“I’ll Try” and Other Forms of Self-Sabotage

overcome self sabotaging behaviorDo. Or do not. There is no try.
~ Yoda

Most people who say they want to heal recognize what their primary issues are. If they came from a toxic background, or if their choices consistently lead to the life they do not want, they have some basic understanding of the negative patterns in their life, but they don’t know what to do in order to change them. They may have read books, gone to seminars and workshops, and spent years in therapy, and yet they are still feeling stuck and unhappy. In fact, the longer a person “tries” to heal, the more they come to believe that they cannot heal, which is completely false. Nevertheless, the belief in their inability to heal and be happy becomes their primary form of self-sabotage.

The easiest way on earth to sabotage yourself and simultaneously rationalize that sabotage is to spend your time stating, “I’ll try.” What do I mean by that?

We are all taught that we should try things, and if we don’t try things, then we will never know if we can succeed at them. This is certainly true. If you don’t try to ride that bicycle, then you will never learn how. You have to sit on it and physically move the pedals. Of course, in doing so, you will wipe out a few times, scrape your knees, and acquire a few bruises. That’s a given. You will fall off that bike in the process. But then you must get back on it and do it again.

The problem with “I’ll try” is when it becomes a built-in excuse for failure. “I know that beating myself up is counterproductive, so I’ll try to stop doing that,” you might think. But by saying, “I’ll try,” you’ve given yourself carte blanche not only to fail, but to console yourself with the knowledge that “I tried.” In other words, “Well, I tried all of that, but it didn’t work.” And you give up and remain stuck in your comfortable, if miserable, status quo.

The primary difference between people who are successful and people who are not is their attitude. Successful people do not say, “I’ll try.” They say, “I’m going to do this thing. I don’t know how to do it today, but I’m going to figure it out.” And then they do. When they fall off their bicycle, they get back on. It took Thomas Edison 10,000 attempts to create the light bulb. For some, that would be 10,000 failures. But Edison didn’t think that way. In an interview before he succeeded, a reported asked him if he felt like a failure. He reportedly said, “Young man, why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.” Shortly thereafter, he succeeded.

People who do not succeed are not less intelligent, less talented, or “born under a bad sign.” People do not succeed because they “try” and then give up too easily. Any worthwhile endeavor, particularly one as important as emotional healing and finding your happiness, deserves your total commitment. If something doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It means you have yet to find the method that will work.

Emotional healing and changing bad habits, such as looking at the world through a negative or self-defeating lens, requires hard work and persistence. You must rewire your brain. Literally. Your nervous system is so accustomed to walking the path of self-abuse and unhappiness that you are going to have to apply yourself if you truly want to change. And you can change.

Successful people are committed people. They have committed themselves to a goal or ideal, and they don’t give up until they have figured it out. Likewise, if you want to succeed in your healing, you must commit to it. You must commit to you. You  must leave behind “I’ll try” and say, “I am going to make myself happy, and I will figure out how.” You do not have to know the path in advance. You don’t even have to know where to begin. But you must first decide, for yourself, that you will commit to yourself and not give yourself the ready excuse for failure that “I’ll try” implies. Commit. Or don’t commit. There is no try.

As you walk, stumble, trip, and wander along the path of healing that you have committed to, give yourself permission to “fail.” In reality, there is no such thing as failure, but you may have to adjust your understanding of that. Some days, you may succeed 10% of the time. You may catch yourself in the act of self-abuse and turn it around, say “no” when you need to, and give yourself permission to do something that makes you happy. The other 90% of the time, you may not make it. This is okay. But with practice and persistence, you may find that the 10% of successes gradually transforms into 20%, then 30%, and so on. As you create new neural pathways in your brain, as you experience the results of these successes, they will build on each other. The path will become easier. Eventually, you will find yourself jogging easily down it. And one day, you’ll stop and look back in awe and think, “Wow. I did it!” And it will be because you were committed.

