“When you know yourselves, then you will be known…“
As a kid, I was never the fastest runner. I was an okay athlete though, sometimes able to out-maneuver the more physically-gifted kids on the block, and occasionally out-compete those who hadn’t yet found their confidence or strength. There seemed to be a relentless drive in me that rivaled the ancient martyrs, warriors.
Frustratingly though, that fire of motivation would usually fizz out right before I would finish an important task.
In 7th grade, I faced the harrowing 100 meter dash out in the P.E. yard. I feigned a casual strut to the beginning of the race and psyched myself to do my damned’est to cross the faded finish-line with a sense that I’ve outpaced my older self — even if that older self was just me from yesterday.
I’d muster up all the pieces of fear and courage, feel the crimson surge of blood rushing through the tiny rivers inside me, and bolt! from the start with so much mind-blistering confidence it would numb out any noise of failure.
I’d run and run and run and barely be a 1/3 of the way into the race — against myself. I’d slowly start to doubt, feeling an iota of despair weaseling its way into the cracks of my emotional body.
I’d take a sharp, surgical inhale and phoo! phoo! phoo! as I switched on the turbo button while pacing furiously to the 2/3 mark. My heart about to burst into flames.
My body is crying. Not from the 100 meters. Not from the physical exhaustion of sprinting quicker than my meager body is used to. But from fear. Of failure, of missing the mark, of not being as fast as the idealized self-image in my head.
I think I can make it though.
My knees and ankles are now perpendicular to my flattening confidence. I groan my way to the exit. I see the white stripe. My body goes limp, flails its way past the finish line.
My coach clicks the stopwatch. He asks me, befuddled, ” Why did you stop right before the end?” Turns out, I added an entire second to my time by “giving up” just before the finish line, meekly stepping over the 100 meter mark.
Why? did I do this. Again.
I guess I did it to protect myself. I feel safer this way, comfortably normal, though slightly dejected that I wasn’t quite my best self. If I make myself fail before I give it all, then I know I have something left to call mine. If I don’t try my hardest, my performance doesn’t represent my real potential. So if I mess up, I wouldn’t have actually failed. After all, it’s not like I gave it my best shot.
What a delicious way to lie to myself. What is this fear that I carried through my young body during that race many years ago? It’s the same fear that I still carry, one that can cripple or fuel me, depending on how rested, confident, or connected I feel the moment before the feeling surfaces. This is the fear that something is ending, which is a tiny fraction of the fear of death. It is the fear of being alive, which is an extension of the fear of self-actualizing. When this fear takes over, many of us try to combat it through self-sabotage.
It seems silly to actively go against our highest well being, until we understand that being ourselves could be profoundly frightening. But why do we fear reaching our highest potential? Mostly because it’s not something our minds can grasp. Reaching our highest state is something so new and transient that it scares us to our core. It is the constantly evolving, constantly renewing marker of human life. After all, how can we know the potential of who we are when we know so little of our own limits? It’s simply not something we’re intimately familiar with yet.
The fear that drives self-sabotage is also the fear of success, which is just another way of saying, “I am afraid of being seen for who I truly am. Because then I’ll be responsible to be that person all the time. It seems so exhausting, how could I keep up the energy of always being that person, especially after people have seen what I can really be?”
No. Liberation does not require an over-extension of our energy. Actually, the massive amount of effort it takes to hide our truth, to continually maintain the facade of our “normal”, comfortable self, is what feels so tiring and painful. Freedom is absolute peace, but the path towards it is riddled with our wildest demons.
When I was even younger, I fell in love with abstract art. But before discovering it, I often imitated drawings of my favorite cartoons. I loved depicting the strange fiction of these whimsical characters, yet I was never satisfied with my drawings. They were never as good as the masterpieces on T.V., or the front marquee of my coloring books.
But abstract art? How magnificent is this thing that welcomes weird, “wrong” ways to express, and even celebrates eccentricity as the hallmark of genius? I cannot fail here! I had found my liberation. I now have permission to constantly express the unique perfection of something just before it becomes “real”. This was the realm of pure potential energy nurturing and nestling my creative beckoning.
My childlike love of abstract art helped me cope with the last remaining fear tied to self-sabotage: The fear of not gaining mastery. It’s a slow process of death and rebirth to be able to make peace with imperfection. To do so I must find validation anywhere I can along the way, from friends and fiends alike, from the few family members who I actually have a healthy bond with, from my inner Source as often as I can remember, and from the kindness of strangers. And very importantly, I have to learn the signs when my battery is running low, so I can recharge before I completely hit EMPTY.
Now, how do I do this?
First, define the crisis point:
- Self-sabotage, which comes from the fear of failure, success, discomfort, intimacy, or a combination of any of these. The deeper root of self-sabotage, however, stems from trauma or existential pain.
