In his article “Shame and Bodywork: a Persisting Problem”, Dan Cayer beautifully relates his experience as a teacher of the Alexander Technique and the pressure he has felt to be the perfect embodiment of the result his clients are looking for. While I can imagine that the scrutiny of a bodyworker’s physical appearance is even more thorough, I would argue that the pressure and the shame for not being perfect apply to anyone working in the field of well-being.
As a coach, should I not be conscious, well-balanced, healthy, emotionally mature, successful in my relationships and my business? At all times, s’il vous plait. To prove that I, for one, am not emotionally or even intellectually mature, I admit that I’m not free of this idea either. When the world’s best Jiu-Jitsu fighter and 10x world champion Roger Gracie announced that he had gotten Covid, I was in shock. How could that happen? He’s the God of BJJ! How come he didn’t just mount and choke the damn virus? To his defense, he eventually did, but the point remains.
This brings me to the whole idea of the so-called self-development world. The term itself — and others versions: self-improvement, self-optimization — already implies that the way things, and particularly we, currently are leaves a lot to improve. In other words, the current version of who we are is unacceptable. While we are encouraged to write “I’m good enough” on our mirrors and look ourselves deeply in the eye, we are also taught that good enough just isn’t… well, good enough.
The moment I accept myself lovingly and consider myself good enough, I have succumbed to mediocrity and shied away from my own greatness, which, after all, is what I should strive for. Only when I reach my full potential can I rest in confidence that I am worthy and good enough to be in this world. Except good enough is… you know.
The industry makes a great living off such a Catch 22, so the insanity of it is at least good for business. As coaches, who perpetuate this way of thinking, it also means that we put ourselves in the position of having to embody the results we promise our clients while at the same time assuring them that presence and acceptance are really what it’s all about. And the shame that inevitably comes with constantly falling short of our own expectations may be one of the reasons why so many of us feel like fakes.
If They Knew
What would the people I coach on conscious parenting think when they saw me losing it with my daughters? Where is my credibility as a get-your-shit-together coach when I slack off my workout over the summer? And, honestly, how can I even think of encouraging clients to get in touch with their emotions when I have just decided to put all my own emotions off until after Christmas when I have (hopefully) accomplished all I need to accomplish until the rest of the year?
My favorite sentence in Dan’s article is this: “We can confuse the treasures we learned in our training and work experience with some magical ability to completely control either our experience or that of our clients.” Behind it stands the idea that we need to be in control. Which is probably the biggest misunderstanding of the great self-development saga.
We are the creators of our reality. We are responsible for our own lives, our health, our state of mind. These are the central messages we receive, believe, and spread in our field. And it’s true. Nobody can make us angry. It’s our choice to react to any given situation with anger, indifference, surprise, compassion, or laughter.
The Origin of Grump
Except there is one thing that usually nobody mentions. Let me illustrate this in an example.
Take a grumpy neighbor. Complains about the noise, the kids, the dirt, the weather, our curtains, the dog. Just generally seems to find our existence an act of blasphemy.
Originally, we might wallow in our distress over our neighbor’s meanness, blame them for our migraines, skin rash, bad humor, and low self-esteem. Later we might decide that giving our grumpy neighbor all the power over our lives is a waste of time and energy. We are elated. We hold the keys to happiness in our hands again. If only we smile at the reflection in the mirror, drink green juice every day, and think positive our woes are over. We are the creators.
For a while, things look good. After all, we do understand that skin rashes, migraines, and low self-esteem don’t disappear overnight. Even though they do occasionally for those who can afford a 1-on-1 with Tony, but that’s okay, the free Facebook group will work for us. Eventually, though, our skin rash stubbornly holds on to our feet, while Sandy from Australia has already overcome her divorce trauma and Jake in Ohio lost 167lb even before the deadline he had set for himself.
Back To Square One
Despite the meditations, the smiles, and the green juice shit is still happening! And it’s clearly all our own fault. We suck even more than we ever imagined. And we can no longer blame the neighbor, who still complains about the noise, the kids, the dog… I think I’m just creating one big migraine again.
We have taken responsibility. We have taken ownership. We have consciously chosen to forgive our grumpy neighbor and embrace green juice (and we still don’t know what was harder to do). What’s the problem here?
The Poisonous Element
We forgot to take the poisonous elements out of the equation.
Since the dawn of time, humans have complicated their lives by peppering every relationship with a good amount of guilt and shame. You might think that centuries of empirical evidence have convinced us to get rid of those ideas, but nah. Sticky stuff.
When we learn that we are responsible for our well-being, that we have the power to create a life that we love living, to enjoy our time on earth, and connect with other humans, we almost immediately turn and twist this knowledge until we are flooded with shame for every sign that our health, our bodies, our lives, and our relationships are not perfect. Whatever that would look like.
What If Nobody Is to Blame?
As long as we hold on to the idea that someone — anyone — is to blame for things being as they are, we obviously do not accept them. Acceptance and guilt cannot coexist. Acceptance means the absence of judgment. It is what it is. It does not mean we cannot take action to create something else. On the contrary. Free from the burden of guilt and shame, we have all the energy available to create what we want. We can help others and change the situation. Who do you think is more effective? The person that runs around an accident scene trying to find out who’s guilty? Or the one who sees the injured, calmly assesses the degree and nature of the injury, and provides first aid?
The same goes for our self-development. We can spend hours of our time beating ourselves up for having skipped the workout or snapping at our kids for nothing. Or we can boldly accept the consequences and see what we can do about them. As bodyworkers, as coaches, as teachers, as parents, the best we can do is show others how this is done. With all the mess it takes. Instead of killing ourselves trying to embody the promise of perfection, let’s be the embodiment of the process.
After all, if you don’t enjoy the journey, you won’t enjoy the destination.