Warren Scott HollandM.A.C.A.

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Society Trap

Date: 15th June 2013| Category: ACT

The “Winners and Losers” Trap
Our society often encourages us to think in terms of “winners” and “losers”; “successes” and “failures”, “champions” and “underachievers”. We frequently encounter all sorts of books, articles and experts that tell us: “Think like a winner!”, “Be a success”, “Winners do this!”, “Only losers do that!” If you hold on tightly to the story that you are a “winner”, a “champion”, a “success”, there may well be some short-term benefits for you; you may well get to feel good about yourself. Especially if you compare yourself to someone else who's a “loser”, “failure”, or “underachiever”. But how long does that last for? How long before your mind finds someone else who is achieving more or being “more successful” than you are? And when your mind inevitably locates that person, and then starts comparing you to them, what happens next? Who does your mind then start calling a “loser”, “failure”, or “underachiever”? And if you are in the habit of holding on tightly to your judgements about yourself, what happens next?

You may have heard of the concept of fragile self-esteem. It’s something very common in “successful” professionals. As long as they achieve all their goals, they can hold on tightly to the “I’m a winner” story, and they get to feel good about themselves. But the moment their performance drops -- and sooner or later, it will, because there’s no such thing as a perfect human being -- the story instantly changes to “I’m a loser”. And if their habit is to hold on tightly to their self-judgments, then they instantly get sucked into the black hole of “I’m a loser”. This set-up creates a desperate need to achieve more and more, for fear of becoming a “loser” or “failure” or “under-achiever”. And this in turn leads to chronic stress, performance anxiety, perfectionism, and burn-out.

And even if we could, against all the odds, manage to hold on tightly to “I’m a winner”, “I’m a success” etc, in the long term, what effect might that have on our relationships with others? Have you ever tried to build a rich and meaningful relationship, based on openness, respect and equality, with someone who was holding on tightly to “I am a success”, “I am a champion”, “I am a winner”?

The take home message: hold your self-descriptions and your self-judgments very lightly. Regardless of whether they’re positive or negative, true or false, don’t get over-attached to them. After all, they’re only words. Is a biography of Nelson Mandela the same thing as Nelson Mandela himself? Clearly not; it is just a bunch of words. And regardless of how true or false those words are, they cannot come close to the richness and fullness of the living human being himself. (After all, which would you rather spend time with? Nelson Mandela himself - or a book about him?) The same principle holds true for all your own self-judgments and self-descriptions. In ACT, we’re not interested in whether these thoughts are true or false, positive or negative – we’re interested in whether it’s helpful to hold on tightly to them. And hopefully you can see that whether your self-judgments are positive or negative, if you get into the habit of holding them tightly, it will create problems for you.

What matters in life is what you do, not the stories you believe about yourself. If you doubt this, think about your own funeral; do you want people to be saying “What I really admired about him was he had a really high opinion of himself”? Or would you rather they said, “What I really admired about him was that he was there for me when I needed him; he helped me; he supported me; he encouraged me to live life to the full.” Notice, you can be there for your loved ones, and help them, and support them, and encourage them, regardless of what you think about yourself.

Now if your mind is anything like my mind, you’ll notice these self-judgments change like the wind. There are days my mind tells me I’m a wonderful father and a loving husband; and there are other days my mind tells me I’m a lousy father, and a selfish husband. There are days my mind says I’m a pretty good writer; and other days my mind says everything I write is utter crap. So if your mind says “You’re a loser,” don’t hold onto it. Just thank your mind, name the story, and let it come and go in its own good time - neither hanging onto it, nor fighting with it, nor trying to push it away. You could even say to yourself, “Aha! Here’s the loser story! Thanks mind! Good story!” And of course, if your mind says, “You’re a winner,” don’t hold onto that one tightly, either. Just say to yourself, “Aha! Here’s the winner story! Thanks mind! Good story!”

To quote Margaret Fontey:
"One important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one's work seriously and taking one's self seriously. The first is imperative, and the second is disastrous."

Remember: your self-judgments are not problematic in and of themselves – they only become problematic when you hold on tightly to them. So regardless of whether they’re positive or negative, true or false, aim to hold those self-judgments lightly. It takes effort, but the more you can loosen your grip on those self-judgments – both the positive and the negative – the more you will experience something truly wonderful: genuine self-acceptance.

Author: Dr Russ Harris
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