Know your value, know your self

Hi All,

I hope to be back posting on a regular basis. I have spent the month of March travelling and spending time with family. I managed to get another article published with Together magazine, entitled ‘Know your value, know your self’. It’s on p. 15 of the pdf link to this month’s issue. We often hear experts telling us to “know our value”, “appreciate our worth” etc., but I wonder what these phrases actually mean. I hope to shed more light on the subject in the article. I hope you enjoy reading it.

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On my 24th birthday, my Dad quoted part of the poem Nosce Teipsum (“Know Thyself”) by the Elizabethan poet (also a lawyer and politician) Sir John Davies in my birthday card. My Dad dedicated the following lines to help me in my journey throughout life:

We seek to know the moving of each sphere,
And the strange cause of th’ ebbs and floods of Nile;
But of that clock within our breasts we bear,
The subtle motions we forget the while.

We that acquaint ourselves with every zone,
And pass both tropics and behold the poles,
When we come home, are to ourselves unknown,
And unacquainted still with our own souls.

These lines inspired me to write this article. If we are ever to truly know our value, we first must know who we are.

Thank you Dad for providing such inspiration.

See you all soon,

Gemma

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Saying Yes

“Take the stupidest thing you’ve ever done. At least it’s done. It’s over. It’s gone. We can all learn from our mistakes and heal and move on. But it’s harder to learn or heal or move on from something that hasn’t happened; something we don’t know and is therefore indefinable; something which could very easily have been the best thing in our lives, if only we’d taken the plunge, if only we’d held our breath and stood up and done it, if only we’d said yes.”

– Danny Wallace, ‘Yes Man’

Something wasn’t right. It was the second weekend of January and at around 6pm on both Saturday and Sunday I got weepy. I had lost my phone earlier that week and had made no plans for the weekend, in an attempt to be spontaneous. However, being without a phone and leaving my weekend social life up to chance had not paid off. I spent the whole weekend in my flat, venturing out only to go to the supermarket.

Spending a weekend in on my own hadn’t really bothered me before. I have enjoyed it – sometimes even relished in it – and I freely admit that I have spent quite a few Saturday nights in. So why had this particular weekend affected me so much?

First, I put it down to the January blues. I soothed myself thinking that everyone gets them. Then I piled the fact that I couldn’t call or text on top of the January blues. I flung another excuse on the pile: I recently got a bit of disappointing news concerning someone I had a crush on. “That’s it!” yelped my eureka moment, “It’s January, I’m phoneless and my crush is unavailable! Yes, three very good reasons for feeling down in the dumps.”

And once that downward spiral started, there was really no stopping it. Pity-party Peter, Johnny no-mates and Sally self-loathing invited themselves round to my flat, parked themselves on my comfy couch and long out-stayed their welcome. Over the next couple of days I told a few friends about my depressing weekend in. I didn’t quite understand it: I love my own company. I have a lovely life here: a lovely flat; a lovely job; lovely friends; a lovely social life. Weekends are supposed to be a light relief to the working week. Why was I longing for the weekend to be over?

I was determined not to repeat the experience, but it wasn’t until I had lunch with a friend did this scary thought finally dawn on me: by spending my weekends in, my life was passing me by. I had my weekdays evenings booked with various activities but my weekend pursuits were a bit meagre. Take for example my knowledge of Brussel’s nightlife: I didn’t really know where the good nightspots were and I had only been clubbing less than a handful of times (I’ve lived here nearly three years). Dude.

I had no excuses: I couldn’t blame the commute to city centre – I live 15 minutes away by metro. I couldn’t blame my finances – I earn a decent salary. There is no language difficulty, there is always some event going on. No, I was being rubbish and hiding behind something.

About seven or eight years ago, my brother lent me Yes Man by the English author Danny Wallace. Danny Wallace was coming out of a long-term relationship and saying no a lot – mostly when it came to socialising. He met a man on the bus one night who simply told him to ‘say yes more’ and he decided from then on to do so. What ensued were wild adventures and finding the love of his life, not to mention getting a book and film deal out of it. Not bad going for saying yes.

I was reminded of this book when I came across the advice of dating guru Matthew Hussey on how to find my ideal man. One of his suggestions was to say yes to every opportunity that presented itself during the month of January.

I didn’t say yes to everything, but I said yes to a lot. I said yes to drinks, to parties, to exhibitions, to brunch, to coffees. I said yes to social events with complete strangers. I said yes to spontaneous adventures and trips, I said yes to going after crazy dreams. Most importantly, I said yes to not being in my flat on a Saturday night. If I only manage to stick to one Yes this year, it will be the last one.

