In recent posts like “3 Keys to Living Effectively: Attention, Calmness, and Understanding” and “You, Me, and the Dalai Lama” I’ve talked about some of the things I’ve been learning and contemplating from listening to recorded talks by the 14th Dalai Lama after having the good fortune to see him speak in person last month. At the end of his talks, he generally takes questions, and one of the questions that seems to come up pretty frequently is how to forgive someone who won’t admit they’ve done wrong.
When relationships in our life are disrupted or hurt through some past or present trouble, it can be a constant drain. In some cases the problem can be solved–or at least mostly solved–by cutting ties: friends who mistreat or lie to us, for instance, are sometimes not friends worth having, at least not if we’re trying to lift ourselves up by keeping company with people we admire.
In many cases, though, cutting ties is either not an option or too drastic an option, for instance when immediate family members do something (or a lot of things) that we find harmful. Even when it’s possible to stop communicating with a family member, the problem can still fester, and of course cutting off a family member creates its own problems.
So another avenue is to have a heart-to-heart discussion with the person who has done the harmful thing to try to understand and forgive. Of course this approach is a big improvement on simply cutting ties, and it’s likely to bring more peace. But what if the other person doesn’t want to be forgiven? What if the other person doesn’t even agree that there was any wrongdoing? For that matter, what if the person keeps doing the harmful thing?
A situation like this begins to make it clear what real compassion and forgiveness are. For us to feel compassion or forgiveness toward another person, that person doesn’t have to act according to our preferences or beliefs, because there is a difference between the person and the action. We can and should condemn actions that we think are harmful or unjust, but even while doing that we can accept and feel compassion toward that person. We can even feel compassion toward people we oppose.
I admit, this isn’t an easy thing to do, but at least the steps are clear. All we have to do is say “I condemn what you’ve done, but I support you“–and mean it.
There’s another piece of this, an important one: forgiveness and peace of mind are matters that happen within ourselves, not outside us. If we want peace of mind, we have to take complete responsibility for it ourselves. If we let even a small part of our peace of mind depend on what other people do, then we open ourselves to being disturbed and angered and made unable to act and think as we wish based on things other people do, things outside of our control.
In the same way that we can release anger that might come up from, say, getting cut off in traffic by reminding ourselves “I can’t make other people drive the way I want them to,” letting go of any feeling of possession about other people’s wrongdoings is necessary to feel peace of mind in troubled relationships and to offer compassion and support even to people whose actions we condemn.
This is the first in a short series of posts arising from the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Vermont.
So the Dalai Lama walks into the room, and he says “I always consider we are the same human being. Physically, mentally, emotionally, we are the same. I believe it is extremely important we have this feeling or concept–oneness of humanity–because a lot of problems are essentially our own creation.” (Note: I’ve paraphrased that a little.)
The room was kind of a large one–actually, an arena. The Dalai Lama was speaking at the Nelson Recreational Center in Middlebury last Saturday. I sat about 60 feet away, close enough to exercise my dazzling photography skills and get this fuzzy phone cam shot you see to the left. If you’d like to watch the event for yourself, there’s good video footage of the whole thing here, courtesy of Middlebury College.
Getting tickets for this event was like trying to get into a sold-out rock concert. The morning the tickets went on sale, I got up early, went to my computer, and sat there pressing the refresh button until the ticket purchase page finally showed up for me, 45 minutes later. I believe their servers were a little overwhelmed. This investment of time and button-pushing was nothing compared to what I received from the experience. One of the things I received was some glint of understanding of how you and I the Dalai Lama are the same.
There’s some obvious truth to the idea that we’re the same: after all, we’re all human. We all have human frailties and limitations, and we have commonalities that range from our natural environment and the air we breathe to literature to neurotransmitters to basic needs to genetics and history. According to Buddhist thought (at least, according to my very limited apprehension of it), any distinction between two humans is arbitrary. There is no clear line of division.
Yet it’s hard to make much use of that idea when you compare how most of us deal with the world to how the 14th Dalai Lama deals with the world. He faces very difficult truths with compassion and humor. He tells hundreds or thousands of people about peeking in someone’s medicine cabinet even though he knew it was, in his words “a little illegal,” or about regretting how he spent much of his youth, and he laughs at himself with genuine mirth and acceptance. For most of us, accepting the worst things about the world or ourselves is a lot more challenging than that. Even on our best days, most of us can’t come near radiating the joy and compassion that comes from the Dalai Lama.
