Slogging Through Mud

Do you ever feel like you’re working hard and getting nowhere? Two steps forward, two steps back, with maybe a trip along the way and a hard fall on your backside?

Throughout my life I’ve tried to maintain a positive, can-do attitude while battling anxiety and low self-confidence. I try and fail and try and fail and try again, and it seems I barely move forward. It’s like slogging through mud.

When I was young, I was never really good at school… or piano… or track… or BASKETBALL. (Last 30 seconds of the game. I was that girl. Granny shots if I had to make a free throw.) I never had that sweet taste of success. I’ll admit that for most of those things I didn’t really try very hard. The bar was so high. My inner critic was fierce. I mastered the internal shrug and contented myself with drawing, playing the piano when nobody was around, and communing with my German Shepherd. If my dad saw me giving up, he would just shake his head and look disappointed. My mom cushioned me with excuses.

The truth is, failing sucks. Playing the wrong note at a piano recital is like being smacked. Knowing people are laughing at you for not being able to shoot a basketball is humiliating. Giving up meant hanging on to whatever shred of dignity I felt I had left.

Then my little sister came racing up behind. What I couldn’t or wouldn’t do, she would do, and would do it better. Where did the drive come from? Why didn’t she feel the same tether holding her back that I did? And who could compete with that? I gave up trying.

My husband is like her. I watch him excel at what he does and feel his vexation at watching my two-step dance. I see my kids moving forward with an internal fortitude that gets them over the humps of wavering confidence. I see them work hard and succeed. Where does that tenacity come from?

What drives success?

Me? I’m just trying to get by and not get pulled under.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is the one Brene Brown uses as the basis for her book Daring Greatly.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” ~Theodore Roosevelt

I clung to that quote when I was a teen. I believe in it. I’ve thought of it throughout my life when I’m trying to summon courage. But it appears that the critic of which he speaks lives within my own head. She’s a tyrant, the passenger in the driver’s ed car with the extra brake pedal. Just when I think I’m cruising along just fine, I get pulled up with a jolt. “What do you think you’re doing? You’re not any good at that? Nobody will want that? If you say those things, people will shake their heads. They will laugh behind your back, or worse yet, in your face.”

I shake it off and go back to trying, but it has an effect. It’s the lingering background track of everything I do. It’s like trying to run with an extra 50 pounds. It doesn’t stop me, but it sure slows me down.

Sometimes my inner critic is reflected in the eyes of others.

Once I was running the Race for the Cure with my sister, her kids, and my kids. Running is something that brings me joy. I’m not the fastest, nor am I the slowest. Running a race with my family filled my heart. We all took off, everyone at their own pace. (No running together in this group.) I reached my young niece, who had started strong, but was now walking and crying. “It’s okay,” I consoled her as she trotted next to me. “You can walk. Just finish!”

Her reply? “They said don’t let Aunt Cathy beat you.” More tears. My heart sunk. I felt like the clown. Like the laughing stock of my family. I shrugged it off and tried to remain upbeat. I urged her to run along with me. She did, crying the whole time. And then, at the end, she took off and left me in the dust.

Those words have lingered for over 10 years now. My inner critic likes them. She reminds me of them frequently.

There was a magical period of time when my inner critic was drowned out by the cacophony of life with four kids. Those kids imbued each day with purpose and meaning and filled my life with a waterfall of love. Their I love you, Mommys in stereo pushed my inner critic aside. Their belief in me, their mom, to do great things, was all I could see and hear. As they grew into their teen years, she appeared again on the sidelines, occasionally offering commentary that I didn’t have the time to listen to.

But as life got quieter, her voice once again became clear.

Now she sits there, filing her long nails, legs crossed, the top one swaying. She flips her long, straight hair, gives me the side-eye, and with a wicked smile says, “Looks like it’s you and me.”

I’ll do my best to ignore her and keep moving forward, one sloggy step at a time

Photo by Amine M’Siouri from Pexels

Tell me about you. Do you have trouble finding success? What’s holding you back?

Have you personified your inner critic like I have? What attributes does he or she have?