I am a self-flagellator. It’s a weird thing to realize, because for most of my life I thought I couldn’t care less. I thought I didn’t care about outcomes, I didn’t care about process, I was just this lackadaisical happy-go-lucky dude who’d just go with the flow, have fun, not take things so seriously, not worry so much. After all, I was’t doing my homework, I wasn’t keeping my appointments, I was a generally irresponsible person. And I still sort of am. I’ve made some progress but it’s nothing to write home about (am I being harsh on myself there? I don’t know.)
But over the past couple of years I’ve come to realize that I have this cycle of… being incompetent and then beating myself up for it, and then being incompetent again. There’s a cycle. I’ve written about a part of myself as a saboteur-bum before, and I think that’s still not the full picture. The saboteur is responding and reacting to the self-flaggelator. There’s some sort of twisted punisher or disciplinarian in my head who isn’t interested in solving problems. He’s only interested in reminding me that I’m incompetent, that I’m failing, that I’m screwing up. And that’s the guy I’m often trying to run away from. That seems to be why I end up opening a ton of tabs and wasting time on Facebook or arguing with people on the internet and things like that. The self-flagellator is the ignorant, abusive parent inside my head who isn’t interested in understanding why the child is recalcitrant– he just sees something to be punished.
I suppose I probably inherited this from other people, without even realizing it. Maybe a little bit from family, a little bit from tired, exhausted teachers and peers, and a little bit from just watching how people treat other people. It’s just an unquestioned assumption about how the world works. I preemptively yell at myself inside my head (wordlessly!) so that when people DO inevitably yell at me, it’s something I saw coming. It doesn’t take me by surprise. It’s to be expected, it’s the natural order of things. I am a person who gets yelled at because I am irresponsible and incompetent and screw things up and can’t pay attention and can’t focus on anything. I am a child. At the heart of it all I am a child who hasn’t learned to grow up. Even with the marriage and the mortgage and bills to pay and a job to do. I suppose it’s better I figure this out now at 25 rather than say, at 40. That would be pretty painful. And I imagine lots of people struggle with this.
Well, so what’s next? When I meditate, when I’m calm, when I’m relaxed, I realize that self-flaggelation doesn’t help. In fact I think the biggest learning for me is just observing how my boss treats me when I screw up. He doesn’t yell. He patiently asks questions while I get impatient with myself in his presence. I feel like an idiot without him telling me I’m an idiot. He just asks questions, beyond what I would ask myself. He wants to know the reasons, he wants to know what’s stopping me, and he wants to know it with genuine curiosity and empathy. And I realize, when I have no answer for him, that he has more curiosity and empathy towards me than I have towards myself. He’s more curious about how I tick than I might be. (Well– to qualify that, I claim to be more curious, maybe, but I seem to be running in circles around my comfort zone, while he asks questions that pull me out of it.)
When I ask myself questions about things like “Why did I not sleep late at night?” the answer the self-flaggelator gives (or the child gives the self-flaggelator) is “because I’m an irresponsible fuck”. But that’s apparently not satisfactory as an answer, and I see how it is. It’s not a cause-and-effect explanation, it’s a label. It’s like saying “he’s doing badly in school because he’s black.” That sounds like a horrible thing to say about somebody else, so how can we say such things about ourselves?
I suppose this is where genuinely radical self-love comes in– radical not in doing extreme things, radical not in grand gestures or proclamations– radical in a simple question, radical in a simple act of defiance against conventional wisdom.
So why, Visa? Why are you stuck where you are? If you can’t yet recognize that you’re not, what is this illusion that you’re clinging on to, so hard, for dear life?
I can’t seem to think my way out of this one, at least not yet. I find myself returning to answers from the past, from my childhood. Oh, my parents were a certain way, my upbringing was a certain way, it’s inherited habits, it takes a long time to fix, etc. Sure. But if I now recognize that I was in a bad place, and I want to go to a good place, what’s stopping me from going to the good place?
Well let’s break it down. First you need to know where you are. Then you need to know where you’re going. Then you need to know what’s the path from where you are to where you’re going. Then you need to know what steps you need to take to make progress along the path.
I suppose the problem is that… in moments of reflection, these things seem clear, but in the fog of day-to-day life, these things become much less clear. And in the darkness I get scared and cling to old things that are familiar. I fail to follow the plan because I don’t recognize the plan in the dark, and I start doubting myself, start thinking maybe I’m not ready, maybe I don’t know what I’m doing.
So at least a part of the solution is to really make these plans clearer. What’s my main thing right now? I don’t actually know. I haven’t actually written it down. And as long as that thing isn’t in stone, I’m going to default to what IS in stone– which is whatever old habits I was familiar with.
So the problem is that I haven’t got a clear roadmap that’s tattooed into my brain, onto my skin. I quickly forget, in the heat of the moment, what I want, what I’m working towards, what I’m going for. And the self-flaggelation happens afterwards, when I’m confronted and I need to justify why I was screwing up. It’s easier to say “I’m a fuck” than to say “I didn’t hold on to my goals and plans”. The real solution should be to handcuff myself to my plans, at least for a few months or so. And I suppose I’m afraid of doing that. I always find some way to weasel out of that.
But weaseling is not a long-term solution. The handcuffs lead me to freedom. This is what my parents and teachers tried to get me to see when I was a kid. Timetables aren’t meant to restrict you. They’re meant to free you. I need to see this.