I knew that would happen!

I knew that would happen!

A long time ago, in an Irish town far, far away, there was a tiny little swimming pool. It was a Friday afternoon and in this pool there frolicked the excited and heavily chlorinated attendees of a little primary school. I was among them. Even though the pool was small, we were small, so it seemed large and more than adequate for an afternoon’s entertainment. Suddenly, amid the giddy shrieks and laughter there was a charge of panic that pierced the air. A younger classmate, a non-swimmer, had dropped herself blithely into the deep end and was proceeding to do what non-swimmers do in the deep end – drown. Our hysterical and fully clothed teacher launched herself heroically over our heads (less impressive now as I recall the actual dimensions involved) and plunged to the girl’s rescue. The wide-eyed teacher carried her to safety and once she had caught her breath told the girl how dangerous her actions had been. The girl looked at her serenely and said “it was a good job I could swim then.”

Even then, at such a tender age, I thought to myself “what an eejit, she’s deluded.” And yet she was probably the only one who went home that day not feeling a little shaken by what had happened. Her belief that all would be well had insulated her not only from fear of failure but also from the aftermath when the unforeseen, and in her case, the unseen, had taken place. The notion of not succeeding had not been entertained by her therefore it was not part of her reality despite it having been a part of everyone else’s reality. This is not an example of someone succeeding against the odds but rather depicts the power of self-belief – what we believe to be true about ourselves is an extremely powerful force in our lives. As far as the girl in the pool was concerned, she was saved not by our horrified teacher but by her own innate brilliance.

My question is this: does her feeling of security deserve less credibility than the teacher’s certainty of disaster? Now, I’m not talking about the ‘facts’, I’m talking about the ‘feelings’, the convictions of the individuals involved. Distilled to an essence of belief I am not sure they wouldn’t cancel each other out. Maybe we can conclude then that what we believe to be true, is true…for us. And that then is surely enough to shape our reality. I touched on truth and reality earlier this year in a classically-themed post here but today I’m more curious about starting points that continually bring us back to the same place, especially when that place is somewhere you’re sick of being.

We all have beliefs about ourselves. What we are good at. What we are bad at. What we care about. What makes us angry. What side of our personality people like. What they like less. We act and make decisions based on these beliefs. Informed decisions? I suppose so. I don’t like seafood, I’ll avoid the paella. That guy’s a pain in the ass, I’ll pretend I didn’t see him. I don’t want to wash the dishes, I’ll cut off my hands with an axe. They think I’m funny, I’ll tell some jokes. I’m open-minded, of course the neo-Nazis are welcome to move in next door!

That sort of stuff is all well and good and more or less takes cares care of itself, probably because the stakes are relatively low. Informed decisions are easy in that case – do you take sugar in your coffee? No, thank you. But what sort of information do we receive from our subconscious? I was asking myself this question recently as I’d been struggling with a particularly sticky bout of depression that just wouldn’t quite release me from its grip. It wasn’t a full frontal assault, it was more a prolonged period of guerrilla warfare that kept leaving me reeling just as I thought I’d made safe ground. Nothing dramatic, just short, sharp punches to the back of the head every time my equilibrium threatened to recover. It’s hard to see clearly in those circumstances as your senses are in disarray making impossible any trust in your perceptions.

Anyway, recover I did. Recovered I have. When the dust had finally settled I realised that for some time I have been labouring under the opposite conviction of the girl in the swimming pool. Quite simply, no matter what evidence was in front of me to suggest otherwise, I had been telling myself “all will not be well.” Why did I believe that? This sour resignation had overtaken me and was discolouring my every glance at the future’s horizon. I needed to assess my psyche’s engine room to see what the hell was going on because this negativity was running contrary to one of my longest-held convictions about myself – that I am a positive person who believes in recovery.

That might sound a strange admission in the context of a discussion involving depression but they are not mutually exclusive. Most of the time I am a balanced, resilient individual with a healthy outlook on life and the world in general. When I get depressed I see it as a perversion of my normal mind, a poisoning of the pool I am drinking from. Sadly it’s a very potent poison that eradicates all traces of positivity and light that typically inform who I am and what I believe. I have become better at breathing through it and accepting it without responding to the urge towards self-harm or self-destruction. I trust it will pass because that is what history has taught me.

So, the post-match analysis. What did I find in the engine room? No trauma or repressed episode, simply this: I am less than. That was my revelation. I am less than. I have been telling myself this for as long as I can remember. It’s a strangely insidious thing. Quite a mediocre form of self-loathing but effectively debilitating nonetheless. I feel obliged to add that I have frequently flayed myself with far less tepid indignities but this little epiphany has been quite resonant. As I articulated it to my wife I understood for the first time the real significance of a self-fulfilling prophesy. I have believed this about myself for a very long time and it keeps bringing me back to the same place. What form does this ‘less than’ take? Here are some simple examples:

  • I am an actor. But I’m not a real actor.
  • I am a writer. But I’m not a real writer.
  • I am a karate practitioner. But I’m not a real karate practitioner.
  • I am a swimmer. But I’m not a real swimmer.
  • I am a teacher. But I’m not a real teacher.
  • I am a photographer. But I’m not a real photographer.

The list could go on and on but I’m sure you understand. If the subconscious starting point is that you are only pretending then there’s a certain inevitability about you not fully committing to your desired endpoint. How can you expect a fully fledged emergence if one part of you never leaves the shores of self-doubt? Even as I write this it feels like a very adolescent insight but so be it. At least now I have some more information to play with before I make my next decision.

