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There is no magic key

I swear, this is actually good news.

So much of our anxiety about other people and external goals comes from the power we think they have to make us feel better, to make it easier to live inside our own skins.

When we believe that something so crucial is under the control of something outside ourselves, we have no sense of internal security or calm. How could we? In the first place, we are desperate to identify and perform whatever behavior will elicit the relationship or reward we think will make us feel better. In the second place, because other people have the power to dispense this magic cure (or not), we can't actually guarantee that we get it. There is no way to be sure, because it's not us that holds the keys and calls the shots.

But just because we know can't control the outcome doesn't mean we don't think we can affect it, by doing the right things or making people like us or never dropping the ball. So we spin out in hyper-vigilance about every aspect of our performance, worrying that it's not good enough to merit our finally getting the chance to feel worthy and good. We believe we can fuck up AT ANY TIME and lose access to the magic key forever if we make one wrong move. No wonder we freak out over every unanswered text or curt email.

Now imagine, instead, that we really knew for sure that the other person or prize or salary or whatever wouldn't provide us with the magic key, because there is no magic key.

Note: that doesn't mean that we can't feel better inside our own skins, or that we always have to feel like we're not worthy or good enough.

But it does mean that any change in how we feel about those things has to come from the inside out. There's no external reward or prize or praise that can get us there.

This can be an incredibly freeing realization, once you get over the outrage and dismay. For one thing, once you really believe that nothing outside of you will change how you feel about yourself, your relationship to tasks, goals, even other people changes dramatically.

Rather than implicitly asking, "Will this human or task or goal make me feel lovable or worthy?" you start asking things like, "Do I think it would be interesting to spend some of my finite time on this planet on this task or with this person?"

The importance of the rewards for your actions falls dramatically, while your experience of the process of taking the actions becomes way more important. You stop dashing for the finish line and you start looking around at all the interesting stuff along the way. You stop feeling so compulsive, and you start feeling much more calm.

And that calm becomes the beginning of feeling better in a deeper and more lasting way. Knowing there isn't a magic key, it turns out, is the first step toward not actually needing one.

Get started in five minutes

To start thinking beyond the "magic key" approach to goals, try this: 1. Think about something you are anxious about coming out "the right way". It could be someone texting you back, making some art, getting a raise, someone forgiving you, whatever.

2. Write down how you think you'll get to think and feel about yourself if you get the outcome you desire.

3. Then set a timer for three minutes. Write down a list of evidence you already have from your life that what you wrote about yourself in #2 is true. Challenge yourself to put at least five items on the list.

4. Then spend two minutes asking your brain to contemplate the following:

  • If external rewards or validation could provide the magic key, wouldn't it have worked when you got all that evidence from #3?

  • What if you just decided that #2 was true right this minute? How might that change your relationship to the outcome chose in #1?


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