In the wonderful story of the Wizard of Oz, the Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man each fantasize how much better their lives would be if they only had courage, intelligence and compassion, respectively. They perceive themselves to be lacking in these personality traits and thereby woefully limited in their ability to function and fully enjoy life. By the end of the movie they realize, fortunately, that they were looking at it all wrong. They weren’t lacking or deficient in anything. They had been living in accordance with a myth that says some people just have certain virtuous qualities and some don’t. And if you don’t, you’re doomed.

Be wary of the phrase, “Type of person who  . . . “

Sadly, this myth is still alive and well today. The myth is manifested, and rehearsed, every time we say “I’m just the type of person who . . . “ followed by some negative personal attribution. Some classics are, “I’m just the type of person who . . .  has no patience and is impulsive; has no motivation and is lazy; has no self-esteem and is inferior; has no courage and is weak; is not compassionate and is coldhearted.” We wish that we were different, but we resign ourselves to believing that this is just the way we are and these are the reasons why we can’t move forward in life.

Nouns and verbs

Are we sure these are qualities that some people have and others don’t? Or is it possible that they are sometimes more reflective of things that people choose to do or not do? Grammatically, we tend to think of such personality traits—patience, motivation, self-esteem, courage and compassion—as nouns, things some people have. But what if we focused more on the corresponding verbs, the actions some people take. Then we would be talking about choosing to slow down and wait, to get up and go, to treat ourselves with respect, to face challenges head on and to show more empathy.

We are what we believe

The problem may be twofold. First, we believe that we were not born with or raised to have enough of a certain trait. Second, we believe that said trait is a prerequisite for acting in the desired way. If I don’t have any patience, how can I slow down and wait? How can I push myself if I don’t feel motivated? How can I treat myself respectfully if I have low self-esteem? How can I do things that are scary if I don’t have any courage? How can I relate with tenderness if I’m not an emotional person?

It is true that we have not all been dealt the same deck of cards. Nature and nurture both may make choosing to act in these healthy ways legitimately more difficult for some than others. Some may be born with a certain nervous system which makes it harder for them to slow down. Some may suffer from a significant depression which makes it a challenge to get out of bed. Some may have been raised to see themselves as not good enough. Some may have traumatic histories which make facing fears extremely difficult. And some may not have been taught how to tune in to the feelings of others.

“I Can’t” vs “It’s Hard”

We can’t change our biological makeups and we can’t undo bad things that happened to us or childhoods that affected our personalities and the way we relate to ourselves and the world. The good news is that we don’t need to change those things. For sure, such misfortunes can make it more difficult for us to make healthier choices, but they need not prevent us from getting better at it. In the end, it’s about the difference between “I can’t” versus “It’s really hard.”

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Photo by Luke Tanis on Unsplash