“Think differently about yourself today than you did yesterday.”
“We should weave more of the actor into our lives.”
A sculptor told me that for most of her life she considered herself average in every way. She was never the worst in anything, and never the best either. But when she stopped conceiving of herself as an average sculptor and conceived of herself as exceptional, she became exceptional and met one goal after another and had success after success. No longer considering herself average, she did what exceptional artists do–she took her art more seriously, became more ambitious and more conscientious, worked harder and learned all she could about sculpting and sculptors—took more classes, went to workshops, read. She made it a point to develop relationships with other artists and people in the field. And no longer average, her art quickly became less inhibited and freer and bolder. Her confidence grew every day, and her art came out of her more effortlessly and was of a higher quality. She gained the reputation as the hardest worker among her artist friends, and as a very bright and determined, successful woman. No one thinks of her as average.
When I was a business consultant, I once consulted with a company that had a rule that no one from one unit was to visit another unit during working hours. Signs to that effect were posted everywhere. Faced with such a ridiculous rule, the first thing people with any imagination will do is what you would do if you are an artist—they break it. But in this company you had to be very careful. Wherever you went you heard people whispering, “Whatever you do, don’t get caught out of your unit.”
Your self-concept is lot like that rule. It is like a miniature judge sitting vigilantly and unforgivingly on your shoulder, its eyes wide open, continually telling you like that company rule: “Be careful. Don’t get caught out of my definition of the kind of person you are, the kind of artist or writer you are, and of what you’re capable of and what you aren’t.” If you’re living inside a self-concept that limits your art because it is the wrong self-concept (“you’re average, not exceptional”), you’re up against a major inner obstacle that directly affects the quality of your work—your paintings, your stories, your poetry–and your ability to produce it. When you rid yourself of a limiting self-concept you’ll see other obstacles in you disappear. They will melt away.
We don’t just hold our inner views of ourselves in our mind as if they are some kind of internal ornament. No, we act as if they really are not just an opinion we’ve formed of ourselves, but the Gods-honest truth, as if they are accurate representations of ourselves. That’s the law of consistency–our self-concept and our actions are ordinarily consistent. All of your actions, and even your abilities in any area, including your art, tend to be consistent with it. We do what it tells us we can do, and shy away from what it tells us we can’t. The sculptor fashioned a new “exceptional” concept of herself and her exceptional actions became consistent with it.
The Ubiquitous “I Ams,” “I’m Nots,” and “I Can’ts”
You create and then maintain your self-concept by characterizing yourself in particular ways. You do that in the “I ams” you use when thinking or talking about yourself–“I am a generous person,’ or “I am clumsy.” And you shape it also by the “I am nots” you habitually use: “I’m not an affectionate person.” And there are “I cans” that you use when thinking or talking about your capabilities: “I can ride a bike, drive a car, and draw a lovely landscape.”
“I’m nots” lead to “I can’ts.” “Since I’m not A, I’ll never be able to do B.” “Since I’m not X, naturally I can’t do Y.” “I’m not a person who’s good with numbers, so I can’t help my daughter with her math.”
When under hypnosis, a timid man who’s afraid of public speaking is told and believes that he’s a confident public speaker, he is changed instantly. He speaks like an orator. He becomes what he’s told he is. His “I can’ts” disappear. Now he can. Under hypnosis we can do amazing things. We can become convinced we’re powerful and strong. Then we are able to lift heavy objects that we normally couldn’t lift. But what has really happened? Our physical strength hasn’t increased. We have merely lifted the limits we had been placing on that ability. In essence the hypnosis did not take place when we were told we could do things we didn’t believe we could. The hypnosis was taking place all the time that we believed that we did not have these abilities.
We have hypnotized ourselves into believing our self-concept—this inaudible voice in us–is reality. We’ve hypnotized ourselves into believing that we are like this when we could have been something else all along, could have been a thousand other types of persons all along, had we hypnotized ourselves differently. We created a fictional idea of ourselves, and then came to believe that idea, and then acted as if it were true when all along it was just an idea, just a notion. If we’ve hypnotized ourselves into a limiting self-concept, it’s our job now is to de-hypnotize ourselves. And that we can do.
