I remember precisely the first time I was nice to myself. It was a spring morning last year, and I slept past my alarm. I was particularly sensitive to sleeping in at the time because, having just left the Navy, I was determined to maintain the sense of discipline it had demanded of me. Most of the skills I had acquired – shooting, skydiving, scuba diving, standing around for hours – wouldn’t transfer very well into my life as a veteran in the civilian world. All I could take with me would be the abstract lessons: be on time, be brave, look after your buddies. So when I first stirred in my Tempur-Pedic queen-size bed to find the sun streaming through my window at an angle that indicated a time way later than I was hoping for, I was livid.
I jumped out of bed and started furiously making it in a desperate attempt to recover lost time. As I threw my sheets around like a bullfighter I cussed and called myself names, which I tend to do when I fail at something. “You piece of sh*t, what do you think you’re doing? You’re nothing, you’re useless, you just got fired, and now you can’t even pull your sorry ass out of bed after a good night’s sleep. You used to go days without sleep and now you can’t even wake up to your alarm. Do you think you can just sleep your way through the rest of your pathetic life?”
That morning, I listened to the self-talk that was going on in my head and asked myself: “Would I want to work for a boss who talked to me like that?” It seemed that my ‘aspirational’ self had been little more than a bully goading me along, forcing me to do the things I didn’t want to do. If I was ‘good’ and acted tough I wouldn’t hear those things, but if I was ‘bad,’ and succumbed to the softness of my human nature, I’d let myself have it. My identity had become so intertwined with my performance that the smallest failure was a slight to my own self-worth as a person. My only means of motivation seemed to be a distillation of every sadistic drill instructor and supervisor I’d ever encountered. That morning — the moment I realized that — me and myself had a talk.
The problem was that the initiative and self-control I had learned in the Navy was just an illusion. They said: Here’s where you live, here’s what you wear, here’s where you go, when you go, what you do, how to do it — otherwise you’re worthless. And all I had to say was: okay. There was a comforting absolution in knowing that decisions were not mine to make and responsibilities were not mine to bear and all I had to do was grit my teeth and follow through. But jumping out of bed at 4 a.m. to don body armor and walk through the desert with a grenade launcher and a med bag wasn’t born of forethought and aspiration, but of obedience. Necessity isn’t discipline.
So what do I do now? You might be expecting me to say I take it easier on myself and practice self-care. If so, I’m sorry I misled you — I wake up earlier and go to bed later than I ever did. I’m grateful for the perspective that my past outlook gave me because of the hardships it helped me overcome and the toughness it showed me I can muster when I need to, but now I do it because I have something I believe in. I have a reason to be uncomfortable that extends beyond my own need for self-assurance: to put smiles on other people’s faces, help them stand taller, be prouder and feel ever so slightly less alone. This is my new version of discipline — removed from any imminence of punishment or reward and fueled by purpose. I don’t need to be nice or mean to myself, I just need to have meaning.
Contact Nestor Walters at waltersx ‘at’ stanford.edu.