Do memories of negative conversations, confrontations and decisions tend to stick with you longer than you would like? Are these same memories often the reasons why you hesitate taking risks in your daily life? Maybe you’re not even thinking about your risky wishes anymore, because your self-doubt is making the everyday things hard enough already.
Have you progressed from your groundhog day of underachievement only to get stuck in a groundhog day of self-improvement filled with an expanding library of self-help books, and an accelerating rotation of seminars, on-line classes, uplifting YouTube videos, habit forming techniques and workout fads? Is your home filling up with clutter intended to de-clutter yourself? Does your apartment look like the home of an overachiever, with impressive bookshelves, tools, exercise equipment and smart life-enhancing gadgets that impress friends and family only because they don’t know you gave up on each one after a few days, tries or pages?
Maybe It’s Just Me
The knowledge and experience I’ve gained since my teenage years have made me the best friend, dad, husband, son, brother, colleague, neighbor, son-in-law and employee to come to for advice on close to everything to do with feeling better, finding purpose, achieving goals, improving physical, mental and financial health, maintaining relationships, and just enjoying life more in general.
Meanwhile, over 20 years after writing out my first goals (I was 14 and making a commitment to myself to gradually read the untouched books on my shelves. I had always been lovingly considered the egghead of the family, so books were very common gifts) the theme of my story has been either feeling down or not feeling at all, having no real sense of purpose (but instead chasing one appropriated purpose after another), with no real personal goals achieved (if I don’t count last-ditch efforts to save myself from embarrassment as achievements), well out of physical, mental and financial health (low stamina, fatigue, tension, binge eating, smoking, depression, anxiety, social phobia, passivity, and of course crippling debt), along with a string of unhealthy relationships where I can now admit to myself that I was 50% of a person looking for someone with extra 50% to spare to make me whole.
Is This All There is?
Through it all there was always a feeling that this wasn’t me. Not really. Not entirely. There was something more to me and to life, and there still is. There’s no actual dragon in my way, blocking the path between where I am and where I want to go, with a sign hung around its neck with all my past failures written on it.
- I would decide that discussing a raise, a promotion or updating my job description with my boss is not worth reliving the hot flash of embarrassment I felt after an earlier awkward confrontation, even if it happened at my previous place of work.
- I would decide against enrolling in evening or online classes for mature students, thus missing out on a possible raise or better job opportunities, because I “was never a good learner” or “was never good with computers”.
- I would constantly put off talking with my bank to seek solutions to my problems with debt and unpaid bills because I would dread the judging, condescending tone of the bank teller when they see how poorly I’ve managed my life.
- My frustrations at home would increase day by day as I swallowed my emotions instead of expressing how I would like things to be different, for fear that my spouse would react harshly and see me as selfish and demanding, since that was how my last ex always reacted.
There is No Dragon
The ways in which my negative past experiences prevent me from healing and prospering are countless, from my daily habits (“I can never get myself to regulate my sleep”) to my family life (“I can never earn my spouse’s respect”) to my career (“I can never stop my coworkers piling their responsibilities on top of mine”) and so on.
The truth is that the majority of the force that is holding me back comes from the weight that I give to my own immediate reactions, which only collects over time to strengthen these chains. I am an imaginative creature and, when confronted with a problem or a perceived failure, my mind races in every direction to find the reason so it can prevent this from repeating. I have grown accustomed to a generally negative mindset, or have unconsciously trained myself to always prepare for the worst, so there may be no wonder that the shortest distance for my mind to guess the cause of my problems is to dig up most obviously negative experiences.
That is why and how I decide that I will fail “just like always”, that my ideas will be rejected “just like always”, that I won’t be accepted into the community at my workplace/school “just like always”.
I see know that every thing, piece of knowledge, idea or inspiration I collected over the years have one thing in common; I found them when I was looking for the final key to the puzzle, the knife that would cut the knot that held me in my place, a magical sword for that magical dragon in my path. I found them each in a moment of defiance, a burst of hope against all odds, a sickening feeling that enough was enough. Simultaneously, I just knew in my heart that this time would be different, while I knew in the pit of my stomach that this wouldn’t last.
There is no dragon, and there is no sword. In short…
There are No Magic Solutions
As the years pass by, the pressure for more and more drastic changes to compensate for all the wasted time and effort increases. Any plan for improvement that suggests gradual steps just won’t do, unless I can apply multiple gradual plans to fix everything at once, day by day. I’m lodged firmly in a sunk life cost fallacy. Why go for a run three times a week to improve my health while my debts are out of control? Why fix my sleep schedule just to have less time to work on my thesis? Why take risks to increase my income only to allow me to close myself off from the world in more comfort? Why do anything if it won’t fix everything?
I can truthfully claim that every time I gave up on something (in the multiple hundreds now and counting) it was not because of lack of knowledge or forethought. It was simply because I didn’t want to. I thought I wanted to, and I wanted to want to, but I didn’t. I was both the dead horse and the one beating it. No matter how hard I would push or how much or little I would expect or demand of me, I wouldn’t succeed. The problem also was not that I just didn’t want it enough. I just didn’t want it.
So my mission now, against everything that happiness-coaches and spiritual gurus would suggest, is to want. I will learn to want. I will forget and ignore what I could do (until I know what I want), I will forget and ignore what I should do (until I know what I want) and I will forget and ignore what I need (until I know what I want). To want implies potential, and potential leads to results. And I won’t be going it alone.
In Good Company
Since I can remember myself, my self-talk has sounded like something I could never allow someone to say to anyone I truly care about. The negativity, the destructive criticism, the pure bitchiness, would make anybody fed up enough to write that person off completely. But as I mentioned above, there has always been a voice, some knowledge, of what would be the best thing to do. A supportive, loving voice full of belief in what I could be or do.
The Ancient Greeks recognized this voice as a separate part of us, something in between us and the gods, and they called it Daemon (or Daimon, depending on your Hellenologist). When at least a part of me tries to resist a bad habit I indulge in, or second guesses the words I am about to say, that would be my Daemon. You could imagine it as the cartoon angel on your shoulder, but of course it is a very real part of our conscience.
While we appear to willfully forget our past in the moment an unhealthy opportunity rises, the Daemon is that part in the back of our mind that still clearly remembers and does its best to improve our choices. If we didn’t already know in our gut that we will regret the choice afterwards, there would be no need for this voice.
My chance for change lies in our potential to reframe the past. It cannot be altered, but no past decision or experience can be seen from only one angle, although that’s exactly what we are so used to doing.
My plan here is based on the psychological and philosophical theory of narrative identity, which explains that our stories are not set in stone, but are always open to our creative reinterpretation. Your story may have surface similarities to the stories told by victims, but you always have the freedom to redraft the next act in your narrative.
What I wish to do is to take the first steps down that narrative path along with any of you who may be experiencing similar difficulties, or even if you’ve overcome them already, whether you could make a laundry list of your problems, or if it’s just one big one.
I hope to explore, reveal and acknowledge how we can rethink and reassess our experiences, to reinterpret what has gone before. I imagine it as a very demanding process with many setbacks on the way. I may finally face how different the world actually was all this time. Different from what I had to believe to protect me from risk and pain.
But, countless possibilities to prosper lie ahead.
Along the way, I sincerely invite each of you to share with me any advice you have from your own experience, or simply to share your own stories.