“I know that beating myself up is counterproductive, so I’m going to stop doing that,” thinks the person who eventually finds their happiness. Where there’s a will—and a commitment—there’s a way. That way will be as individual as you are. No two paths look alike. No one else can find it for you. So stop trying and just start walking.

Wonder Woman Turns the Other Cheek

Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday, my seven-year-old (1st-grade) daughter was clearly in a bad place when she came home from school. She was cranky, quick to cry, and complained that her stomach hurt. I know my kid, and I know when she’s upset about something. I asked her if anything had happened at school, or if someone had done something to upset her. She shook her head no. I let it be.

As the afternoon progressed, she complained of stomach cramps from being so hungry, so I gave her a couple of options for a snack. She refused both. Her behavior deteriorated further, and I knew something was up. Later at dinner, after bursting into tears over what she perceived as a slight, she finally opened up. The good thing about our darling is she can’t really bear to keep her pain in too long.

As it happens, she had been a little late for lunch (due to a potty break), and she ended up lined up with the 2nd-graders, who, from her young perspective, were intimidating. Two of these bigger kids cut in front of her. She said nothing to them, and she reasoned that she would still get to the counter and get her lunch anyway. And this is perfectly correct.

So I asked her why she was upset. If she was at peace with allowing the two kids to cut in front of her, then why had it weighed so heavily on her heart? “It was just that I thought…” She couldn’t finish, so I added, “You thought that mommies would be disappointed that you didn’t stand up for yourself?” She nodded.

What followed was a discussion of some of the choices she had in that moment, and I pointed out that none of her choices were wrong. One family member noted that hitting them would have been wrong, but as it happens, our daughter knew perfectly well what the consequence of hitting them would have been (being sent to the principal’s office). So, from her perspective she could, 1) stand up for herself and make her mommies proud, or 2) say nothing, get her lunch anyway, and avoid conflict. Neither of these is a bad choice.

I was struck with the peaceful knowledge of her choice, that she would get her lunch anyway, so why worry? But I also get that she is being raised by not one, but two very strong women who have always encouraged her to stand up for herself and her needs. Apparently, we put more pressure on her than we realized, because she was upset all afternoon at the thought of letting us down somehow.

We reassured her that we were proud of her and her decision, and that of course it may not always feel safe to stand up for yourself. You just do what you have to do, or at least pretend to. As Robert Downey, Jr. has famously said, “Listen, smile, agree, and then do whatever the fuck you were gonna do anyway.” That, too, is a method of standing up for yourself.

Primarily, though, what struck me about her choice is that it seems to me exactly the sort of choice that Jesus Christ, Mother Teresa, or Mahatma Gandhi might have made. They would have turned the other cheek. If real harm had been done, they may have spoken gentle words, but they would not have reciprocated in kind. My kid just…let it go.

…Until she couldn’t. Her worries about our judgment are what upset her all afternoon. So yes, we have some work to do to let her know that standing up for herself means being at peace with her choices, even if they aren’t the same choices that mommies would make. Of course, as much as I like to joke about being Wonder Woman, the truth is that I’m very proud of my daughter’s choice, and I think that Diana Prince would also turn the other cheek. Gentleness is strength. Wisdom is peace. I wonder what my daughter will teach me next.

Girls Just Want to Have Fun and Take Their Power

Cyndi Lauper at the 2008 Gay Parade San Francisco, CA

Photo of Cyndi Lauper courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

When I was a teenager, I idolized Cyndi Lauper when she came on the scene. She was SO OUT THERE. She had crazy, chopped-up and wildly colored hair, she wore what she darn well pleased, and her makeup declared, “Here I am! Like it or not!” In my teenage fantasies, I longed to dress just as outrageously and daringly. My spirit longed to be as zany and colorful as Cyndi’s dared to be. It didn’t happen.

