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Why “The Ugly Duckling Childhood” Is the BEST Thing That Ever Happened to You

Why “The Ugly Duckling Childhood” Is the BEST Thing That Ever Happened to You

I was not a pretty picture as a child or teen — there is no other way to put it. Everything that could be wrong WAS wrong: I was overweight (to put it politely) with teeth sticking out like a rabbit, braces that didn’t help, weak eyes that needed thick spectacles, unwaxed arms and legs (think Amazon rainforests — that will give you the picture) and an oily head of hair which was fit to fry eggs over on most summer days. Don’t faint yet; that’s not all. The final nail in the coffin: I was a complete teacher’s pet (nerd alert!).

Needless to say, my childhood and teenage years consisted of “friendlessness,” embarrassment, mockery — you get the drift. I hated myself, and I hated my life. I often used to think about that fairy tale of the ugly duckling who all the other ducks ignored till she grew up to be a swan, and I used to wonder, will I ever be that Swan?

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The “ugly duckling” phase lasted a long, painful decade (and no, I didn’t transform into Cameron Diaz at the end of it, but at least the rainforest was gone), and it has taken me another decade of being an adult in the real world to realize that those years were the best thing to ever happen to me.

To all those who have had a not so pretty childhood like me, here are the things that you can be proud of thanks to that very phase.

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1. It gave you a “bring it on” attitude.

If you have handled insult and mockery at the age of ten and moved on, there is not much that can ruffle your feathers as an adult — not the politics at work, and not those nagging in-laws. In fact, the antics of the “bully boss” just make you want to giggle; he is a pet in front of that cheerleader you survived in sixth grade. Those difficult early years make you an expert at recognizing overbearing people, handling them with ease and completely shutting them out as required so that they have no impact on you or your confidence. So while your peers struggle and whine, you simply roll your eyes and move on!

2. It made you comfortable in your own skin.

Your life doesn’t revolve around wanting to be beautiful and getting appreciated by the opposite sex. As a child you didn’t survive with the crutch called good looks. While other kids were fussing in front of the mirror, you learned to (had to!) define your worth by other attributes: your mind, your character, who you are as a person. So while others spend adulthood still worrying about their looks (old habits), you are indifferent. You can put on the makeup and enjoy attention if you want; you can also ignore it completely and look like a wreck if you want. The power lies with you.

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3. It prevented you from becoming an egoist.

You may have grown up to be rich and successful; you may have grown up to look drop-dead gorgeous; or you may have grown up to become the most popular person you know — but, it will never go to your head. Inside the adult still lives that little child who remembers how it was to be down in the dumps. Humble beginnings keep you level headed and balanced. Besides, you have dealt with enough proud idiots in your childhood to ever become one. You only shoot for the stars; you don’t float among them.

4. It turned you into a true-blue friend.

What happens when a person has been judged and ignored for years? He doesn’t judge others. He doesn’t ignore others. You never toss a book based on its cover (because your own cover was pretty disastrous once!). You give people the benefit of doubt: you listen to them and you try to accommodate and simply accept the aspects you don’t completely understand — which is a perfect recipe for a lifelong friend. What is more, you know exactly how it is to not have any friends — you’ve been there! So you really value your friendships; you don’t have a lot of superficial friends, but a lot of love and depth in each friendship. That’s your motto!

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5. It helped you learn to be happy in your own company.

You have been lonely as a child, so you appreciate solitude as an adult. You don’t have the constant need for social validation or company. If people are there, you are happy; if people are not there you are still happy. As a child you have learned to spend time with yourself and even today, there are certain things that you love to do alone. You are effortlessly independent and connected with yourself. Some people would kill for that kind of peace you know!

These invaluable attributes are the gift of those early years. The investment lasted through your childhood but the return will last through your life. So look back at that little “ugly duckling” and thank your lucky stars you got to be one, because as it turns out, that fairy tale was true: ugly ducklings do turn into swans afterall.

Featured photo credit: nature.desktopnexus.com via nature.desktopnexus.com

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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