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The Duckling’s Dilemma

The Duckling’s Dilemma

All my life I’ve tried to learn discipline, focus, rigor. To have routines and stick to them, to work patiently and gradually towards well-defined goals. And I did this because I thought it would be good for me, that it would help me reach my potential.

And, up to a point, this was maybe even true.

But because I felt like I needed to be that kind of person, I never noticed when I passed that point. The point where it changed from being good for me, to being bad.

Five years ago, when I tried to write the book, Thinking Things Done, I fell into a trap of trying to drive something forward even when I didn’t believe in it any more, for the sake of focus and discipline and all those supposedly-wonderful things.

And it simply didn’t work.

Every strength is a weakness, every weakness a strength. If it doesn’t seem this way, it’s only because it’s the situation that makes the weakness or strength. If you’ve been told all your life to act one way, it may seem a strength to act that way. And yet, in someother situation, that could be the worst possible way to act.

I don’t know if I would officially be diagnosed with ADD, but I definitely have the traits of the “hunter” rather than the “farmer”: I am quick to chase an idea, I run it into the ground, and then I go after the next one. And to have motivation to do something, I have to believe in it 100%.

In the right context, used the right way, these are enormous strengths. In the parts of my life where I was working towards a big-picture goal that I believed in 100%, I was fucking awesome. I loved my work, I loved my life, and I was far more productive than I have ever been able to make myself be by “discipline”.

But while I was writing Thinking Things Done, I hit a major road bump: I stopped believing 100% in what I was doing.

At first, it was just a minor bump, maybe down to 95 or 98%. The challenge was, I was starting to realize that merely giving people information about change techniques wouldn’t change them, and that what’s more, I was mistaken about how much I had changed.

I began to have doubts, because I was starting to notice the way I chased after ideas, how I was productive while on the high of insight, but would then lose that energy once the idea lost that “new-idea glow”.

The Source of The Struggle

The mistake I made then was to judge myself for this. To believe that it meant my changes weren’t “real”, or that I wasn’t “really” a productive or successful person yet. I was looking at my “undisciplined” nature as if it were bad or wrong somehow, a flaw in my personal character.

Like the “ugly duckling” in the fable, worrying about his long neck.

And so all of the error, all of the suffering, all of the depression that I’ve put myself through in the last five years or so… was all because of one fatal mistake:

I thought that becoming more disciplined, more organized, would make me a better person.

Because I thought that the person I was, was not good enough.

An ugly duckling.

And I have wasted years of my life, not because I was trying to improve myself, but because I was trying to prove myself.

Prove myself worthy of praise, love, attention, and respect.

Prove that I had become the right sort of person, so that I would be good enough.

What I didn’t understand yet, is that this is an impossible dream. You can’t prove you’re a different person than the person you believe you are, let alone the person you actually are!

So no matter what you accomplish, no matter what you do or how well you do it, it will never translate into a feeling that you have succeeded, and are now that “better person”.

Instead, you simply notice that being “disciplined” or “caring” or “focused” or whatever it is you succeeded at today, only means that you will have to work just as hard again, to do it tomorrow.

You will still be an ugly duckling, struggling to keep its neck down.

The Two Big Mistakes Behind False Goals

The thing is, if my goal really was to be organized or disciplined for its own sake, such a setback would never have bothered me. If it was worth achieving today, it would also be worth achieving tomorrow, and the day after that. And eventually, it would become second nature.

But because my true goal was always to feel worthy – to feel like a lovable and respectable person, deserving of praise and companionship – one day’s success still felt like failure, because it didn’t bring me those feeling of worthiness I was craving.

This is the pattern of all false goals: the things we crave, not for the thing itself, but for the feeling of being proven. The feeling of finally being a good and worthy person, accepted by the “tribe” and able to make a valued contribution. The feeling that our life has purpose, our work has meaning, and that we are a true part of some kind of family, be it literal or figurative.

The mistake we make here is two-fold:

First, we think that it is possible to prove ourselves. Teased by other children or put down by parents and teachers, our brain concludes that if we were more like they want us to be, then the pain would stop, and the love would begin.

And in a functional environment, our ancestral evolution, this may even have been true!

But in the dysfunctional environments we came from, and our modern disconnected life, it is absolutely not true. Most of the people who put us down for one thing – even our parents! – will simply switch to putting us down about something else, if we successfully change the first thing. (As anyone who’s pulled their grades up from bad to good-but-not-yet-perfect can attest!)

We think that if we are like other people, if we are the way they want us to be, then that means we will be – and feel – whole and strong. But this is not true. It just means we will feel like we barely scraped by, just narrowly avoided being worthless and unsuccessful.

Second – and this is by far, the worse error of the two – we think that we need to prove ourselves in the first place!

We think that who we are is wrong or bad. Inadequate or flawed. Defective and unlovable. Ugly.

And I can’t tell you how wrong that is.

Because inside of us, we are all great.

We are not ugly ducklings.

We are beautiful swans.

You Can’t Feel What You Don’t Believe

This isn’t some rah-rah self-esteem boosting thing. (It’s not some “we’re spiritual beings having a human experience” woo-woo thing either, though it may sound a bit like that, too.)

The simple truth is that there is nothing that someone else can give you, that you don’t already have.

If you aren’t capable of feeling love for yourself, then you won’t feel it, even when somebody else loves you.

If you aren’t capable of respecting yourself, then you won’t feel it, even when others respect you.

If you can’t see yourself as being worthy, then you won’t feel it, no matter how worthy you actually are.