So I have to conclude that something does separate us, something worth knowing about. I think I finally began to get a clue as to what that thing was when His Holiness was answering questions at the end of the presentation. Someone asked him about the problem of dying with awareness when the norm these days is often to pump dying individuals full of pain medications. In response, the Dalai Lama said
That I think … we have to examine case to case. Those individuals who have some sort of … practice and experience, then it is very, very important to keep sharp mind … clear mind.
The word that struck me here was practice. There’s no question that we’re just as human whether or not we’ve spent time meditating or trying to be more aware of ourselves, but having a meditation practice, working hard at understanding ourselves, taking time each day to think about who we are and what we’re trying to do in the world–these things allow us to access different moods, different behaviors, different reactions–an entirely different side of ourselves. My impression is that the Dalai Lama has worked diligently for many years to develop this side of himself. I’ve worked much less diligently for much less time, and perhaps the same is true of you. Yet there is nothing stopping either of us from realizing that side of our humanity, so that we’re not just one with the Dalai Lama, but also are increasingly able to see the world in the same way he does.
This past weekend, my family had our long-delayed garage sale. It’s been two and a half years since I went through practically everything I owned and sorted it all into “keep” and “don’t keep”: the trick in the time since has been finding and setting aside enough time to organize, price, advertise, set out, and sell those items. In that couple of years, too, I’ve found that there are a number of additional objects I had that I could do without, and so along with everything else there needed to be another round of decluttering.
However, we did it all, and we survived. While I hope to not have to do another sale for a number of years, I feel like I’ve learned some useful lessons about running one successfully, and I’ll be putting that information in a separate post. This post, however, is about the emotional side of garage sales, because for many of us, getting rid of our old stuff is even a bigger emotional task than it is a physical and organizational one.
In the course of this sale, I’ve had to face a few truths about myself, my stuff, and my relationships, and it all continues to be challenging and sometimes even painful. Here’s what I think I’ve learned:
1. I’m not going to get what I paid for it: that money is gone
It’s nice to imagine when I buy something useful and well-made that I’m not really saying goodbye to my money: I’m just letting it go away for a little while. Eventually, when I no longer need the thing, I can just sell it and recoup much of my expense, right?
You probably aren’t falling for that and know as well as I do that the minute we take off the plastic wrap, whatever it is we bought no longer equals money: all it’s worth is its use to us plus sometimes a greatly-reduced resale value. Yet many of us find ourselves saying (or thinking) “But I paid ___ for that!” It’s hard to let go of the idea that things are worth what we paid for them, but at least in monetary terms, they hardly ever are. Maybe if you’ve recently bought a used Kindle Fire or something, you can get away with recouping what you paid for it, but that kind of thing is the exception, not the rule.
The hardest things for me to get used to losing value on, surprisingly, weren’t even mine: they were my son’s old toys. I would look at something and think “I remember when he was absolutely dying to own that,” and how we (or a relative at a birthday, say) had paid $50 or whatever it was for the item that was now sitting in our driveway on a sheet with a little sticker on it saying “$3.” It’s a hard lesson to learn, this evaporation of value, but it’s worth knowing–especially if it helps guide us into buying less stuff we don’t really need or won’t be able to use well.
2. The money I make won’t justify the time and effort, and that’s OK
One of the things I’ve been avoiding energetically is analyzing what my income per hour has been on this garage sale project. I’m not really making money in a meaningful way from doing this. What I’ve reminded myself, over and over (and it has helped), is that my payoff is in organization, space, peace of mind, and closure. All those objects in my life that have been hanging question marks (What do I do with this? Is it worth anything? How do I get rid of it? Do I really need it after all?) are being resolved into completed episodes of my life. Even if we hadn’t made a cent, all of the work was still necessary to get our lives back in order.
