20 years or so ago—when me and all my girlfriends were about 20 years younger—we were making families, working on our relationships, building our reputations, and going to therapy. Therapy was a way to sort things out—staying or going, how to learn patience, wondering if you’re crazy. Therapy gave me a lot of ideas for just plain getting along.
One of the things that I learned in therapy that helped me a lot was an idea about how all children have problems, real and imaginary. As children, we develop the very best tools we can to deal with them. Little people invent little tools, even for big problems, and sometimes stick with those tools, even if they don’t work, because those are the best tools they can come up with. By the time we become adults, using those tools and not expecting them to be effective is a habit. It’s not unusual, in the face of a familiar type of problem, for people to use those familiar tools that never work harder, and faster. Kind of like hitting a stuck nail with a bigger screwdriver.
You try to unpack all that by looking at your knee-jerk reactions to things. What you do when someone else gets mad. How you respond to advice. What you think is funny. You start to see some patterns. They show you how you shoot yourself in the foot. Then, with some combination of pep talks and reflection, you “work on” yourself, try to get a set of behaviors, or tools, that will bring you more satisfaction.
Now I don’t want to make light of this process, because it’s served me well, but by now I’ve come to a point where I’m just going to have to be good enough and do whatever it is I’m doing with the tools I’ve got. It’s time to accept that these tools are part of who I am, especially the ones I’ve had since I was two.
If it seems like everybody has tools that I lack, I have a little pep talk I give myself about how that’s a sign that I’m unique. Embrace your faults, I say, and use that information to stay out of trouble. Appreciate your friends. Be satisfied with what you do, admire it even. It makes me think about a round of applause for the life I’ve cobbled together with my oddball toolbox.
Which is not to say that I don’t believe in self-improvement. But nowadays, instead of working on my personality, I’m working on my attitude.