He Who Hesitates is (Sometimes) Lost

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Fear and hesitation go hand in hand. They hold you back, creating a slow motion to your progress (see above) and sometimes no progress at all. The trick is to separate the two, to recognize that you needn’t wait until you are free of fear in order to act. Indeed, if that were the case, most of the people whom we consider brave would still be waiting for the moment of bold action that earned them the appellation “hero.”

Years ago I heard a panel discussion on the subject of Wagner’s opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung that actually touched on the issue of courage and decisive action. The experts focused on the character Siegfried, who is described as someone who has never known an instant of fear in his life. Should we therefore consider Siegfried’s fearless behavior to be indicative of heroism and bravery? The panel in question concluded it did not. After all, they reasoned, how can one be a hero without fear to overcome? Only a fool would rush to action without being aware of the attendant dangers. But a brave and courageous man would know the perils facing him and choose to act in any case.

Most of us won’t face dragons or fire, of course, but we still will all have numerous chances to act decisively or to hold back. Here is a trivial, but instructive example from my own life. In college, I was fulfilling a PE requirement by taking fencing. Now, I wasn’t a very good fencer, despite being a reasonably good athlete. And, my heavy academic course load didn’t permit me the luxury of spending time outside of class to practice fencing. Thus, in the first seven matches I had against my classmates, I won only three, a pretty mediocre showing.

Nonetheless, I was competitive enough to want to win more often, so I reasoned that there just might be a way that wouldn’t take time away from my other studies. I realized that I was a relatively tentative fencer, and so I decided to become more aggressive. I set myself the task of getting in the first “touch” as soon as each new match began. The strategy worked. Of the next 17 matches, I won 14. I was almost always able to get a 1 to 0 lead within a few seconds of the start of the competition by catching my adversaries off-guard. Yet, despite my new found success, I was really no better at fencing than I’d been when my record was three wins and four losses. I was simply less hesitant, more aggressive.

I once had a biology professor named Hudson who conducted the “Quiz” portion of his classes in a way to encourage behavior similar to my fencing experience. You were graded on the number of questions you answered correctly and lost points if you answered the interrogatories wrong. Hudson asked the questions aloud and it was a race to get your hand up first and have him call on you to answer. Naturally, you had to make a quick decision as to whether you had the right answer. Very fast indeed. Those who hesitated were, as the saying goes, “lost.”

But how does this all apply to daily life, the life outside of the university. You might say that “normal” life is less competitive than my examples suggest, but is it? To answer that question, ask yourself how often you hesitate to do things, take chances, give public voice to concerns that might engender disapproval, avoid tasks that are difficult or challenging? Do you ask out the beautiful woman, or do you wait until you feel “ready,” only to watch someone else beat your time in getting her attention? Do you, at least sometimes, see a crisis as an opportunity? Or do you hold back, put things off, wait and hope that another or better time for action will come? Sometimes it will, but sometimes it won’t.

If your “default” strategy, your habitual tendency, is to wait, you have a similar problem to those whose standard operating procedure is to act impulsively, without thinking. It may be the case that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” but it is also true that you are an equal fool if you forever hold back, hesitate, and watch the moment pass or see someone else “seize the day (carpe diem).”

What I am talking about is fear and the uncertainty that fuels it. When we are fearful and decide not to take action, most of us feel an immediate sense of relief. That relief reinforces our hesitation, while simultaneously depriving us of the opportunity to succeed in the endeavor. Soon enough the relief will pass, but not the self-doubt and lack of personal esteem and confidence that might have been won by an effective action.

The danger in allowing too many chances to pass by is a life of “quiet desperation,” a life on the sidelines, watching others play the game, but not playing it ourselves. And, at the end of life, regret for the opportunities passed and the chances not taken is more likely to be troubling than the failed efforts made. Beware the heartache of the words “what if?” True, acting boldly often fails; but, it also sometimes succeeds.

No wonder, then, that musicians spend relatively little time passively listening to music. They are too busy making it.

Make music of your life, then. Let the trumpet announce (or remind) the world of your presence. Sing your song. And if you cannot, find a therapist who will give you the tools to beat back your fear and help encourage you.

The above image is an Animation of Newton’s Cradle created on August 8, 2006 by Demon Deluxe and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Self-Defeating Behavior and the Path to Loneliness

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What price would you be willing to pay to feel that you are special? I will tell you a story of one young woman who has paid that price and then some. She is an example of how we sometimes defend our self-image at the cost of our happiness.

The patient of another psychologist, I knew this woman for about 20 years, filling-in for her therapist when he was on vacation. Gloria (not her real name) had a tragic early life. She was victimized by her parents’ verbal and physical abuse and neglect, and became an easy target for schoolmates. Gloria was unlucky, too, in that she was born with slightly less than average intelligence. Making things even worse, her body was naturally graceless and her facial features were less than attractive. But, Gloria could be sweet and socially engaging, willing and able to approach strangers and make conversation despite a long history of rejection.