I suppose if we’re around long enough Time will eventually reveal us to ourselves. I have become accustomed to pursuing this self-knowledge a bit more aggressively. There is a traditional martial arts axiom that has become part of received military wisdom – First know yourself, then know others. That is how it was expressed by Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan Karate and he in turn took it from the legendary Sun Tzu, who put it in slightly more elaborate terms:

When one knows the enemy and knows oneself, one will not be in danger in a hundred battles. When one is ignorant of the enemy yet knows oneself, chances of victory or defeat are even. When one knows neither the enemy nor oneself, each and every battle will surely be perilous.

– Sun Tzu, “Offensive Strategy,” The Art of War

This strategy can be a bit tricky when your enemy lies within but it is no less worthy of your attention. Your enemy is the one who likes you where you are. They can see you. They know you. Maybe consider changing what you believe about yourself so the next time the enemy comes looking you aren’t even there.

Do you succumb to self-fulfilling prophesies? What beliefs keep bringing you back to the same places?



  One thought on “I knew that would happen!

  1. July 12, 2014 at 12:35 am

    “A man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success”.
    That confidence of success that your parent’s can give you when you’re young. I’ve seen it several times first hand and I’m a big believer that Freud was onto something.
    That kind of confidence is free to those who can afford (handed out painlessly in your youth) it and very expensive to those who can’t (a lifetime of self-work).
    All that said personally I’m very careful of blaming anything on my childhood/mother because a) it’s boring b) it’s pointless (I don’t have a time machine and can only work on the now) and c) Freud was a smartarse anyway.

    • July 12, 2014 at 7:33 am

      It’s pretty fundamental stuff, isn’t it. Freud – wasn’t he into spanking? Or was that Jung? Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. July 12, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    Bloomin’ Brilliant Squire – even down to the supremely appropriate person peering out from the inside [painting]
    Congratulations, Don

    • July 12, 2014 at 10:11 pm

      Good man Don, always nice to have you pull up alongside…

  3. fionn
    July 12, 2014 at 8:22 pm

    I can confirm that Fassbender playing Jung spanked Kiera Knightly playing someone else and that it was anything but a sexy scene, not sure why but it was quite an odd business…. Anyway I think knowing ourselves is a seriously slippery business, is there really anything such as a fixed self to know? I’m not sure, I tend to think of potentialities. My personal inner avatar at the moment is the honey badger, whatever happens the honey badger keeps on keeping on.
    I think it’s important to check that your path is righteous and then give it your best. The honey badger bites his way past self doubt, the honey badger scratches his way past the inertia, the honey badger shits in the face of his own pride, the honey badger goes to the nth degree to be free! no matter the past, no matter the future, no matter the parents, the lovers, who you were, who you’re going to be.

    • July 12, 2014 at 9:18 pm

      Jesus, the honey badger’s got some moves! Nice one cuz, I appreciate your input.

  4. Marts
    July 13, 2014 at 11:10 am

    I am constantly challenged each day as to who I think I am!! And just when I think I know who I am, someone throws something at me and I am not quite sure how to respond. I think as I approach or should I say am in my “middle life” I have come to learn so much more. And I like what I see. Hope some of you out there that know me do too.
    Great Sunday reading Dara!!xx

    • July 13, 2014 at 9:11 pm

      Thanks Marts, always happy to hear your thoughts. xx

  5. Kieran McEvoy
    July 15, 2014 at 9:03 am

    Very beautifully written Dara and I know what you mean. Self doubt is indeed a self-fulfilling prophesy and something that seems to be ingrained in the psyche of a lot of Irish people.

    • July 15, 2014 at 11:35 am

      Good to hear from you Kieran and thanks for taking the time to comment. It’s a good point you make and one with which I agree. There’s some very muddy waters about. And I’m not taking about the Blues. Oh wait, I am!

  6. Bibi
    July 16, 2014 at 8:04 pm

    Dara, your writing is becoming in my life something resembling Lars von Trier’s movies I have to wait for the moment to be strong to read/view it! Stay well.

    • August 3, 2014 at 9:54 pm

      Hey Bibi, I’m very happy to have anything I’ve written be somehow included in the same company as Lars Von Trier! Thanks for reading when you’re strong or otherwise. x

  7. sean devitt
    July 21, 2014 at 9:15 pm

    Yes have to agree with me auld mucker kieran there,we irish are full of it but maybe it wont be so in the future as we gain more confidence or is it arrogance,Very well written Dara,keep her lit.sean

    • August 3, 2014 at 9:58 pm

      Fair play Sean, straight down the line. I know I coined the ‘3 Ds’ to describe the Irish at a dinner party of yours one time. I can’t remember them now though! Something like ‘Dark, Dishonest and Depraved’. Or maybe it wasn’t as harsh as that… Take her handy.

  8. Grant Siedle
    July 26, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    This is a very thought provoking blog as it probably strikes at the core of most of us. The saying that we are limited by our beliefs is often true. I guess the trick is finding out what it is you really believe about yourself, not what you THINK you believe about yourself.

    Some say that perception is reality. If you perceive yourself as useless, not worthy of success or happiness then that is ‘your truth’. The comments about not being a ‘real’ writer, actor etc. strike a chord with me as I seek to do several things and it is not always easy to focus and do each thing as well as I would like. That should not, however, diminish the authenticity of the effort and the enjoyment of the activity.

    I agree that we must seek to know ourselves from deeper reflection, mindfulness and clear thinking so we do in fact recognise ‘the enemy’. But, it may also be worthwhile to know ourselves as our friends and family ‘see us’ for often that objective (mostly?) ‘reality’ can be a great revealer, albeit a confronting one at times!

    Thanks again Dara for being honest, authentic and taking the time to get us all thinking about how we can lead ‘better’ lives.

    Your good friend, Grant.

    • August 3, 2014 at 10:00 pm

      Thanks G, always nice to have you engage so fully. See you round the traps…

Leave a Reply to sean devitt Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: