How do I deal with my mother who says really horrible things about other people?

A student wrote to me, asking:

Lately, I’ve been feeling rather down because I have to deal with my toxic mother on a daily basis. Sometimes she says really horrible things about other people. And when I try to tell her that it’s not nice to say such things, she gets all defensive and scolds me instead for being rude. I really don’t know how much longer I can take it before I explode. Any advice?

Yes, I can totally feel your frustration!

I think for starters, it’s not helpful to try to fix or correct your mother. It’ll just breed a lot of frustration in you, especially when you approach the situation with the assumption that the problem can be fixed.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the older we get, the more frequent we’ll exercise our bad habits. And sometimes, they get more extreme. And this is especially so if we don’t always pay careful attention to how we behave.

Of course, these bad behaviours stem from somewhere. They don’t just come about with no explanation of their own. It’s probably motivated by some kind of insecurity or need. So rather than trying to make her stop, it would help to understand where she’s coming from when she says such nasty things. Is she putting people down just to make herself feel better because she’s not happy about her own state of existence? If not, what other things might be motivating her to behave this way?

That said, asking, “What’s bothering you?”, won’t normally give you the answer. Parents, especially Asian parents, feel that they shouldn’t burden their children with their problems. So many will just bottle it up without realising that it’s manifesting in other ways. So it takes a lot of time and patience and active listening (i.e. be very engaged in your conversations to try to understand her well) to be able to identify the issue.

Say for example, that the problem you’ve identified is that she doesn’t feel loved or appreciated, and that’s causing her to say such things. Then, if you’re able to fulfil this need of hers, then you might notice her saying less toxic things on a daily basis.

There may be a situation where a person is so toxic it’s beyond saving no matter how much you try. Do know that we can only do the best we can to help others, but at the end of the day, we are not the heroes or saviours of other people, no matter how much we love them. They have to want to save themselves before any real change can happen. They may sometimes feel that they are not in control of their actions (esp. if it’s a habit, it can be hard to control it), so at the very least letting them know that they have someone who loves them even when they don’t love themselves very much is already a huge thing.

(Yes, parents and other older folks still grapple with the same issues of self-esteem and self-love the same way many of us struggle with when young. It doesn’t magically go away when you become a parent or adult.)

How do I stop being scared of failure?

A student wrote to me with this question:

How do I stop being scared of failure? A lot of the times I don’t go for activities/ competitions or even play games with my friends because I’m scared of losing. In my mind, if I don’t win, I’m not good enough. How do I get out of this mindset?

I don’t think it’s helpful to link success and failure with one’s self worth, or to infer if one is good enough based on one’s success or failure. That’s a misunderstanding of the relation between success/failure and the measure of how much one is good enough.

To quote a book I read years ago, “Failure is but a postponed success.”

Why? Because failure is more educational and informative than success, and failure is the means by which we improve and get better at things. In other words, you can’t be good enough until you have learnt how to avoid being bad at something, and you learn about the things to avoid from your failures.

I know many people think that I am very successful. But behind the scenes, these success are borne out of my many spectacular failures. The teaching of my module is a perfect example. I’m able to teach it so much better this semester because of the numerous failings and mistakes I made in the previous semester. Of course, failure is unpleasant. I don’t like it as much as you do, and I sometimes lose sleep over it. But it gives me so much insight to better understand why something didn’t work, and I know what not to do the next semester. It also allows me to can explain and tell others why they shouldn’t do something and what would happen if they were to try that.

Only those who have failed enough times will have this kind of experience and knowledge to offer. The one who succeeds can only say so much about why one should do a particular method, but that person is limited and cannot say what will happen if one were to try otherwise.

So if you were to compare me (and my numerous failures) with someone who succeeded all the way, I have more insights and experiences to share and more value to add than the one who did not encounter failure. Who would you say is better? The one who failed many times, right? There’s more to learn. So this makes me more masterful and better at what I do.

If it helps you feel less scared of failure, one thing I always tell myself is that everything I do is an experimental research, so I am prepared to lose because I want to learn from the experience and understand why it didn’t work. It also reduces the anxieties I have about getting it right the first time. You can’t fail if you wanted to fail to learn, because your failure is your success! Haha!

