It was a December in the late 90’s, and my school was on break for the holidays. I was spending the afternoon with one of my best friends and we were passing time as only kids know how. We were upstairs in the “play room,” whose prime open space had recently been colonized by her dad’s treadmill.
“How does this work?” I asked, already standing on the belt. My friend started to respond but I was too busy punching buttons. The belt was whirring, and I was jogging, then running, then sprinting, then flying, then—
“How do you turn this off?!” I screamed, clutching the sides of the machine. I don’t know if my friend responded or not, because I tripped and slid off the belt. The belt generously skinned a shin and both ankles on my way out.
With the belt still rotating in front of me, I just looked at my friend. Without saying anything, she pulled the emergency cord and left the room. Moments later she returned with bandaids. It took about twelve bandaids to fully patch up the wounds.
When I was done, we went down to the kitchen for a snack like any other day.
It didn’t take long for my mom to discover the scene of carnage that was my leg. After she forcefully learned the truth, she looked at me with piercing eyes and said only three words: “You deserve it.”
She wasn’t a monster though. She took me to my doctor the next day, which didn’t help the situation. “This will likely scar for life,” she told me and my mom. There they were again—the piercing eyes.
The concept that negative outcomes were “deserved” was one that was branded into my brain from an early age. It was my parents’ technique for teaching me lessons when I messed up. It was a “you brought this upon yourself,” mentality. A just-world hypothesis. In some ways, it also gave me an empowering sense of being able to control my destiny.
The social and school life I lived as a child only validated these notions of meritocracy. If I studied hard and practiced hard, I could reap the benefits of good performance on exams, on the field, or on stage. Recognizing how lucky I am to have been able to experience this simple cause-effect relationship, my childhood world was a vacuum where I was convinced that I owned my fate. The only occasional curve balls came in the form of unexpected multiple choice questions.
While this mindset wasn’t altogether problematic during my childhood, its venom slowly seeped into my blood as I entered adulthood. The problem, of course, is that “real life” offers little of that cause-effect illusion. Having felt that I worked hard in college, I wondered what I had done to deserve the never-ending-tunnel of student loan payments ahead. In those “bad luck” moments like being mugged or tearing my ACL, I asked “Why me?” And during some of the most difficult years for my family, I cried myself to sleep with angry tears blaming life’s injustice.
There has always been a flip side to my self-blame for negative outcomes; it was the feeling that everyone else was well-deserving. “You deserve the world,” I often tell good friends when they experience small or big success, because I really believe it. They’ve put their mind and soul into something. “I can’t think of two people more deserving of one another,” I’ve said at friends’ weddings, because I really believe it. They’ve put their heart and soul into someone.
A few weeks ago as I walked to work, I let my mind wander. No music. No podcasts. My mind went to a good place—milling through multiple rays of light that had recently shown themselves in my life. “What made this happen for me?” I asked. The correct answer would have been, “You deserve this.” But this thought did not cross my mind.
Later that same week, a colleague congratulated me the successful completion of a project. “Thank you, I responded. It was the perfect storm.” As the words came out of my mouth, however, they felt wrong. Because if I were attributing the job well done to someone else, I would have said, “The hard work paid off.” I would have said, “You deserve this.” In the movie of my life, this is the point where we’d flash back to my walk from earlier in the week.
In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error describes how we attribute other people’s behaviors to their dispositions (“that is just the way he is,”) and our behaviors to our situation (“I did this because of my environment”). As a tangentially related (and non-scientifically backed) explanation, it seems that in my life until now, I’ve erroneously attributed negative outcomes to what I deserve and positive outcomes to what others deserve. When others succeed, I believe they deserve it. When they fail, I help them brush it off. When I fail, I wonder what I did to deserve it. When I succeed, I chalk it up to an army of external forces.
This of course, is not right.
What I —what any of us—believe I deserve, should be fully detached from their situations or outcomes. What we deserve, instead, should be borne out of self-respect and self-worth. It should stem from the way we see ourselves. An outcome is just an outcome. We can just as well do something stupid and succeed as we can do something smart and fail. These outcomes don’t confer any judgment on what you as a person are worthy of, unless you let it.
In other words, neither I nor you always (or even often) get what we deserve, good or bad.
Jogging, running, sprinting, flying—panicking–into a new year and beyond, I don’t know what buttons life will press on its little machine for me. But I do know that I’ll be assessing their outcomes differently than I have before. Instead of attributing them to what I do or don’t deserve, I will be approaching them with the positive disposition that comes from self-appreciation.
I’m no longer getting skinned and thinking I deserved it. I’ve got a thicker skin now.