Wellbeing & Fitness
The science behind being bad at something
From early on in our development, many of us are socialised to the notion that the value of our worth as a person is conditional upon the achievements we make (or failure to do so!) and from our early childhood experiences, we construct psychological perspectives of who we believe we are (i.e. core beliefs).
So does being bad at something make us want to throw the towel in and quit?
Performing well in your exams or getting first place, is usually given exceptional importance over taking part, and for those who fill the majority of places following first spot, will draw upon a whole lot of irrational thinking. So, let alone not performing exceptionally well, failing is viewed as a catastrophe which we can’t tolerate, leading to a faulty belief that this means we are a failure. In my practice, I use the metaphor of a roundabout that a person has entered in their life. It represents an incident which caused them to veer away from their intended life’s direction or even get perpetually caught in the roundabout, unable to exit. Your high school teacher called you useless and it becomes ingrained into your thinking, still active 20 years later! Whilst for many, the need to perform outstandingly well is actually not a natural behavioural need; more relevant to their existence is being content to be immersed in relational matters.
We learn to measure our self-worth with our achievements making it hard to face what is called our ‘weaknesses’ – what better way to avoid this pain than not to even try so we don’t have to admit the lack of achievement to ourselves or others. If I am going to struggle to cook the best meals, play an amazing repertoire on the violin or complete a 5K run, then what’s the point in even starting, right! This avoidance behaviour is actually attributed to our natural survival mechanism that wants us to steer clear of danger, even if it is imaginary.
The benefits of sticking with something you’re bad at?
Scientists now use a term called “use-dependent cortical reorganization,” that in essence means we can strengthen whichever neural pathways we use most often. Activities such as aerobic exercise has also been shown to promote adult neurogenesis where new neurons are generated and scientists at the University of Pittsburgh (Erickson, Leckie and Weinstein, 2014), have demonstrated the ability of the brain’s neuroplasticity, whereby leading to improvements in executive function and faster processing speed of the brain.
Shying away from what we’re not naturally good at can literally suppress our development towards our fuller potential. Research shows that through persevering, we can discover lots more and grow as individuals, than by avoiding or giving up. Caroline Dweck, a professor at Stanford says we should see it as “we haven’t succeeded ‘yet'” not as a failure. She is a pioneering researcher in the field of motivation, why people succeed (or don’t) and how to foster success, the author of Mindset, a classic work on motivation and “growth mindset.” Watch her TEDx Talk or find her book which explains this more.
Not allowing ourselves to work through difficult experiences reduces the possibility of increasing resilience, whilst creating successes will naturally lead to personal growth.
Why do we get frustrated when doing tasks we think we’re not adequate for?
We have already covered the benefits behind avoiding perceived dangers we might face, as a coping strategy we employ, to help keep us safe. Prof Paul Gilbert, a British clinical psychologist, has developed a model of understanding these emotional responses mediated by the brain. In his model ‘Emotional Regulation Systems’, the amygdala whose modus operandi is, “better safe than sorry!” regulates our threat system. Triggering threat system, sets in motion a series of emotional, chemical and behavioural reactions which can be further influenced by our behavioural needs and beliefs.
We notice when our threat system is active when adrenalin and cortisol are released into our bodies, preparing us with a fight or flight response. The more certainty we demand to have about situations we face, the more prone we make ourselves to experiencing things as ‘bad’ and therefore must be avoided.
The part of our brain responsible for getting things done is the nucleus accumbens, the drive system responsible for motivating us towards getting things done. Achievements lead to a release of dopamine which has its role in reward and reinforcement pathways. Anything that’s rewarding, after all, is usually well worth our attention. What’s rewarding in failure? If we took this perspective of failure, we are more likely to engage the threat system which leads to avoidance!
The benefits of doing something you might be bad at
Firstly, nobody is perfect, so we’re all going to be good at some things and worse at others. Fortunately for some, they might be born brilliant at doing things, a pure natural, others might have to train really hard to reach those outstanding levels of performance, and then some people have luck on their side. Just because you are not brilliant at doing certain things, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to attempt them. I have osteoarthritis and anything involving stretching or muscle work like doing yoga, usually ends up in embarrassing positions or groans of pain as I attempt the impossible stretches everyone else seems to effortlessly perform. But, you don’t have to be brilliant to enjoy something.
There’s not really any harm in doing something you might be very bad at. However, from my understanding of human behaviour using the Intelligent Behaviour Analytics® (IBA) programme, it’s so important that the activity we are doing needs to be relevant to us, mapping onto our personal behavioural needs.
The total U.S. self-improvement market was worth $9.9 billion in 2016 said to jump to $13.2 by 2022 according to John LaRosa of Marketresearch.com with most telling you what to do, not how to do it! Self-help manuals are written from the authors perspective often not connecting with the average person who loses interest in the formula. Doing something you’re really bad at, from a therapeutic perspective, is known as desensitisation. It involves taking small steps towards facing the fear of engaging with something that you really don’t want to do and then reviewing what actually happened versus what you believed would happen (before and after). Albert Ellis, forefather of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) was not considered one of the most attractive of New Yorkers of his time. He also had exaggerated fears of speaking in public and during his adolescence, was extremely shy around women so he set himself a task of inviting 100 women on a date. Even though he did not get a date, he reported that he desensitized himself to his fear of rejection by women.
How can we learn to be okay with being bad at things?
Self-understanding means not only that you have a self-awareness but that this can be translated into the way you communicate with others and understand how others communicate with you. This stance allows for a win-win outcome when negotiating difficult relationships as well as through recognising how the unique strengths we all have within us are sometimes overused and they end up becoming limitations to the outcomes we so desire. There are a number of ways people can learn to be okay with being bad at things but this relies on the qualities of the individual as we all have different styles of learning to do things; you could try self-help books, watch YouTube talks, attend seminars, training or consider personal therapy if you think this might help you grow to accept your limitations. As a therapist, I aim to help clients develop strategies based on experiments and work done in session that improves their perceptions so that they worry less about what others are thinking, and operationalise what’s right for them.
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