Second, become aware of the triggers:
- When do I first feel the fear?
- example: Before I do a new task or a task that I know is important to me.
- When I feel tired or weak, not knowing if I can push on.
- Where do I feel it in my body?
- ex: in my stomach, through my heart palpitations, in my shoulders
- What does it feel like?
- ex: my chest caving in, my lungs running out of breath, my muscles going limp, sweaty or numb hands and feet.
- What is my first impulse when this happens?
- ex: to cease trying altogether.
- ex: to cease trying altogether.
Third, re-wire the response.
For me, I have to move the “finish line” 10 feet beyond the actual finish line. I have to forget that the 100 meter dash ends at 100, visualize a new finish line 10 meters beyond the 100, literally see the new 110-foot-mark finish line in my mind’s eye, and then tunnel-vision focus on it until my foot steps over the new line.
Once I reach it, I look back and see that I’ve finished the race. Not only did I finish the race, my time did not suffer because I kept the pace beyond the 100-foot mark, even if my old habit of stopping right before the end made me slow down before the new finish line.
So if the goal is 100, I ignore it and reach for 110. Most of the time, I reach 110, realize I can go to 120, then eventually hit 130 before forgetting that my initial goal was 100. But this doesn’t always happen, and I have to remember that too. Sometimes I barely hit 50, sometimes I don’t take a single step. The roots of self-sabotage run far deeper than what we’re currently discussing, and it would be silly to think we’re just going to clear it away overnight. Most of us have endured at least some form of trauma, from individuals or society or both, which thickens these roots deeper into the soil. It’s unwise to dig too deeply too fast; doing so will simply splinter the shards inside us, making us more susceptible to self-harm.
Instead, I slowly learn to be okay with the process: the pain, the setbacks, the small and slow moments of discovery – lest I fall into my own trap once again. Some people call this growth, or maturity. I call it keep doing whatever works, one small step at a time.
If my goal is 10 minutes, I know that if I look down at the clock and see that I’m close to that mark I’ll subconsciously feel tired, and hence my mind will send signals to my body that it is tired. Then I actually start feeling more tired. This is the weird cycle of self-sabotage.
So, if I’m running on a treadmill and I get the first thought “I’m tired”, I have to re-frame it to “I’m energized”. Then I feel the shift in my body, no matter if the logical part of me says, “You’re lying”, and no matter how much I am frightened or confused. I know it’s only for a split-second…before it all loosens up, and I forget the first impulse altogether. I do this two or three times and then this slightly stronger, slightly-more-aware self becomes my new baseline, my new normal.
Now, it’s important that I don’t overdo this. Ultimately, I have to understand that even though I can push myself past the limit at any time, it doesn’t mean that I should constantly ignore my body’s pain signals and end up damaging myself. This practice of re-wiring is most sustainable if I can feel the edges of what’s comfortable for me, honor my window of tolerance, and create a healthy balance between what’s comfortable and what feels overly challenging. After all, if I’m completely broken and tired all the time, there is no chance for recovery or growth. This practice is both a science and an art, and both must be considered for it to work.
After all this, when I feel enough space in my soul to observe who I can really become, I begin to see myself with more compassion. I’m able to see why the fruits of my labor may take longer to cultivate because there is so much more soil, nourishment, and care required for it to grow properly. And when I remember this, I let myself slow down and listen to the little voice saying, “Enjoy, goddamn it! And always stay humble.” This is the same reminder that tells me I don’t have to destroy things just before they’re complete, knowing that they’ll always be beautifully imperfect.
And all this can happen even amidst chaos and helplessness. I know now that with the right tools and people, I can safely sort out the emotions and pain and uncomfortable confusion surrounding my most stubborn defenses. Therapy definitely helps. So does having one or two unconditionally supportive people in my life. And of course, writing, music, back rubs, trees, quality chocolate and baklavas.
I’ll leave you now with the analogy of bamboo. I’m gonna tell the story through rigid bullet points, just for kicks:
- Bamboo produces new canes, limbs, and leaves in the Spring for 60 days.
- After this, there are no visible signs of growth.
- After several years, still no real change. “Did the tree die? Did it reach its full potential?”
- Meanwhile, the tree must constantly be watered, and fed sunlight, nutrients, and time.
- It starts to thicken, multiplies their leaves, hardens their tissues, and expands their roots farther and deeper into the soil to create an impenetrable foundation. But they never grow any taller than they did the first year.
- Finally, when they start bearing fruit, they produce a mass of flowers filled with nutritious seeds, all within a manner of weeks.
- There may be decades or even a century in between these periods of flowering. Anyone seeing bamboo during these times will not understand what it can produce.
- And yet, as it was, as it is, and as it will be, it stands…tall, capable, lurking with power…
Sending love to All.