Even with all her disadvantages and misfortunes, Gloria, now a middle-aged woman, might still be able to have a good and pleasing social life except for one thing: she believes that she is the world’s unluckiest person, the record-setter for having received the greatest misfortune in the history of the planet. Moreover, she feels compelled to report her tale of woe to those people she begins to get to know, very early in her relationship to them. This has the predictable result — they shy away from her, leaving her feeling rejected once more, and adding to her claim that she has been the most ill-treated human in recorded history.

I am not being facetious here; I once asked her to compare herself to various victims of misfortune including those who had been tortured, suffered in natural disasters, lived in concentration camps, or been plagued with disfiguring and painful illnesses. She assured me that her lot in life was far worse than any of them; and, that it was only fair and reasonable to expect people to be sympathetic to her and give her some of the understanding, sympathy, and support she had always been lacking.

Thus, Gloria pursues with a vengeance the comfort and affection that she believes she has coming to her. Her sense of entitlement to this, her insistence that her fellow-man should and must provide this, drives people away from her in her striving for the love she has never had. Of course, her therapist points out to her the self-defeating nature of this strategy, the need first to establish relationships based on something other than the other person’s willingness to listen to her sadness and anger. Gloria doesn’t accept this, unfortunately. The world and the rest of the human race owe her this hearing (so it seems to her), the sooner the better, and it is only fair and just to expect them to deliver what she wants.

Gloria is smart enough to understand that people she hardly knows might not have much patience or interest in accepting her premature self-disclosure. And so, you might well ask, why does she continue to do the same thing over and over with the same bad result? Why doesn’t she try something different?

After much consideration of that question, here is the best answer I can provide. First, Gloria is so desperate and needy, so starved for affection, that it is difficult for her to restrain herself from lunging at the thing she desires whenever she first sights it. But, more importantly, I think the one thing that Gloria values above everything in her life is her self-appointed status as The Most Unfortunate Person in World History.

Now, you might say that you wouldn’t want to hold that particular title. But, think about it. I suspect that this designation gives Gloria the only form of distinction she could every expect to achieve in life. Without it, she is simply a sad, angry, lonely, unattractive, unaccomplished, anonymous person; but with it, she is something special, someone who stands out from the crowd, a noteworthy individual, one in six billion, the leader in her class. And the self-nourishment she receives from licking the wounds attendant to this awful position in life almost certainly provides her with some amount of solace.

I’m sure Gloria would deny the psychological explanation I’ve just provided for her self-defeating behavior and I cannot promise you that it is accurate. But I would ask you this. Do you know people who persist in self-defeating behavior despite all the advice, therapy, or wise counsel offered by friends, relatives, and therapists? Have you sometimes wondered why they do so?

Often the answer isn’t “logical” in that it doesn’t “make sense” intellectually. But, it just might make sense emotionally, as I believe it does for Gloria. If, somewhere deep inside, she doesn’t really believe that she can achieve the life she wants, her behavior suggests that she has found a method, however self-defeating it is, to give herself some of the sense of status and recognition that life hasn’t and probably won’t provide to her.

Gloria was dealt a bad hand in life. Her response to that deal of the cards is instructive. She seems to have chosen a sort of fantasy, a story about herself that compensates her for her misfortune, just as it simultaneously fuels her continued loneliness. But be careful should you wish to dismiss her behavior as “crazy” too quickly. We all do self-defeating things in life.

Before you condemn her, check yourself out in the mirror.

The drawing above is called Africa Lonely Kids by Myfacebook. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When Your Social Life is “Social Work”

The world is divided into “givers and takers,” or so we are told. Conventional wisdom advises that being a “giver” is the preferred choice, the moral high ground. Most of us don’t want to be thought of as selfish and non-reciprocal — only in it for ourselves. So being a giver tends to be the equivalent of being a “nice person.”

But can you be too nice? Can you be too giving? Giving to the point that it hurts, to the point of disadvantaging yourself and permitting others to “use” you routinely? Can too much giving be the equivalent of self effacement: showing deference and preference for others to go first, take what they need, and leave you at the end of the bread line?

If the answer is yes, how might you know whether you are giving too much?

Here are some signs your social life has become social work, caring for others to the point you are not taking good enough care of yourself:

