Sunday, November 25, 2007

Default Settings

[N.B. We're in the home stretch on this blogging-every-day nonsense! I don't know who will be more relieved to be released from the unrelenting daily bondage: you or me. I literally know only one person who can stand me every single day with no time off for good behavior, and even HE complains that the blog doesn't offer him anything I haven't already told him in person! So we'll all celebrate December 1 for the start of our advent calendars and the end of daily Narrow End rambles!]

I've been thinking recently about the concept of the default setting -- you know, the set-up the computer goes back to when you reboot, for example. Only, I think we do this in real life. I'm talking about assumptions we make about people that are based not so much on current information as on old, old experiences. We react to the current-day situations as though people today are the same as people were when we were much younger.

This may make more sense with an example. I'm the youngest in my family. Ours was another unhappy-in-its-own-way family. Nothing new there. We played a lot of zero sum head games when I was a child, and as the youngest I often lost. One was that if there was any praise or appreciation going, it was a limited amount and couldn't be shared. (I don't even have to say how absurd this is -- the more honest compliments we pay people, the more there are for everyone to share. But remember: we're in Unhappy Family land here!)

I've noticed my siblings saying something nice about a third person who isn't present but fail to tell that person the compliment when the chance arises, not with any conscious intent to withhold the compliment from the third party, but just because. Because, I assume, that's the default setting: You don't tell something nice to someone directly. You just don't.

Now, as the youngest, I most wanted to impress my sibs, so I would try harder. And -- you guessed it! -- the harder I tried, the less response I would get.

Here's a quick anecdote, intended to show how deeply ingrained these lessons run. When my brother (I'll call him Tim) was 11 or 12, he got bored one day and took a copy of The New Yorker magazine and added up all the dollar figures in it. The circulation information, the ad copy, the price on the cover -- he came up with a total figure. He then wrote to the magazine informing them what the total was. They, naturally, were charmed, and used Tim for an ad campaign targeted to advertising executives. This required Tim to go to NYC for a photo shoot; he stayed at our dad's apartment, but got a fancy dinner at The Four Seasons restaurant. Pretty cool, hunh?

When Tim's next birthday rolled around, I asked him what sort of birthday cake he wanted. He announced, in that snotty way that older brothers sometimes use, that his favorite cake was the chocolate cake served at The Four Seasons, "and you can't make it!" Stung, I remembered this encounter for years, and when a chance came, and the New York Times ran the recipe for The Four Season's signature chocolate cake, I surprised him by making it for his birthday. You know how this story ends: he had NO recollection of the story I'd nursed in my heart! Oh, and the cake was just okay.

The point is -- no one made enough of a fuss over what Tim had done. I mean, really -- that's a great story, right? We should all have celebrated it, and him, in a big way. And they should have enjoyed my ability to bake, and we should have praised my sister's ability to sew, and so forth. I was not the only victim here, that's for sure!

Well, most of the people I know today don't play a zero sum game with their compliments, hoarding them all for themselves. Most people are more casual with that commodity. But I still assume people are like my family -- purposefully withholding their appreciation. And I continue to try too hard to impress them.

I made a vow recently to try a lot less hard to earn people's praise. In effect, to bring the volume down. And to stop assuming that everyone is critical until and unless they say something nice to me. That's important, because I get it that I don't come across as someone so wildly insecure that they need a steady IV of compliments. If anything, I probably come across as thinking very well of myself already!

I keep noticing my own default settings. At Thanksgiving dinner, Nina praised Hub 1.0's red cabbage, and I felt that age-old pang of hurt. Was none of the things I'd made good enough? Of course I know I was being irrational. She was encouraging Hub 1.0's novice efforts at cooking. And I know she knows that I know I'm a good & experienced cook. Plus, I'm sure she complimented me and I just didn't hear those comments as acutely. I'm clearly set up to hear praise directed to others as praise withheld from me.

I don't have this all worked out; in particularly, I don't know how to reset the default to something healthier. I'll let you know when I do. For right now, I'm just trying to keep my knee-jerk reactions from kicking other people too hard!

[It occurs to me that my preamble, read in light of this blog entry, now looks a bit sour, as though I'm certain everyone hates my blog, etc., etc. I didn't mean it that way. I really meant it just as I wrote it -- as a self-deprecating acknowledgment that even a good thing loses its appeal if you have it all the time. I'll continue to post to this blog after November ends, just not every day. But if you WANT to encourage me, I won't say no!]

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