You have heard it said before: “Keep trying. Never give up.” “You’ll never succeed if you don’t try.” These statements are true and wise. But they’re not always true. Sometimes we succeed by not trying.
There are things I would never have succeeded at without trying. For example, I would never have gone from unable to do even knee push-ups to being able to do full-form push-ups if I had never committed myself to the cause. I would never have started this blog and learned so much about self-confidence if I hadn’t tried. Barack Obama would never have been elected President of the United States if he hadn’t tried.
But there are times when we keep trying and trying, and no matter how hard we try, we never really succeed. Sometimes we even fail harder the harder we try. For example, the perfectionist tries harder than anyone to do things “right” and well. For this reason, nothing may ever be good enough for the perfectionist to render something complete, or even to begin. The perfectionist is trying too hard. The worst I ever did at school was when I cared about my classes far more than I had ever cared before. I was a self-sabotaging perfectionist.
I used to have bulimic eating patterns. Not full-on bulimia. But I had body image issues as well as compulsive eating habits. I’d binge on chips, donuts, crackers, etc. And I’d hate myself for it. Sometimes I would end up going on an exercise binge afterward. One time, following several weeks of binge-eating and being a total couch potato, I spent a good seven or more hours walking and running in one day, until my feet could take no more. Also, for years I tried to lose weight by restricting my diet, rejecting certain foods and/or restricting caloric intake. This never, ever worked for me. Within two weeks, if not two days, I’d always start eating compulsively again until I had more fat on me than ever before.
But something different happened to me recently. This year is the first time I ever dated. I started dating one person and spending a lot of time with her, often day after day cuddling at her place. During these times, I didn’t even think about eating, nor did I even realize I wasn’t thinking about eating until well after I got into this pattern.
After some weeks of dating this person, I noticed my pants were suddenly starting to fall down. I thought I was gaining weight as I always did. I used to have this one pair of pants that I thought definitely fell down the more I gained fat around the hips – it was just easier for them to be below the wider part of the hips than above it, and it was only this one pair of pants I noticed this with. In retrospect, I’m not 100% sure that this is what was happening, but it doesn’t matter. The point is that, this year when several pairs of my pants started falling down, it never even occurred to me that I was losing weight.
But one weekend, three people at work independently told me I had lost weight. This is not something I hear often. After the second person told me, I started to think about it. I remembered the fact that my pants had been falling down. I remembered also that the girl I was dating had told me about the same time I first noticed this pants phenomenon, “Your hips are so skinny.” She had never said anything to me before about being skinny or thin.
She also didn’t really care. She’s the first person to ever make love to my body, to convince me completely that my body was/is not a love liability.
Now, I realized in retrospect that cuddling had replaced food as my comfort. I usually spend an overwhelming time alone in my room chatting with online friends. Alone in my room, I’ll eat junk food and binge on chips from time to time. Usually I would binge on chips at least once a month. But I haven’t done that since maybe before I met her, but certainly not since we started dating, and that’s almost three months. All just because I found an effortless distraction from eating.
For the first time since I’ve been weight-conscious, I actually lost weight over a period of more than two weeks. You see my point here: I finally lost some weight, after all these years of trying, by not trying. I didn’t even try to not try. I didn’t even think about it, or notice. And to boot? I also cared less about losing weight than ever before, because I realized I didn’t need it to be loved and adored. I had so long feared that my body fat was a barrier to physical intimacy, or intimacy period, when it was the lack of physical intimacy that had in a way been the barrier to losing fat. It was loving my body, not hating it, that caused me to lose fat.
Tidying My Room
Here’s another example. I grew up in a very lazy household. My dad would tell my brother and me to clean up the house, or clean our rooms, but he set a very poor example. And even less did he succeed at disciplining me. As a 10-year-old, my room was too messy to even walk in. You couldn’t have paid me $100 to clean my room because I’d look at it and just feel so overwhelmed and afraid of the discomfort. My mind was the real mess.