Of course, sometimes by saying no, I am saying yes to myself. For instance, on occasion I do need to just relax, enjoy being idle, and slow down. The key – with everything in life – is balance. But what Danny Wallace makes really clear is that if you don’t say yes, things just stay the same. I think it’s ok for things to stay the same,  until you start feeling stuck.

That weekend was a turning point for me. So far, I’ve been out every Saturday night since. For Danny Wallace, saying yes changed his life: “The fact is saying yes hadn’t been a pointless exercise at all. It had been pointful. It had the power to change lives and set people free… It had the power of adventure. Sometimes the little opportunities that fly at us each day can have the biggest impact.” Matthew Hussey talks about how the smallest shifts in our dating lives can yield the biggest results. Saying yes is a small shift.

I challenge you to say, “Yes”.

Comparing ourselves: an exercise in futility

“We do not deserve our place of distribution of native endowments, any more than we deserve our initial starting point in society. That we deserve the superior character that enables us to make the effort to cultivate our abilities is also problematic; for such character depends in good part on fortunate family and social circumstances in early life for which we can claim no credit. The notion of desert does not apply here.”

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

I often compared myself to others, in looks and in intelligence. I am mixed race – Malaysian and Irish – yet I’m told that I don’t look very “Asian”. I have fair skin, I go red very easily, my hair is thick and curly. The few things that give away my Asian heritage are the shape of my eyes and my black hair.

I had a friend who was like me – half Asian and half Caucasian. She was perhaps what one would expect a mixed race woman of South East Asian and European origins to look like: very delicate features – almost feline – high cheekbones, straight dark hair, a slender figure. Everyone would comment on how exotic and beautiful she was. I always felt inadequate next to her. Plus, I was chubby so I was always known as the “fat one” and she the “pretty one”.

When I was studying to become a barrister, I constantly felt stupid next to my class mates. They seemed to understand the mechanics of the law so much quicker and better than I ever could. They could articulate complicated reasoning with such simplicity; they were able to excel in exams and competitions whilst at the same time landing themselves the top jobs.

Looks and intelligence were the areas where I compared myself to others the most. And I would say that most of us do the same.

I tried affirmations in the hope of eliminating my entrenched beliefs. But as I did so, I noticed that I wasn’t feeling any better about myself. I wasn’t ‘brighter and better‘ every day. In the morning, I didn’t ‘look in the mirror and see nothing but pure beauty‘ staring back at me. I felt less attractive and more stupid.

It looks like I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman cites a study by the psychologist Joanne Wood. Wood had an inkling that people who use positive affirmations tend to be those with low-self esteem. She was also under the impression that since affirmations were at odds with what these people really felt about themselves, repeating them would make them feel worse. The study proved her inkling right: that for those people with low self-esteem, positive affirmations produced the opposite effect.

Nonetheless, I carried on regardless: making more of an effort with my appearance; studying harder for my classes. I did not necessarily feel better; I just got on with it.

The nail was finally hit on the (my) head last year, when I did an online course on political philosophy with my Dad. In one particular lecture we learnt about the American philosopher John Rawls’ theory on moral desert and justice. He asserted that we cannot claim credit for our talents, it just so happens to be our good luck that we were born in good circumstances and that society at that moment places a high value on them. As he states, “No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favourable starting place in society.”

What John Rawls had said was liberating. The way that I am – my talents, how I look – are not my doing and whether they are prized or not are dependent on how society tends to value them at any given moment. This is the same for people who I thought were better looking or smarter than me: they were born that way, through no fault or doing of their own, and society just happened to appreciate more their attributes.

It was from this point that I could finally and fully accept my flaws and deficiencies for what they are. I stopped comparing myself to others because it appears to me that life is just one big lottery. I cannot change what I perceive to be are my limitations. Instead I can focus on how to maximise the attributes that I believe I have.

John Rawls believes that we should allow our talents to flourish. Yet, he powerfully asserts that justice and the good life lie not in whether we deserve the rewards for our talents, but rather in how we use them to help those less fortunate than us. The American philosopher Michael J. Sandel sums up perfectly in his book ‘Justice‘ the truth upon which Rawls’ theory of justice relies: “The way things are does not determine the way they ought to be.”

Let’s not forget it.

Being Eva Peron

When I was about four years old, I was cast as Snow White in my kindergarten’s summer concert. I had to wonder around on stage for a bit and then have a bite of a cheese sandwich. When the big moment came to take that bite, I declined. I was too shy. Under any other circumstances, I would have had no problem eating it, but not at that moment, in front of the crowd of proud parents. I was so off piste that my teacher had to come up on stage and coax me to the plate. I recall the “awwws” and the laughter from the audience. I still declined.

