Years ago I helped my friend Katherine kick heroin.
I had never had any experience with the drug (or any drugs for that matter) and in the frightening process, I learned a tremendous amount about addiction, biology, and the underground drug world. Signing on at the hospital as the one to have responsibility to make her medical choices while she was incapacitated during her Naltrexone treatment was humbling.
One of the things that makes heroin so addictive and so hard to kick (besides its allegedly sublime and transcendent high) is that it physically attaches to the brain and stimulates the desire for the high. It is like a key jammed in a lock so it can never click shut or more precisely a doorbell continuing to ring that begs you answer it. Doorbells are made to be answered – with excitement at a delivery or suspicion when it rings late in the night. Doorbells are made to call us into action. But at least we know it is a doorbell when we spring or stumble our way to it.
So often we don’t even know what exactly is driving us. It is so frequently hidden.
That said, it seems perfectly reasonable to answer the ringing doorbell of success and greater responsibility at work. But in the case of M, who came to my table in Union Square recently we discovered that she was quite unconsciously answering a very addictive doorbell.
M is currently a student teacher and is in her final months of school before she can get out there and look for jobs. When she sat down to talk with me she put forth the situation that she needed a creative approach to:
I need a way to get more responsibility in the classroom. My supervising teacher isn’t letting me do enough and I really want to learn as much as I can in the little time I have left in school.
She was earnest and sincere. Everything you would imagine in a young teacher full of the thrumming enthusiasm to make a difference in the world.
So we tried on a few ideas for how she could get more responsibility. We looked at role playing, gaming elements and just plain old patience.
There was the simple matter that it was only another eight weeks and even an increase in teaching time was hardly going to make that much of a difference at this point if she already had years of education training.
As we chatted she had briefly mentioned Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year and one of the High Holidays) off-handedly and had just a particular emphasis on certain syllables with a unique accent that let me know that she was much more Yiddishkeit than I would have guessed – if I had guessed at all. Her blue polka-dotted blouse, white slacks and heart-shaped sun glasses were standard issue.
We briefly chatted about Jewish things. If you’re Jewish you understand the mystery of The Tribe.
Anyway, all of those notions of other ways to look at the situation fell onto M fairly well but nothing had really scratched the itch for her yet.
So I asked her to describe the classroom to me. All the regular trappings of a middle school were there but then she revealed a slightly new piece of the situation:
Well there are 28 kids. The classroom teacher is obviously in front and then me and the other student teacher sit in the back and walk around to help when prompted.
So I asked.
Who is this other student teacher?
M rolled her eyes.
You know, I like him as a person but he is such an incompetent idiot. He has JUST started grad school and has gotten this amazing assignment at this great school and it is being wasted on him. He used to be a musician and just decided that he wants to teach all of the sudden. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. I mean he is just learning the very super basic things and he and I get treated like we’re equals. But we aren’t. I know so much more than he does and I am about to go out and get a teaching job and need all the experience I can get. He has years to get to that.
So now we had found something new.
So is it accurate that you want more responsibility in class so the teacher doesn’t think you are an idiot?
M looked ashamed and pained at the words. Her eyes showed the barest hint of a tear followed by a tightening as she drew it back.
I looked at this young woman and saw this painful thread of being an idiom that she had woven into her being.
So I told her about my friend Katherine who I helped kick heroin.
I told M how I had never had any experience with the drug and how signing on at the hospital as the one to have responsibility for her was humbling.
I recounted to M the biology of the addiction and how it was like a doorbell that had to be answered.
The dangerous thing about wanting more responsibility as a student teacher in this situation is that you are feeding this addiction. You are ringing your own doorbell. Let’s say that this guy actually is an incompetent idiot. You saying, ‘I want more responsibility,’ is essentially saying to yourself ‘If I have more responsibility than nobody will suspect me of being an incompetent idiot.’ Getting what you want actually proves to yourself that your self-image is correct. And in this way you are trapped. You have a low grade, functional addiction to the idea that you are an incompetent idiot and you find ways of proving it to yourself – not by failing but by striving to cover up what you perceive as your true nature. There is a lovely touch of arrogance to that too but let’s leave that for the moment.
The tightening around M’s eyes that muscled her singular fraction of a tear back into her ducts reversed.
She wasn’t crying but she was now wide open.
She shared that indeed she constantly lives in the fear of being discovered as an incompetent idiot.
The idea of being found out drives her towards success and having to be acknowledged as being capable.
She laughed when I told her that she should be glad that I discovered her secret and not her teachers or boss otherwise she would surely be a destitute incompetent idiot.
So now that this was out M said,
Now that I have a much bigger problem than what I sat down with, now what?
I told M that she was experiencing the equivalent of a low grade fever with this self-image of hers. It goes on for weeks and weeks and suddenly it is the new normal. She never allowed it to actually play out because at the slightest hint of it showing up she went into her mode of achievement.
It seemed fitting to call on her Jewishness at that moment by evoking the sabbath ten percent of the famed Ten Commandments. For all of you who forgot what it says:
Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.
I suggested to M that she was laboring with this self image all the time. She never gave it a rest and in never giving it a rest she was never rested. The commandment does urge that the rest be total. I mean slaves and animals get a sabbath.
Okay, so one day a week I give myself a day off from this idea I have about myself?
I corrected M by telling her that it was, indeed, the exact opposite. The sabbath is a total immersion in rest. But she had never truly immersed herself in the true pain and terror of possibly being an incompetent idiot.
I suggested to her that at a regular interval she should have a Sabbath for Insecurity. On that day, or hour, let her insecurity be total. Let it fully manifest and really feel it. At the moment she was just avoiding the pain and covering it up and learning nothing from it.
Avoiding the pain was her mechanism for keeping the doorbell ringing.
I told her that when she hears the voice in her head reminding her what an incompetent idiot she is that she should just kindly tell it that she will fully celebrate it at the Sabbath for Insecurity and not before.
She laughed and asked if she could say prayers before her Sabbath. I encouraged the idea. Anything to heighten the specialness of the time and experience would make the space more transformative.
The restraint of not plowing through that opportunity to really feel and explore the depths of her insecurity could give M an opportunity to take stock and see what is actually in front of her.
M was shaken but delighted at all of this.
The original problem was now long gone and she could now contend with a more profound issue that she didn’t even see was driving the first one.
Katherine has been clean for more than a decade and we talk about once a year or so now. Every once in a while we talk about the intense period where I helped her kick and she always says that only when she faced how miserable and awful she truly felt did it even become possible to consider kicking at all. That didn’t make getting high feel any less satisfying for the moment but she saw how it added to the overall misery. The same is true with M and her insecurity.
But it is the same with all of us as well.
We use all sorts of diversions to keep us from truly experiencing and fully sensing the pain we are in and let that pain actually say something to us.
Making a Sabbath for Insecurity is one way but there are others of course.
What actions are you taking to prove your deep self-image as right?
If you think a conversation or a creative approach like this could be of use to you where you are now…