It’s important to expose yourself to more failures so that you feel less apprehensive about it. And truth be told, games are the best for this. Because you can lose in a fun environment where everyone can laugh and have a good time about it. You can always imagine or role play as someone else, if it helps. If you lose, it’s not you who failed but your role-play character who messed up! And that’s ok!

How do I deal with imposter syndrome?

A student wrote to me with this question:

How do I deal with imposter syndrome? I’ve been doing pretty well in many aspects of my life recently (this wasn’t the case in the past). I just feel that I’m actually not worthy of all this or soon I’ll just stop being successful. I know i’m putting in more effort now which could be why I’m doing well but at the same time I’m just feeling very insecure nowadays.

I think this experience is very common, and it’s something we will encounter every time we step into a new role or responsibility. I feel that way each time I take on a new task, and my Teaching Assistants (TAs) can attest that they feel that way too when they first became TAs.

There are two issues I do wish to address:

(1) Firstly, when we’re new to something, we don’t identify ourselves as one of “them,” as one of the pros who have been around for longer and who seem to do better than us. It’s good to model yourself after them, but they’re really not the right benchmarks for us to compare with. I say this because you don’t have the same level of experience as they do. So if you keep benchmarking yourself against them, you will always feel that you’re not good enough, and it becomes harder for you to see yourself as one of “them,” thereby prolonging the feeling that you are an imposter.

What’s more important is to learn to settle into your role and take credit for all your successes, big and small, and especially the small ones. Aim to be excellent in the tasks and responsibilities given to you. As you do this well, your team mates or colleagues will begin to rely on you more. This will make you feel more integrated into the team, and you’ll soon feel like you have become one of them.

(2) Of course, everything I said above can be undermined if you have a low self-esteem or are unnecessarily harsh on yourself. Truly, we are our worst enemies. We work so hard to get so far, and once we’ve made it, we start to tell ourselves we are not good enough. That’s really not a nice thing to do to yourself.

I want to share with you an advice a friend shared with me the other day: “You are your own friend. So, don’t say things to yourself that you would never say to your friends.”

We can be really mean to ourselves and say very discouraging and even hateful things. That’s not healthy, and it’s important that we learn to be kind and patient with ourselves in the same way that we are kind and patient to our friends. Once we do this, we can begin to appreciate the good that we’ve achieved by our own effort.

So tell yourself what I say to you: Well done! I’m proud of you. Keep up what you’re doing. I’m sure you’ll continue to do well. :)

Is it normal for me to feel that I never feel prepared for a relationship?

A student wrote to me with this question:

Is it normal for me to feel that I never feel prepared for a relationship? I’m not good looking, not smart, and I’m not even rich. I can’t give a promising future to the girl I like.

I think it’s normal to find imperfections in ourselves and think that we’re not good enough. But we must remember that that’s just how we feel about ourselves, and that’s not usually how other people think about us.

Our looks and our intellect are who we are. These are things that are beyond our control. To some degree, you can improve on it, but you can’t do very much. So it’s not fair to yourself to use looks/intellect as a gauge of relationship readiness, because even ugly and stupid people can still be in happy relationships. There are many around, but we often don’t take notice of them because we tend to pay more attention to the good looking ones, or the very successful/famous ones.

There are two guys whom I know. I don’t respect them very much because they lack integrity. They are fugly as hell, and dumb as f***. And I know that if I were a woman, I sure as hell wouldn’t date them. Yet for the life of me, they are able to attract a lot of women (they’re both cheating on their girlfriends, which is why I don’t respect them). The point I’m making in sharing this is to emphasise that looks and intellect really don’t matter. It’s really an open market, and no matter how good-looking or fugly; or clever or stupid you may be, there will always be people who will be attracted to you.

