Usually, when we are discontented with ourselves, we are tempted to think that somehow we are inferior to others. However, it is necessary to consider that there is no inferiority in general, in the same way in which there is no shortness or tallness in general. These are relational concepts. You are either shorter or taller than someone else; you cannot be simply shorter or taller.
The intensity of the emotion we get from a situation in which we proved inferior to others tends to spread over the rest of our minds or personalities. We glide so easily from ‘how stupid I was in this situation’ to saying ‘how stupid I am’ in general.
The opposite case is also true: when you manage to have very good achievements in one area of activity, you spontaneously tend to appreciate yourself beyond those activities too. How often have we seen people very good at something be catastrophes in other domains which they dared to enter, like the actors who tried to become politicians?
Such dispositions of the human psyche display a more profound tendency of human nature: generalization. We constantly make generalizations, or rather, we continuously draw conclusions from what happens around us or to us. This natural propensity of the human being is the mark of the human spirit, namely its tendency to extract a particular situation from its singularity and endow it with meaning, with significance.
We are not content with the immediate experience; we need to relate it to a class of experiences of which that particular experience must be only an instance. This tendency corresponds to a feature of reality. This reality usually provides us with many instances of the same class.
There is not only a single tree in the world; we see many trees around us. There is not a single dog in the world, but many, in countless shapes and colors. And so forth. Reality is not a multiplicity of unique things but always a multitude of different classes of things.
Of course, each member of a real class can be unique within its kind, but not absolutely unique. Even a unique painting or another artwork belongs to a class and is made up of elements belonging to many other domains of reality. The Guernica of Pablo Picasso is unique, but, concerning the material it is made up of and the represented content, it is not at all unique.
Its colors are colors we are familiar with. The painted forms, however much stylized, are familiar to us. Even their spatial mutual relationships on the canvas are familiar to us, despite their startling character, since we can understand them.
Now, when we generalize negative impressions or emotions from one situation to different cases, we create internal expectations as with any other generalization. In the same way in which – once you have seen a few times the water starting boiling when set on a fire – you expect this always to happen in the future, you start cherishing negative expectations when you have a bad experience. They can be tiny initially, but if bad experiences multiply, those expectations increase.
To avoid the trap of this psychological process – which is entirely positive and life-supportive in itself – you must re-educate yourself. How does such a re-education take place? First, you must learn to recognize the generalizing tendencies in assessing yourself and accept only the positive ones while taking a stance against the negative ones.
Then, while dealing with a negative experience, you must tell yourself that human affairs are not like natural things to be easily generalized. The number of factors implied in a human experience is indefinite, making it unique, in the proper sense of the word, whereas natural things can easily build a class.
A human experience depends not only on external circumstances – which constantly change and, therefore, continually influence any possible human experience differently – but also on the individual’s personality, on his thoughts, emotions, expectations, values, will, and so forth.
A whole network of internal psychological contents shapes each human experience, so a spontaneous generalization is almost always an error. On the other hand, it is true that such a network also shapes our personality and is rarely fully recognized by each of us.
However, because you are always aware of your experiences, you can relate to them and their psychological consequences. Therefore you can think that failing on one occasion cannot transform that occasion into an instance of a general class of failed experiences and thus transform you into a hopeless failure.
Comparing life with a series of exams, no one can logically conclude that if someone failed one exam, he would fail all the rest. By doing so, you commit a logical fallacy, assuming that in the future, you will always be as inadequately prepared as you were for the failed exam. Strong negative emotions from the past can indeed create in you the image of someone unable to pass any exam, but this is still only a logical fallacy.
What insinuates into your expectation is not that you cannot prepare for future exams but that exams always come when you do not expect them, when you are necessarily unprepared for them, and this is why you are failing them.
Past negative experiences can have the consequence of transforming you into someone who believes he is an unlucky person. This elementary metaphysics builds itself secretly in your soul when you repeatedly have negative experiences.
You start thinking that the whole world is conspiring against you; now, you have an interpretation of how the entire universe works, namely by focusing on you and striving to block all your projects.
You can extract yourself from this emotional trap by recognizing you are unique. Yes, you are a human being like any other human. Of course, you share many features with your fellow people, but their combination makes you unique and a non-recurring entity, in the same way that the Guernica was unique through the way Picasso combined the colors on the canvas.
You can teach yourself to be an artist of your psyche, to create the best artwork of yourself. Then, whenever you fail, you can tell yourself: this is only a bad artwork; I will try to make another one.
And, unlike the case of painters or musicians, who must have a public made up of other people who evaluate them, you are both the artist and the public. Thus you are always the one to decide if what you do is true artwork or not.