3. Bringing out old things brings out old thoughts
It was hard for me, during the sale, to relive some of my parenting from years gone by. I certainly don’t consider myself a world-class parent now, and currently I’m much, much better at parenting than I was years ago. Once again my son’s old toys gave me the most trouble: I remembered times when I’d been a just plain crummy dad. He used to have trouble sleeping starting when he was around 3, and I’d get angry when an hour after his bedtime he’d wander out into the living room. What I really wish I could do is go back in time and force some sense into my then-self, help myself realize that a kid who has trouble falling asleep probably needs some additional attention, affection, or comfort, and that a little patience would probably see the problem through much more handily and with much better impact for my kid than anger would. Other people might have to face reminding themselves of people they loved who had died, or relationships that went sour, or projects that disappointed. It’s hard stuff, sometimes, but it’s certainly a good thing to work through those old pains when we can and feel we’ve made our peace with them.
4. Giving things to people who can use them is kinda beautiful
One of my biggest challenges is my books: I have hundreds of books I no longer need that must have cost me at a thousand or two thousand dollars or more over the years, and I have been really attached to the idea of getting some money for them. When I asked about selling or giving away used books on Facebook, though, a number of friends came back with a series of terrific ideas (which I’ll detail in a separate post): schools in my area that could use them, hospitals, homeless shelters, bookmobiles … I realize that far better than making a little bit of money from my unneeded things, I can actually get them to people who want or need them. The eight bags of clothes in the back of my car that are on their way to Goodwill or the boxes and boxes of books I can donate so that suddenly there will be all these great new things to read just where people need them … that’s almost magical, you know? I like the idea of charity, but don’t get to do nearly as much of it as I’d like. Here, suddenly, is a beautiful opportunity to give from a position of real (but non-monetary) wealth. What a huge improvement over boxes of books taking up space and never getting read!
I know that for many of you out there, garage sales aren’t this grueling. This is the first one I’ve had in years, and future sales probably won’t involve all the same memories and clutter. My point, though, isn’t that garage sales are always hard–it’s that decluttering our homes and lives goes with the difficult process of decluttering parts of our minds, and that if we’re having trouble with one of those things, it may help to turn our attention to the other.
It just takes a bit of courage. And time. And maybe a garage.
Today’s XKCD cartoon shows that internal commentary I talk about, and (as usual) manages to be really entertaining to boot (at least, to me, having experienced situations like this):
My favorite line in there is “I hope he doesn’t ask me what his name is.” It’s taken a real effort over the past ten years or so for me to get comfortable with admitting I don’t remember someone’s name. I’m mostly there now, though. Mostly.
Anyone wanting to do something about this kind of experience might be interested in the page on this site about Broken Ideas and Idea Repair.
There’s no question that money can buy pleasure: if you have enough cash, you can get a hot date, the world’s best mojito, or even your very own Hawai’ian island. It can also help you believe you’re happy. For instance, in a 2010 study, two Princeton psychologists found that the richer you were, the better you were likely to say your life was.
The question is, how does having more money change how we feel from moment to moment? The answer, according to the same study, is that up to a certain point–an annual income of about $75,000, on average–having more money made it possible for people to experience more happiness and feel less stress. Past that point, the effect leveled off: someone who earns $75,000 a year has about the same chance to be happy as someone who earns $750,000 a year. Why is that?
The key to answering that question, I believe, has to do with a point I mention often here, that pleasure is not the same thing as happiness. Things like worrying about losing your home, not being able to afford good food, or living in a dangerous neighborhood can cause stress and interfere with happiness, but when we reach an income level where those problems don’t hold much sway, happiness then appears to have a lot more to do with how we think and what we do with our lives than on what kind of car we drive or how often we’re able to eat out.
There’s a confusing piece in here: richer people say their lives are better, but they don’t report being happier. How can you say your life is better if you’re not any happier? Well, one way is to evaluate your life based on how it might look to an outsider instead of on how it feels. People will guess you’re happier if you own a nicer car or have nicer clothes, and we often seem to evaluate ourselves the way we would expect other people to evaluate us. That may not apply to you, but to test it, consider this question: would you take a job where you earned a lot less money if you enjoyed the work more? If not, why not? If so, have you actually looked into it, or do you already love your job?
Oracle founder Larry Ellison is the 6th richest person in the world (according to Forbes’ Billionaire list), and he’s the one who’s buying that Hawai’ian island. He also owns one of the world’s most expensive yachts, a fighter jet, some of the most high-end cars a person can buy, and multiple mansions. Is he happy? I don’t know. It seems likely that he’s no more happy than a 25-year-old database administrator who makes a living working with Ellison’s Oracle software for about $75,000 a year. If he really is happy, why does he need to keep buying such expensive stuff? Unless the formula for happiness is to keep buying incredibly luxurious things so that there’s always something new to have fun with.
