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Giving Up “I Suck"

I burned the applesauce. It was more than a month ago now, but I still consider it to be recent because I haven’t yet managed to finish scrubbing the burned stuff off the bottom of the pots, meaning we are short on large pots in the house.

We had gone apple-picking, trekking somewhat far afield based on the promise of especially good cider doughnuts, and instead serendipitously discovering a place that grows my absolute favorite type of apple—winesaps, a very late apple that I have trouble finding this far north.

So I had a bushel of winesaps, and I was going to make and freeze applesauce. But I hadn’t done it in a while, and my pots were thin-bottomed, and I set the flame too high, and then I got distracted.

By the time I caught it, burned flavor had completely permeated the lot. They were ruined.

I stood in the kitchen, paralyzed for a while at the thought of the sheer waste and weighed down by disappointment. To get moving again more than anything else, I resorted, in small bursts, to whoever would listen, to my usual mode of frustration release.

“I suck!” “I am so dumb.” “What a frigging idiot.”

I didn’t actually mean these things. I mean, I had done a dumb thing, but I didn’t actually believe it was any particular reflection on my inherent nature. I have my neuroses and insecurities like everyone else, but generalized lack of self-esteem has blessedly never been one of them.

But it certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve said such things. I pretty much only do it when I’m annoyed or frustrated at something specific I’ve done, especially something that’s mostly affecting me. I can generally manage a more adult and productive response to being constructively criticized or when circumstances call for an apology to someone else.

But sometimes these habitual self-deprecations are just like a pressure valve, like shaking my fist at a noninteractive God. Although my near and dear ones will sometimes chime in with “No you’re not” or “No you don’t,” I tended to react with mild exasperation. I didn’t actually need reassurance. It was just a way of letting off steam. It didn’t really worry me much.

But this time I paused and realized my baby daughter was sleeping in the next room. And I had to give it a little more thought.

Even though it doesn’t point to anything too dire in my case, I find it highly likely that the fact that I do this has a decent amount to do with the ways it’s acceptable for girls to get mad. Rather than curse, shout, throw things, or blame someone/something else (not all of which are wonderfully healthy either, of course), it’s much more acceptable for girls and women to blame themselves. It goes along with crying when angry instead of shouting.

I saw habitual self put-downs do rough things to my friends growing up. Since the most common pitfalls I saw were “I look fat,” or “I’m ugly,” I have long refused ever to say them, even when occasionally I felt that way. (Odd, then, that I let the broader ones through, but these things don’t make sense.) I helped friends throw scales into lakes (OK, I did that once), talked them through depressions (not on my own), and challenged them when they assumed they couldn’t do math or physics or the SATs.

Such comments become a way-smoother, a verbal bowing of the head, that we are expected to use to make ourselves seem less threatening as we step out of being passive and nice all the time.

I remember undertaking a project with some friends to rid ourselves of the feminine habit of saying “Excuse me” or “I’m sorry” when someone else bumped into us, tripped us, or pushed through a door in front of us. It was the flip side of pointedly holding doors open for our guy friends sometimes, and it reached much deeper. It was weird to even realize we were doing such a bizarre thing. Even weirder that we still did it after we noticed it.

Underconfidence is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I’d rather not feed into it in children of any gender.

So I’ve undertaken a self-improvement program. Parenthood does that to you, I suppose. People quit smoking and cursing and strengthen crappy work ethics for their kids all the time. I ought to be able to give up hyperbolic self-flagellation.

It has been, as you might expect, moderately challenging. Not being inclined to take up breaking things or misassigning blame, but also not wanting to bottle up frustration and blow my life-long record of low blood pressure, I’ve found myself stopping, chewing on my tongue for a minute, and quietly feeling annoyed and miserable without putting irrelevant words to it. Sometimes I twist the sentence coming to mind to be about the action instead of about me. Sometimes I don’t.

It doesn’t feel particularly Zen or like I have discovered new wells of confidence. But that’s OK. I’m not doing it for me.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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