Have You Painted Yourself Into a Corner?

paintedintoacornerGrowing up, both sets of my grandparents were well-to-do—country club memberships, new cars every two years, large suburban houses, golf carts and lots and lots of shopping.

My parents, on the other hand, always did OK, money- and work-wise, but never cracked the ceiling of upper middle class. I could sense the tension between them — my grandparents seemed palpably disappointed that their kids hadn’t done better for themselves. My parents seemed uncomfortable when they were around my grandparents, as if they were kids on their best behavior but secretly rolling their eyes.

In my immature mind, I decided it was the fact that my grandparents were rich that was the source of all the tension.

I didn’t really think too much more about it until I was in my 40s, and I started to unspool some of my hidden beliefs about money. Having lived in New York City for 15 years, I knew I scoffed at perfectly coiffed Upper East Side women with their Birkin bags, believing my downtown neighborhood and scuffed boots to be far more desirable.

But when I looked back and saw that I had quit every job I’d ever had once I started making more money than I needed—only to start over in a slightly different field way back down the payscale—I saw how those unconscious beliefs had helped me make choices that I wasn’t fully aware that I was making. I had always told myself that I was looking for a new challenge. And in some ways, that was true, but the bedrock of those career decisions was that I wouldn’t allow myself to be one of those people.

This is what we do. We carry around these ideas that we got in our heads when we were kids and we don’t even know we’re doing it. Worse, we let those ideas harden into rules that we don’t even know we’re abiding by. And those rules can create a lot of suffering – suffering that we alone create!

Here are some examples of how your beliefs may have painted you into a corner of wanting something yet not allowing yourself to have that something:

Your belief: It’s your job to make sure everyone around you is happy.
Your conundrum: You know it’s impossible to make everyone happy all the time. And yet, the thought of displeasing anyone is paralyzing.
Your corner: You have a new project you’d like to undertake, one that you know could help people. But since it’s impossible to create something that some people won’t need or care about, you never really get around to working on it. Or if you do, you don’t tell anyone about it so that they won’t be disappointed.

Your belief: It’s not cool – or worse, not safe – to ask for what you need.
Your conundrum: You feel disconnected from and misunderstood by your partner. You know cognitively that you can’t expect him to just figure out what you want and need on his own. But because you grew up with perfectionist or manipulative parents, you know that sharing your point of view opened you up to criticism or having your mind messed with.
Your corner: You bite your tongue around your partner, vacillating between, “Why don’t you see me?” and “Don’t look at me!”

Your condition: It’s really important to be a nice person.
Your conundrum: You get so focused on being supportive to other people that you neglect taking care of your own self.
Your corner: Because you never put your needs first, you get righteously grumpy and jealous.

Got one I haven’t listed here? Share it in the comments below.

I will say this—whatever corner you’ve got yourself painted in to, it is absolutely possible to get out of it! It will take some objectivity (to be able to see what you’re really doing), some vulnerability (to admit your role in your situation) and some courage (to allow yourself to do things differently), but it can be done.

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5 thoughts on “Have You Painted Yourself Into a Corner?

  1. This is such a good exercise! Reflecting on this for 10 minutes and writing it out helped me see my situation from a truly new perspective.

    My belief: It’s not safe to stand out.

    My conundrum: I’d like to do things I enjoy and am good at, but it’s hard for me to make consistent progress. I fear being ridiculed or, even worse, falling short of the expectations of others who believe in me. Then there’s also the possibility of being successful which is also scary because then I have even more to lose as I progress.

    My corner: I don’t do much of anything. As a result, I feel frustrated, angry, and self loathing because I am not using my natural talents.

    But how can I change my belief? I would never tell a child or a dear friend that it’s not safe to stand out. I know intellectually that it isn’t true. Of course, my experience feels like it isn’t. But then again, I’ve survived every experience where it wasn’t safe to stand out. I mean, I’m alive and given some experiences that’s a gift.

    I guess changing a belief takes what it takes to get to Carnegie Hall. Practice. Practice. Practice. 🙂

    I think I’m going ask myself if I’m making a choice based on this belief more often. And maybe list worse case scenarios.

    Again, this is super helpful. Thanks Kate. Huggles!

    1. So glad it was helpful, Olivia. 🙂 I can think of a couple ways we can work on this directly, let’s definitely talk about it on our next call! It takes practice, absolutely, but it can also take a little emotional healing, which we all need from time to time. Marvin Gaye should have written that song! I do think that asking yourself if you’re making a choice based on this belief is so helpful, and then reminding yourself that the belief is just a trick of the ego to keep you small–that always helps me make a different choice. It’s kind of a “there is no spoon” moment (if you’ve seen the Matrix), it reminds me that the belief is just an illusion, and it’s safe to let that illusion fall away. xoxo

  2. I had painted myself into a corner by thinking that I must say yes to every opportunity that comes along, even though my plate was full. The result was that I was always exhausted, and never brought my full self to anything because my time was so fractured. I began to remind myself of this on a daily basis: “if you missed it, it was not for you”. This calmed my fear of missing something important/critical to my career/life….

    1. Love it, Amanda. Or, it was not the right time. Or, if it’s that important, it will come around again. Sounds like getting out of that corner of saying yes simply because it’s there will help you get to the spot where you say yes–or no–to stuff simply because if feels right in your bones (and then trusting that, so long as that requirement is met, everything else will work out, even if the things you say yes to don’t make perfect sense to an outsider). xo

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