I wore boring, conservative shirts, blue jeans, and—it being rural Texas and all—conservative yet heavy makeup and hair plastered securely with hairspray. Not much wild going on. Of course, there were reasons for the mismatch between my outward appearance and my inner desires. One was my conservative parents, who expected me to look, think, and behave in a certain way. Failure to do so would result in a withdrawal of love, I knew, so I dutifully attempted to conform. The second reason was the narrow societal box in which I found myself. When my parents moved to a rural Texas town, I was already out of my element and was widely considered an oddball at best, and a hell-bound sinner with Very Bad Ideas at worst. So I climbed willingly into a box circumscribed by Rejection; if I stayed in, I might not get rejected, but if I poked my nose outside of it, I surely would be. And I often was.

While my outward appearance gave solid lip service to the box, my inner world was my own, and as I grew older, I became increasingly aware of the widening gulf between who I was and who I was pretending to be. Still, the “safe thing” to do was to hide my true self as much as possible and keep on pretending. I became very good at pretending, but the more I pretended, the more unhappy I was.

In college, I started to break out a bit and put more of myself outside of the box. A toe here, an elbow there. I wore tie-dye bell bottoms to school. I grew my hair out and stopped using makeup and hairspray of any kind. I decided to follow my heart and my own spirituality, wherever it would lead me. When I married my ex-husband, who was an atheist, I temporarily put my spirituality back in the closet, since it made him uncomfortable. Alas, this only made me uncomfortable, so after a few years of this, I took it back out again and began to do my own thing. He adapted, and I adapted. No big rejection occurred.

Still, there were some things that made my spouse extremely uncomfortable. I had always wanted to get a tattoo, and when I mentioned this, I got the nonresponse that meant, I’m really not comfortable with that. So back in the closet it went.

As I have written in my the prologue to my book and elsewhere, I was able to more fully express myself once I married my wife, Ahnna, ten years ago. I told her I wanted a tattoo one day, and she was supportive. I had hoped to do it on my 40th birthday, but money was tight, and there were genuine needs to spend it on, so I put it back on the shelf. Each year, it went on the shelf. This year, however, Ahnna said she wanted me to get it as her birthday present to me. And I agreed.

We informed the other member of our family of the plan, who was more than a little surprised, and, bless him, he couldn’t keep the unhappiness out of his voice. So I wavered. Maybe I should spend the money on other things we needed. Ahnna called me on the carpet about that, rightfully. This is something you have long wanted to do, she said, so do it. He’ll come along. I agreed, but my inner child had taken note.

Asha's Tattoo

Raven and I

I had the tattoo done a week ago, and it is beautiful. It is certainly striking:  a raven flying among the stars. Raven is my power animal, and the stars signify shamanic journeying, so this tattoo is a spiritual bond with my totem, and very meaningful for me. I was very happy with the work, but I have to say I never expected my inner child’s reaction to it.

The first night after getting it, I woke up about 1:30 and began to have a panic attack. You know how your lizard brain awakens in the middle of the night and begins to worry over things that wouldn’t bother you in the light of day? That was me. I began to sob. My inner child was deeply afraid that this new, “out there” statement of my spiritual self would result in being rejected and unloved by my family member. Worse, my inner child now felt that with this statement, she had lost the capacity to “hide” and “pretend,” which had long been her primary means of defense against rejection and her only means of blending in with everyone else. In short, she was screaming at me, “ARE YOU CRAZY?” This fear was deep and primal and completely unexpected by me, Asha the grown-up. Wow.

Fortunately, my wife woke up and talked me down off the ledge, so to speak. This is why a good relationship is so incredibly important in healing:  you need to have someone who has your back, and who can love you unconditionally. You need that core of care. I am very blessed.

And the truth is that our other family member had some initial feelings about the tattoo, but he was able to work through them. He loves me anyway. He has my back anyway. He understood that this was something I really wanted to do. Asha can present herself boldly to the world, and it’s okay. The roof didn’t cave in. I can be as daring—as “me”—as I want to be, and I am still loved.

