.
“Have you ever even been in love?” she asked me wryly.
“No,” I admitted, sullenly. I might have even scuffed the ground with a glum foot. “But I could still have won!”
She changed track. “Honey, why do you want this?” I could tell she was still amused, but I also recognized the signs of her Turning a Life Experience Into a Lesson. She was looking at me searchingly, as I avoided her gaze.
“I guess… it’s good to know they think I’m good at writing,” I said to the floor. “And I want to tell other people I won.” Especially Safiya.
“Sweetie, you are good at writing. You love writing, you never stop reading, and you will be an amazing writer one day, whether that’s a novel or poetry or whatever you want. But listen — you don’t need an award to tell you that.”
As always, she was right. Not that I knew it then, of course. I sulked for a week, sure that she was denying me my chance to reach national glory with my moving poem about how love is like a dove.
But then I moved on, as ten-year-olds do. I had trees to climb and bugs to investigate and books to read. Without much of a grudge, I carried on with my life, unburdened by a placard bearing the words “National Poetry.com Competition Semi-Finalist,” engraved in classy italics.
And look, mom — here I am, writing up a storm and loving it. You were right. I’ve learned I’m a good writer through my own self, not needing any accolades or awards to tell me.
I still falter sometimes — but the seed of the idea remains.
Social media knows this and uses this.
I’ve written before about how notifications and analytics are geared to make us hungry for attention, how they’re designed to keep us refreshing for more. We’re all only human, unfortunately, and we love it when other people approve of us, whether directly by telling us, or indirectly by liking what we post about our lives.
Whether it’s checking likes on an Instagram post, checking fans on a story I wrote, or seeing if my tweet to a big name was noticed and retweeted, it’s hard to avoid chasing that external validation from others.
We see others as mirrors that reflect back to us our true worth. We look to them to give us an accurate estimate of who we are, what we’re good at. I don’t think I need to tell you how flawed that is.
I learned the lesson then and I’m still learning it today. I make a conscious effort to reduce my social media consumption, turning off my notifications and checking my social networks just a few times a day.
I try to recognize that I don’t need others to tell me if I’m good at things, that I can know that for myself — but honestly, I struggle.
It’s a lesson I’m always re-learning.
I first learned that lesson when I was ten, but it didn’t stick then. It still hasn’t to be honest. Whether I’m asking my partner if I look cute today, or doing an IQ test online, I find I’m always looking outside for people to recognize me. I’m always hungry for others to notice me, tell me I’m amazing at writing, tell me how good my cat photography is. And sometimes I get it.
Of course, the problem with external validation? It doesn’t last.
As soon as someone gives you what you need to hear, you’re already on the lookout for more. And if someone says something bad about you, you take and absorb it and it can destroy you. Being defined by what other people think of you is an uncomfortable existence.
It can make you into a people-pleaser, or someone who changes their personality depending on who they’re with, desperate for approval. It can cause you to post only a very extremely highlighted version of your life online, in order to show people you’re amazing.
And it can make you pay $97.00 for a placard to tell you that you’re good at writing.
(You can buy an engraved placard online for like twenty bucks.)
When your self of self-worth comes from inside you, nobody can take it away. It’s always there for you. You can lose it, you can stumble, but it will always come back. When you can depend on just yourself for love, you’ll find you’re more powerful, more robust, brimming with that indescribable feeling of self-worth. Only you can give it to yourself, but it’s worth finding.