See, there’s this thing that I do. I wonder if some of you do it, too.
I’ve got this well-worn default groove in my head that there is A Right Way To Do Everything. There’s a Right Answer to every question, and if I was only smart/virtuous/disciplined/[insert judgment here] enough, I’d know exactly what it is and would implement it.
Now, if I stop to think about that, I know it’s hogwash. But operationally, that’s the way my brain’s program typically runs. It’s like a template that I automatically put on situations, a way that I set up the gameboard. There’s a lot of cognitive and emotional muscle memory there.
I could guess at some origins. The Catholic catechism I was schooled in from an early age—the Ultimate Answer Manual if ever there was one. The seductive models of Platonic idealism and Aristotelian/Thomistic inquiry into the precise nature of things—with their promise of a path to Figuring It Out. (Hi, I’m Chris. I’m a liberal arts nerd. But you knew that.)
I remember in university reading the novel Middlemarch about Rev. Casaubon’s quixotic quest to compile a Key to All Mythologies and thinking, “Wow, does George Eliot (AKA Mary Ann Evans) ever have my number.”
But, I suspect that it runs waaay deeper. That those modes of approaching the world found a primed and ready receptacle. A certain diffidence and self-mistrust that I picked up early in the game. A habit and pattern of second- and third-guessing, heavily peppered with shoulds and oughts and did-you-think-abouts. A concern with perfectionism, with roots in shame and insecure attachment.
I learned from an early age to be careful, and that mistakes have consequences, and that I carry a lot of responsibility for others’ reactions. Growing up gay in the period that I did (with a persistent sense of being one-of-these-things-that’s-not-like-the-others) no doubt also contributed to my vigilance.
I have adapted and it has served me reasonably well in certain respects. At my old corporate job, one of my typical roles was risk management—to think of the objections or pitfalls around the next couple of corners, two or three removes away. It makes me hyper-conscientious—a stickler for details, diligent to find an answer that makes the most sense and that accounts for the most variables.
But it has its downside, too. A tendency to defer decisions in order to do more research or mulling. Occasional analysis paralysis. An innate risk aversion and concern about Making Mistakes. Not always--but enough that I’m sensitive to it and can tell when my conditioning is driving the car. I want to be aware so that I don’t project my own issues onto my clients and make them carry my water.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this needing-to-be-rightness. It’s just one way to do life. The question is, does it serve me? I’m always looking to get greater leverage and create more spaciousness around it. This means doing inquiry into my beliefs and assumptions, rewiring my neural pathways, making up exercises to stretch, letting shit go. (Once, on an airplane I got out of my seat to use the restroom while the seatbelt sign was on, just to force myself to do something Wrong, to color outside the lines.)
I realize that I’m “spilling my tea” a bit here, but that doesn’t concern me. I don’t want to project a false shiny veneer and pretend like I’ve Got It All Together. Every one of us—including the most laser-focused coaches and the most attuned therapists--has their own flavor of tea. Even my most gifted teachers had their blind spots, scars from old wounds, curious reflexes. Face it: everyone of us has been through a whole lot just to get to this point.
Oh, here’s a good one. Sometimes, when I mull on the wisdom of embracing imperfection, I fall into this conundrum of assuming there’s a right way to do that—in other words, there’s a perfect way to be imperfect. See the dilemma? That, my friends, is a prime example of trying to solve a problem with the same thinking that created it.
It’s actually kind of funny to me, and laughter is one of the best correctives I’ve found. More laughter, less rigidity, more sloppiness, less rumination, more generosity, less self-attack, and more love and tenderness for myself—always, always, more love. Continually asking how in this moment can I stretch my capacity to relax / let go / ease up and be a better friend to myself.
So, that’s some of what goes behind this curtain. How about you? What are some of the features and bugs of your operating system? What’s in your teacup?