Most of us aren’t really in a position to try that approach, but we can take some comfort in knowing that research suggests it’s less effective than, say, meditating for 15 minutes a day and making friends with a few fun people–after earning that first $75,000 or so, of course. Meditation and good company can improve practically anyone’s outlook, but it’s true too that only about 12% of the U.S. population earns $75,000 or more per year, if we’re talking about personal income, and of course if we look at international incomes, the numbers are much lower (though the $75,000 figure is an average for Americans; the cut-off income level is likely to vary a lot by location and culture).
I used to have excuses: I wasn’t as clear on what would make me happy, on the difference between happiness and pleasure, or even on whether or not happiness was what was really important. Even when I understood what the best things were to do, in the past I often couldn’t figure out how to care and act on that.
These days I don’t have those excuses. I understand how central happiness is and how it’s different than pleasure. From researching and writing about habits over the past years, I have so many available ways to get and stay on track, it’s not so much a bag of tricks as a chase van full of them. I have a clear sense of how to be a deeply fulfilled, effective, and compassionate person.
So why aren’t I doing a better job? Sure, I’m doing pretty well, but why aren’t I closer to, you know, perfect?
It’s true that knowing isn’t enough, but if we understand the process of bridging the gap between knowing and doing (see the link for details), that’s not much of an excuse. No, I think what gets in my way those times that I could do the better thing and end up doing the worse thing, is the little lying creep that lives in my head.
I’ll call him “the Creep” for short.
Meet the Creep
Let’s say I come across a plate of doughnuts. I might say to myself, “Yeah, those doughnuts look good, but you know what would make me feel better and happier? A round of push-ups.”
The Creep will respond “You know what would actually make you feel better? A freakin’ doughnut, that’s what. Push-ups don’t make you happier than doughnuts do. Push-ups just make you a joyless, self-righteous exercise junky. Doughnuts make you somebody who’s eating a delicious doughnut.”
Or I’ll have an hour or two available and think, “Why don’t I spend this time going over my task list and reorganizing items into updated categories so that I have a better handle on what I need to get done over the next couple of days?”
The Creep will respond “Or you could not do something stupid and boring and instead install World of Warcraft. Then you could spend the next six months playing that. Come on, it would be fun!”
I am pleased to say that these days, the Creep usually loses. I’ve been waging a long and exhausting battle against him over the course of years, learning to be more reliable, more productive, more self-aware, kinder, and a lot else.
Yet he’s still a major daily obstacle. I know he’s a big fat liar, but he’s so convincing. He emerged when I was very young, and I’m used to following his instructions.
Sometimes he’s even partly right. “Wow, this doughnut is good,” I might say, and he’ll say “I know, right? Now let’s get you some kind of candy to go with that.”
Later I’ll point out how the Creep’s advice has created problems or squandered opportunities, but he’ll be unavailable for comment.
Keep on Creepin’ on
These days, I try not to fall into the trap of fighting the creep. You can’t win an argument with him: he keeps coming up with more “common wisdom,” more “obvious truths,” and more justifications. “But you’re tired,” he’ll insist. “And you had that thing with the water spraying all over you, which wasn’t fair and was annoying, and anyway who are you trying to impress?”
Even if we get past all that, he doesn’t stop. “Yuh huh,” he’ll say. “Nuh uh,” I’ll point out. “Yuh huh,” he’ll rebut. He can go on like that all day … and sometimes has.
Still rummaging through the toolbox
So what’s the cure for the common Creep? I don’t have a single, easy answer: now that I’ve identified him, I have to see what mental tools I can use to get him to settle down. I take heart that I’ve been making headway, that he’s become a weaker and weaker influence over time.
I’m also interested in this idea of the Creep as a character or a mode in my head. This connects well with the schema therapy concept of modes, nine different roles that people take on mentally, for example the Healthy Adult and the Impulsive/Undisciplined Child.
Seeing the Creep as a mode or role, as soon as I identify him as being the one behind an idea in my head, my perspective shifts. I can say to myself “Well of course the Creep wants to do that. But what does the part of myself who actually has a clue think?”
