Charles Starrett


Blog, links, and…

Culture consultant & social tech teacher/facilitator at SoulCo & Northeastern University. He/Him. Dad, Harvard and NEC alum, visual thinker, dabbler in ukulele, electronic music, 한국어, and TTRPGs.


Why tough talk fails

A lot of self-help writers and speakers pride themselves on the power of their “tough talk.” Telling us in all different ways that we are the problem, we have the power to change our situation, and all was have to do is toughen up, make the hard choices, do the difficult work, and then we’ll get that pot of gold at the end of rainbow.

Putting aside the HUGE issue of structural discrimination, the role of luck, and other environmental factors that absolutely make things more difficult for some people and easier for others, there’s a fundamental flaw in “tough talk.”

Most of us who feel trapped and powerless in our situations know that there are things we have to do for ourselves. And yet, we also feel that for some reason we just can’t do what we know would help us get unstuck. This is one source of feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness.

Platitudes like, “find your passion and the money will follow” sound great unless the whole problem is you have no idea what your passion is. Organization methods that guarantee you can get everything done and have time left over may work for some people, but for people who are struggling with organization, the challenge is usually not that they haven’t found the right “method.” There is a deeper block that is getting in the way. And telling people who feel lonely that they “just have to get out there and meet people” is insulting.

So much of the advice in popular culture is obvious, which is why we know it already. If browbeating people into doing the obvious worked, we’d all be doing it already.

Getting out of stuck situations is often more like trying to untie a complicated knot. It’s about taking the time to look at the knot from all angles, shifting a loop here and freeing up an end there, gently and slowly working the knot looser and looser until it can come undone.

With these kinds of knots, we don’t really know how we’re going to get it untied. We have to just work the knot, bit-by-bit, shifting, freeing, and loosening until somehow, by some path, we eventually get there, and the knot is gone.

The last thing you should do is pull harder on the ends in the hopes that the knot will just break free. You’ll only make it tighter and more difficult to undo.

Sometimes, if we hit just a little bump, some “tough talk” can give us a boost to help us keep going. But when we’re dealing with a knottier, older stuck place, what we need is usually the opposite.

We need compassion. We need to slow down and acknowledge the difficult feelings so they can be felt and seen more clearly, and allowed to move through us. And we need to gently look at our situation with kind eyes to question our perception with curiosity and begin to look for possibilities. We need space and support to help us shift our focus from our feelings of helplessness and hopelessness to instead focus on how we might be able to move little-by-little until we can get unstuck.

And just like with complicated knots, we usually don’t know how we’re going to get unstuck. We have to just take it step-by-step, until we discover that we’ve finally worked ourselves free.

Applying compassion to these feelings of stuckness is not only the kinder, more humane approach, in the end, it’s also a faster and more practical approach that does less damage than the more common, self-help alternative.

But don’t take my word for it. The next time you find yourself berating yourself for repeating a habit, or not being able to make progress, try some self-compassion instead, and see what you notice.

1 September 2022

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