…because after my post about the job interview that went horribly wrong except for the fact that I discovered I could scream—well—I got the job. So okay, you kindred spirits: can we pause self-doubt and condemnation as the default tape for long enough to acknowledge that we aren’t all that bad?
Hard, isn’t it.
Perfectionism, high expectations, self-blame, punishment, shame—they’re like a pack of hyenas who know there’s still meat on the carcass, waiting to resume their meal even when driven off. You can hear them grunting and howling while they wait for you to start in on yourself again. And they are apparently as smart as primates, so don’t think that your success is going to deter them from going after you:
In a study published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Dr Benson-Amram showed that spotted hyenas experimented with different strategies to open a closed box…. Some of the hyenas tried just a few methods to open the puzzle box while others used many, including biting, flipping it over, digging underneath it and pushing it around. Those that tried a diverse range of techniques tended to be more successful and once they had opened the box once, they were able to open it again more quickly…. Dr Benson-Amram added: “We found that successful hyenas got much faster at solving the problem over time. Eventually they learned the solution such that they would run up to the puzzle box and open it within seconds. …We saw some indications that wild hyenas were also learning about the problem by observing others solve it. One hyena, however, that could not figure out how to open the puzzle, learned he could position himself near the door so that when another hyena solved the puzzle he could get to the meat faster and eat it all.”
Yeah, really. (Sidebar to writers: trust the subconscious to offer up an image–even when it’s a cliche like that pack of hyenas–that turns out to be a scarier metaphor than anything mere intellect could provide!)
So trying to save ourselves with reassurance and repetition of all the wonderful things people have said about us (and people did say some unequivocally wonderful things about what I thought had been a complete disaster)—or even with a litany of past successes (I’ve had many)—is just an attempt to build a better, more hyena-proof, box while those suckers are just watching how you put it together and doing their reverse-engineering number all the while. Maybe that’s why they often sound like they’re laughing.
So forget about that! As I said in my original post, screaming was an excellent response to the hyena pack of inner critics, at least in the initial phase of the attack after I thought I had failed: it’s probably what drove them off, because prey that screams is still alive, and might thus pose a threat to their existence.
But what do we do with success? We can’t lock ourselves in our car, as I did when I thought I’d failed, and drive around town screaming all the time. Success, paradoxically, requires a more sustainable response, and thus success—at least for us damaged perfectionists—is a whole lot harder than failure.
Crap! We’re tormented when we fail, and even more tormented when we succeed, because all that’s changed is that the expectations are higher, so we feel weaker and more inadequate—and that kind of anxiety works on the hyenas like the scent of blood.
But if I follow this metaphor, as I advise my writing students to do, the solution is as simple and straightforward as the fear: instead of working to build a box around yourself that they can’t open, just step out and live. Scavengers, no matter how smart or resourceful, can’t pry you out of a box you have left behind–and they don’t have the strength to take on someone who is fully, simply, alive: making mistakes and good decisions, taking wrong and right turns, breaking and fixing things, trying and failing and moving on.
So here’s what I’m going to try to do: I’m going to try to remember that the gift of life isn’t dependent on performance, or worth—and that our potential isn’t measured by effort or good works, or even by DNA or environment: it’s all about what we love. When we love the good—for example, when we see someone in need and want to reach out a hand to them—performance doesn’t matter as much as intent. And intent does come across: so what if I couldn’t find the light switch, or work the computer, or even string together a coherent sentence in my job interview. I have loved the people I teach, and that’s the truth—and I’m lucky enough to work in a place and with people who value the same things I do.
That’s why I got the job. It wasn’t about being good enough, let alone perfect: it was about being alive and in love with my work.
The gift of life is often given and received blindly, but as we grow up we can increasingly catch a glimpse of what it means (through that glass, darkly) and be grateful. I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating, if only as a reminder to myself: you can’t go wrong with gratitude. Appreciating the gift of life is one ability that increases with age, so that paradoxically as we move toward physical death, we can become more fully, imperfectly, alive every single day.
That—and laughing a whole lot more—is my plan for dealing with success.