Actually, I didn’t even realize that the Creep was a mode until I started writing about him here, and with that realization I suddenly have access to the Schema Therapy tools that apply to modes–dialog between modes, for instance, where the healthy part of me asks the Creep what’s going on.
What about you? Do your worst impulses have a personality? What tricks does that character have up its sleeve? Got a name for it? I’d be interested to hear your stories.
Dr. Dweck describes two ways to look at skills and abilities: the “growth mindset” and the “fixed mindset.” The growth mindset is a belief that practice and experience can improve skill. The fixed mindset is a belief that you’ve either got it or you don’t.
The fixed mindset, in which you have only a certain amount of a valued talent or ability, leads people to want to look good at all times. You need to prove that you are talented and not do anything to contradict that impression, so people in a fixed mindset try to highlight their proficiencies and hide their deficiencies (see, e.g., Rhodewalt, 1994) … In contrast, the growth mindset, in which you can develop your ability, leads people to want to do just that. It leads them to put a premium on learning.
Some interesting additional details: in studies, Dr. Dweck and colleagues found that people might have a growth mindset in one area but a fixed mindset in another. For instance, you might believe you can get better at drawing, but not at socializing, or you might think you can improve at baseball but not at math.
Mindsets are fairly durable, but as Dr. Dweck points out, “they are beliefs, and beliefs can be changed.” The lesson for all of us seems to be that having faith in our own ability to improve will serve us well regardless of what area of life we’re talking about. To cultivate this belief, I can recommend a couple of books: Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliersand Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated.
It seems that the best thing that ever happened to Harper Lee as a writer was also the worstthing that ever happened to Harper Lee as a writer.
In 1956, Lee received a gift of a year’s wages from friends who told her to “write whatever you please.” Let’s take a moment now for intense jealousy. All done? OK, let’s see what happened next.
“Whatever Harper Lee pleased” turned out to be her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960. It was a bestseller right out of the gate. Critics loved it. Readers loved it. It won a freaking Pulitzer Prize. To say that the book did well would be an ugly and thoughtless understatement.
Writers who would like to take the moral “Write whatever you please” from this story are welcome to take their things and go now. We’ll wait while you get up. However, you may wish to consider the many, many people who write whatever they please and fail to become bestselling Pulitzer Prize winners. I’m just sayin’.
Hoping for a quick and merciful death
On to the actual point of today’s column: Harper Lee’s greatest triumph seems to have absolutely crushed her spirit. Here’s what she said about the experience:
“I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I expected.”
My guess is that it was morefrightening. I’ve talked on this site about Impostor Syndrome, which is the experience of feeling as though you are getting rewards or recognition you don’t deserve, through some kind of fluke or fakery. One of the people I coach, for instance, is about to start her first year at Harvard after a fairly terrific high school academic career. Her grades were no accident, yet it’s hard for her to believe that people aren’t overestimating her. So it is, I suspect, with Harper Lee.
Because Harper Lee hasn’t offered any fiction for publication since To Kill a Mockingbird was published. She worked on a second novel, but wasn’t satisfied with what she was coming up with and, tragically and tellingly, burned it. While I don’t know Ms. Lee and could potentially be making unwarranted inferences, it appears that she suffers from a crippling fear of sucking.
After all, how would it feel if you wrote a novel that was praised to the South Pole and back, then wrote a second novel that was universally recognized as unreadable hackwork? In reality, I suspect a bad second novel would be quickly forgotten after the initial disappointment. It would have to be far, far worse than the usual offering to lastingly tarnish her reputation. And yet the fear of sucking seems to have deprived us of any and all other Harper Lee novels that might ever have been.
And unfortunately, fear of sucking is not restricted to Pulitzer Prize winners. Whether we have great successes in our past or no track record at all, it’s all too easy to look at something we’re writing and let the fear that it isn’t good enough crush us. We might stop writing, or fail to send it out, or fail to send it out a second time, or fail to send it out a fifteenth time. (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by the way, took 13 tries. Rowling then went on to write six more books in the series, several of which are arguably better than that first, wildly successful volume, making J.K. Rowling in a way the anti-Harper Lee–as long as she doesn’t consider the whole Harry Potter series her To Kill a Mockingbird.)
