In this issue ~~
Growing up different is hard. Adolescence is a time when we're driven to belong, to fit in. When we don't, it hurts, and the scars can carry over into adulthood. As adults, we need to learn to understand our differences, heal the scars and appreciate our uniqueness.
Feeling different can come as a result of being artistic, gifted or highly sensitive, and the three often come as a package. People with these traits will find themselves seeing or sensing things that others don't. They may have a vision that most people just can't see yet. They're more empathic to people's feelings. They can walk into a room and sense the "vibes" and will often respond more strongly to stimulus such as violence, both physical and emotional. If you fall into this category, you may have found yourself being called a "party-pooper" because you couldn't tolerate roller coasters or horror movies. You may have felt shy or alone or misunderstood.
In "The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You," Elaine N. Aron, PhD explains that most modern societies have evolved from a social order that included two classes: the warrior/kings and the priest/advisors. Western society gives greater value to the aggressive/athletic type, and thus tends to undervalue the thinking/feeling type. We might also equate this with masculine vs. feminine energy, and I don't have to tell you that feminine sensitivity is looked upon as a weakness. But this thinking/feeling group makes up about 20% of our culture -- a minority perhaps, but not a small one. Each group serves a vital purpose, and both are integral to a healthy, functioning society.
Each of us is on this planet to make a unique contribution, and to do so, we need to nurture and encourage our individuality. Anyone who has ever been on the cutting edge has had to find the courage to risk stepping out. If we try to conform, we may sacrifice the very thing we're here for. On the positive side, our society has granted a freer reign of expression to those it deems artistic or gifted. This can range from sporting an eccentric form of dress to the expression of divergent ideas and strong feelings. While this has sometimes led to the stereotype of the "temperamental artist," that's a small price to pay for freedom of thought and action.
We need to learn to value our differences and respect them. Rather than trying to shoe-horn yourself into a career that suits only your gifts, find one that also honors your preferences. You may have a talent that puts you in an atmosphere that you can't tolerate; you don't have to. You might choose to build your endurance by staying there, but you can also make another choice. Chances are, if you fall into this group, you have many gifts and talents to choose from, so choose the ones that bring you the greatest joy in the most agreeable circumstances.
Choose to be around people that appreciate you for who you are. Find like-minded community, whether spiritual, artistic or activity-based, or maybe even within your family. As a child, your scope may have been limited, but as an adult, you have greater access to different types of people. I've found that my spiritual and personal growth has accelerated enormously since I connected with a community of people who study with the same spiritual teacher and, therefore, accept me and speak my language. I feel at home and supported there, and that gives me a strong foundation from which to take risks out in the world.
Being different as a child was a challenge. But now, with years of adult perspective, I can be grateful for my differences. If I had fit in and had a "normal" life, most likely I never would have taken my first steps on the spiritual path. Because I did, I have people and experiences in my life that have made it richer and more exciting. Learning to accept myself fully will be a life-long pursuit, but the more I can do that, the more I can contribute my unique gifts to a world that very much needs them -- and yours.
One of the big sticking points for me in my pursuit of success has been an uneasy feeling about competition. To me, competition meant a battle and a defeat. Coming from a belief that there wasn't enough to go around, there would have to be a winner and a loser. So it wasn't about how well *I* performed, but how well I performed compared to someone else. And so, for me to win, it meant I had to hurt someone else or take something away from them. Not a very good feeling.
The resolution came for me when my spiritual teacher pointed out that "competition" didn't always carry the same meaning we give it today. Originally, he said, it meant "working together to bring out the best in each other." To confirm this, I went to the dictionary. According to Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, "compete" means "to strive consciously or unconsciously for an objective (as position, profit, or a prize), be in a state of rivalry." But if we look to the derivation of the word, we see something else: "Compete" comes from the Latin, with "com" meaning together and "petere" meaning "to go to, seek." In others words, "to seek together." So my teacher was right.
I found further validation when I mentioned this to a friend. He told me about an aunt who was a big Scrabble fan and attended the national championships in the UK. The top players would play at their "competitive best," meaning that they would not only strive for their own high score, but also to open up opportunities for their competitor to score. Those who played this way would usually have a combined game total that far exceeded the game totals of those who just played to win. This is definitely not the way *I* was taught to view competition, but what exciting possibilities it presents!
Think of science and the world of ideas. Very often, researchers will carefully guard their discoveries in order to be the first to publish them. What if, instead, they shared their discoveries each step of the way and collaborated with their "competitors" in order to advance their research more quickly? What if the objective was the value and timeliness of the achievement itself, and the service it will provide to humankind, rather than being the one to get the credit?
Like scientists, creative artists, particularly writers, will sometimes hide their ideas and their material, afraid to show it to anyone for fear of having it stolen. Unfortunately, this is a reality of life, and there are times when it's smart to protect yourself, but how can you get published if you never show anyone your work? And often, when an idea's time has come, several people will bring that idea into the world simultaneously and individually anyway. And looking at the bigger spiritual picture, what if your contribution is to bring the ideas into the world, whether they carry your name or not? Perhaps you have a colleague or student who has greater visibility in the world and can give greater impact to the ideas or present them in a way that you can't. We all have egos, and we certainly deserve to be acknowledged for what we create, but nothing is accomplished without an occasional risk. At times, it may have to be enough to know yourself what you did, even if the world doesn't.
So if we choose to discard the old notion of competition as a win/lose proposition, what do we replace it with? How about cooperation in the pursuit of excellence, for the greater good balanced with personal glory? If competition is "striving to do better than others," then excellence might be "striving to do better than you did before."
Let's look at some other components of excellence:
So, go forth in pursuit of excellence. It's okay to win, and it's okay to lose. Either way, do so knowing you gave your best, not to outdo someone else, but because it feels so good and you learned something in the bargain!
If you encounter someone who's trying to provoke you to compete, rather than giving in to the impulse to fight back, back off. You can't have a tug-of-war without someone on both ends of the rope. Chances are, they'll get bored and leave you alone.
"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
"To be nobody-but-yourself -- in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else -- means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting."
(click on the book or tape graphic to see a description at Amazon.com)
"The Evolution of Cooperation"
... Robert Axelrod
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