As an aside… One thing most students don’t realise is when someone of the opposite sex is attracted to you. It’s easy to miss subtle signs. I know this, because when I was a student, I too was oblivious to the fact that some girls were interested in me. Now, that I’m so much older, and as a teacher, I can see how obvious it is. In class, I can see who’s interested in who, and I can see how one party can be so totally clueless about it. So many missed opportunities. Seriously… You don’t need Tinder. Just come for class. Haha!

Ok, back to the question… As for wealth, you don’t need to be rich. You just need to be financially stable because financial instability is the number one reason for divorce in Singapore. It’s hard for couples to trust and love each other when they are in survival mode, struggling to make ends meet. As a student, it is still within your power to be financially stable. It’s not about having a high paying job. It’s about being disciplined with your spending and spending within your means, and of course, saving and investing the rest of the money that you have.

Many couples sabotage their marriages by over-spending on their wedding, honeymoon, and housing. It’s nice to live in a condo or some matured estate. But if it means taking on a huge mortgage that puts stress on the both of you, that’s unwise. Every day you’ll worry about not having enough money to pay the bills.

So in short, you shouldn’t be using looks, intellect, and finances as indicators of preparedness or readiness for a relationship. Looks and intellect especially, are very bad indicators since you can’t do anything about these qualities. So what then should you use to gauge that you’re prepared or ready?

The answer is emotional maturity.

How do you handle conflicts? How do you handle the shit that life throws at you? How do you handle difficult people and difficult situations? If your answer to these questions is: rage quit, or run away by not facing up to the problem, or drown it out through alcohol or whatever poison you use to forget your problems, then you are not emotionally mature enough to handle a relationship. It’s important to learn to develop yourself by interacting and working with more people, either through CCAs or taking your group projects more seriously.

You may have noticed that some of your friends in relationships may display these traits of emotional immaturity. They may have many happy moments, but that is not the real indicator of whether the relationship is healthy. The true test of a relationship is when conflict arises. This typically happens once the honeymoon phase of the relationship has ended (about 18 months). A lot of break-ups happen after the honeymoon phase because emotionally immature people don’t know how to sustain/maintain a relationship once all the wonderfully exciting feelings aren’t that strong anymore (the strong feelings don’t last long if you aren’t aware of this, so it takes a lot of effort to maintain the feelings, and this exercise is an important aspect of a long-term healthy relationship). And so they become more easily agitated by their partners. Conflicts and disagreements arise more easily. And unfortunately, emotionally immature people do not know how to handle this well. This causes a great deal of hurt and pain to both parties. Usually, such relationships won’t last long. And they’ll just move on with their emotional baggage to cause yet more hurt and pain to someone else.

So focus on developing your people skills. Learn how to manage and handle difficult situations and difficult people. Learn how to develop deep and meaningful friendships with people. It will help you mature as a stable person and become a strong pillar of support to your future partner. And as you do your thing with confidence, you’ll eventually find someone you like, and that someone who will like you in return.

Do you have any advice for people with low self-esteem and who always think that they are not good enough?

One student asked me this question:

Do you have any advice for people with low self-esteem and who always think that they are not good enough?

Let me share with you a fun Zen story riddle (would have been more fun if I could do this in person). Let’s imagine that we have a large glass bottle. The opening of the bottle is big enough to fit a baby duckling inside the glass bottle. Imagine that we raise the duckling in the bottle for many years until it has grown very large. By now, it’s too big to get out of the glass bottle. So here’s the question:

How do you get the duck out without breaking the glass bottle? (Answer below, don’t peek!)

The answer is: AAAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!! (Would have been more thrilling and fun if I could shout and bang the table right before your eyes)

You probably went, “WHAT THE HELL!?” But in that moment where you went WTH, you stopped thinking of the duck as trapped in the glass bottle. The duck is free.

A lot of life problems are like that. We are prisoners of our minds. And our minds are very powerful in generating self-made problems and suffering for ourselves. I need to be clear here: I’m not saying your problems are imaginary. How you feel about yourself is very real and very valid. And I acknowledge that, and in many ways, I feel you, because I used to suffer from low self-esteem too.

Over the years, I’ve come to realise that how we think and feel about ourselves are often inaccurate reflections of who we are. Why? Because we are the worst judge of ourselves. Everything we do is always pathetic in our eyes. And no matter how great and wonderful we may be, we will always find something to fault ourselves over.