  1. Do you tend to be the person in your group who listens to others’ problems, the first person your acquaintances go to when they have something bothering them? By itself, this might simply indicate you are kind and empathic. But these types of relationships become problematic when they do not go both ways: when others don’t have time or understanding or compassion for your problems, but expect those qualities from you.
  2. Do friends and acquaintances impose on you unreasonably? Do they regularly ask you to drop what you are doing to help them? Do they call late at night over small upsets without regard for your need to get up early the next morning?
  3. Beyond words of thanks for your kindness, do your friends express gratitude in more substantial ways, like sending you a greeting card, flowers, candy, or picking up the check at dinner? If you do such things, do they reciprocate?
  4. Do you find yourself disappointed too often when “friends” contact you only when they need something from you or someone to listen, but not for social invitations when they are  feeling good?
  5. Do you believe your only value to people is to be found in what you can do for them? Do you think if you failed to “give,” others would find little reason to spend time with you? Do you doubt your value beyond the ability to assist or console?
  6. Do too many relationships begin with the other’s enormous gratitude for your kindness, but move to a point where your generosity is taken for granted, almost as if he is entitled to it?
  7. Are you exhausted by the demands and requests of others?
  8. Is it difficult to say “no” when something is requested from you, be it time, money, or a ready ear?
  9. Do you fear being dropped by friends and acquaintances if you should become less available when they are in need?
  10. Do you find yourself worrying a good deal about hurting others if you don’t do what they request?
  11. Do you hesitate to express strong opinions to your buddies, opinions different from their’s? Are you afraid of rejection or criticism if you disagree?
  12. Are too many of your friends “troubled souls?” Do you tend to associate yourself with people who have more than their share of problems, making it easy for you to take on the counselor, helper, or social work role?
  13. Do you believe saying no is selfish? Were you told you were selfish growing up?
  14. When you are not appreciated, do you think perhaps you haven’t yet done enough to please your friend?
  15. Do you make excuses for the other when your efforts are unappreciated?

If you have answered “yes” to a number of these questions, you might have problems of self confidence and an inability to assert yourself. Another term often used in the types of relationships described here is the word dependency. Sometimes the word “co-dependent” is used instead. The dilemma is one of allowing yourself to be used, thinking too little of your own needs, and imagining you must do whatever it takes to keep certain people in your life. Standing up to others and setting collapses for fear of abandonment.

This style of relating to people doesn’t go away by itself. Rather, if you see yourself in the above narrative, consider going into psychotherapy. Life is much easier and more fulfilling when relationships work both ways. The sooner you address this problem, the more likely that your life will increase in satisfaction.

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The world is divided into “givers and takers” or so we are told. Conventional wisdom advises that being a “giver” is the preferred choice, the moral high ground. Most of us don’t want to be thought of as selfish and non-reciprocal — only concerned with ourselves. Thus, being a giver tends to be the equivalent of being “good.”

Can you be too good? Can you be too giving — to the point that it hurts, to the point of disadvantaging yourself and permitting others to “use” you routinely? Can too much giving be the equivalent of erasing your needs? Might it become deference and preference for others to go first, take what they need, and leave you at the end of the bread line?

If the answer is yes, how might you know whether you are giving too much?

Here are some signs your social life amounts to social work without the salary social workers receive, caring for others to the point you are not taking good enough care of yourself:

Do you tend to be the one in your group who listens to problems, the first person your acquaintances go to when something bothers them? By itself, this might simply indicate you are kind and empathic. But these types of relationships become problematic when others don’t offer time or compassion for your problems, but expect those qualities from you.
Do friends and acquaintances impose on you unreasonably? Do they regularly ask you to drop what you are doing to help them? Do they call late at night over small upsets without regard for your need to get up early the next morning?
Beyond words of thanks, do your friends express gratitude in concrete ways, like sending you a greeting card, flowers, candy, or picking up the check at dinner?
Do you find yourself disappointed too often when “friends” contact you only in need of something from you or someone to listen, not for social invitations once they bounce back?
Do you believe your single value to people is to be found in what you can do for them? Do you think if you failed to “give,” others would find little reason to spend time with you? Do you doubt your value beyond the ability to assist or console?
Do too many relationships begin with the other’s enormous gratitude for your kindness, but move to a point where your generosity is taken for granted, almost as if he is entitled to it?
Are you exhausted by the demands and requests of others?
Can you say no when something is requested from you, be it time, money, or a ready ear?
Do you fear being dumped should you become less available when they are in need?
Do you find yourself worrying a good deal about hurting others if you don’t do what they request?
Do you hesitate to express strong opinions to your buddies? Are you afraid of rejection or criticism if you disagree?
Are too many of your friends “troubled souls?” Do you tend to associate yourself with people who have more than their share of problems, making it easy for you to take on the counselor, helper, or social work role?
Do you believe saying no is selfish? Were you told you were selfish growing up?
When you feel unappreciated, do you think perhaps you didn’t do enough to please your friend?
Do you make excuses for the other when your efforts are dismissed or taken for granted?

If you answer yes to a number of these questions, you might have problems of self confidence and an inability to assert yourself. Another term often used in the types of relationships described here is dependency. Sometimes the word “co-dependent” is used instead. In either case, the dilemma is one of allowing yourself to be used, thinking too little of your own needs, and imagining you must do whatever seems required to keep certain friends in your life. The thought of standing up to others and setting limits collapses for fear of abandonment.

This style of relating to people doesn’t go away by itself. Rather, if you see yourself in the above narrative, consider going into psychotherapy. Life is much easier and more fulfilling when relationships work both ways. The sooner you address this problem, the more likely that your life will increase in satisfaction.