Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions will remain 100% confidential, and may be edited for length.
I'm a pretty smart, capable guy, but I HATE doing things I'm not good at. A few months ago, we went to one of those “drink while everyone in the group does a painting” events, and it was torture: I'm not talented in the visual arts, and the fact that I was making this shitty painting where other people could potentially see me suck made the entire experience emotionally torturous, even though the room could not have been more relaxed or less judgmental. And it seems like this fear of being seen doing things I'm bad at affects my life in so many ways, such as the drivers' license I still don't have, due to the heart-in-my-mouth terror of a fatal fuckup, which was only exacerbated by driving lessons during which I stalled out at all the worst times.
I'm no shrinking violet—I'm comfortable in social situations, I've acted in dozens of plays, and I'm usually a reasonably confident and capable guy. But when I was talking to my husband about my emotional distress around athletics and he suggested us going to the park to play catch some time, the mere idea of being worse at catch than small children, where anyone could see me, provoked an immediate “Hell no.”
So please, help me: How do I get good at being bad at things? How do I become okay with the fact that sometimes I'll be not-so-great at something, and do it anyway? It's a skill other people seem to have, and it mystifies me–and I feel like I'm missing out on a lot of life because of it.
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Dear Brave Correspondent,
I want you to know that I am answering your letter as much for my benefit as for yours, because I too am so bad at being bad at things. But I have some faith in my ability to dig deep and bring out the good stuff when someone else needs assistance, and maybe in doing trying to help you I will get some way toward figuring out my own issues about this.
The first thing that comes to mind is to ask you this question: Whose voice are you hearing in your brain when the “you’re a fuckup” chorus cranks up? I find that when there’s some mean and judgmental voice keeping me from doing something, it tends to belong to someone I have known in my life. Sometimes it’s a relative or an ex, sometimes a teacher or counselor. That’s actually pretty great, because it’s easier to dispatch those voices—just pick them up by their judgmental jug ears and drop them right off the edge of your emotional landscape. Listen to them yowl as they fall until their wailing is too faint to hear. Look around at all the other characters loitering, maybe with some mean and snide thoughts of their own that they were thinking about sharing and give them your best stink eye while you hook your thumbs in your belt. Spit on the ground, maybe, for emphasis. Let everyone know that this here sheriff isn’t going to stand for anyone saying any more shit about your perfectly lovely self. Then dust off your hands and go play catch with your husband, and don’t worry about what the children are doing—they probably can’t read Dostoyevsky, but you’re not rubbing that in their faces, are you? No. No, you’re not, because you’re too nice a fellow for that.
(Tell your husband that any ball-fumbling should be met with extra kissing, and that if you look like you might be gritting your teeth in embarrassment he is contractually obligated to sing “You’re The Top” to you, complete with jazz hands. This is required even if you’re typically a bottom, to be clear.)
However, perhaps that judgmental voice isn’t someone else’s. Sometimes, most unfortunately, it’s my voice as heard from the bottom of a well, distant but clear, an echo of myself trying to be competent and in control of everything at all times. Perhaps there have been times in your past that it has not seemed safe to be less than totally in control. Perhaps you learned early that controlling other people’s perceptions is a way to stay okay. I mention this because that’s for sure how it has been for me. And so that burning feeling in your face as you make a terrible painting isn’t your ego, or whatever, it’s your fear about staying okay.
The thing about our defense mechanisms from being young people is that they are so very important and necessary—when we’re young. They literally keep us alive. We learn them well because they’re what we develop—usually in a vacuum and with very little help—to allow us to survive being young people. They are so valuable… right up until the moment they stop serving us and start keeping us from doing great and nourishing things, because our circumstances have changed (and thank Gd for that) but we’re still doing the same stuff.
It worked for years! says the hindbrain. Can’t stop now!
You know what, Brave Correspondent? In the gentlest way, with my hands on your cheeks and a lollipop tucked into your breast pocket for the ride home I have to tell you: You can stop now. You did the hard thing—you survived being a young person, whatever your particular circle of hell was. Now it is done. You’re grown. You did it. You can let go of being in control of everything always. Your very nice husband probably already knows you’re not perfect, and so do your friends. They will love you if you fall down, or drop every ball forever, or paint the ugliest and most misshapen birds forever. They might not hang your horrible bird paintings in their houses but they will admire them and toast you for having painted them, and then they will ask you to help them plan a canoe trip or teach them that yoga breathing thing or to make them your famous chocolate cake from your mother’s recipe or explain about the difference middle English and early modern English again or… whatever you’re good at. Not to pander to you but to give you proper recognition of all the other jobs well done you’ve accomplished.
You’ve done it, Brave Correspondent. You never have to go back—you can move forward and fail and fail and fail and still not be a failure. You can have another drink and try again (uh, except for driving). Being bad at things means you’re learning and not stagnating; it means you are ever-growing and not shrinking back into a smaller parcel of human. Every time you stall the car, remind yourself that this is good, that you are learning. Say it out loud: “This is good. I’m learning. I am bravely sallying forth.” As has been discussed in these pages before, being brave is predicated on being scared—so really, you’re halfway there. Take the next step, Brave Correspondent.
(Oh, and if you bravely fail at catching a ball a thousand times and then one day you notice you’ve gotten better at it, I will come and fiddle terribly while you play if you’d like. Just ask.)