The truth is that you make me feel inadequate. All of you who read this blog and that I interact with regularly on Twitter and elsewhere. It’s a bit like graduate school all over again with my split high school experience and experience in an almost-open enrollment state college education. I spent the first two years of high school in Purcellville, VA preparing for the vocational program in printing. While I took the regular curriculum, I also took lots of shop, as in each and every semester, and at least one time, twice in a semester. Because this was a rural high school in the foothills of Blue Ridge Mountains, there was an entire vocational agriculture focused sequence in shop classes.
When my mother and stepfather divorced during my sophomore year, I made the decision to move to Missouri to live with my father and stepmother. Vo-tech was pretty much taken off the table and I was enrolled into the college prep track. Fortunately, I wasn’t actually behind in terms of classes and experiences. But I also hadn’t really been intellectually challenged and my reading list was on the non-classical side. Dad and Teresa had thoughtfully provided me a reading list, in the form of a shelf of carefully selected books. Unfortunately, I only read about half the shelf and most of what I left unread were the Western Civilization canon. This may be a good thing in that I am not overly-steeped in just one sliver of the world’s thought and philosophy.
College was no different. Entering as a physics and math double major, and adding a military science minor through ROTC, I drifted through the English and literature courses the first year, with the required history, doing enough to get by. Usually at the last moment. In other words, quite a number of late nights spent over an electric Smith-Corona typewriter.
When I returned to college after my sabbatical in the Army, I was much more interested in the arts and humanities. And social science. Picking up the required political science and sociology courses would have life-changing had I taken sociology sooner. As it was, I was too deep into learning to paint and craft jewelry to seriously consider changing majors.
So, why do I feel inadequate? Too often I spend time googling stuff I think I should know from philosophy, learning theory, and communication. It reminds of the doctoral program and my fellow students in the public policy program talking about all these damn philosophers that I primarily knew from Monty Python‘s Philosophers Song and a bunch of silly stuff that really didn’t seem relevant to urban development, policy analysis, and all the quantitative stuff we did. It wasn’t silly, but I just didn’t have the time to add all that stuff my to reading pile while being an occasional husband and the father of two young boys with special needs.
I did notice that my fellow students didn’t really seem to know how to do much of anything outside the classroom or library. After three years in the Army and four in the Army Reserve, plus two years running a museum frame shop, I could do stuff. Not to mention all those shop classes in high school. So, I figured I would just learn to do anything and everything of interest, because as much as I liked the intellectual life, the required readings were enough and I can’t always sit still.
Besides, I could always say, “What, you can’t do this? Oh, okay. Go back to talking.” (Not really a nice person focused on building relationships.)
This was the beginning of my life’s journey into counter-dependency, with a focus on the omnipotence aspect. Leastways, it is what I am calling the beginning. It’s not the source, but probably about the time I started weaponizing competence. The Wikipedia entry is pretty horrifying to my mind, but it also represents the extreme or full manifestation:
Counterdependency is the state of refusal of attachment, the denial of personal need and dependency, and may extend to the omnipotence and refusal of dialogue found in destructive narcissism, for example. (Wikipedia)
I mean, I’m not that bad. Unfortunately, I can see who I am in both links, especially the first one with its multiple bullet points:
Then there is the inner world of a counterdependent. With a childhood that often left them to fend for themselves emotional (see causes, below) a counterdependent can have a tumultuous mind, including:
- being oversensitive to criticism of others even as they often criticise
- often hard on themselves, hate making mistakes
- suffer an inner soundtrack of intense self-criticism
- don’t relax easily
- can experience shame if they feel needy
- see vulnerability as weakness
- secretly suffer feelings of loneliness and emptiness
- might have difficulty remembering childhood
Yeah, a number of these ring true. The whole concept of “vulnerability as weakness” uhmm, well, yeah, that’s the just kind of confusing, right? To be vulnerable is to be capable of being wounded and isn’t that a form of weakness? Well, I guess not, at least as far as Merriam-Webster defines weakness, but shucks, it’s the way I always did, or at least one way I did. A friend had shared this link of Brené Brown’s TED Talk on The Power of Vulnerability and I found it quite helpful in understanding what vulnerability means and how it can be a good thing as it allows one to be open and to begin to truly connect with others. It was after listening to that talk that my writing on this blog began to change away from the obscurities of my humor to trying to make a connection with readers. (And by the way, in case it has not occurred to you yet, this post is taking a huge step into the abyss of vulnerability. It will be hard to pull the trigger and publish it.)
Back to inadequacy. I have spent much of my life camouflaging my feelings of inadequacy with super-competence across a range of activities. I have tried to learn to do anything and everything I want. Along the way I learned that there are things I am not particularly good at it, things I don’t think I will ever be good at. On the other hand, when I became an art major my father’s response was “An art major? Tod, you’ve never shown any talent or ability!” Completely true. Did not stop me at all, nor did it keep me from being successful as an art major (“Outstanding Art Student, 1988”), and I produced some good work.
The Wilderness, Tod Massa, 1989
Along the way I have learned plumbing, cabinetry, furniture-making, general wood frame construction, roofing, welding, electrical work, a dozen programming languages, homebrewing, soapmaking, cheesemaking, golf, flatwater and ocean kayaking, shooting (sport and otherwise), automotive work (something I am not good at, especially major automotive work), lightweight (not quite ultralight) backpacking, sewing, tailoring, hair coloring, luthering (something else I am not good at), banjo, farming, including raising small critters and poultry, and all sorts of things that pull combinations of these skills together (such as building a highly efficient fermentation chamber with heating and refrigeration). You could drop me off in the middle of nowhere and I would probably be just fine because I can even make my own tools.
It’s a bit addictive. One can start filling on the odds and ends of time with doing stuff and learning stuff and keep human engagement to a minimum. It’s kind of pleasant. But I am not supposed to say that as I need to think more positively about human engagement and relationships. It is hard to change a lifetime of thinking.
These days I am shedding. I am taking careful inventory of the stuff I have and the things I want to do and I am working to reduce those to two or three things that I will do regularly. Everything else is being sold, donated, or held to be given to Zach when he has the space.
See, I don’t feel like there is much I do really well, so I will focus a bit more on the things I continue to do. More importantly, I will focus more on building, strengthening relationships through openness and vulnerability. This will be hard work for me as it is much easier to hide behind doing things. Working with dangerous objects in my hands is a good way to avoid talking in any depth. I will screw up along the way, so please be patient and forgiving. I know that I will screw up because I have made a lifetime’s work of failing at stuff just to keep learning and keep trying, and to justify the ongoing internal self-criticism. (Wow. That just occurred to me. What a self-perpetuating cycle!)
A final thought. When I was thinking through some of these things the other day, I put on my public policy hat and wondered if anyone had thought to view relationships through the lens of Herbert Simon’s theory of “satisficing” which is to accept a non-optimal solution in favor of forgoing the cost and effort of pursuing the optimal solution. Sure enough, the Google Gods return a variety of answers on the first page from Psychology Today article and prior versions of the same that refer back to a 2002 study. The authors makes satisficing sound to be the ideal model for relationships. It’s an interesting line to pursue in another post and it recalls what a co-worker once said, “Employees are like stepchildren – they may not be the children you want, but they are the children you have at the moment.” (Fortunately, that person has not been a co-worker for many years.)
That’s the story of my inadequacy. This is being vulnerable. There’s not actually anything wrong with being able to do lots of things. The problem is when the doing gets in the way of being and gets in the way of relationships. So, I will try to do less, and be more.