The moment you de-hypnotize yourself and think of yourself as being something else is the moment you’re on your way to being it. A woman I know never thought of herself as a particularly good mother, but one day at the playground a woman she didn’t know said to her, “I’ve been watching you playing with your children these last weeks and wanted to tell you what a perfect mother you are.” That changed her concept of herself; “I am a good mother after all.”
Research demonstrates that as soon as people start thinking, “I am creative” instead of “I’m not creative” their creativity increases, even in a matter of minutes, and sometimes phenomenally. I’ve seen that happen hundreds of times with people of all ages from all walks of life. A group of people are given a problem to solve. They are graded and the person who graded them expresses disappointment, and says, “I really thought you’d come up with more creative solutions because I know you are very, very creative people.” Then they are asked to work on the problem again, this time developing solutions that are creative, being reminded that “My expectations of you are high because you are very creative people.”
A few minutes later they turn in their solutions and the solutions are more creative. Something miraculous has happened. The problem-solvers have abandoned their old self-concept that they hypnotized themselves into believing and have taken another which they needed in order to solve the problem creatively. The creativity that was in them all along waiting to be ignited shined through once they changed their self-concept. They have learned that they are creative after all. When an artist reaches a plateau, and doesn’t progress, it may be because his self-concept needs to be changed.
Two Strategies for Overcoming a Limiting Self-Concept
There are two methods you can use to free yourself from a limiting self-concept. One, you can change it. You can do that by trading it for another that you intentionally create that’s more beneficial, more to your liking, and that serves you better. Or, two, you can do without any self-concept at all. You do that by attending solely to the actions that life presents to you which are right there, right in front of you at every moment that need attending to. You pay no attention to this concept of yourself or that one. You pay no attention to yourself at all, but only to what needs to be done right now.
Strategy I–The Storekeeper and the Thief: Trading in your Old Self-Concept
In Japan in the nineteenth century, storekeepers were considered lily-livered cowards and weaklings. One storekeeper became sick and tired of that reputation. To prove that it was totally false he took lessons at a martial arts dojo. He devoted himself religiously and after some years he became an expert.
After closing his shop late one night, the storekeeper and his wife started home down the dark streets. They had just turned a corner when a man holding a knife stepped out of the shadows and ordered the storekeeper to hand over his money.
At first he refused, but when the thief charged him, growling, “You miserable merchant, I’ll cut you to pieces,” the storekeeper lost his courage, fell to his knees, and began to tremble with fear.
Suddenly his wife cried out, “You’re not a storekeeper, you’re an expert in the martial arts.”
The storekeeper turned his head and looked at his wife. “Yes,” he said, “I am.”
He stood, a warrior now, totally fearless, completely calm. He let out a powerful katzu, “battle shout,” and leaped at the thief. He defeated him easily in a matter of seconds.
Strategy II–The Teaman and the Ronin: Doing Without a Self-Concept
In feudal Japan, a servant, a poor practitioner of chado, the Way of tea, unwittingly insulted a ronin, a masterless samurai. Outraged, the ronin challenged the servant to a duel.
“I’m not a warrior,” the teaman said, “and I’m very sorry if I offended you. I certainly didn’t mean to. Please accept my apology.”
But the ronin would have none of it. “We meet at dawn tomorrow,” he said, and as was customary he handed the terrified teaman a sword. “Go practice,” said the ronin.
The teaman ran to the home of a famous sword master and told him the terrible thing that had happened.
“A unique situation,” the sword master said. “For you will surely die. The thing I might be able to help you with is isagi-yoku, the art of dying well.”
While they talked, the teaman prepared and poured tea. The masterful way he did it caught the eye of the sword master. He slapped his knee and said, “Forget what I just told you. Put yourself into the state of mind you were in as you prepared the tea and you can win this fight.”
The teaman was shocked. The sword the ronin had given him was the first he had ever held. “What state of mind?”
“Were you thinking ‘I’m a teaman?’ ” asked the master.
“No. I wasn’t thinking at all.”
