“The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.”Rainer Maria Rilke
For just about all of us, every day brings some disappointment, even if small, if we look at our thoughts closely enough. I will go out on a limb and say that there has never been a single day for anyone that didn’t contain at least one word or action that the imagination couldn’t modify to make it a little bit better.
This is the central issue that creates suffering.
We live our life, doing the best we can. If it wasn’t for this thing called imagination, that would be just fine with us. We would be like animals, not really thinking about our performance, about how things went.
But because we can imagine things being better, we’re constantly creating scenarios in which what we did, or what happened, is just a little bit — or a lot — better. And then we compare the real world and the dreamed up world, and then we criticize ourselves or others or life for what was real.
And just like that, day in and day out, we create suffering for ourselves.
So often, what I’m doing to help people in therapy or coaching is simply reframing what was real – what actually happened – as practice for life.
Someone kind of stands up for themselves, and then regrets not standing up more for themselves. I suggest that they were standing up for themselves, and that was practice, helping them develop that skill, which will lead to greater likelihood in the future that they will stand up for themselves even more. And I remind them that they were doing the best they could in that situation, with all of the circumstances and energy the way it was in that moment.
Someone stays in a relationship for a year, and their creative imagination tells them that they should have left it after six months. They regret that last half year. I suggest that leaving a relationship when they did was practice for tapping into their intuition about when to leave a relationship, and that because of that practice they had, they will be more likely to leave the next relationship if it’s not working out even more decisively. Or to avoid a poor fit altogether.
Or, someone with a pattern of easily running away from serious relationships gets scared and runs away from a keeper early and regrets not hanging in there long enough. I point out to them that they tried harder this time than they have in the past and that was practice for fully investigating things, and that practice will help them increase the likelihood that they will give things an even more fair shot the next time.
Someone with an addiction “only” refrains one hour from their fix (alcohol, drugs, food, sex, porn, media, games, etc.). This would be great except they imagine refraining for two hours or not doing it at all. I tell them that one hour restraint was practice, and increases the likelihood that the next time they will be able to wait longer.
Someone trying to lose weight or get in shape and says they “only” worked out one time that week and they are upset because they fell short of the goal of working out four times per week. But that one time working out was practice and increases the likelihood that the next time they will work out even more.
When I say it increases the likelihood, that doesn’t guarantee, of course, that the next time things will be “better.” Whether it is or it isn’t is irrelevant to the claim that everything is practice. Whatever the performance is the next time, the same reframe applies.
Even if all someone did was think about a change they are trying to make, that is practice, because all change starts with intention.
Why do we judge and criticize ourselves and our performance?
One reason is that it might sometimes help us seek out some extra performance in the case of emergency. A race horse may run faster in the short run if whipped. A zebra will run faster if chased by a lion. When we shame ourselves, we are creating a psychological lion to threaten ourselves into eeking out some extra performance juice. This is a short term strategy that has deep evolutionary roots.
But life isn’t generally an emergency, and self-recrimination comes at a high cost.
A related reason may be that judging and criticizing ourselves had some sort of social survival advantage by helping us conform with, or not “rock the boat” in our tribe by staying small and not ruffle any feathers. Social shame is the tribal / relational equivalent to the lion chasing us. Instead of our physical survival being threatened directly, ostracism could have threatened our survival indirectly via some degree of exile, banishment, expulsion from the people we depended on for group survival.
A more interesting lens to look at why we might do it, I speculate, has to do with a certain type of emotional avoidance. Sure, it’s painful to judge and criticize ourselves. But it’s also painful to face the reality of our current skill level at certain things. It’s hard on our ego to admit that we aren’t as good at something as we wish we were. One way to deny this is to convince our conscious selves of a story that we are farther along than we are in some endeavor. But that comes at the cost of berating ourselves when we don’t meet that imaginary ability level. If we don’t berate ourselves, we have to admit that we did the best we could. And our ego might not like what “best” it sees.
It’s also not advisable to tell ourselves a story that we’re more limited than we are. We may likely not perform as well as we can if we do this. This is another defense. If we underperform and “fail” at something, we don’t have to face the possibility that our best wasn’t enough to achieve some outcome. A common example of this is the procrastinating student. If I study my best and get a B, I have to acknowledge that a B was my best. But if I cram at the last minute and get a D, I can tell myself, “that’s just because I didn’t try. Had I tried I’d have gotten an A.”
Why do we have to tell ourselves a story about what we’re capable of?
Is it possible that it’s better to simply be agnostic about it, and try the best we can, and observe the results without judgment? That’s what I try to do, and not try to teach my clients. Personally, I found this works better than feeling frustration, anger, and shame, when I don’t meet goals, or underperforming because I don’t want to see what I am actually capable of. Because these kinds of resistances are major energy drains that makes it less likely that our next attempt is going to be as good as it could be.
If we simply do our best, we’ve exerted the energy of doing our best, which is the most efficient thing we can do. If we add onto that exertion a judgement of (or fear of) our best (read, how we actually perform), we drain ourselves of vital energy and also create a painful association between trying to reach a goal and self rejection.
Visualization can be a useful tool
There’s nothing wrong with imagining ourselves performing a certain level. Sometimes it can help us get better. The trick is to recognize visualization for what it is – imagination fairy dust. Maybe reality will resemble it, more or less, and maybe it won’t. If it doesn’t, then there’s no problem. We can retain the same visualization and try again, or we can modify it to be something more attainable. But self recrimination and self-sabotage don’t make any sense. I can imagine myself to be smarter, stronger, healthier, etc, it does not make sense to then recriminate myself if I don’t measure up to this avatar that I conjured up from nothing but some neurons firing in my brain’s imagination centers.
I wouldn’t be surprised if 90% of therapy would not be needed if not for this one thing. If everyone everywhere simply saw how they did everything as a data point for where they are, rather than a failure for some deficiency compared to where they “should” be (in other words, what they visualized), and saw their attempt as practice at life in some domain, then it’s possible that there would be little need for psychotherapy. We’re all cybernetically moving towards our goals, gathering feedback from each movement, and adjusting accordingly, onward and upward.