Seeking inner strengths

We may not always see the qualities other people value in us, but our strengths are there – we just need to see ourselves from the right angle.

If you had asked me what a manga was nine years ago, before I had lived in France, I probably would have guessed it was some inedible and potentially poisonous cousin of the mango fruit. Or I might have supposed it was an up-and-coming couture house (think Prada, Escada, Kenzo… Manga would fit right it). Given time, I could have come up with quite a few ideas but I never would have guessed that some day I would be taking life advice from one.

Affirmative action

Earlier this week, I was discussing the development of self-esteem with a French friend, Elodie, and the role that affirmations of one’s strengths and qualities could play in helping to shore up a shaky sense of self-worth. Modern life coaching techniques include the use of a positive personal affirmation that you can call upon when tempted to negatively compare yourself to others or minimise your own value. Obviously, the first step in developing such a personal statement is to identify your strengths – something a lot of people have a hard time doing. It’s often easy to look at others and pronounce confidently, “Oh, he’s always so generous”, or “She’s such an insightful soul”, but when asked where our own strengths lie, we hum and haw, eventually muttering something like, “Well, I guess I’m pretty punctual…”

Manga psychology

Why do we do this? What makes us so reluctant or incapable of appreciating ourselves? Well, according to Elodie, mangas have the answer. Now, for those who don’t know, mangas are neither fruit nor designer handbags – they are Japanese comic books, created for children and adults alike. They are wildly popular in France, and for the last eight years, I have resisted the Beloved’s attempts to get me to read them. I never saw the attraction (partly because his mangas all seem to be about warrior heros fighting with magical forces), but now Elodie has piqued my interest.

As we sat discussing lofty questions of self-esteem and personal growth, Elodie had one of those lightbulb moments, jumping up from the couch and running to rifle through her bookshelves. She returned, triumphant and recounted an episode not from Freud or Jung but from her favourite manga… and it’s all about Asian fast food. Yes, readers, today’s wisdom comes in the form of Japanese rice balls.

The story of Kyo-kun

In the manga story, there is a girl called Kyo-kun who is deeply kind, but who can’t seem to like herself. One day, a friend of hers tells her that people are just like onigiris – Japanese convenience food in the form of rice balls. The rice balls are often filled with umeboshi (pickled plums). The balls are formed in such as way that you can only see the filling from one side, the same way you can see the spot where jam has been pumped into a doughnut. Kyo-kun’s friend tells her:
If you think of someone’s good qualities as the umeboshi in an onigiri, it’s as if their qualities are stuck to their back. People all around the world are like onigiri. Everyone has an umeboshi with a different shape and colour and flavour. But because it’s stuck on their back, they can’t always see it. We think, “There’s nothing special about me. I’m just white rice”. But that’s not true – there is an umeboshi – on your back. Maybe the reason people get jealous of each other is because they can see so clearly the umeboshi on other people’s backs. I can see them, too. I can see them perfectly. There’s an amazing umeboshi on your back, Kyo-kun.

Our own sweet filling

It’s hard to see our own special qualities, often because to us they are just a normal part of who we are, but it’s important to stop and see them for the strengths they really are. Our qualities are our allies, helping us through life’s challenges. When we start appreciating instead of denying them or assuming that other people’s qualities are better, more numerous, or more valuable, we strengthen them and can draw on their full power.

Whether it takes a good friend to help you see the umeboshi stuck to your back, or a manga comic book, or even a 360° mirror, the benefits of identifying, knowing and owning your best self are multifold.

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