I Eat Vegetables. I’m Not a Vegetarian
I have found myself speaking this statement quite often these days to my clients to illustrate a point about our habitual thinking that is important and yet is often easily overlooked, and as a result, it has created a lot of confusion and suffering.
Kathy scheduled an early morning phone consultation with me. When I called her at the scheduled hour, I could hear her footsteps. She was walking fast outside somewhere. It was another Vancouver rainy day.
Kathy told me that she just left another job–or, more accurately, was let go by another employer. As I listened to her talk of her problems, her words came out as fast as her footsteps. I asked her, trying to slow her down, “What would you like to work on through hypnotherapy?”
“Something is in my way, and is causing me to self-sabotage. I’m not reacting in the most constructive ways. Maybe there are deep-seated things from my past. I’m trapped. I need to find a job. Or maybe I should go on with a new direction. There is so much fear. Of course, we need to work on procrastination. Should I move to another city? Should I get some other training, to have a new career? Since I work in a male-dominated profession, sometimes I wonder if I’m good enough. There’s this imposter syndrome to work on for sure. I can’t decide so we may need to work on the indecisiveness…”
I knew in the 30-minute phone consultation we couldn’t really do any therapy work. I wouldn’t either. It is meant to be an opportunity for prospective clients to get to know me a little, for them to ask any questions they have so that they can decide if they want to work with me or not. And it’s also an opportunity for me to ask them questions to help me decide if they are people I can help. But Kathy was different, she didn’t have any questions for me. It seemed she just wanted to dive into the issues right away. Or maybe the timing was such that she desperately needed to verbalize her thoughts to organize them.
As Kathy was walking and talking through her jammed-up thoughts, I heard her asking, “What’s your next available appointment time?”
I replied, delightfully for her, that I had a spot available the next day.
But that was not good enough for Kathy. She asked, “What about today? Can I come today?”
I usually can’t and don’t do same-day scheduling. But that day I just happened to have a slot open between two other appointments, so I glanced at my office clock and said yes to an appointment in one hour. Maybe Kathy didn’t really have a “problem of procrastination”?
Kathy is an engineer, working in a profession dominated by men. To make the matter even more challenging for her, she is a very emotional person. Even on the phone, she was already in tears talking about one of her many “problems”–avoidance behaviour.
Upon arriving, Kathy said, “I’m not handling uncertainty very well. That’s probably the core of my problem.”
One thing Kathy was good at, I thought to myself, was mental health self-diagnosis. She piled up all the labels for her problems very quickly.
And I knew Kathy was feeling stuck because she needed to decide what to do next. Yet she had many regrets from the past. Her two previous jobs didn’t end well because of her emotions and reactions. She needed new tools for communicating at work. We might also need to go back in time and find the emotional pain that could be the cause of her reactivity, while at the same time, build trust with her inner ability to move forward.
I said to Kathy, “The future is forever uncertain, for everyone. Acknowledging it makes it easier to handle. People can have an illusion of certainty, but spouses change their minds, workplaces lay people off, stock markets go down and lots of money gets lost… When things like this happen, it’s harder for people who think they have certainty outside of themselves, than it is for people who embrace uncertainties.”
“Then how do I know what I’m deciding is right for me?”
“When it feels right now, for you, that’s the only thing you can know. There’s that quality of excitement. It makes you feel more passionate about it. The excitement or passion is that inner light, shining on the path of your future–the path that is made dark by uncertainty. But your passion is your flashlight on the path.”
Talking about passion, Kathy got visibly excited. I remembered in our phone consultation, she also spoke of bringing art to the engineering world. But then she turned to her self-assessment again, “I think another problem I have is that I take my work too seriously, and I get more emotional about it than I should.”
“There is no need to turn everything we talk about now into another problem you have. You seem prone to taking on too much into your identity. If you don’t like what you do, don’t do it. There’s no need to turn it into another problem to solve. Otherwise, we’ll need a long therapy journey together.”
Kathy nodded her head.
“Now,” I continued, on the direction of the conversation she had just touched upon, “when you say you take your work too seriously, did I hear you say that you’d like to feel more at-ease with it, to take it as it is and not more seriously than it has to be?”
“I feel it’s kind of push and pull. I’m an environmental engineer. I work on climate change. I don’t have a family, nor a partner. Work has been a priority for me. So, on one hand, I want to take it seriously. There really is no better thing to take seriously. I really have no problem being dedicated to my work. I actually want that to be my purpose. But then I come up against limiting beliefs.”
“What are they?” I asked.
“On the flip side, some of the other narratives in my head, are: ‘You are not good enough.’ ‘You talk too much.’ ‘You are a woman.’ ‘You don’t know how to interact with men in this male-dominated profession.’ There’s some imposter syndrome and all the things that make it hard for a woman to lead.”
“It sounds to me that the confusion comes from the two ideas: One is what I do. The other is who I am.”
“What do you mean?” Kathy asked.
“What I mean is that what you do is not who you are. When you confuse the two, you go back and forth and flip sides all the time, trying to find either one side or the other to guide your life, but your life needs both to be there.”
“Which means…?” Kathy became more curious.
“Which means, you are a woman with passion and ideas and leadership and beautiful emotions. And you need to learn some skills to interact in your specific field and workplace. But what you do does not define you. You just define yourself first.”
When we don’t know ourselves, we try very hard to find a self through what we do. Finding a self-identity through what we do is a journey of difficulty and suffering, because we need always rely on others–their acknowledgment and approval–so that we can be someone.
People don’t need to eat vegetables to just prove they are vegetarians. Even though I eat vegetable, a lot, it still doesn’t “qualify” me to be a vegetarian, but just because I am not called a “vegetarian”, doesn’t mean I can’t eat vegetables. Identity in other words is a changing concept, that’s the uncertainty part.
Since it’s uncertain, it’s actually freedom. People can freely identify themselves as anything in their own minds.
I am a master of minds.
Because I say so.
You may agree or not. Feel free.
But that paradox is written at the entrance to Apollo’s temple at Delphi in Greece where we read, “Know thyself.”
How can someone know the self when we are constantly changing and redefining ourselves as we go through life? It is through defining yourself, not conceptually, but intentionally embodying and becoming who you choose to be.
Then there will be no doubt and confusion. You choose to do what you want and how you want it, to take whatever seriously or not. When you step in and embody your true self, hearing with your own ears, seeing with your own eyes, feeling with your own heart, and thinking clearly with your own mind, then you are able to accept other people for who they are and those around you will feel seen, heard, and understood. That’s how you become the leader that you already are, in your own way, in your own life.
Life is a journey of self-realization, is it not?
Kathy told me it was “a hitting the nail on the head moment” for her. “Actually I’m driven to take my work seriously.” She started to giggle.
“Yes. Why not? But don’t derive your self-worth or self-identity from that. Just make sure ‘who I am’ and ‘what I do’ are two different things. Decide who you are first. And choose to do whatever.”