For all of adolescence on into early adulthood, I continued to feel helpless and frustrated about my inability to tidy, clean, and organize my room, even if a little less so than as a 10-year-old. I’d always want to make it look half-decent, and sometimes I’d even make serious efforts to motivate myself. To little avail. I felt so horrible about myself for this.
Then one day, feeling depressed after a break-up, and with my roommate moving all her mess (and herself) out of the room for good, I suddenly decided that it was time to fix up my room. I started making very committed plans to fix it up, brought in a new dresser, spent two hours in Bed Bad & Beyond (which I had never been to before), etc. This time was true commitment and true motivation, just by thinking how hideous and depressing my room looked and that I direly needed something to cheer me up and make me feel good about myself. And also, incidentally, being the holidays, I had no other strict commitments.
Never in this sudden commitment did I think, “Argh, I’m so undisciplined. I really, really need to work on being more disciplined.” I didn’t even think about being disciplined or not. I simply found an unusual motivation that conspired with good timing. I wasn’t disgusted at myself as I usually would be; all my disgust became directed at the hideousness of the room itself and channeled into making plans. Nor did I try to be disgusted in this way, to motivate myself. I simply happened to finally become effectively motivated.
Social Skills and Self-Confidence
And briefly, an example I could hardly pass by. The most frequent advice you will probably hear about improving your social skills and social self-confidence is just to keep putting yourself in social situations: practice, practice, practice. In other words, the trying is in the putting yourself out there; to an extent, the rest will come naturally. Showing up is half the battle, or more.
Sometimes it does help to try when it comes to self-confidence: maybe you pump yourself up with motivating thoughts before you give a big speech, maybe you take several deep breaths to help you relax, maybe giving the speech itself counts as trying. But other times, you will notice that you’ve become more outgoing or more fluid at conversation without doing anything but going about your business. When I moved from small town to city, my social skills sharply improved in short order, without a lick of effort.
The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Finally, there’s the time when your trying actually exacerbates or is the very cause of the problem. Trying to lose weight actually always resulted in my gaining weight. Trying to give a perfect speech just made me a nervous wreck. Trying to impress someone can make you look needy, selfish, and too self-absorbed, which is particularly unimpressive.
I have found in my brief dating experiences thus far that when I started trying hard to keep getting more of what I had been getting before from the other person – affirmations of affection and so on – this actually made the other person very uncomfortable. Not everyone gets uncomfortable with their established partner expressing a little bit of neediness – we’re all needy to some extent, and so were the people I dated. But a lot of people get really uncomfortable in these situations
It began with a small expression of worry about her abandoning me, losing interest, etc. This immediately made her uncomfortable, which made me even more afraid of abandonment, which made her start to not want to be around me and eventually declare that she could not love me anymore. It’s like the Chinese finger trap. You pull and pull, but this only traps you harder. And this perhaps triggers you to pull still harder! But it’s all a trap. The way out is through letting go. The harder I try not to lose her, the less room there is for me to love her. The more I expect from her, the less I can give her. The more I try to figure out if she’s trustworthy or not, the less time I have to trust her. The harder I try to make myself feel safe, the less I can try to make her feel safe – and what is intimacy without trust and the effort to make the other person safe?
The trying is in the giving, not in the getting. If you give, you get. But if you get, you don’t necessarily give. And if you don’t give, you rarely get.
So let go of your fear of letting go. Let go of your pushing and pulling. Giving is not akin to pushing and pulling in this case, but to letting go. To creating and offering something that for neither person feels forced.
Letting go is scary at first, but in the end it is the way out of fear.
If you’re trying to put on a pair of shoes that are three sizes too small for you, or trying to fit a key into a mismatching lock, you will never succeed. Sometimes you aren’t in a psychological position to succeed by trying, and that’s okay. Maybe this just isn’t something that trying, or trying harder, can change.
So don’t worry too much about the things you keep failing at. Maybe you just need to stop trying. And moreover, sometimes, don’t even try to stop trying. Just take comfort in knowing that sometimes the solution will come when you least expect it. There is a time for pushing yourself, and there is a time for letting it all go and setting yourself free.