“I don’t have to prove my life. I just have to live.” — Daniel Berrigan, American poet, peace activist and clergy
Otto was known for building the best barbed wire fences in the county. Straight and true mile after mile. The wires were so tight one could almost pluck them like a guitar string.
Otto was immensely proud of his handiwork. Otto was equally proud of his wire gates: four strands of barbed wire with three perfectly placed pickets. The gates were so tight that no one but Otto could close them.
With effort, Otto’s wife and young son could open the gates but closing them proved to be impossible. Otto would allow his family to struggle for a time and then, when defeat was inevitable, he would walk over and with great flourish, position the picket in the latch-wire, give out a great groan and with a flex of his mighty biceps latch the gate in place.
“Not so tough,” he would boast, “if you have the right technique.”
Though not a big man, Otto was physically powerful. Even fellow farmers — larger men — had difficulty opening and closing his gates when the need arose.
Secretly, closing the gates was Otto’s way of asserting himself and demonstrating physical supremacy over all contenders.
Then one day, some years later, the unthinkable happened. Otto grabbed the gate with great flourish, groaned and flexed his mighty biceps but couldn’t quite close it. He pulled and strained until beads of sweat formed on his forehead. Age had caught up with Otto and his great strength had ebbed away. As for his son, he had grown tall and powerful. Noting his father’s difficulty, he walked over, took the gate from Otto and closed it with ease.
“Not so tough,” he said, “if you have the right technique.”
Are you out to prove something? If so, to whom and for what reason?
Yes, there are times when we need to prove our strengths and talents — to others and to ourselves. We might prove ourselves worthy to an employer or potential employer.
We might prove mastery of a skill by performing a public demonstration. We might choose to face a particularly daunting fear thereby proving that we have grown in our self-esteem and awareness.
However, if you feel the need to prove yourself to experience a sense of power or superiority, you’re likely coming from a place of fear. Fear may be telling you you’re not good enough. The ego, in an attempt to quell the unease that accompanies self-defeating beliefs, will prompt you — incessantly — to prove it. In the end, unless the negative belief shifts, you’ll never feel “good enough” for long.
This need to prove oneself as superior isn’t necessarily the same thing as a simple competitive nature. On the surface, the two might appear identical. A true competitor may strive to beat the competition but it is seldom out of a need to override a deep-rooted lack of worthiness.
The individual who has a healthy and grounded sense of self enters competition from a different head space. This person, coming from a place of love and confidence, will often say, “I can do better,” and then set out to prove it. He might acknowledge and then transcend personal barriers to the benefit of all concerned. The fearful individual, however, may prove himself by besting others and then gloating for a time but it is at best temporary.
And that is a best-case scenario.
Anytime that we base our self-worth on prevailing in competition, we run the risk of losing all our self-esteem when we fail to win. What then happens to our sense of self?
What happens when our ego is no longer able to quell the fearful belief that we really do not measure up to those around us?
I think we know the answer: our inability to perform the task thus confirms and further reinforces our negative self-image.
Remember, whatever you believe to be true about yourself is nothing more than a series of thoughts that you have invested energy into sustaining — a set of ideas that define you. Otto defined himself and his own value through his physical power, and when he lost it, he lost a significant portion of who he was. The older Otto grew and less able he became to perform feats of physical prowess, the poorer he felt about himself.
He was often heard to grumble about having the strength of a 13-year-old boy and about how useless and ineffective he had become. Eventually, he was forced to go to each gate and loosen the latch-wire that held them shut. Each time he did so, he lost a little more of his self-worth and drifted a little deeper into a state of despair.
If we want to prove that we are worthy and deserving of happiness and success (or anything else for that matter), we must first assess our current beliefs around happiness and success. We must examine what we hold true and accept self-responsibility for making necessary changes.
When we begin to understand our motivations, we also begin to release the never-ending need to prove ourselves.
Our need for attention and approval, and to demonstrate prowess may also begin to shift. From this new vantage point, fear — little by little — begins to ebb away.
American author, lecturer and educator Dale Carnegie once said, “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bustling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.”
Do you feel the need to prove yourself worthy or superior to others? Then consider your motivations. And consider the image you are creating in the minds of other people. There’s an insight that all truly self-aware individuals know: you have nothing to prove to anyone but yourself. Perhaps the time has come to acknowledge the fact and to prove it.
Murray Fuhrer is a local self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca