The original seed for this post is from months ago, and I’ve toyed with several drafts of it since then, but it’s only been in the last week or so that I’ve been able to express the ideas in a way that I feel is appropriate and not colored by situational emotion.
Let’s suppose you’re a person making a thing. For this example, it doesn’t matter what that thing is or who you are specifically, you’re just a person and you have some goal in your mind. Got that? Now let’s further suppose that you were raised and you’re used to a culture around yourself that doesn’t fully encourage you. Sure, it encourages you a little, maybe in snippets here and there, maybe it’s done on the sly or whatever, but with each dose of “you can do it”, there’s also a big heap of “you can do it but …” followed by some sort of excuse or limitation that someone else expresses to you. Here are some examples:
- A parent telling you that what you’re trying to do is really hard, so don’t get your hopes up.
- A friend telling you that what you’re doing sounds stupid.
- A spouse or partner telling you that if this doesn’t work out, that it will have been a big waste of time or money or resources.
- A friend telling you that what you’re doing shouldn’t be done, because no one will notice or pay attention.
See where I’m going here? There’s a trend of negativity that comes along either in place of or along with encouragement. For me, this was almost entirely parental, and then repeated by a few early relationships. Praise was (and remains) non-existant from one of my parents, save when someone else is watching, and even then it has to be something significant. This meant my other parent had to sneak encouragement in on the sly, like believing in myself was some kind of taboo that we shouldn’t be doing.
The effects of that abuse (and let’s be clear, it’s pretty abusive to erode someone’s sense that they’re able to do things) are potent. I grew up and have lived for years with the entrenched ideas that I’m either not good enough to accomplish things, that the things I want to accomplish are insignificant or fruitless or dumb and that praise is something absolutely fought for, not earned and not easily doled out. Also, the criteria for praise is unknown to me (even to this day, and will likely remain so, since this one of those verboten topics of discussion like my mom’s cancers, my depression or what I was doing over the last ten years.), so I can’t even create a situation where praise would be given.
What that does for me is make it hard to accept praise. It’s so foreign and unknown to me that I spent months of therapy just learning that people can say nice things without some kind of addendum of negativity. The compliments, the praise, the encouragement slides right off, like I’m Teflon-coated.
Is it that way for you? Are you someone who does whatever-it-is-you-do, and when that goes well you “don’t know what to do with the things people say if they’re not negative”? Maybe you’re the sort of person who rebounds from a compliment with a “You’re just saying that.” or “You’re biased” or “That’s great but I don’t believe you.”
As I get healthier, I have come to find that believing in yourself is the hardest part of being alive. Period. It’s the lack of belief, the absence of the knowledge that I’m good enough that drove me time and again to suicide attempts. It’s the lack of knowledge that I matter (independent of whoever tells me I matter to them), that brings up all kinds of resignations and beliefs that I’m worthless or useless or stupid.
You can and should believe in yourself. You’re doing a thing, you’re writing that book, you’re making that game, you’re providing for yourself and maybe even a family, you’re shaking what your momma gave you, you’re doing things that make you feel good about yourself and things that earn you an income and things that you’re proud to say you do.
Do I know how to make you do this? Nope. I barely know how to do this myself. Hell, I’m in therapy to learn how to have hope, so don’t expect this blogpost to have some super formula to generate belief. I just want to erect the signpost on all our maps that we might stop wandering through this bullshit forest that we don’t deserve to believe in ourselves and have good things happen, and lead ourselves out to better things.
Here’s a story: I know a person. They have often said, “Oh John, I wish I could do XYZ.” and I have often replied, “You should go do XYZ, I think you’d be really good at it.” They answer back, “I guess so, maybe, but …” and then attach any number of excuses or limitations as to why I’m wrong for saying they’d be good at a thing. But eventually, they give XYZ a shot. And they accomplish what they set out to do. When I go to congratulate them, they respond with “But I still don’t know if I can do XYZ”, and then I almost always make a face and walk away.
If you’re doing XYZ, and there’s no one screaming at you to stop, there’s no war breaking out, there’s no people dying, there’s no sudden outbreak of evil creatures from the far side of existence, then you can in fact do XYZ.
At some point, you have to stop thinking you can’t do a thing and either realize that you’re already doing it, so you already have the permission you think you need or you should walk away entirely from XYZ until you realize that the first line of permission to do something comes from yourself, not some outside source. Sure, the outside source can give you access to the materials, they can make it easier for you, but you have to let yourself do a thing, and be good at it, eventually. Over time, you’ll get better at a thing because you keep doing it, whether that’s writing or juggling or knitting or playing with yourself or making pickles or whatever. You’re in charge of you. Loads of people want to do XYZ too, and if you get the opportunity to do it, seize the shit out of it, make the most of every second, and give it your all.
It takes work to scrape the teflon off yourself, and that scouring process exposes vulnerable flesh underneath. But trust yourself, keep reminding yourself about that permission you already have, and instead of panicking and reaching for some thick armor (passive aggression, sarcasm, deprecation, hostility, etc), remember that over time, you’ll get used to it, and maybe even like the fact that you’ve given yourself permission to do or be someone or something.
Let’s tell another story as we change topics. I know a person. They love to tell anyone who will listen all the things they’re doing. Oh they’re going over here and doing this. Now they’re going over there and doing that. Later, they’ll go to this third place and this other thing. They do so much. They look forward to the stack of praise or income or recognition. Sure, you might think ‘Oh John, is this a story about how you should look at the process and not the end result?. No, it isn’t. This is a story about what the end result means to you. Because this person I know conflates the end result with the measure of their self-worth, so in order for them to be a good person, they have to be a busy person, they have to be seen as a person doing all those things.
So what, you ask, they’re doing stuff, who cares? True, this isn’t a big deal … if all the stuff they’re doing is sequential, and all the stuff they’re doing is manageable in that same sequence. But the minute you make things overlap, or introduce many moving parts to the things being done, reconsider the busyness. What if that person is now so busy and juggling so many things that all this busyness doesn’t pay off. Drop the ball once, sure, that’s human. Drop it multiple times, in different ways, back to back to back? Now the busyness looks far more like a hunt for validation, a chance for the spotlight to fall on them and illuminate their greatness, a chance for them to feel proud about their accomplishments, right?
Over-commitment is a poisonous quicksand. It’s evidence of poor time management, poor scheduling and poor discipline. Any one of those can doom a freelancer to a short career, and any two or more of those leads to a bevy of stunted, short term interactions, bad working relationships and far more dead ends than success stories.
Tempting as it may be to hunt for the reason, or play the blame game or find some way of excusing it every time it happens, over-commitment is a behavior that’s often a pattern, and it’s a tricky one, especially if it’s hanging out with its buddies emotional manipulation and denial.
Over-commitment wants you to dig yourself into a hole, so that you can perpetuate whatever negative crap you have floating in your head (that you’re not good enough, that you’re a victim, that other people are better, etc) because “obviously other people are better and I’m screwed up, because other people don’t seem to be over-committed and I do”. Over-commitment is the lead bully in your 80s movie, giving you swirlies and forcing you to learn karate from a janitor.
Emotional manipulation is the toady who always gets away clean. It’s not your fault, there’s these other problems. There’s nothing that could be done, this had to happen. It’s always someone else’s fault, always something to blame, and always making the other people have to justify or take on guilt for their actions instead of the acceptance of responsibility and the active correction of really shitty behavior. It’s the weaselly toady with the obnoxious laugh that eventually folds in the face of actual effort.
Denial is that other toady, the one who maybe just wants you to put someone in a body bag or the guy who just sort of sits in the car and looks menacing, but doesn’t really act on their own. Because denial isn’t good on its own. It’s need the other people and things to blame, so that as a tag team with emotional manipulation, no ownership of problems actually occurs. Whatever the problem is, it’s always happening to other people far more than it’s happening to them, and even if it is (here comes the manipulation), there’s a few things that need to be known so that other people are made to feel guilty rather than let them feel their feelings and maybe, I don’t know, be angry about situation.
What do you do? Crane kick the shit out of over-commitment. Here’s four steps.
1. Get in the habit of taking ownership of your mistakes without adding extra guilt. That extra guilt is just going to make people feel sorry for you, and spread a little more of that manipulation around. Knock it off. Own your shit.
2. Get a schedule, be it a calendar or a day planner or whatever and use it. Keep track of what you do and when you do it. Take the time to keep yourself on target even if that means you have to miss thirty seconds of your favorite show or you don’t get to tweet that one thing one more time. When you blow an appointment or miss something you’ve scheduled, see item 1 above.
3. Learn to say “No”. You don’t have to do all that stuff. You’re going to get praise for doing one thing the same way you’ll get praise for doing ten more at the same time. You don’t need to busy yourself up so that people recognize your greatness. Greatness comes from effort and accomplishments, not lengthy to-do lists and nebulous plans.
4. When you make a mistake, see items 1, 2, and 3. No one is perfect. You’re going to make mistakes. When you do, apologize, make amends, and try again, with the plan to do better. Now yes, sometimes, when you burn some bridges, you won’t get a second chance with some people, and that’s the consequence of your actions. It sucks, but there it is. Now go see item 1 and move forward.
As you get better at this, I bet that karate-teaching janitor is going to be really pleased at your progress.
Happy writing and creating.