Although it was a difficult few days with my new tattoo, it was all good. A healing crisis is no fun in the moment, but it’s so much better once the wave has passed and the old pain is resolved. I am stepping into my power, very visibly, and it is now safe for me to do so. And it was a growth experience for the entire family. I cannot imagine a happier outcome for any situation.

The aftereffects were not all negative, either. After I had the tattoo, my spirit father (an old Native American spirit), came to me in a vision. He was sitting by a fire smoking a pipe. He beckoned to me, and I sat with him. He said, “You have chosen the old path.” And so I have. My power animal and I are more integrated than ever, and Raven is teaching me a great deal about healing and taking me to new places, within myself and in the Universe at large. Combine that with a strong, loving family unit, and there is simply no more need for my inner child to fear our Power. Our Power is freedom, healing, and love. It is ours to keep and nourish. And so it is for everyone. Do not fear it; celebrate it!

How to Reach Your Goals

how to reach your goalsWe all have days when we have a hard time motivating ourselves to do the things we should do. We also have days when we have a hard time motivating ourselves to do the things we want to do. But what if this happens every day? What if you start and end every day with the feeling that you are accomplishing nothing. Are you subconsciously counting your days by your failures? Think about it. If you have a list in your head every day of what you feel you must accomplish, do you constantly beat yourself up for what you didn’t get done? If so, then this is precisely why you can’t get anything done.

If you can’t accomplish your goals, there is nothing wrong with you; there is something wrong with the goal.

Simplify Your Goal

It’s likely that your goal is overwhelming—whether you want to write a great novel, or you need to finish that report by the deadline. No great novel was ever written in a day, or maybe you already know that it’s going to take you more time than you have to finish that report. If your goal is to “finish my novel” or “complete the report,” then you are not giving yourself opportunities to feel your successes daily.

If you’re writing a novel, a more realistic goal might be write one page a day, or one chapter. Or it may not have to do with writing at all to begin with. Maybe your goal is to be at your desk by nine o’clock in the morning to do research. Or if you know you can’t complete the report in one day, then the goal should be to negotiate a new deadline or ask for help.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure that you experience some success every day. Success builds on itself, the same way the feeling of failure does. Once you succeed at meeting a goal consistently, add another piece of the project. “I will be at my desk at nine o’clock” may become “I will be at my desk at nine o’clock doing research for my novel,” which then becomes, “I will be at my desk at nine o’clock to do research for my novel, write ten pages, and stop by three-thirty.”

If you add expectations to your daily goal and find that you are consistently not meeting the goal with the added expectation, return to a goal you were meeting, and then try again. It’s important to keep yourself in a place where you can experience success every day.  And it’s also important not to beat yourself up if you need to go back and find that place. Remember, if this happens, there is nothing wrong with you. There is something wrong with the goal.

Evaluate Your Goal

Is your goal realistic? I had “Be an Actress” on my to-do list when I was fourteen years old. I did, at some point, come to grips with the fact that this was never going to happen. Sometimes you have to be brutally honest with yourself. This does not mean you should give up, or that you shouldn’t have lofty goals, but it does mean that sometimes you should shift your focus in order to stop the cycle of feeling like a failure. I will never be an actress, but I do think I can write an academy-award-winning screenplay. I didn’t give up my Hollywood goal, but I did change it to something that I honestly believe I can accomplish.

Is there a reason you can’t meet your goal? This can be as simple as not having the right tools, or as complex as suffering from chronic pain or depression. If you don’t have the right tools, your goals should center around what you need to accomplish your goal, long before they center around the actual goal. If you need sharpened pencils and paper, then that, as simple as it is, should be on your to-do list. It’s a pretty easy success to sharpen pencils and find some paper. If you need a new computer or a better Internet connection, figure out a way to get those things. That should be on your to-do list. If you need a new computer and this has been on your to-do list for awhile because you can’t afford one, then your immediate goal might be something like, “Figure out one thing I can change in my budget in order to save money for a new computer.” If you can’t accomplish that, your goal may morph into something like, “Barter with Dude down the street who tinkers with computers.” Whatever form your goal ultimately takes, you are that much farther ahead by simply having thought about it.