Yet there’s also good reason to believe that the latest thing you’ve been working on may well be the best thing you’ve ever written. Or if it isn’t, that finishing it and sending it out may grant you a precious insight that will take you to a whole new level of writing awesomeness. Courage can’t prevent us from sucking, but fear of sucking can prevent us from ever realizing our dreams.
This piece is reprinted from my column at Futurismic.
UPDATE, FEBRUARY 2015: I was happy to hear the news that another novel of Harper Lee’s will be published this year. It’s the novel she wrote before To Kill a Mockingbird, however, so unfortunately we still won’t get to see what she might have written to follow that work. The new book is, however, a sequel, written in response to requests for more about Scout’s childhood after an editor read the flashbacks in this new/old novel.
In just over a week I’ll be attending the annual winter black belt testing of my Taekwondo Association, where I’ll be among the candidates, testing for my second dan (degree) black belt. In preparation, we’ve been practicing (among other things) board breaking. Once you know what you’re doing, board breaking is generally either easy or impossible.
Board breaking is a high stakes activity, which makes it an excellent example of a situation where it’s easy to psych yourself out. When you break boards at Blue Wave testing, you’re the center of attention–there’s nothing else happening at just that moment–and you’re being watched especially by the senior black belts of the association, people who have been doing Taekwondo for decades and whom you tend to respect and admire. If you fail to make your breaks, you may fail your test overall and not be able to test again for six months. Also, there’s the potential for personal injury, either to yourself or to the people holding the boards. It can be hard not to think about what can go wrong.
If you’re interested, consider this video from a Taekwondo group in Culver City, California. I don’t know if any failed breaks have been edited out, but there are a few occasions where the person misses, including at least two where they hit the board holder’s hand instead of the board. You won’t see much flagging confidence here, which I think does this group credit, but getting to that point isn’t easy.
In this way, board breaking is a lot like other high-pressure situations: competitions, job interviews, first dates, speeches, public demonstrations, and so on. If you start feeling confident, then everything may go beautifully. If you begin to question yourself, it can be hard to get back on track.
I don’t have final and perfect solutions to this problem, but since I’ll be doing three kinds of board breaks at testing, I’ve made a point of trying to learn what I could about not psyching myself out. Here’s what I’ve got.
Practice makes it easy
I go on about practice a lot on this blog, because there’s immense evidence from research that practice is the crucial element that makes people good at skills. How many times have you seen someone try something new and say “I guess I’m just not good at this”? Of course they’re not good at it yet: their brains are still trying to make sense of the activity and haven’t built any dedicated neural connections to make it go smoothly! Days, weeks, or months later, after some practice, the same person make appear to be naturally gifted at whatever it is.
When we’re faced with a performance situation, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the details–but if you’ve practiced enough, you’ve already worked out the details. I watched a fellow testing candidate yesterday have trouble with several different technical aspects of a difficult break, but she later came back and smashed through perfectly. The technical problems weren’t because she didn’t know where to place her foot or how to orient her body: they were because she was losing confidence. The more you practice, the less likely it is that even disruptive situations will get in the way of your confidence. Fortunately, my friend from last night had practiced hard for a long time, and when she was in the right mindset, her good kicking habits took over.
One comment about practicing, an insight a senior black belt shared with me yesterday: practicing in as close to the real situation as possible is important. For example, you might be used to delivering speeches in a conference room, but not in an auditorium. If you’re nervous about a big speech, then, it could help to borrow the auditorium when it’s not in use and try it there. The same applies to breaking boards: practice with someone standing there holding a target for you. When you come back for the real thing, not only will you be faced with fewer surprises or new circumstances to cope with, but your brain will already have the connection for that activity in that circumstance: it will feel more natural.
Find a focus
When practicing one of my own breaks last week, my first attempt not only didn’t break my target, but missed it by a foot. I may not be perfect, but I’m not that bad: I was clearly getting in my own mental way. My instructor advised me to go “straight up and straight back,” which is to say to jump up cleanly, chambering both knees, then kick straight out behind me. Having this to focus on took my mind off the various distractions I was coming up with for myself and allowed me to tap into my good habits. I jumped, kicked out behind me, and broke through three boards, exactly as I hope to do it at testing.
