Seething inside me is a dark image. A picture of myself that I'd like to change. Part of my journey into Stoicism is about how to gain a more balanced interior world. That begins with taking a step back to acknowledging how I got here.
For me, much of it boils own to the simple idea that I grew up with, reinforced by countless teachers, people all around me, and our culture's preoccupation with "perfect girls." The basic concept: "You should act smart because you are smart.” And more than that: "Be perfect."
This approach implies that being/acting intelligent and competent defines your self-worth. Supporting this line of thinking, the next logical step is to believe that the highest grades, scholastic achievement, degrees, and prestigious careers are marks of your worthiness as a human being. Praise is what matters, and getting something wrong is shameful.
For me, this kind of mentality led to a trap of constant self-doubt about and negativity around my own sense of value, wholeness, and, ultimately, happiness. For years, I’d often tell myself how “stupid” or “idiotic” I was for making what I perceived to be a "dumb" mistake. I’d even say “I am worthless" or "I hate myself.”
I internalized the idea that I had to be perfect, that I couldn’t make a simple error without demonstrating that, in reality, I wasn’t smart or valuable, but in fact, I was incompetent and a failure.
Why did I persist in believing this in the face of so much evidence that I was indeed, in most people's eyes, a capable, intelligent, and strong individual?
I have a theory. Over the years, I used this thinking as a protective shield in some twisted way. In 12-step programs, people look at how their addiction “served” served them in a sense. Perhaps that has been true here too. If I could preventatively say, “What an idiot I am!” then I knew deep down I would feel it less when someone else said it (or when I thought someone might say it under their breath). I’d be somehow immune when other people pointed out my flaws or shortcomings. My horrible self-talk formed a series of pre-emptive strikes.
I’d also force myself to work harder that way: “If I’m not prepared for this test, the teacher will think I’m a dunderhead, I’ll get a bad grade, and I’ll never be successful.” “If I don’t ace this interview, I must be truly incompetent, and I won't really deserve a good job. What a failure I am.” And so on.
Weird and absurd, right? Yet that’s how messed up I’ve been on the inside. That’s the kind of treatment of my own psyche that I used to propel myself forward through very competitive schools and tough work environments.
It has also taken a tremendous toll.
I have had a Dorian Gray-like picture of myself hidden away inside me, eating away at everything good.
You likely recall the Oscar Wilde story: a handsome young man hides away a painting of himself, one that ages and decays and sours and becomes monstrous as he commits bad acts. Meanwhile, his real body remains beautiful (on the outside).
My self-portrait carries the marks of emotional wounds, often self-inflicted, but dangerous nonetheless.
The acid effect of internal damage finally became too great when I found myself trying to drive my own children using the same mentality. Of course, I want them to know I have high expectations because they can live up to them and be their best selves. But I don’t want to plant a Dorian within their young, vulnerable hearts.
That is why I began, a couple years back, to work on my negativity and lack of self-compassion. I took classes on meditation and on mindfulness, I studied compassion and Buddhism, I met with counselors, I did self-assessments of who I am and how I got here, and where to go next to get over this mentality and be healthier.
I learned to care about my own suffering more. The very first step was to actually notice it, to be aware of how I talked to myself. I began slowly to try to focus on satisfying moments rather than fears.
This is a work in progress that still needs a lot of effort. But at least now I can break down why I feel this way in a more granular understanding.
Among all these efforts, my studies of Stoicism and of recovery from addictive behavior have had the most lasting and helpful effect. I am trying now to give my darker thoughts up to the universe and to the force for good instilled in humanity, that “divine spark” that Marcus Aurelius and others refer to.
I have to remember to protect my own spark. Even from myself.
A quote to meditate on:
“The duration of a person’s life is as a point; the substance of it ever flowing, the sense obscure; and the whole composition of the body tending to unravel. Her soul is a restless vortex, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful; in a word, as a rushing stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as smoke, so are all that belong to the soul. Life is a warfare, and a sojourn in a foreign land. Fame after life is nothing more than oblivion.
What is it then that will guide us? One thing alone: philosophy. And philosophy consists in this, for a woman to preserve that inner genius or divine spark which is within her, from violence and injuries, and above all pains or pleasures; never to do anything either without purpose, or falsely, or hypocritically: wholly to depend from herself and her own proper actions: all things that happen to her to embrace contentedly, as coming from the Eternal from whom she also came...”
A woman-centric version of Marcus Aurelius, from the Meditations, Book II, Section 15
When my husband was a boy, he’d get frustrated about competing with other students at school or in activities—as we all do. He remembers what his dad used to say in response: “There will always be a quicker gun.”
This Wild West metaphor is very apt today (minus the actual gun, I hope). But while the quicker gun concept is meant to be vaguely reassuring—reminding us that we can’t always be uniquely excellent at difficult things—I’m finding our situation more and more disconcerting.
Sure, I can’t expect to always be able to best other people when it comes to, let’s say, doing vector calculus or piloting an aircraft or dancing a pas-de-deux. I get it. Those things take a lot of focused learning and training, plus some native ability that not everyone has.
