Oh, dear... the things we say to ourselves that a) aren’t true and b) keep us in a rut of our own making.
1. "Asking people is too embarrassing."
This little lie is also known as "I can do it all by myself," which is really "I have to do it all by myself," which is really "I don’t have anybody who will come through for me." Regardless of which of these versions your brain recognizes, what this zinger leads you to do is pack up your entire apartment by yourself, filling the boxes and dragging them one by one down the stairs and across the parking lot, dropping the wicker armchair off the balcony (it only broke a little), stuffing it all into a busted Yugo and making six trips to the storage facility, then collapsing and screaming at your friend when he calls to ask you to go out to dinner that night because you moved your whole house in one day by yourself!!! You can’t eat pizza!! That is too labor-intensive!! Leading your friend to pause and finally respond, "Uh, why didn’t you call me?" Leading you to sit there dumbfounded.
Did this story really happen? Yes, it did. I was the slow learner of this universal truth: Nobody moves alone. And by "moves," I don’t just mean moves apartments or moves furniture. I mean moves in this world. Somewhere, there is some random person who will help you bake the 200 cupcakes or lug your crap to the airport or just stand next to you as you face down the ex-boyfriend at his engagement party for his upcoming nuptials to the 22-year-old who, by some freak of nature, was born without pores. This person, however, is not a mystic. You must text or email him (or her) for assistance -- which, by the way, is just a little bit easier than picking up the phone and asking with your real, live human voice, especially for those of us new to disputing this lie.
2. "I’m too tired to make it to six o’clock."
Except that maybe you’re dehydrated. Or maybe you didn’t eat lunch. Or maybe you forgot your iron pill for the 200th time. Or maybe you’re too stressed. Or maybe you’re bored and discouraged and really, really need to start sending out that resume. Tired is often code for not taking care of yourself in the small, fundamental ways so requisite for happiness.
3. "He (or she) is a complete idiot."
This is a thought that passes through so many of our minds. Unfortunately, it’s also a thought that’s attached to the blimp that drifts over your head, where just about any human being in the world can read it -- and instantly understand that you think he (or she) is an idiot, causing him (or her) pain that will rapidly change into a rabid, vindictive dislike of you for the rest of your relationship.
Worse, nobody is a complete idiot. They might be a half-idiot or a 14/15 idiot. They’re an idiot at Scrabble but pretty brilliant at making homemade pasta. They’re an idiot Monday through Friday, when you need them to back you up on the presentation, but a genius at home with their kid, whom they only get to see on weekends and who uses up all their IQ with endless one-color puzzles called Snow or Night. Calling somebody an idiot is one of those easy-to-enter mental prisons in which we ensconce ourselves at our own peril. An idiot, after all -- be it our boss or ex-husband or the lady next door with the pet rooster -- doesn't really have to be dealt with or learned from or recognized. We can check him or her off our to-deal-with list -- leaving us more streamlined in our attentions, but not at all freer or wiser.
4. "I’m too old to go to big-animal vet school."
By big-animal vet school, I also mean tap-dancing academy or the Institute of International Hair Stylists. Because just about all of us have something extraordinary that we haven’t yet done and still long to do. For example, I dreamed of life-birthing calves and owning a bunch of dogs and tromping around in the mud with my kids. And yet, while dreaming of it, I was careful to remind myself, "I’m 41; nobody goes to vet school at that age." So imagine my disorientation when Jess from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine wrote to me, explaining, "We have several students who are 40+, and one who is over 60 (a former financial advisor). You're never too old to go to vet school."
Ding-dong, the big, bad myth was dead. But only then was I able to figure out the havoc it had wreaked. Yes, it’d kept me from going to vet school. But it’d also kept me stuck in the endlessly repeating cycle: "Want to go, too old to go, want to go, too old to go." Never at any time did I consider that I might not want to go anymore; I was too busy being denied (and mourning that denial). Once I understood that I could, in fact, go, I had to ask myself if I wanted to be a big-animal vet enough to uproot my kids and go back to college for prerequisites -- and then, after a few years, apply to grad school. The answer was: No, thank you. That's the big joy of dispelling this particular untruth. You’re freed to ask yourself, "What do I really want to do -- now?" And leave the ambitions of the little girl who used to love James Herriot novels behind.
