One advantage of talking to yourself is that you know at least somebody's listening. ~ FRANKLIN P. JONES
I’m the son of German-American parents. Both were wonderful, multi-faceted human beings. But they taught me that whatever I did, no matter how well I may have done it, I could have done better. Those lessons have served me well in many ways. They helped instill self-discipline. They helped me get a first-rate education. They helped me become a good, thoughtful, thorough writer and designer.
It helped shape me into a generally honest and unassuming man whom, if he were someone else,
I think I might admire.
Those lessons were also about modesty. Stay out of the spotlight; don’t promise what you might not be able to deliver; let your deeds speak for themselves. This part of it too, while somewhat more subjective, helped shape me into a generally honest and unassuming man whom, if he were someone else, I think I might admire.
But such an upbringing also has a down side. I live with a little voice—a very persistent little voice—that constantly provides me with critical feedback on just about everything I do. More often than not, that feedback sounds something like, Okay, sure, you accomplished that, but let’s not go and get all self-satisfied about it. How could you have done it better? What are you going to do next?
This is clearly the voice of someone else, not me—perhaps that of my parents; maybe of my older brother, who's afflicted by the same self-criticism and whom I idolized as a kid.
Sometimes, especially on the tennis court, the encouraging voice starts to turn a little more negative. Well, yes, you’re hitting some good shots, but what about all those absolutely horrible ones?
Even though my parents were seldom overtly critical and certainly never denigrated me, I’ve managed to throw in some mean language of my own, eventually turning that measured tennis voice downright abusive. You idiot! You just missed a shot a three-year-old would have made! Can’t you do even the simplest thing right? Does that sound familiar?
That voice, wherever it was coming from, went on for years, then decades. Little by little I came to realize it was dousing my light, laying a heavy, mucky layer of woe over the freedom and joy of playing my favorite sport.
EMBRACING THE ENEMY
A couple of years ago, I was having coffee with a friend who’s in the business of helping organizations and their employees get in touch with the spiritual aspects of what they do and what they want to do. I told him of my negative self-talk and how it was stifling my enjoyment of tennis.
He mentioned that one of his clients had decided to engage his self-critical inner voice in a conversation. He’d even transcribed the dialog as it played out to see what he might learn from it.
I decided to try it.
I was amazed at how surely and naturally my
own voice and, even more amazingly, the other voice, started to flow.
You can imagine how lame it felt sitting down with pen and paper and actually venturing an introduction between me, myself and I. At first, it felt like the entities I was introducing were in different rooms. But I was amazed at how surely and naturally my own voice and, even more amazingly, the other voice, started to flow.
It wasn’t like trying to create dialogue for a novel or a play. I’ve done that, and it was clearly an exercise in imagination. I’d have to think about each line, deliberately crafting it as I went along.
No, my silent dialog with myself felt, from the very first exchange, like an honest, unscripted, real conversation. I would say (and scribble across my legal pad) something spontaneous, just like what I might say to someone with whom I felt I could become good friends. And the response always came instantaneously, seemingly without the slightest conscious thought or device of my own mind.
ADVANTAGE MR. WILLIUS
Long story short, since then my alter ego and I have had many rewarding conversations. We’ve agreed that he doesn’t mean to hurt me or make me unhappy. He acknowledges that, being an amalgam of my parents, my brother and possibly a couple of other important figures in my life, of course he loves me and, in fact, wants me to be happy.
I acknowledge my tendency toward frustration and defeatism. He admits to tormenting me sometimes, as an impudent teenager might, simply because he can.
As for tennis, we’ve struck a sort of meet-you-halfway deal. If he’ll back off on the criticism, I promised, I’ll try to do better at appreciating and celebrating my small successes. Often, on my way to the tennis center, I’ll remind him of his end of the bargain and he reassures me he’ll be good.
Recently, I’ve even upped the ante and gotten him to agree that, while the absence of criticism is certainly welcome, maybe he could try a little actual praise on for size. So far, this is proving quite hard for him.
After all, he rationalizes, he’s never had a very good role model. Oh, give me a break!