Last month I met an old friend of mine. She is an entrepreneur, a brilliant woman, one of a kind. I believe she would be just as successful as now in whatever she chose to do in life. But the very first association that always pops in my mind whenever I see her is her rare, exceptional painting talent, which I have preserved as a pleasant remembrance somewhere in my head, in the memory section. And every time I meet her, that memory comes to life. “Are you still going on exhibitions?” I referred to her hobby (back in the childhood, her dream profession) as if that was the most important thing in her life, and not, for example, how is she, is she satisfied with her current job, what happened in the meantime… “No,” she answered brusquely and continued walking, looking in front of herself. “I’m not that good, anyway; the world will certainly survive without one more bad artist,” she added with a dose of irony. I had the feeling as she was talking to herself, not me.
And maybe I wouldn’t have remembered this conversation if I didn’t hear something similar these days. One of my cousins shared with me for the first time a peculiar story from his life. “I remember that feeling very vividly,” he began. “Every time we had to write a story at school, it was torture for me.” This surprised me, especially because the man standing in front of me was already an established writer. “I couldn’t write; in fact, I didn’t want to,” he corrected himself. “I didn’t allow myself to write my real thoughts, as I otherwise would. I just wrote what was expected of me as a student. I let my thoughts loose on paper only once. And that’s why I remember it so powerfully. At that moment, I felt that I could just do it. After a while, another professor took our class, and the common standards for school writing changed. He found a way to tell me that he liked my writing. I was overwhelmed. But my next composition was a disaster because I was so nervous. I didn’t think of anything else but the fact that I will disappoint him.”
This kind of behaviour has a name: self-sabotage. Self-sabotage refers to thought patterns or behaviours that hold you back and prevent you from doing what you want to do. I realized that my cousin had developed mechanisms for sabotaging himself from an early age. I couldn’t understand why, but he continued talking. “I was afraid to express my true feelings and views in public. The very thought of it terrified me. ‘Nonsense, it’s all nonsense,’ I heard this inner voice full of despising, ‘you will write some nonsense, that’s for sure, and everybody will laugh at you.’ So, I wanted to avoid any unpleasant feeling at all costs.”
Sometimes a seemingly naïve event can be a turning point in the relationship with ourselves. For my cousin, it was a recital when he was a first-grader. All the kids were supposed to recite one poem from their readers, but my cousin wanted to present his own poetry. “Ah, you and your freestyle…” was the scornful answer from his teacher. “Your freestyle nonsense,” implied her voice, “and she didn’t let me do it.” His inner voice is, in fact, his teacher’s voice, which only reinforces that feeling of worthlessness and feeds the fear.
This reminded me of my friend. They both avoid doing things they are best at. It’s common for insecurities and self-limiting beliefs to surface when we approach something we truly desire. She told me she wasn’t good enough, and that’s why she gave up. When I think about it, she evades all situations where she feels out of control. Whenever she has strong emotions, she sabotages herself. Strong feelings are hard to control, and it’s best to avoid them altogether. That’s why she is committed to a job she doesn’t enjoy. That’s why she is always in a relationship where emotions are carefully measured. She never gives herself in completely to anything where she might be entirely “lost.” That’s more frightening to her than living in her well-known pattern of behaviour where there are no surprises.
My cousin managed to break the chain of such behaviour and rise above situations where he was unable to deal with the damaged self-confidence and the intense fear of failure for a long time. Facing this realization, in fact, helped him to overcome that paralyzing feeling. Accepting the fact that failure is an integral part of every process is a real relief. And what exactly is failure? That not everyone will like his novel? That’s perfectly normal. One more thing can be of help: sometimes we shouldn’t hush that inner critic we all have, some of us louder, some of us quieter. We should just keep going and stay true to ourselves.
Staying in a toxic relationship that hurts us, eating late at night even though we want to lose weight, binge-watching as a way of postponing obligations and important projects, avoiding people who are willing to tell us the truth we do not want to hear, hiding the authentic selves behind a mask that keeps us safe are all self-sabotage schemes. Instead of taking us to a happier living place, they keep us stuck in a space that becomes too cramped for us to manoeuvre. It’s time to leave it, isn’t it?