5. "But everybody in my family makes fun of people. And we’re all fine with it."
Uh. Sorry. No. If Uncle Frank and Grandpa start making radio-crackling noises and saying, "The Eagle has landed!" every time your gawky, 14-year-old nephew Tony (with the very prominent hook nose) walks into the room, it’s not okay for you to laugh. It’s not even okay for you just to sit there and smile and pretend you don’t see Tony’s face struggle not to crumple -- so much so that he may even manage to laugh along with the so-called fun, just to avoid calling attention to all the dying and self-loathing he’s doing inside. Cruelty called "joking" -- not unlike overdrinking called "relaxing" -- isn’t acceptable just because everybody who’s doing it is related. There was a time when you were a small person looking up at the very tall people who defined the whole world and all its rules. But you are now a tall person. You get to look over the shoulders of those related to you and examine the much bigger universe, where you get to choose how you speak to other people -- a daily activity that, if managed with some care and forethought, can be an honor.
6. "I cannot do X. I cannot do X one more time. I cannot do X ever again."
You can and you will. Because X will keep you your job. X will get your friend with cancer the extra pain pill from the bitchy nurse. X will salvage the marriage. X and the effort it entails will cement your commitment to doing difficult, necessary things and allow you to arrive at amazing, life-defining Ys that you never expected and that you thought were out of reach. But they aren’t. You just had to do X that one more time.
7. "I don't care what my parents think."
Ha! (As in: HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!)
8. "I’m going to say something so interesting and well researched that I’m going to change this woman’s mind about cats."
I’m only going to say this one time: You will not change her mind. She will not love cats if she loves dogs. She will not believe in Buddha if she believes in Allah. She will not -- suddenly! -- want to vote for the guy you want to be mayor whom she does not want to be mayor. But in the process of trying, you will talk and then get despondent later because you’d wanted to change her mind so badly and you failed. Further -- and this is the really big owie -- you will realize that you were so amped up about all the feline/Buddhism/mayoral statistics that you prepared for this discussion, you were so ready to pounce on the end of that lady’s every sentence with a new, better, more riveting sentence, that you were not able to hear a single word she said -- nor enjoy that unsung moment of pleasure when you learned something unexpected, something that might just have changed your mind. If not about cats, then about the people who love them more than dogs.
9. "I don’t need hair products. All that gloss and stuff is just too complicated."
First, it’s not complicated. It’s goop that you squeeze into your hand and rub on your hair. Second, without it, little split ends stand up all over your head, making you look frazzled and eccentric in a bad way. There are very few affordable miracles-in-a-tube. Toothpaste is one of them. Hair gloss is another. Avail yourself.
10. "She’s doing really well... so I won’t or can’t or never will."
Right this very second, there is somebody doing better than me. Her name is Christine. She is getting promoted and driving a fine, German automobile and raising kids who speak dolphin, whale and, of course, Mandarin. Did I mention that we went to college together? That she often stole my Grape-Nuts? That she was always kind of full of herself, but always kind of also deserved the accolades, because she is amazing? Here is the horrible thing I have to admit or go insane: Whether Christine wins the Nobel Success Prize or not will not keep me from also winning that same prize. The judges pick a bunch of people each year. They do not eliminate old friends of Christine or people who are jealous of Christine or people who just know Christine. They consider each person according to her own merits. There is room, in fact, for all of us reading this article to receive the Nobel Success Prize. We are all talented in ways that astonish and that come to light so much more brightly once we stop wasting energy on a thought that just isn’t true.
11. "I’m not afraid."
Of course you are afraid. You’re fighting a damn dragon. Or applying for the senior-level job. Or showing up at your mother’s door, a woman you haven’t seen in 15 years. Due to the nature of this lie, you may feel the need to cling to it for a while and let it protect you -- as long as you know it is a huge, honking lie. At some point, however, you will have to silently admit to yourself that you’re shaking in your boots. Only when this is done can you say to yourself, "I’m afraid... just not enough to stop doing what I’ve got to do." This last sentence can be distilled into a single word, the one needed to look the dragon in the eye, get through that interview or ring the bell and wait there on the welcome mat as your mother makes her way to the door: courage.
Leigh Newman is the deputy editor of Oprah.com and the author of Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown Up World, One Long Journey Home.
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