“I’m really good at this!” my six-year-old nephew exclaimed during an evening social event.
At that exuberant moment, he was expertly putting together the Lego Empire State Building, a kit meant for age 16 and up.
Several attendees looked askance and one gasped slightly at his admission.
Declaring oneself good at something – especially out loud – simply isn’t done very much, and when it is, is often met with discomfort from others.
What’s the Problem?
Why do we not acknowledge when we’re good at something, even to ourselves?
First, people tend to be highly self-critical, examining each crack in their performance and ruminating on every little thing that goes wrong.
We assume everyone sees our mistakes. We believe that if we aren’t perfect then claiming to be good is simply inaccurate.
Psychologist Rick Hanson says, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”
Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that for every negative experience or thought that you have, it takes three positive thoughts to neutralize your mind. They call this the 3-to-1 ratio.
When we don’t claim that we’re good at something, we’re likely to reinforce the lie that we’re not good enough at whatever it is. That brings up the count of our negative thoughts, making it harder to feel good about ourselves in general.
Societally Acceptable: Deflection
Society would tell my nephew not to state out loud that he is good at building Lego models.
In fact, collectively, the group would tell him to be quiet about it. If someone else noticed that he was building a kit made for someone 10 years his senior, he should deflect the compliment and give a reason he’s not good at it or bring up something he isn’t good at in response.
If he were to learn this behavior, he would never experience the joy of growing his confidence by validating his ability.
His belief in his own resilience would shrivel, which, in turn, would make him less likely to take risks or to stretch himself to try new things.
The same is true for all of us.
Change the Dialogue
To upend this pattern, the first thing is to take inventory of the things you’re good at.
Don’t be shy – no one will read your paper. Note that you’re an excellent trainer or a good communicator. Expand beyond work skills to things like singing beautifully in the choir or being a great uncle.
Be aware that the minute you declare yourself good at something – even just to yourself- your mind is likely to counter your statement by reminding you of that time your training fell flat, as did your voice during that solo in the choir.
Push past that initial resistance to get to the 3-to-1 ratio of positive thoughts. The reinforcement will make the positive thought more natural.
Say it to a Trusted Friend
Next, take the audacious step of saying that you’re good at something when you are.
It’s important to choose the right moment and the right person to do this with. You may even want to prep them that you are planning on acknowledging your strengths.
Let them validate that you are correct, you are, in fact, a great communicator and a great uncle.
Reinforcement Makes Perfect
In his book, Rewire Your Brain, psychologist John Arden writes, “The more you do something, the more likely it is that you will do it again in the future. Repetition rewires the brain and breeds habits. The more the neurons fire together, the more likely it is that they will fire together in the future.”
He continues, “every thought we experience creates a chemical reaction in the brain which then triggers an emotion. As we engage with this thought, it creates a new circuit that sends a signal to the body and we react a certain way. The more we repeat this pattern, the more it seeps into our mind and becomes a habit. This is why neuroscientists say ‘cells that fire together wire together.’”
Accepting that you’re good at something and replaying that thought in your mind is a great way to build confidence and self-esteem.
It’s also a great way to grow your resiliency, risk-taking ability, and capacity to learn new skills.
With enough practice, you’ll know that when it comes to knowing what you’re good at, “I’m really good at this!”