In the last blog I riffed about punishment – punishing success vs. failure. That was all external stuff – punishments imposed on us by the people or structures around us.
Pretty much the same mechanisms seem to happen internally with people, too. People tend to internalise the parenting/teaching mechanisms that were used on them and turn them into their style of self-talk. That kinda makes sense: when people parent or teach you, they’re supposed to be doing what it takes to make you become A Good Person – that’s the advertising slogan, anyway. The shittiest, most abusive parent/teacher/partner is unlikely to tell you that what they are doing is for their own shits and giggles. They’ll sell it to you as for your own good, or at least as the inevitable consequence of your poor behaviour or sheer sub-par being.
Even when you’ve managed to work out that the people who brought you up were really not up to the job and totally bodged it, it can be hard to remove those internal mechanisms. It’s exponentially harder to do it if you don’t see the mechanisms per se as pernicious – and often, they may not be. Sometimes it’s not what you do (have high standards for yourself, expect more of yourself as you get better) but how and why you do it (expecting the impossible, pushing yourself past breaking point). It’s not the tool that is toxic, but how it’s wielded. Sometimes the tool is fine in itself but comes with toxic adaptations: encouraging yourself to succeed is a-ok, doing so by calling yourself names you’d never use near anyone else, not so much. If those names are part of your internal vernacular because you’ve grown up with them, it can be hard to spot them.
It’s harder still to move on when you find an environment that rewards or seems to reward your kind of attitude. That is super common: people with a certain mindset find environments that support that mindset to be a good fit. If you like pushing yourself, you will find environments where that is supported comfortable. They’re familiar. They make sense. You make sense in that context. Your attitudes and behaviours are rewarded – suddenly all the crap of your life is treated as a good thing, as something that makes you exceptional, but in a good way, for a change – and that can be a very good thing or a fucking tragedy. It depends: what is being encouraged, and what is it bringing you to? People rail at those online groups that encourage and support behaviours widely considered to be problematic, such as eating disorders or cutting, but don’t bat an eyelid when people find a ‘fitness’ program that grinds them into shattered pieces, a ‘self-defence’ system that teaches them to always hit first, or a ‘prepping’ scheme that encourages them to cut themselves off from an all-too-dangerous world. It’s the same fucking mechanism, folk. Whether it leads to success or disaster is often a matter of luck.
That is pretty shitty. What is shittier still is when you break out of that. You keep your head down and inch towards the light, and eventually you find yourself in a place utterly unlike the one where you were brought up, with people entirely unfamiliar to you. You’ve broken the fuck out of the shit that was holding you down and choking the life out of you. You’ve fucking done it – and you’re failing more than you’ve ever failed before.
It tends to work out that the ‘better’ you do (for an hitherto undefined and utterly subjective value of ‘better’, sorry ’bout that), the better the people you find yourself surrounded with. Seriously, it’s like fucking magic: suddenly you look around and everyone you know is wonderful. You may also find out that your friend group is pretty damn rarefied; a lot of people are either allergic to or incompatible with the behaviours required for self-improvement and change in general. The crab bucket is a thing, as is the risk of becoming so obsessed with certain work that you’re neglecting your old friends and they end up falling by the wayside. There are costs to this, and one of the possible costs is loneliness, or at least a mismatch between the amount of in-person interactions you get to have and what you need/want.
The other, perhaps greater cost is that suddenly everyone you know is exceptional. They may not be all-round exceptional – the tropes of geniuses who can’t tie their own shoes or remember to feed themselves are there for a reason. Chances are, though, that they’re exceptionally good at something, and that you can notice it. They may be exceptional at something you don’t give a crap about, but that doesn’t invalidate their exceptionality.
I’ve got friends these days who are luminaries in their fields. Those fields may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but that isn’t the relevant issue here. The fact is that I can wake up one morning with a question about photography or astrophysics or medieval swordpersonship or quantum computers or the legal system in Oklahoma or Chinese soup, and I can ask an expert. If they don’t know, they’ll probably know someone who does – and, because they are cool people, they will admit to not knowing. I watch exceptional martial arts, eat exceptional food, listen to exceptional music, watch exceptional art, and struggle to follow exceptional conversations. I am surrounded by people with exceptional bodies, minds, and souls. And those are the standards I measure myself against.
The measuring isn’t inherent in the process. It’s the way I do business. Whether it’s a bad thing, a good thing, or just a thing kinda depends on the hows and whys of me doing it. It’s not very Zen – and yes, I judge myself on that metric, too. Tell you what, though: you don’t get yourself out of the shit without measuring yourself and striving for improvement. It just doesn’t work like that. Whether the measuring is a good or bad thing kinda depends on what your next step is. Which rolls back round to my last blog: the tangle of punishing failure vs. success, and how it pretty much all sucks.
When I measure myself against the standards ‘my people’ live by, I find myself wanting. I’m punishing failure: I’m not doing as well as I’d like to. I’m also punishing success: the only reason I’m getting to see those standards up close is that I did fucking well to get to where I am. Either way, it smacks of putting the boot in, because I’m not fucking well failing because I fucking well want to.
And this is where I veer firmly into the world of crap that is exclusively mine, so I’m going to drop this here. Make of this what you will.