The slightest things veer us off, imprint themselves, turn into Defeat or Discouragement.
In sixth grade, my friend Frances and I would draw for hours together at her kitchen table or her table in the garage. My dad pointed out that she was better than me (and she did win prizes). So I ceded the territory to her and stuck with my lettering and my writing.
I managed to make it into the grade-school girl's choir, although Sr. Judith said I had a weak voice. There was no singing in high school, but my friend Jane had a deep, rich, and refined speaking voice that went along with her brilliant piano-playing. My dad also pointed that out. Even though Jane turned out to be a liar and a cheat and was booted out of the National Honors Society in hushed scandal, she was still chosen to be salutatorian at graduation because of her voice. (The girl who was #1 in our class stuttered, so no speech for her.) Why would I even attempt public speaking with Jane around?
Too much of my young life was spent carving away the things I wasn't any good at: art, singing, dancing, speaking, sports, acting. Even writing. In high school (after I'd already thrown away the 300-page novel I wrote in grade school, in self-imposed humiliation for not following the "rules of good writing"), teachers whispered their awe for Mary S's writing. One teacher confided that it was "impossible for Mary to write a bad sentence." How could anyone compete with that?
So... I managed to convince myself that I was a middling plodder in just about every field where talent and aptitude are required. I guess that turned me into a successful generalist (jack of all trades, master of none), but still -- I could kick myself for believing my own conclusions.
An article in the 6/30/08 New Yorker quotes a neuropsychologist who estimates that visual perception is more than 90% memory and less than 10% sensory nerve signals. Apparently it's that way with all our senses. We take a sliver of information and spin it into rich, colorful mental images. This way we can be the architects of our own torture, our own failings. It is not a psychological or spiritual weakness -- just the way our brilliant brains work.
Amputees with chronic phantom limb pain can now be taught to control their non-existent limbs by setting up a mirror so that their right arm looks like the missing left arm and they can train it to relax and shrink away. Seems like we ought to be able to do that with our own self-images.