The clang of my bike skittering into the bushes blended with the thud-crunch! of my body hitting hard-packed dirt at high velocity.
I stumbled to my feet in shock, trying to figure out how badly I was hurt.
"What were you thinking?!" my mountain biking buddy yelled at me from the top of the 20-foot quasi-cliff I'd tried to ride down.
Checking for anything out of place, I felt a strange lump protruding from my left shoulder. My collarbone had snapped in two.
By the time I finished the ambulance ride, X-rays, and emergency room visit, news of my recklessness had travelled through my family. My wife was surprisingly understanding. My mother a willing caretaker. My dad, on the other hand, was incensed.
"I can't believe how irresponsible you were," he bellowed through the phone. "You have children. You could have broken your neck. I'm ashamed for you."
Getting a tongue-lashing by your father at 42 is a must-do experience. I would have felt like a teenager, except my dad never yelled at me growing up. My mother was the overprotective limit-setter, my father a permissive friend. Their role reversal was stunning and, although I wasn't happy in the moment, I thought about what he said.
My recklessness rarely surfaces now that I have children, but throughout my adolescence, I tempted pain and death with abandon. I moved frequently and was often teased as a dorky weakling. Over time, especially with the help of alcohol, my reckless bravado became a way of proving my worth. If I was crazy enough to do something no one else would, I was finally one up.
These old feelings of being inadequate, unwanted and disrespected don't just make me reckless. They drive me to take on more responsibility, to get ahead, to be a (bigger) success. Like so many of us, I have an invisible grid of judgment in my mind that constantly reminds me that I'm not quite good enough, even as it rejoices when it evaluates me as better than my neighbor.
Through the Personal Mastery work my company teaches, I've made tremendous strides over the years to let go of the Performance Anxiety Paradigm I internalized growing up that equates performance with self-worth. To lean into my zones of incompetence with enthusiasm and a full heart. To hear criticism without adding rejection. To experience (and learn from) failures without feeling powerless and angry.
And yet deeply anchoring the sense of whole-heartedness that Brené Brown describes in her TED Talk continued to be an area for growth. My bike crash came at the tail end of the most distressing six months of my professional career. As my dad and I later discussed his outburst, I recognized that feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness had literally pushed me over the edge.
My impulsive recklessness -- a disregard for my life -- comes out under acute stress. Verbalizing this reconnected me with a pain I felt with my dad. "You have the same disregard for life," I told him, "but instead it comes out as..."
"Gluttony," he finished my sentence, referring to his chronically-poor eating habits. Since his triple bypass five years ago, I had told him more than once that his lack of commitment to good health upset me and that I was worried it would shorten how long he was around for his grandchildren. I realized it wasn't a coincidence I was so deeply committed to being healthy (e.g., avoiding allergenic foods, limiting alcohol, working out, etc.) in order to live a long, healthy life -- unless I threw it away first with a reckless act of bravado.
Several days later, I was snuggling with my two boys (my younger son delicately avoiding my collar bone) as my wife puttered nearby. I was struck by the contrast between how tender and connected that moment was and the judgments in my head. How I had come too close to throwing away something so precious because I felt unworthy inside. In the context of my affectionate children, my sense of inadequacy wasn't just off -- it was ridiculous.
I need to hold onto this moment, I told myself; this feeling is what matters.
But those judgments are true, that little voice shot back, your life really isn't good enough.
And that's when it hit me: Whatever mediocre grade my life might get in this crazy success game we all play, I love it and feel grateful for it. It's what I want. It has tenderness and affection, and is professionally challenging.
A little mantra emerged: I love and am grateful for my life. It's not particularly sophisticated, but it offers me several powerful shifts at once:
- It brings me back to the present moment. When I'm upset about a recent struggle or stressed by what I need to do (or just caught in traffic), it helps me reconnect with my gratitude for the overall context of my life, and that just being on the path is a precious gift.
- It releases me from this paradigm of evaluation and self-worth anxiety. I'm no longer debating if my life is or is not good enough. I'm grateful for what's in it.
- It shifts my focus from outside-in to inside-out. This critical voice we all carry is a projection of what the outside world will think of us. When I declare that I love and I am grateful, I re-empower myself as the leading actor in my life.
When we are changing a deeply-held belief (e.g., "I'm not good enough" to "I am grateful for my life"), one of my mentors, Dr. Maxie C. Maultsby, Ph.D., says it takes as long as it takes. No longer and no shorter. ("And that's deep," he'll add with a chuckle.) But a good start is 21 days. Every time the old belief-feeling comes up, repeat the new belief, feel the healthier emotion and anchor it. Repeat until you retrain yourself.
In the meantime, I'm back on my mountain bike, tranquilly riding down reasonable trails, telling myself I love and am grateful for my life, which is becoming less a reminder and more an observation with every passing day.
For more by Shayne Hughes, click here.
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