“That’s it!” The sword master laughed. “Tomorrow draw your sword and hold it high over your head, ready to cut your opponent down. Don’t think you’re a teaman or that you’re a swordsman. Just listen. When you hear him shout, strike him down.”
The next morning the ronin appeared on the field and the teaman immediately raised his sword overhead, his eyes on the ronin, his ears waiting for the battle cry.
The ronin too raised his sword and stood staring at the teaman. Then he saw the determination in the teaman’s eyes and said, “I cannot beat you.” He sheathed his sword and walked away.
The teaman had taken an alternative to changing his self-concept. He didn’t exchange one concept of himself for another. He didn’t change, “I’m just a teaman and not a warrior, so how can I hope to beat this trained ronin?” to “I am a good fighter.” He forgot about having any self-concept at all. He just did what life called on him to do—be prepared to strike the ronin down.
If I am a painter applying Strategy II, I do not replace the thought, “I’m an average painter” with “I’m a great painter.” I just pick up the brush and without any self-concept at all, just use all my skill and paint.
Strategies: Change or Do Without
- Define your artist or writer current self-concept. What is it? It’s helpful to write an essay titled, “My Current Self-Concept.” It can be a paragraph or twenty or more pages–as long as you want. What do you say and think about yourself that begins, “I am,” “I’m not,” “I can,” and “I can’t”?
- Design a more beneficial self-concept to your own specifications. Describe in writing what you want it to be. If you want to change it you should have in mind what you want to change it to.
- Start with the realization that you don’t have to be any particular way. You don’t have to have the opinion of yourself that you do now. You can change it, and by changing it you will change your entire life. Or you can force it to change by stepping out of it and acting differently, even in a way it would never expect you to.
- Wholeheartedly believe in your new opinion of yourself. As soon as you see yourself in a different light and believe completely what you now see, you instantly change.
- Remember that all behavior is an act, a performance, and you can learn to be a good actor. You can author a new play with a new part for yourself. The first part of the word “action” is “act.” We should weave more of the actor into our lives. Act as if you can and you are when you feel you can’t and you’re not. Do that for an “I can’t” and “I’m not” and you’ll prove to yourself that you can and you are. Do that time and again.
- Be careful what you say to yourself. You are what you are because you keep telling yourself you are. When you stop telling yourself you are, you change.
- Replace every “I just can’t” that is holding you back with a determined, “I can.” Stop telling yourself nonsense. Don’t tell yourself that you’re fated to be in the future what you’ve been in the past. Don’t think so much and tell yourself that there are forty-four things–or one hundred and forty- four things– that could go wrong. Think differently about yourself today than you did yesterday.
- Do what you want to do without any self-concept at all. Just turn your attention outward. Act as if you already are the way you want to be. Act as if you’re brave and you are brave, act as if you are a person of action and you are, act decisively and you are, act confidently and you’re confident, etc. Act that way consistently, at every opportunity, without any exceptions, moment by moment. Become what you want to be.
- Absorb yourself in the action and not in yourself. Don’t think of anything else but the action. Don’t say to yourself that you are one way or the other, a good artist or a bad artist, courageous when facing life’s setbacks or cowardly, shy or outgoing, self-doubting or confident, happy or unhappy, discouraged or confident. Just put all concepts of yourself aside with no thoughts whatsoever of yourself and do what at every moment is right there in front of you to be done. Let no inner view of yourself get in the way.
- Take no thought of any “I am,” or “I cant’s,” or “I’m nots,” and don’t concern yourself with “What great things will happen if I succeed,” or worry about, “What bad things will happen if I fail.” Don’t worry about anything. Don’t struggle to protect your inner view of yourself: “Oh, no, I could never do that. I’m not good at that kind of thing. I would be embarrassed if I tried and failed.” Every moment and every day and all lifelong just turn your thoughts away from yourself and back to the matter at hand.
- Bloom like a flower. A flower is not a flower all its life. It starts as a seed and becomes a flower. Every moment affords you the opportunity to set your life out in a new direction and grow into the artist you have the potential to be.
© 2015 David J. Rogers
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