A therapist once said a really helpful thing to me.
She said, “Even if you stop thinking negatively, you’ll still succeed.”
She was talking about my grades, in college.
I think it was the end of my junior year, and my dad had just been diagnosed with gastroparesis. So his stomach was paralyzed, and he couldn’t eat without being in incredible pain. It did not look like he would be able to eat again, at that point. I called the counseling center and got myself an appointment, and then I found myself sitting across from a pleasant-looking, nondescript woman who has mostly been lost to memory, with a standard soothing voice, who listened to me talk about how scared I was that my dad would die. How scared I’d always been about my dad dying, really, since he’d always been sick. And what would happen to my life if my dad died? I couldn’t imagine. It seemed like there was nothing, after that.
I came back for a second session, but this time I talked about how enormously important it felt for me to get perfect grades. To justify the cost of college. To make something of myself. To be good at what I was doing. To prove myself. I had chosen a state school for its affordability and proximity to my job, but I still felt like I couldn’t rest for a second, because I needed to make sure I was succeeding.
So I felt bad in general, and also, my dad couldn’t eat.
And that’s when this nameless therapist who I could no longer pick out of a small coffee shop told me that I would still succeed, even if I stopped being so mean to myself. She said hard work isn’t about guilt. It’s not really motivated by that desperate feeling of “what if I fail?” We just believe it is. She said that kind of thinking gets in the way of working hard. The results have nothing to do with it. They have to do with something else entirely.
And that idea caught on, for some reason, and I remembered it.
And then I forgot it, when I started thinking, “I’m such a failure! I have to pitch more magazines! If I don’t get published in a magazine, I’ll have failed as a writer.” And when I started thinking, “If I can write my book faster, maybe I’ll be more of a success. I’m so lazy. I’m always falling behind.” And I started thinking that those thoughts were helpful, in a way, because they might motivate me to do something. To write faster. To pitch more. To get ahead.
But they’re not. And they don’t. They just make me feel worse.
And then I started noticing that sometimes I used the same logic on my body. “Look how fat your arms are,” I’d say to my image in the mirror. “You’re gross. No one can be pretty with arms like that. You need to lose weight. Fifteen pounds. No…Twenty. No carbs starting tomorrow. And exercise! Why aren’t you exercising, you lazy bag of crap? You’re disgusting! You should be running, every day. For a long time. Forty-five minutes. Maybe an hour. Every day. No excuses. Starting tomorrow.”
Do you think that happened? Do you think I’m now running for an hour every day?
Of course you don’t think that! Because that’s not the way this stuff goes.
The way it goes is you get used to thinking mean, bullying thoughts about yourself. You get used to picking on yourself and your poor, confused arms that never actually did anything wrong. You end up heaping this abuse on yourself, and in the back of your mind, you actually think that it’s useful. That if you didn’t think this way, you’d never do anything about it.
And yet you’re not actually doing anything about it.
Look at that. That’s interesting. You’re not doing anything about it. Just yelling at yourself in the mirror. Hmm.
So how about we try something different? How about we separate things. The way I feel about my arms is NOT going to make me stop eating cake. So I can either keep eating cake while I keep shouting slurs at my arms, or I can work on accepting my arms while I enjoy some cake. And if I really, really can’t get over my arms, forever, I can stop eating cake and start working out, and also, at the same time, work on appreciating the way I look more. Because the working out and not eating cake is actually separate from the arms. It’s about building new habits, which requires encouragement and patience, not bursts of self-loathing. Maybe, if I really want to change my arms, I can restrict my cake eating, but not cut cake out of my life completely, and I can lift weights and sign up for kick-boxing, and focus on making those things a part of my routine. And at the same time, I can try to focus on things I like about my appearance, and let myself enjoy the gradual change in the shape of my arms.
Which is not to say I’m going to do that. But it would be a better route.
Or maybe I can make a serious effort to exercise more often, but because exercise is healthy and good for my heart and my longevity, and isn’t really about my arms at all. And maybe I can try to make sure that my exercise is happening because it feels good to get in shape. It feels good to not be out of breath when you have to jog a little, to get to the G train because it’s so damn short, and it stops in the middle of the damn platform. That is not about my arms. It’s about my life. And the G train.
The point is, we need to stop believing that meanness is motivation. It’s not. At the end of its cycle, it gets wrung out into a puddle of guilt, which seeps into everything, so that everything is damp and uncomfortable.
I love to write. Calling myself a failure doesn’t make me write more, it makes me afraid to write. If I leave myself alone, I’ll write all day. I’ll love the way it feels. I’ll work feverishly on my book, instead of being paralyzed by this gaping fear of rejection. Right now, for example, an agent is interested in seeing my book, and I have not sent it to her. Because I’m so afraid that she might reject me. Because I have made myself so certain that getting this book published is the most important thing in the world, and if it doesn’t get published, I will suck.
That isn’t right. If this agent doesn’t like my book, I’ll send it out again. And again. And eventually, someone will pick it gently up and cradle it. And eventually, it might even get published. Because I have that kind of drive, when I’m not talking back to myself. When I’m letting myself be.
And as for my arms—there’s no way I’m gonna stop eating cake right now. Or even restrict my cake eating. Maybe one day I will. Maybe it will feel more important. But right now, when my mind does that thing, in front of the mirror, when it starts up with, “Whoa—your arms are SO fa—”
I cut it off.
“I don’t care what you think,” I say to myself. “I’m not going to go on a diet tomorrow. Obviously. We’ve been through this. So I can either like my arms, or I can move on. Those are the options.”
Sometimes I manage to like them, just for a second.
Sometimes I notice something else instead. My shoulders, for example. Look, they’ve just been sitting there, for so long, not getting any attention! My chin. Check out that chin! Exemplary. There is a lot going on with my body. It’s not all about the arms.
It’s never all about any one thing.
My dad’s stomach would never be normal again. But he did a lot of research and found a medication that relaxed the paralysis. Something his doctors didn’t think to try. He just kept reading and reading and poking into forgotten corners until he found a solution. And I went to take my finals with the therapist’s words in my head. I could succeed without telling myself I might fail. I was succeeding already. And my mind relaxed a little, too.
Negative thoughts don’t make us stronger. They don’t help us get where we want to go. They’re bullies. They need to be ignored or put in their place. You are already succeeding. Look around at everything you’ve done. Eat some cake. You deserve it, because it’s delicious. Because your arms, and I’m not kidding here, your arms are fine.
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Unroast: Today I love the way I look in green.
A version of this post is also up on Psychology Today