The Importance of “Showing Up”

Woody Allen denies that he ever said “Ninety percent of life is showing up.” Still, someone did.

Regardless of who said it, what does it mean?

I think it refers to taking chances and working hard; if not welcoming challenges, at least not shying away from them.

In and out of my clinical practice I’ve met people who don’t “show up,” sometimes literally. They don’t put the time and effort into therapy, or whatever it is that they “claim” is important to them. How many people say that their family is the most important thing in their life, but allocate their time as if it is second, third, or even lower on the list?

“Showing up” means admitting that something is important to you, treating it as important, and giving your best. Of course, if you admit that the thing has value, you are taking the risk that a failure to achieve it or maintain it will disappoint you. I’ve treated some teenagers who deny that school is important and therefore don’t try very hard. They seem to be protecting themselves against the possibility that even if they did try, they might fail. They behave as if it is better to say that school isn’t essential than to admit that they can’t do the work very well even with their best effort. This allows them to attribute their inevitable failure to a lack of effort rather than a lack of ability, thus insulating their ego from the hurt that comes with an awareness that they “can’t cut the mustard.”

Ironically, of course, some of these kids might be able to succeed with the right amount of dedication, hard work, and a little bit of help. The decision not to “show up” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, guaranteeing the failure that they fear.

“Showing up” often brings unexpected benefits, as well. If people see your face, see you making an effort, they may just give you the benefit of the doubt. They might see you as someone who is reliable and tries hard. They might think of your name before that of another person when it is time to give out a good opportunity or a promotion. You might simply be in the right place at the right time. Or, as Branch Rickey famously said, “Luck is the residue of design.”

Persistence often pays off in unexpected ways. I’ve heard countless stories from attractive women about how they came to fall in love with men who, at first, were not especially appealing to them. They eventually were able to admire the man who seemed dedicated and steadfast in his pursuit of the relationship (I’m not talking about stalkers). The strength of the man’s personality and the sheer amount of contact he had with her allowed her to see him in a new light.

Contrast this with the man who simply is too afraid to ask the woman out, unable to imagine that she might have an interest in him. The most successful men I’ve met when it came to romance were those who didn’t worry very much about rejection, or if they did, refused to let that possibility stop them from making an effort to get to know women who they found appealing. I’m reminded of a woman I talked with at a high school reunion a few years back, who said that all the attractive girls in high school wondered what they were doing wrong when the boys didn’t ask them out. Most of the boys were terrified! The few who did ask girls out on dates had the field pretty much to themselves.

Fear doesn’t get you anywhere in life. We tend to regret more the things we didn’t do, the missed opportunities, than the things that we tried but failed. Many of us have said to ourselves that we won’t act until the moment is right, as if waiting until our feelings are ready for action is a recipe for success. Rather, things often work the other way around: your feelings change because of the action you take. And nearly as often, the feelings you have can be changed by what you tell yourself about them. You can decatastrophize the situation if you look at it through an objective lens of reality and experience, rather than through the magnifying lens of emotion and imagination.

If fear prevents you from making an effort at things you value, if it makes you avoidant, you should seek treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapy is especially helpful in dealing with social anxieties and other fears, and often produces rapid results. There is no shame in having fear; we all do at one time or another and some amount of fear is very healthy. The shame is in not trying to overcome it when it holds you back. If you have the courage to face your fear (with a little help), life can provide you with rewards you only thought others could obtain.

Don’t be afraid to change. “Show up” for life. As the saying goes, “This isn’t the rehearsal, this is the performance.”

The image at the top of the post is of a reporter raising his hand to ask a question of U.S. Army General Ray Odierno at the Pentagon Press Conference on Iraq that occurred on June 4, 2010. It is a U.S. Army photo taken by Cherie Cullen and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

5 thoughts on “The Importance of “Showing Up”

  1. If I had read this article 4 years ago, I know I would have scoffed & dismissed it. However, you are so right. The best thing I’ve ever done for myself was to “show up” for counselling twice a week. When I started I was referred from work & had already decided before going that it wasn’t me who needed help, it was everyone else! (I wonder how many times you have heard that statement?) Slowly, I could see the benefits of “showing up” & also “doing the work” Fear is such a powerful emotion & quite difficult to shift. I’ve started on that shift & am facing my demons & I have changed. I love that change, but know that unless I truly valued the work, that change would never have happened. It takes courage & takes you out of your comfort zone, which is a very scary place to be. Allowing yourself to be so vulnerable & exposed is a painful place to be.
    It’s much easier to “not show up” but if I’d decided to go that route (which was my default place) I would have missed out on being the “real” person that I’ve become.
    You state;…… “Showing up brings unexpected benefits” which is absolutely right.


    • Well said, Joanna. Yes, those who come to change others hear the therapist tell them that the only thing they control is themselves. The Stoic philosophers were among the first to assert this point. I applaud your bravery and your self-awareness.


  2. I wanted to read at least three of your older posts tonight, and then continue with another four every week or two weeks. I skip over some, or skim them. This one caught my attention. I am guilty of no shows in therapy. I am also guilty of waiting for the right time. My experience with CBT has been vastly different from what you describe here. I never had a real dialogue, but I did have charts I would use on my own, which were similar to thought records. CBT was very short, so I had initially thought that you were more psychodynamic or humanistic in your approaches. All this time I had felt sour toward CBT, except when I was in a counseling class and met my future mentor who taught that lesson well enough for me to appreciate it. When I learned recently that you were a cognitive therapist, I wondered how you could be so kind to me after maybe hearing me complain about CBT and my therapy experiences. The way you explained this here is what I am hoping for with my new VA therapist. I need that kind of dialogue to get my thinking straight, but without it affecting my chronic fatigue … Unless it decreased fatigue, of course. Hmm. I have a new perspective about CBT now.


    • If one lives long enough, Multinomial, one hopes to become less “attached and identified” with ideas; and therefore less troubled if someone doesn’t agree with them. I’m not perfect in this, but better than I was earlier in life. Anyway, CBT is more nuanced than it gets credit for. Glad you are seeing some of the nuance. And, for the record, I married a psychodynamic approach with a CBT approach. In some cases, the difference is one of language more than substance. Think about the concepts and transference and stimulus generalization and you’ll know what I mean.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That is so interesting, and it now makes sense to me. It’s cool that you would marry the two approaches. I never thought you could do that. I’m sure many of your clients benefited from your doing that though. Becoming “less attached and identified” with ideas is a challenge, but the goal of becoming less troubled with disagreements – now that’s hope! Thanks for those words of wisdom! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s