“That’s not really my thing.”
“I’m not very good at [xx].”
“I’m just not a [xx] kind of person.”
(You’ve definitely heard this one before if you’re poly): “I could never do that.”
Sometimes phrases like these are expressions of empowerment and boundary-setting: they’re saying, “I understand myself, what I’m good at and what I’m not, and I can own that without shame. I can’t be all things to all people, and I don’t feel pressure to try.”
Sometimes they’re expressions of insecurity, anxiety, and self-limiting: they’re saying, “I’m uncomfortable being on a learning curve, and I don’t have confidence in my ability to develop new skills and qualities. I’m going to stick with the areas that are familiar and comfortable to me.”
I do both things a lot. I’m very familiar with my skills and limitations. I’m also very protective of the qualities I value in myself: I want to invest most of my time in honing and developing the areas where I’m already strong, and I’m wary of letting go of some of my strengths in an attempt to shore up my weaknesses. This is where I find personality typing systems really valuable; they help me identify and articulate the areas where I’m naturally strong and naturally weak, and they help shape a vision of what it would be like to be the best version of myself, rather than trying to develop myself in all dimensions.
I’ve also done the other one, the self-limiting one. I hate being bad at things, I hate making rookie mistakes, I hate being fumbling and clueless and seeing that others are being patient with me. So I avoid the areas where I’m not already competent, and I set expectations very low when I’m not. I stay away from projects, goals, or activities that I know will call on skills I don’t have. As much as I love learning, in the sense of intellectual exploration and gathering new knowledge, I really kind of hate learning, in the sense of trying and failing and looking awkward and feeling helpless.
I really admire people who can learn gracefully; who can embrace their beginner status and accept instructions and false starts without getting all ego-prickly and sensitive. It’s a skill in and of itself, and it’s one I’ve been slowly working to develop for about ten years now. In ten years, I haven’t gotten very far with it: I still freeze up, panic, or want to run away if I don’t feel competent in a situation. I’ve developed to the point of being able to talk myself through the feelings and making a conscious decision about whether to pursue the new skill or give it up. Maybe not right in the moment, but afterward, when the panic dies down. (And the self-hatred, because for some reason not being awesome at something right off the bat fills me with shame and feelings that I don’t deserve to even be here: definitely in this moment doing this thing, and possibly anywhere doing anything. I know it’s nonsense, but in the moment it’s very persuasive nonsense.)
For me, the decision-making process involves these components:
Realistically, do I think I have the skills I’d need right now to learn this? Every new competency, whether it’s physical or emotional or intellectual, requires supporting skills. Physically, it might be particular muscle strengths or stamina or flexibility. Intellectually, it might be knowledge bases or language systems you need to be familiar with. Emotionally, it might be ability to trust or listen or express yourself. I have a tendency to want to jump straight at the cool big thing, assuming that I’ll pick up the supporting skills on the way. This works about as well as deciding to compete in a triathlon while barely being able to swim. Sometimes you have to step back and focus on one of the supporting skills before going for the big goal.
What is learning this going to do for me? Will it make me happier? Improve my relationships? Increase my financial stability? I imagine two versions of myself: one where I’ve developed this skill to a point of reasonable competence, and one where I’ve accepted that it’s not something I’m ever going to be able to do well. I look at what I gain in the first scenario, and what I lose in the second, and get a sense of what the new skill is actually worth to me.
What is learning this going to cost me? At the very least, being me, I know it’s likely to cost quite a few hours of the panic and self-hatred I described above. Beyond that, how much time is it going to take? What else could I be doing with that time? What else could I be doing with the emotional energy I’ll be spending on talking myself down from the anxieties? How much strain am I under already, and can I afford to take on some more? Will learning this risk losing other things that I like and value about myself?
Alongside the cost assessment, I consider my current situation. If I’m already embroiled in one or two challenging or emotionally difficult pursuits, maybe this isn’t a good time to take up another one.
I take all the information from these assessments, and then ask this:
Would pursuing this skill right now be a loving thing to do for myself?
When it comes to other people, people I love, I have a pretty good sense for the line between “this will be hard for you but it’ll be worth it” and “there’s no sense beating yourself up to make this work.” When it comes to someone else, my ego isn’t involved, so I don’t have the confounding factors of, “I hate the idea of never being competent at this” or “It’s going to be way too embarrassing or uncomfortable to struggle through the newbie phases of this.” In making the decision for myself, I try to get to that same attitude of loving detachment, to see what’s actually going to be the healthier choice. Then I stick with that decision — even when, snapped back into my own ego-bound perspective, everything in me cringes away from it.
Sometimes the loving thing to do is say, “Suck it up, girl… you want this, you can do it, embrace the hard stuff and push through because it’ll be worth it in the end.” Sometimes it’s, “You are already awesome at W, X, and Y… you can let Z go. That’s not you, and it doesn’t have to be.”