Because we feel these things – if and when we do – only when we agree with others’ assessments of us!

In other words, the feeling isn’t something we get.

It’s something that we do.

And as long as we think that we’re not worthy, we won’t do it. Our brains won’t do it.

Why You Can’t Trick Yourself Into Feeling Better

What I’m saying here is not some kind of trick, to fool yourself into feeling better. Such a trick could never work, because if you’re trying to think that you’re good, trying to believe you’re worthy, then it’s only because you still think you’re not!

In your mind, there is this idea of yourself as “really” bad and unworthy, and then on top of that idea, you add the idea that you’re somehow still lovable or whatever. You try to take the bad self-esteem and build some good on top of it, using something that feels like a lie.

But it doesn’t matter: lie or truth, nothing you put on top of that weak foundation will stand.

In order to change your experience of life, it’s not enough to pile on good ideas in an effort to counter the bad ones you already have:

You have to question the bad ones.

Now, this is important: please notice that I didn’t say “get rid of”. In order to see yourself as getting rid of a bad idea about yourself, you are still doing the same thing: seeing yourself as a defective thing, a thing that needs to be fixed. Instead of proving yourself worthy by doing good deeds or becoming a different person, you are trying to prove yourself by getting rid of your “bad” beliefs.

But it’s still the same thing!

It’s still the idea that the future will be better, “if only” you can accomplish X.

And it doesn’t matter what X is: if you are clinging to the hope that X can save you, then this means you believe you need to be saved.

And you fear that you won’t be.

And that’s where all the suffering comes from:

The belief that you’re an ugly duckling.

And that “if only” you can scrunch your neck down enough to fit in with the other ducks, then you’ll finally be accepted.

When in fact the only way you’ll ever feel better, is to realize you’re a swan.

Why You MUST Give Up Hope

But you can’t do this, so long as you are hoping, praying, and striving with all your might to be a better duck!

(As I have been doing all my life.)

Unfortunately, before the famous “ugly duckling” of Hans Christian Andersen’s story realized he was a swan…

He first had to give up hope.

In fact, the only reason the “duckling” discovered he was a swan, was because he had despaired of ever being accepted – by the ducks or anyone else – and was trying to kill himself!

It was only then that, seeing his reflection, he finally realized that he was already okay. He didn’t need to “become” – he already was.

But what would have happened, had he not given up hope first?

If someone had said, “stop worrying what the ducks think, you’re a swan”, would he have listened?

If someone said, “you don’t need to change who you are, because who you are is already good enough”, could the words have had…

Any meaning at all?

Well, if anyone has ever told you that one of your personal “if only’s” was unnecessary, then you already know how this works.

Certainly, if somebody told me that I didn’t “need” to be so disciplined – and many did! – then I brushed them off, believing they “just didn’t understand me”.

It felt like they were saying, “Oh, your deepest dreams and needs, your fondest ambition? Forget about it, you don’t need it.”

Or worse, “You can’t have it.”

And I didn’t want to hear that.

That was the very last thing I wanted to hear about myself or about what I was striving for. The ugly duckling doesn’t want to hear, “you’re not a duck, you’re never going to be a duck, so just fucking give it a rest already”, because he’s spent his whole life trying to be a good duck, and what the hell else is he going to be, and what does it mean to have wasted his whole life on a fool’s errand?

The problem is, this is exactly what we ugly ducklings need to hear.

The Truth That Will Set Us Free

We have to let go of the false hope of being even a barely-acceptable duck, in order to realize our swan-nature.

And this step cannot be skipped over!

Otherwise, we will use the idea of being a swan, as a way to keep hoping we’ll be accepted as a duck.

We’ll think, “well, if I’m a beautiful swan, then the ducks should like me. If I can just properly realize my swan-nature, then I’ll finally be good enough for the ducks!”

And nothing changes. We’ve changed what we’re trying to prove, perhaps. Maybe how we intend to prove it.

But we still feel unproven.

And this will continue, until we give up hope.

As someone once said, the truth will set you free.

But first, it’s going to make you miserable.

Let’s get started!

The above is a sample chapter excerpted from a working draft of my next book, “Unproven: The Secret Source of Your Lifelong Struggle”, which will be released to Mind Hackers Guild members and Effortless Way subscribers in early 2014.

Join the discussion
  • Man, what a post, I have never read anything that would capture the essence of my life struggle so succinctly and elegantly, can't wait for your book to be finished !

  • "Turning your mind toward the dharma does not bring security or confirmation. Turning your mind toward the dharma does not bring any ground to stand on. In fact, when your mind turns toward the dharma, you fearlessly acknowledge impermanence and change and begin to get the knack of hopelessness."

    – Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart

  • Look. . .Lester Levenson described it as a case of attaining a state of hootlessness (See the Sedona Method).

    Neither attachment nor aversion to the desire fits well with the pain/gain brain material you've used before.

    And then Hale Dwoskin talks of getting rid of "wants" like control, security, and approval (and fourth, separation, which Lester didn't work on directly but Dwoskin does).

    But hidden in plain site is the fact that letting go of "wants" by his own definition within the book is "a feeling of the lack of", so this fits with your emotional aspects you've written about. Letting go of the feeling of the lack of (control, approval, security) has a totally different meaning to me vs. letting go of the wants of (above).

    "Giving up" via contemplating suicide is a far extreme example of "letting go" of the wants/the feeling of the lack of. . .

    Rob, surfing the seas of the internet



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Cover photo of "A Minute To Unlimit You" by PJ Eby
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