But now, with instant and constant access to the Internet, the examples of quicker guns hit us square in the jaw like a rubber bullet whenever we go online to research something we are interested in doing, exploring, learning, etc. There’s always someone out there already doing it much, much better than we are—and ready to tell us all the things we have to do to approach their level of greatness.
This “quicker gun” idea applies even when you consider simple and fun activities, things we used to think we could just do here and there in our spare time without getting enmeshed in a competitive race or an intense learning process.
Consider colorful Fimo (or Sculpey) polymer clay. As a kid I used to make little animals, fun shapes, and simple jewelry out of many vivid hues of Fimo, and I considered myself pretty good at it. I gave my pieces away as gifts and I even had my own exhibit of polymer clay objects I’d crafted at our local public library.
Now, when I looked up polymer clay online to get a refresher on how to do simple, fun clay projects with my daughters, I am shocked. Immediately, dozens and dozens of tutorials and articles on advanced techniques by highly-touted clay "experts” pop up on my screen.
For a perfectionist like me, this situation presents a terrible quandary: “Why do it at all if you can't be great at it? Or at least, pretty good. You should have something decent to point to when you are done.”
We can now see just how far short we fall with the click of a mouse. You’re not only comparing yourself to people on your street or in your town or state or country but to people around the world. Now you're just the millionth person to search techniques provided the by “experts.”
Is this part of the reason why there’s been such a backlash against expertise in the national mood lately? Are people getting increasingly tired of hearing those who claim to know more lecturing them on how to improve?
Especially when it comes to highly subjective pursuits like art and crafting, maybe expertise isn’t really what’s needed. Following some 18-step process we see online to learn a technique won’t improve our creativity or our love of the craft. It might just make us feel like crap—like rank amateurs who don’t know a thing about “real” art or pro techniques. What’s more, seeing images of the perfect clay (or the perfect scrapbook, quilt, watercolor, knit sweater, etc.) could just dampen our interest and our love for doing our creative pursuit our own, individual way.
And as to my daughters, I want them to try new things. I want them not to care if they are following all the rules and “getting it right” the first time, or really any time. I don’t want to see them suffer under the crushing weight of having to execute everything—even hobbies and extracurriculars—perfectly, according to someone else’s yardstick.
Here is where my Stoic mom approach comes in. I’ve got to let go of the constant desire to compare. Rather than focusing on what I lack, think of what I can actually do and enjoy.
And as I search online, I stop to remind myself: Stoic philosophy teaches that we can’t control what others do and say. Nobody has all the answers, and my reaction to the “perfect” online people is up to me. Supposed experts could talk all day and all night—if we did not listen and if we did not pay attention, they’d have no audience. We must be our own audiences, our own believers, if we are going to steer clear of all those “quicker guns.”
My younger daughter slightly injured my older daughter in the pool today. The injury faded very quickly—but the daughter responsible had much more trouble with the emotional consequences of her mistake.
She immediately apologized for the minor pain she’d caused, but she did not like the response she received. “That hurt,” her older sister said, “Ouch… why did you do that?” It wasn’t the “I accept your apology” that she wanted.
My younger child acted like the one wronged and in pain, crying furiously.
I knelt poolside and tried to impart some of the wisdom of the Stoic philosophy I’ve been studying. “You can’t control how other people react to you,” I said to her. “Even if you think you’re doing the right thing, people will respond in ways you don’t appreciate or even understand. It may seem hurtful. But you can't make her change how she feels or what she says.”
“But I want her to forgive me, I want her to be OK with me, and to not be angry with me,” she said between sobs.
“Unfortunately, It’s not possible to force someone to be OK with you.” I tried to get past her tears. “It may feel hurtful, I know. But the only person who can change that hurt is you. You have to try to learn how to act when you make a mistake. We all make them," I said.
"To me, all you can do when you make a mistake is to apologize. To try to make it better and fix whatever you caused--like if you spilled all the milk, clean it up, and then go out and buy new milk. After that, work on moving past it.
"Others' emotions can't be controlled or fixed. You can’t make her happy with you right now. And as hard as that is to accept, it's just how things work.”
Eventually the sobbing subsided. And soon they were friends again, doing a vague semblance of synchronized swimming together.
In our perfectionistic society—our culture that privileges flawless behavior and looks, and that celebrates outward success that appears immune to criticism—mistakes are simply not accepted by many people.
In my experience, you can have one or two reactions to a mistake. Either deny it completely (a la our president, who never acknowledges doing anything wrong), or say you’re sorry and try to make things whole again as best you can.
When you apologize and try to make it right, you hope to start fresh. But that is the tricky part. You want to make sure you are still loved and accepted by those around you—but you simply are not in charge of other people’s thoughts and feelings.
That’s where my daughter fell apart. And maybe that’s why so many people deny their mistakes, errors, failings to begin with.
Stoicism offers a good way to frame how to respond when we make a mistake, do something wrong, or when others see us fail at something. In our usual fantasy of control over the world, it's hard to acknowledge a basic fact: that we can only master ourselves.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm Meredith Kunz, a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.