Of course, it’s very easy to say, “ Don’t think about it.” That doesn’t work at all. Our minds are strange things. We are our minds, yet sometimes our minds have a life of its own, generating thoughts that we sometimes cannot control. That’s why it’s difficult to stop thinking about it.

If you noticed, from the start I’ve been saying that this is a problem of how we perceive ourselves in our minds. Because once we recognise the problem as such, we will then recognise that nothing outside of us can make us improve our self-esteem: relationships won’t solve the problem; good grades won’t solve the problem; money or even power won’t solve the problem. You can possess all these things but still suffer from a low self-esteem. So we must stop kidding ourselves that using these external things as measures or indicators of how good we are. Once you attain one of those things, e.g. high CAP or even a loving partner, you’ll soon discover some other thing to make you feel shit about yourself.

Having said all these, I won’t tell you how to get over one’s self-esteem issues. I’ll just share some of the realisations I had growing up, and how it helped me, and I hope it gives you new insights as well.

The first insight I acquired was when I discovered that abstract ideals are dangerous to one’s esteem. When we compare ourselves to the abstract ideals of good, clever, hardworking, smart, etc., they will always be perfect in our minds and anything in this concrete real world – ourselves especially – will always fall short from the perfection. The question, “Am I happy?”, is enough to make you miserable, because when you think about happiness in the abstract, your current state of happiness will always be not-happy-enough. Likewise for any other abstract ideal. So I have since stopped using such abstract notions to evaluate how good I am.

The second insight is that every single individual is sui generis. It’s a term used in Law and Philosophy to mean, “a class of its own.” Everyone’s unique in their own special way, with their own different strengths. I used to be miserable comparing myself with my peers. Now I stopped comparing, because I’ve since resigned myself to the fact that I don’t have to be perfect or excellent in everything. I just want to be excellent in the things I want to be excellent in. That’s all that matters. People can do better than me in so many ways, but I don’t care. I’m not them, and they’re not me. I’m a class of its own, and I’ll just do my own thing. It makes me more gracious too. I’m very happy for other people when I see them doing better than me. And I love it especially when I see my students or TAs surpass me in their own ways (always a proud moment).

My third insight is realising that it doesn’t matter whether I think or feel that I’m not good enough. What good does the knowledge do other than make you miserable? It’s more productive to think about the tasks at hand and how to solve it. People tend to conflate “not knowing how to solve a problem” with “being not good enough.” That’s not true. You can’t solve it because you don’t know enough. It’s not that you are not good enough. And so what if you have the awareness that you’re not good enough? It’s not going to solve the problem. If anything, it just makes it worse for you as you lose confidence in it. So my point here really is that my realisation is to not frame any situation as being “not good enough,” since it’s not productive to go down that path. It’s so much better to just focus on how to solve the problem.

Have you ever been so engrossed with an activity, so focused, that you forget yourself? It’s called being in the flow. And I like being in that state. It’s very meditative, almost like you’re in a trance. The more you think about yourself, the more you think about how you’re not good enough for it, the less you work. So if we just throw ourselves into the work and get into the mood and flow of things, then we’ll forget about ourselves and how we perceive ourselves. There is only the task at hand. And when you stop thinking about yourself and focus more on the work, you tend to have less performance anxieties, and generally do a better job. And at the end of the day, you get better at doing things and you’ll grow more confident and sure of yourself.

If you think about the insights that I’ve shared, they’re all very similar to the Zen solution of getting the duck out of the glass bottle – distract yourself and the duck is out. Turn the attention of your mind away from comparing against perfect abstract ideals or other people. Turn the attention of your mind to your work or hobbies. And just like that you’ll be out of your own glass bottle of low self-esteem. As you stop thinking in terms of being good/not-good enough, you’ll start to do work well, or even better than before. And that will eventually win you praises and recognition, that will eventually make you appreciate your own abilities. And hopefully as time passes, you yourself will grow more confident of the perception of who you are. And over time, your self-esteem will improve.