If you are not accomplishing your goals because of a chronic condition, you may have to make your goal pretty simple until you feel well. “Get out of bed” is the best some people can do some days. Make the simplest things your opportunity for success. Build on them every day that you’re successful, or back off if you are not succeeding. “Get out of bed” has the potential to become, “Get out of bed, feel grateful for another day, eat a healthy breakfast, be at my desk at nine o’clock, and write one chapter.”

If you are consistently not getting your “must do” reports done at work, then you may need to consider whether you are doing the job you really want to do. You may think you have no alternative, but you won’t really know until “Look for other ways to make money” is on your to-do list.

Is Your Goal Something That You Really Want?

We constantly clutter our lives with things we should do. Of course, there are things we most want to do, which often get pushed to the bottom of the list by things we should do. This can leave you feeling resentful and resistant. You will never accomplish a goal in this state of mind. If you hate yourself for always buying the brownies for the school bake sale and putting them in your own Tupperware, then stop doing it. Take volunteering for the school bake sale off your mental to-do list.

It’s Not About the Goal—It’s About the Journey

When you start feeling success every day, you may experience some profound changes. Feeling successful every day will help you to feel better physically and emotionally. I have actually come to the place in myself where I no longer believe in failure. Even if I never accomplish my loftiest goal, I have not failed; I will have learned something. I’ll have stories to tell. I’ll make new friends. I might accomplish something that never even made it to my to-do list. The point isn’t actually to accomplish everything you put on your to-do list. The point is to live your potential. The point is to do the best you can. Look every day for your successes—sometimes they will be the tiny whispered secrets in your soul. Sometimes they will be big enough for anyone who looks to see them. But they will be there. Every day. Without fail.

“Haters”

James Peck in Birmingham, Alabama

James Peck in Birmingham, Alabama

It’s only been the last few years that I became aware of the term “haters.” Apparently, it’s common in the black community (maybe others), and its application is fairly obvious:  it refers to people who simply need to hate other people. I am reminded of the many Eskimo words for snow—when something figures prominently in your world, you come up with new and different words to describe it.

We recently watched the PBS documentary about the Freedom Riders, who were a group of students, black and white, who decided to travel through the American south in the 1960s to challenge segregation laws of the day. At the beginning was a clip of a white man who said, “I’ve got to hate somebody.” Why? For many years, this made no sense to me. Now, of course, I understand that all hatred is really self-hatred, and this man needed to get rid of it—so he projected it onto other people. Of course, projecting hatred does not heal hatred; it only makes it worse.

I grew up with racism and its effects, and I believe that it is violent not just to the people being discriminated against (although that is bad enough), but also to the people perpetrating it. I once wrote a short story for a writing class (now lost), where I attempted to illustrate this point. It was only two pages long. It was a scene in a store, and a very young black child and a very young white child happened upon each other and began to play happily; they had not yet been taught that they shouldn’t. When the white mother came upon them, she jerked her child away (bruising her) and let her know that she was not allowed to play with people of color—only she didn’t say it this politely. I believe fiction should be honest, so my character used the word she would have used in real life, a word I have heard many times growing up in the south.

Still, I was nervous about this usage, so I asked some friends to read it and let me know what they thought. A black man from the Caribbean read it and objected to my use of the word. We discussed this at length, and he felt that as a white woman, I had no right to write about racism. I disagreed, and I submitted the story to the class.

After reading it aloud, a nice young white man commented that he felt that the white woman in the story was a caricature, whereupon the lone black woman in our class interjected, “I don’t!”

