Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA 7.28.21
They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I am sure that this is true. After all, there are things that are beautiful to some people but not to others. We all have basic preferences for color, shapes and design. We also have preferences for beauty in the form of landscapes, animals, and other people. In many cases, we may come to appreciate beauty where we had not seen it before.
When it comes to other people, there can be tendencies as part of human nature to make judgments based on appearances. Sometimes these judgments are purely about attraction – do I like how that person looks as a potential romantic partner? Other times these judgments are more complex, looking at someone and thinking you may know them because of the outward appearance you see. Clothing, hairstyle, skin color – these are all things that can affect our judgment, often leading to inaccurate representations or poor outcomes.
In the field of psychology, we strive to understand and predict human behavior to help build better success for people with regard to personal interactions. It is often disappointing to see negative patterns of behavior repeat themselves – with individual people we know, with ourselves, and with society. In my specific experience, spending my entire career working with and advocating for the needs of some of our most vulnerable citizens – those with autism, developmental needs and diverse abilities – I have challenged others to look for beauty and strength in people where it might not be as obvious to society. We have come a long way in the past 20 years towards increased acceptance and community inclusion, but we still have a long way to go. It doesn’t seem like we can fix things in any easy fashion, but looking at where we are today, it seems that one thing we can all do is look for and find beauty.
In others. In ourselves. In our communities.
How good are you at looking for an finding beauty in others? Not just physical beauty, but inner beauty, positive qualities and attributes? Do you look for the best in others, or do you focus on the things you don’t like, or the things that make you uncomfortable?
We often see the negatives more than the positives. In doing this, I can promise you that if you look for a negative quality in another person, or look for fault in what that person says or does, you will find it. This also holds true for the opposite – if you really apply yourself to looking for the best quality in another person you will find it. I believe that there is beauty somewhere inside all people, with very few exceptions.
In addition, it is important for us all to remember that we have each only really walked in our own shoes. Do any of us really know what it feels like to be someone else? Someone who was rude to you at the store? Someone who has a different skin color than your own, or who comes from a different culture? Someone who has been born with a disability that affects every day life in ways you might not be able to imagine?
Try to imagine – only just imagine – that each person you come into contact with today is honestly just doing the best they can with what they have in that moment. If you can even imagine that, your outlook may become more balanced. This may also result in more positive interactions and less frustrations throughout your day.
While I do think that in general, we tend to be too hard on other people, I also think that we tend to be hard on ourselves. It is so easy to slip into negative thinking about ourselves, our skills, our looks, our interactions. Have you ever second-guessed a conversation after it happened and thought about what you could have or should have said differently or better? Have you ever looked in the mirror or at a picture of yourself and really focused in on the things you don’t like about your looks? Have you ever talked yourself out of trying something because you think you won’t be good enough?
Simone Biles, bright, beautiful, and possibly the best female gymnast of all time, just stepped down from the Olympic team competition to let her team compete without her because she wasn’t sure she had it in her to live up to the world’s expectations in that moment. She, who from an outsider’s perspective with her incredible talent and should have every reason to believe in herself, was wrought with doubt this week. The world was shocked. We look at her as someone who is flawless, perfect in her sport, the epitome of strength and perseverance. But even Simone Biles has her moments of self-doubt, and if she does, it is no wonder that we all do. Simone Biles had the courage to say to the world that she needed a break for herself, and I hope that in doing so she is able to search and find that strength, beauty and brightness once again.
How can we face our doubts and not lose sight of our own beauty and brightness? Maybe it means sometimes hitting the pause button to give yourself some grace for a time. Maybe it also means looking at yourself in a more balanced way – you may challenge yourself constantly to overcome weaknesses and things that get in your way, but it is important to not let this dominate your thoughts about yourself. For every weakness or challenge you seek to improve within yourself, look for one thing you are proud of, one thing you like about yourself, one thing you know other people like about you. Balance yourself with positive thoughts about yourself while you strive for self-improvement.
In our communities.
Boy oh boy, is it easy to find fault in our communities, isn’t it? Do they do enough of this, that or the other thing that we think is important? Probably not. But like the balanced perspectives we can strive for regarding others and ourselves, we have to do this with our communities as well. Like people, communities are not perfect. How could they be? They are made up of imperfect people, after all. That is the nature of life. This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t advocate for our communities to do better in things that could be improved, but it is to say let’s think about them in a more balanced way.
When you consider your own community, including our collective state and national community, do you see more things that you like or more things that you don’t like? Is it easy to criticize local, state or federal organizations and governing agencies for everything they do wrong? It is, I think, very easy to find fault with organizations and systems. And there are things that need to be improved, without a doubt. This is true for things that affect lives of people in a multitude of ways. Does your community do enough to support people in financial need? Does it do enough to support and include people with different needs and abilities? Does it do enough to provide opportunities for positive interaction and productive debate? Does it do enough overall to support diversity and inclusion for all people?
Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. But, I would venture to say that all our communities have qualities and strengths that we may take for granted. While you consider the things you wish would be better within your own community – or even on a broader scale with state and federal organizations or governments – also consider the things you value in these area. What does your community do well? Look for the beauty.
If we start from a place with a focus on what is bright and beautiful, it will make it easier to tackle the challenges that we face with others, with ourselves, and with our communities.