There’s something you really want to do right now. Maybe you’re thinking of performing on open-mike night at a comedy club. Or applying to your dream school. Or submitting your work to a magazine, journal, website, TV show, etc. Or trying a new sport or musical instrument. Or just asking someone out. It’s something you’ve never tried before, and it could get you one step closer to a dream of yours. But, right this minute, you’re already talking yourself out of it.
How do I know this? Because everybody does it. I myself do it all the time—I think of something that sounds like a good idea, and then find a way to sabotage it before I’ve even begun.
Why do we do this to ourselves? And why do we, especially—meaning girls and women—do this to ourselves? This is a sweeping generalization, and of course there are lots of exceptions and nuances, but I have rarely heard a male friend say, “Eh, they probably won’t hire me anyway,” or “I just don’t think I’d be any good at it.” Instead, they tend to try everything, and worry about the consequences later. (I think this is why so many of them ended up with broken arms from jumping their BMX bikes over janky ramps made of found wood and rusty nails.) This isn’t to say that girls don’t engage in risky behavior or make bad decisions, too—but since we were raised in a world that told us not to be too confident or assertive, we tend to second-guess ourselves more than boys, and that makes us say no to a lot of stuff just because we’re scared of failing.
It really sucks, because over time, when you’ve said it over and over a million times, no becomes your default. You REALLY want to learn how to skateboard, but you tell yourself you won’t be any good at it. Or you want to learn how to play guitar, but your first thought is how embarrassing it will be if you mess up a chord progression. Sure, if you talk yourself out of trying something, you are guaranteed not to fail at that thing—but failure is where all the learning occurs! That’s the secret to getting good at almost anything: you stink at first, but you don’t care—you keep doing it because you enjoy it (or you know you will enjoy it once you’ve gotten better at it). And then, after you’ve practiced doing it for a while, you get much, much better. Maybe you get great. You can’t get there, though, if you don’t give yourself room to fail at the outset.
There are, of course, plenty of times when it’s a good idea to say no–you probably don’t want to go to a club for the first time without friends, or try to drive stick shift without some practice in an empty parking lot. But when it comes to dyeing your hair or taking an improv class or learning how to sew, why are you denying yourself a chance to really shine? And how do you learn to say yes?
You can, in fact, retrain your brain to focus on the positive sides of trying something—you know, like This is a thing that I want, that might make me really happy—instead of sabotaging yourself with negative thoughts. Self-sabotage involves a lot of self-talk (“What’s the point, everyone will just think I’m lame”); you need to counter that with a new kind of self-talk that’s about how great you are (“Oh man, it’s gonna be so cool when I can shred on that guitar”).
First, recognize how often you actually say no to things you secretly want to do. If it helps, write it down every time, or make a check in a notebook or something. Seriously, every time. A couple of years ago I noticed that I was talking myself out of doing a lot of creative things, and I wasn’t sure why, so I started carrying a tiny notebook around, and every single time I had a negative response to one of my own cool ideas, I drew a little line in it. After seven days, there were 75 lines in the notebook! That’s a lot of opportunities to become happier and more awesome squandered in a single week. (Granted, sometimes I was rejecting the same idea more than once—I don’t think of 75 new cool things to do every week!—but that still seems like a lot of naysaying, right?) I never would have thought it was so frequent—that’s why the first thing you have to do is try to keep track. It’s easy to underestimate how often you do this. So grab a pen and paper and start paying attention to your own brain for a bit. At the end of the day/week/month, look at how many times you’ve talked yourself out of doing something. Are you astonished? Now that you have a baseline, let’s get to work.
Your brain is already really good at talking yourself out of stuff. What you need are powerful counter-arguments. So, here are four of the more common self-sabotaging thoughts out there, and some strategies for silencing them:
“Someone has already done this, and they did it MUCH better.”
Yes, Steve Jobs was a genius. And you’re probably not going to reinvent the personal computer tomorrow. But why should that stop you from trying? Jobs started with a garage and an idea. We still don’t have flying cars or teleportation, and someone has to do it, so why not you? Your success is not directly related to anyone else’s, and their success doesn’t mean you have to stop trying. If either of those were the case, there would be only one book and one song in the world, because everyone else would have given up after that.
A great way to get over this type of thinking is to be a little patient with yourself. If you start messing around with computer parts now just to see what you can make, in 10 years you might invent a cellphone that automatically recharges itself using solar power every time you’re outside, or a robot that will walk the dog for you, and become a billionaire.
“People will tell me I suck, or leave terrible comments.”
Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre and Julie Ruin) recently said in an interview:
Beyoncé isn’t Beyoncé because she reads comments on the internet. Beyoncé is in Ibiza, wearing a stomach necklace, walking hand in hand with her hot boyfriend. She’s going on the yacht and having a mimosa. She’s not reading shitty comments about herself on the internet, and we shouldn’t either. I just think, Would Beyoncé be reading this? No, she would just delete it, or somebody would delete it for her. What I really need to do is close the computer and then talk back to that voice and say, Fuck you. I don’t give a shit what you think. I’m Beyoncé. I’m going to Ibiza with Jay-Z now, fuck off. Being criticized is part of the job, but seeking it out isn’t. That’s our piece to let go.
I mean, obviously Be Beyoncé is the best advice for everything in life, but I love what Hanna is saying here. It’s not about just idolizing Beyoncé for her music/acting/videos/amazingness, but recognizing that being influenced by detractors is a choice. You can spend a ton of time and energy worrying about what other people think, or you can put it into your own projects, or into things that make you feel good. Time and energy are both finite resources—there’s only so much to go around.
Whether or not people criticize you is out of your control, anyway, so you have to decide that their commentary doesn’t matter (really, it doesn’t) and that it won’t stop you from eventually ACHIEVING GREATNESS. Then, have so much fun while you’re learning this new thing that the people criticizing you look like fools.
In the course of your entire life, you will have much more fun trying 100 new things than being great at one thing.
“I just want to try something new without everyone finding out or having expectations of me.”
This is a legit worry, because sometimes people will want to project their own feelings onto your experience. Like, if your dad always wanted to learn how to skateboard, and now you’re giving it a shot, he might be ULTRA interested in your progress in an annoying way–buying you all the gear, following you around with a camera, talking about it at dinner–when you really just want to see if it’s something you’ll like.
Find a way to get started without much input, so you don’t have outside pressure to stick with it. Whether or not you end up doing this new thing you’re trying for the rest of your life is besides the point; it’s much more important that you get into the habit of trying stuff. If you want to skate, can you borrow a skateboard from a friend and practice the next street over? Or, can you save some money to get your own stuff, and put it somewhere where no one will inquire about it for a while? What if you want to write, but you’re afraid your ideas are terrible and you don’t want any feedback in the beginning stages of finding your own voice? You can always keep a pen-and-ink journal, or hide your diary in a password-protected file on your computer—or, if you need your words to be somewhat public as motivation to write regularly, start an anonymous blog on a free site like Blogger or LiveJournal or WordPress, and disable comments.
“I’m afraid I’ll succeed.”
This one might seem weird—doesn’t everyone want to succeed? Why would anyone be afraid of success? Well, I can tell you from a lot of personal experience, this is a real fear that can put you in a rut and hold you there forever. Let’s say you get really great at something, or you win a prize, or you try out for something big and get it. You’ll probably start to get a lot of attention from other people, which can be uncomfortable enough for some of us on its own, but even worse, some of that attention is going to be of the hater variety. Some people might resent your success and try to make you feel bad about it. In these cases, you should always default to Beyoncé (see above).
But sometimes it’s success in and of itself that we’re scared of. When you’ve reached your goal in life, what do you next? Where is there to go from there? And what if you get there, right where you’ve always wanted to be, and you realize that you’re still not happy? Or that you actually hate the Ivy League/acting/tennis/being a doctor/fashion/jazz music/etc.? Relax—success isn’t some permanent mountaintop that you reach, then you’re stuck there. Instead of concentrating on GETTING TO THE TOP, maybe define success as whatever has the most potential to make you happy—which will change many, many times throughout your life (sometimes throughout a single day). Keep chasing happiness, not success. That way you’ll never feel like there’s nowhere left to go.
Concentrating on happiness will also help you brush off other people’s expectations. I have a friend who is easily the best photorealistic painter I’ve ever seen. Everyone expected her to go to art school for college—and she did, for a while, but she hated it. But she loves science! So she switched majors and now works in a biochemical lab. Everyone who sees her paintings in her apartment can’t believe she doesn’t paint for a living. Some people act like she’s betraying her talent by not making it her life’s work. But art school taught her that painting is fun for her only when he doesn’t have to do it every day. You can let yourself be great at something without letting it take over your life forever, just like you can be good at something you grow to dislike and move on to something new.
And you don’t have to be good at that new thing right away, or ever. Give yourself enough time and space to figure out what you like and whether or not you feel like sticking with it. Now is not the time to worry about whether or not you’ll be a wild success. Get in the habit of positive self-talk and see where it can take you. That you’re trying at all is enough. ♦