Racism is a touchy subject for white people who don’t want to believe that they could harbor such thoughts. Most white people are not going to use the n-word or take a baseball bat to someone just for dating their sister. But there is a more subtle racism that black people understand and white people do not want to see. It’s the subtle racism that causes a white person not to worry when crossing paths with another white person on the street, yet causes them to wince inwardly if a black person does. The gangsta stereotype lives in the white subconscious…

My own parents do not call themselves racists, but they are. When I was in third grade, I was besotted with a black girl in my class. I have forgotten the names of many people, but I remember hers. I’ll call her Katie. She was funny, smart, and beautiful, with deep black skin. I thought she was great. On several occasions, I begged my mother to let me invite her for a sleepover. My mother was uncomfortable and kept finding excuses why I couldn’t. She didn’t think her family would get on with ours. Or her parents probably wouldn’t let her come. Eventually, I got the message, and I knew what the real issue was. I never had to beg to have a white friend over.

By middle school and high school, we lived in a small town in Texas where there were only three black students. More correctly, there were three biracial students, but in the south that is enough to invite discrimination. Those kids were tough, too. They had to be.

For many years, I had a crush on the oldest biracial boy, whom I’ll call Bob. In my teenage fancy, he was, quite simply, beautiful. He had golden-brown skin, a softly masculine build, and a sharp mind. One day, while talking to my parents, I mentioned that I had a crush on Bob. To my eternal shame, my father exploded, “I ain’t having no black grandchildren!” In my shock, I said nothing, but I thought at him, “That isn’t your call, Dad.” It was a long time before I shared my truth with them again.

It is hard to understand someone else’s experience, and I am surely a privileged white woman in this society. I know it. Still, I wanted to understand, but I found it difficult. In my school years, I encountered many black people who were suspicious of both me and my motives. When I transferred to a larger school with a racially diverse population, I wanted to learn from them, and I also wanted them to know that not all white people were alike.

In my first semester at my new school, I took drama. One day we were working with a piece—I honestly can’t remember the play—that was racially charged. This sparked a discussion, and at one point a black woman erupted, “All white people are alike. They’re all racist!” And there it was, the gift of her truth and her pain, hanging in the stunned silence.

For many black people, there is an inherent distrust of white people. I look at it this way. If a circus clown came into your room and beat you or verbally abused you once a day, you might tend to be shy of circus clowns as a result. I once had a dog whose previous owner beat him with a shovel, so you can imagine how this dog felt about shovels.

Still, I did gain some trust. Kindness and respect go a long way. But it was hard. When a young black man asked me out on a date (truly, it was the sweetest invitation I’ve ever had), I had to refuse. I already knew that my parents would not permit me to date a black man, and I could not imagine dating anyone on the sly. It would just be too difficult, and deception is against my nature. I felt like I had no other choice.

I have heard and seen a wide variety of racist expression in my life against people whose DNA differs but slightly from mine. Some of it was overt, and some of it was very subtle. As we watched the show about the Freedom Riders, I was struck by the naïvetė of the first wave, who certainly expected opposition but not the excessive violence they encountered. Alas, I was not surprised. The second wave riders, and all the others who came after, however, surely did know what they were heading into, and that took amazing resolve and courage. They met violence with nonviolence, just as Mahatma Gandhi had successfully done in India. And ultimately, they succeeded, just as Gandhi did.

A. J. Muste said, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.” Hating the haters only increases the hate. Meeting violence with violence only creates more violence. It took guts to ride those buses into the south in the 1960s, and having compassion for those who have none for you also requires courage.

Thanks to the courage of many people, laws have changed and so have attitudes. Biracial couples are more common now. I see this as a good thing. The words of an old southerner come back to me:  “If the whites keep marrying blacks, pretty soon there won’t be no difference.” Well, there isn’t any difference, anyway. Oh, happy day when we can just look upon one another and see other human beings, not “a black person” or “a white person” or a “yellow person.” Oh, happy day when we can just see a loving couple, and not a “straight couple” or a “gay couple.” Oh, happy day when we can consign the word “haters” to the dustbin of history.