Is attention to failure leaving no room for success? Image: Flickr/ZachKlein
Much to my chagrin, blogging hasn’t come easily to me. When I first decided to try, I assumed that writing about one small interesting psychological phenomenon of human behavior wouldn’t be that difficult. But, I did find it difficult – painstakingly difficult. I found myself agonizing over words, unable to find a flow that before had always seemed natural. So I thought something must be wrong with me. I must not be the writer I hoped I was. I must be intellectually slow.
Then it hit me: I see this everyday in my practice. So often, patients tell me stories of difficult situations that are filled with such blame and self-criticism. As if, were they a better, more competent person, these complicated, difficult setbacks wouldn’t exist or have existed. What I find especially interesting is that often my patients’ upset is not over the situation or its outcome, but over the very fact that things went wrong -- as if unforeseen difficulty or even negligent mistakes were a great aberration in how things are “supposed to be.”
So strongly do we believe that life is supposed to be elegant that if we are hurt or frustrated or disappointed, we think there must be fault – our partner, our co-workers, ourselves, or even God or the universe must be to blame! Equally seductive and equally untrue is the flip side: the belief that if we live our lives carefully and conscientiously enough, we will be able to avoid life’s yuckiness.
The thing is, no matter how good or conscientious or deserving you are, misfortune will occur (there's another, less G-rated way of saying this). Maybe misfortune takes the form of a random natural disaster or maybe it's decisions or actions that you wish desperately you could have back. But, self-blame/shame does not allow for us learn and grow. If we spend all our time berating ourselves for unwise decisions, we are not able to look at the situation compassionately. This actually puts us in a position for a repeat mishap. We are all responsible for our thoughts and actions, but, when we expect to not have huge disasters, it leaves us vulnerable to being blindsided not only by the disaster, but by the feeling that we have done something horribly wrong.
With this in mind, I try to help my patients see blame differently. And I hope to see this idea of fault differently myself. Here are things I tell my patients to keep in mind:
1. Accept that no matter how diligent and careful and conscientious you are, you will encounter very upsetting and difficult situations in your life. Some of them may come to you through mistakes of your own doing. That’s normal.
2. When you experience or feel something difficult, think of it like food poisoning: we don’t like it, but it happens, and it doesn’t mean you’re deficient, even if you have made a some serious blunders! Everyone makes mistakes – even intentional ones – and the first step toward understanding these mistakes is accepting the situation and understanding it so that you can learn and grow.
3. Accept that sadness or anger or rejection can accompany these experiences. Just as you learn to forgive your faults, work to accept the negative feelings these experiences create. Feeling bad about feeling bad is a difficult cycle to break. Telling yourself that things are, “not a big deal” and that you “need to get over it” is NOT helpful.
4. Finally, when I say, “accept that life is messy," I don’t mean to accept that life comes with a small, organized mess that is frustrating in the moment but is solved quickly. Messy means a huge pile of seemingly infinitely gross, complicated garbage mess. And accepting your messy life requires coming to terms with difficulty as an ongoing element.
I know it’s tempting to believe that if you could just be more organized, or richer, or better looking, or smarter (or whatever else), then maybe you could have the neatly packaged life you imagine! I have terrible news: nothing can protect you from disaster. There will always be difficulty in your life and only by learning to thrive amidst this difficulty can you feel truly content.
Attention Trap Part 1: Narcissism, Validation & Self-Worth
Attention Trap Part 2: Validation Competition