One of the key reasons this works is that the easiest way not to think of something is to think of something else. Because I’m sometimes a contrary person, for instance, whenever someone says “Don’t think of a pink elephant” (and oddly, this has come up several times for me), I immediately think of a blue giraffe, because as human beings we’re very bad at doing nothing. Not doing one thing, for us, generally means choosing to do something else.
Warm up with something that makes you feel confident
I mentioned my friend practicing breaks yesterday, and how her later attempts went so well. What was the difference between the earlier and later kicks? Her very first attempt was good, but not quite confident enough, so that she hit the boards solidly but without enough forward momentum to break them. The senior black belt I mentioned earlier took her away from the boards and had her do practice kicking for just a couple of minutes, the way we do when sparring–and she had sparred so much, this was a very comfortable, confident activity for her. When she came back from it, she jumped, kicked, and smashed through. She had transported herself into a mental state in which where she felt confident and focused, and then attempted the tough task while still in that mindset. Even though she won’t have the opportunity to do that at testing, she’ll remember the feeling and, if all goes well, be able to apply it.
“Just do the thing”? One piece of advice I can’t really comment on intelligently yet is the “just do the thing” approach, where you’re urged to put your thoughts aside and just do whatever it is. On the one hand, this is exactly what we need to do in high-pressure situations: put aside our misgivings and go for it with complete confidence. On the other hand, though, this seems like more the result of overcoming anxiety than a means of overcoming it. It may be natural advice for someone to give when they’ve seen you do something well and you’re not currently tapping into it, but I’m not sure that it’s always something we can get a handle on to change our thinking.
It’s true, though, that being confident means to some extent putting aside caution, sense, and vigilance. You can’t successfully jump up out of a trench and start shooting at the enemy, or try to put your foot through several inches of solid wood, or make a speech to a thousand people, without running the risk of catastrophic failure. Well, and so what? The only alternative to risking failure is never trying, and where’s the challenge in that?
I’ve long had a problem with the acclaimed Shel Silverstein picture book The Giving Tree. It’s the story of a “friendship” between a tree and a boy in which the tree progressively gives everything it has–starting with the reasonable gifts of shade and fruit and a place to climb, but pushing on to the point where it urges the boy to cut it down–in order to make the boy happy.
Don’t get me wrong: giving is wonderful. What’s not wonderful is giving everything you have and are away. Self-sacrifice is one of the 18 problem mental schemas covered by the school of psychology known as schema therapy (see “Mental Schemas #13: Self-Sacrifice“).
Women seem to be disproportionately the victims of self-sacrifice. While many of us grow up with the message that it’s better to give than to receive, it seems that girls more often than boys are told that it’s always right to do things for others and never right to do things for ourselves.
Healthy relationships require balance. Everyone involved in the relationship is important, and when the needs of one person completely trump the needs of the other, both suffer. The giving side of this is called self-sacrifice; the taking side is another mental schema, Entitlement, and it’s not particularly fun to be afflicted with either.
What makes the boy in the story so comfortable hurting the tree to benefit himself? Why, when the tree is demonstrating such extraordinary consideration for him, does he feel so little concern for her?
Some people interpret the story as a straightforward parable of parents and children, and I suspect it was intended this way. The problem is that as much as a parent-child relationship for a long time is a lopsided arrangement, children are not so important that adults should ignore their own needs entirely in order to satisfy the child’s every whim. If this sounds insufficiently nurturing, consider this: one of the most important jobs parents have is modeling strong, healthy relationships. A child who gets everything while the parents give everything either follows the parent’s model and becomes a tool for the takers of the world, or (more likely) grows up with a sense of being the center of the universe, not subject to the same rules as everyone else, entitled to do anything that seems necessary to get a desired outcome–in other words, a taker him- or herself.
Another thing to consider about self-sacrifice is that sacrificing so much that one’s needs aren’t getting met usually results in emotional trouble. We all need a certain amount of love, consideration, and support. When we tell everyone else that they should take everything they want from us and never need to give anything back, we don’t get those things, and as a result we become stunted and often bitter. By giving everything, we end up having less available to give, just as the tree could have continued giving shade, apples, oxygen, and a place to play for generations if it hadn’t tried to give up its entire being just so the boy could make a boat.
To really be able to give the most to others, we have to be willing to receive some things ourselves.
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