My shyness ruined my stage debut then and it has pervaded my life in one form or another ever since. I remember auditioning for the school musical and being too shy to dance my socks off because the boys were watching me. At University, I did not have the courage to join the drama society or the debating societies. Even in my first jobs, I was too scared to ask questions at the beginning because I was too intimidated by my superiors. Shyness, fear, intimidation: same feeling, different packaging. Sometimes I overcame it, other times it held me back.

One of my childhood dreams was to star in a musical. So when the amateur musical theatre company here in Brussels recently held auditions for Evita, I set myself the goal of auditioning for the main part: Eva Peron. This time, I was determined not to let my shyness get in the way.

I am part of a small choir at work. A couple of days before the audition, my choir teacher rehearsed the audition pieces with me. As I performed them, I began to feel out of my depth. I kept apologising for my voice, my lack of expression, my awkward rhythm. There were moments when I felt like quitting. He calmly said, “Gemma, leave your fear at the door. You go in there and be Eva Peron. You are not Gemma; you are Eva.”

Before my audition, I watched this brilliant Ted Talk by Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School. Her message is mind-blowing: that changing your body language can have a powerful effect on your behaviour, and consequently on your outcomes. She recommends that doing just two minutes of power posing (ladies, think “Wonder Woman”; gentlemen, think “Wall Street”) can immediately change your behaviour because your stress levels go down whilst your testosterone levels go up. In other words, the real you can come out and shine.

With her and my choir teacher’s advice in my head, I knew that my chance of getting the part of Eva Peron lay in actually being Eva Peron, irrespective of whether I believed it or not. On the day of the audition, I dressed, accessorised and made myself-up like her. Before being called up, I went to a quiet spot and stood there in a power pose for two minutes, breathing deeply.

As I began my audition, Eva’s hunger for Buenos Aires and her desperation to escape poverty became mine. I danced, I shimmied, I swaggered; I belted, I pleaded, I mourned. With each song, I was a different Eva: arrogant; naive; redeeming; helpless. What I lacked in vocal range, I made up for in body language. When I finished the audition, I looked at the judges. They looked a bit shell-shocked. Whether it was out of amazement or horror, I couldn’t say.

Looking back, I think the reason why I was so shy being Snow White was because I didn’t believe I was her. In contrast, for one afternoon twenty-six years later, I was Eva Peron. I just wasn’t the Eva they were looking for.

Lessons from an arch-nemesis

An arch-nemesis is more than just a rival. I’ve had quite a few rivals in my life: people who you are sort of in competition with, whether at work or playing football. They have been members of family, colleagues and sometimes very good friends. Yet, I never really minded the rivalry so much because we rivals generally liked each other (even loved one another) and the rivalry was usually in one aspect of life, not many.

An arch-nemesis somehow manages to sort of linger in and out of your life, and yet is always present: they share mutual friends; they go to the same places you do; they take the jobs you want; they go out with the men you fancy; they meddle in your life long after you have deleted them off Facebook.

I had an arch-nemesis. She was a friend of a good friend. When I first met her, I thought she was friendly and we had fairly common interests. Yet, something was niggling at me about our connection, that perhaps her friendliness was not completely genuine.

As she started hanging out more with my friend, I was spending more time with her. I noticed that she was quite secretive about job hunting and relationships. Since we three had just finished our studies, finding a job was starting to cause us anxiety. I eventually found out that she got a job that I had set my sights on. Around the same time, I also found out that she had started dating a guy that I had a crush on. This may sound a bit melodramatic but her getting the job and getting the guy didn’t just happen once, but twice!

I felt like the Universe was conspiring against me and she was deliberately out to get me. She was my arch-nemesis: every where I turned she would be there, grabbing any opportunity out of my hand.

In reality, nothing could have been further from the truth. The problem did not lie with her, but with me. At the time I was threatened by her because she seemed to have the things I wanted: the jobs, the drive, the attractive personality and the sex appeal. I was feeling so inadequate and insecure on the inside that I was looking to the outside for blame, and she was the easiest target. I also realised that she wasn’t really my “arch-nemesis”: she was not out to get me, things just seemed to come to her more naturally and that was all. Whilst I was wasting my time feeling hard done-by, she was out there living her life, and I am sure not wasting a minute of it on me.

The last I heard, my former arch-nemesis was travelling the world pursuing her dreams. I wish her well and I am thankful for the lessons she taught me.