The Cockroach of Motivation

[Draft-clearing again. Quite old, somewhat updated for clarity.]

Today, as I have several times this year, I told someone that I had gone on a date with that I would prefer not to see them again. Then I gave a presentation I thought could have gone better and proceeded to be horribly unproductive all day.

The first two are things that give me shivery-panic, and that I have to deliberately talk myself into doing, the third will can leave me feeling hopelessly behind (I was) and awful for days. But I mostly muddle along with Pollyanna cheer and Doing The Thing(s). And I do it with cockroaches.

Explanation via Pervocracy:

The Worst Thing In The World is a yawning chasm of failure, constantly open beneath you, and there is no describing the horror at the bottom.  You just go around with the knowledge that if you make a mistake big enough, you can fall in.  If a relationship fails, if you get fired, if you get rejected… you’ll fall into TWTITW, so you put everything you’ve goddamn got into that relationship.  You’ll try anything to keep the relationship. Because it’s literally unthinkable what will happen if it ends.

That unthinkability is how it traps you.  Because it’s like Stephen King says in Danse Macabre–knowing that there’s something horrible behind a door is terrifying.  Once you open the door, it’s ruined.  Even if it’s a really terrible thing behind that door, even if it’s a six-foot cockroach, any horror you feel is going to be mixed with relief.  “Oh, thank God, it’s just a six-foot cockroach. It could’ve been a sixty-foot cockroach.”

It resonated with me, I think because I have spent most of my adult and teenage life knowing like what many of the logical close-to-ends of my fears were, and quietly calming myself with them. Scared of doing that interview? Nah, remember that time you gave your first speech and a whole class and teacher laughed at you to your face? You survived that. Nervous about turning that guy down? Remember the one who followed you around the cafe, calling you ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’ because you said you couldn’t talk now, you had homework? You were shaky but you walked all the way home and made lunch.

And I think this is perhaps not the story I want. I want to have been strong, to have set boundaries, to have faced down the mundane scary things like bad performance reviews and the-one-who-never-called not because I was certain that worse things have happened to me, but because they were important to do. I am wary of a framing that is only about Things Could Be Worse. I want to delight in things because of how they are–not because they are better than the sixty-foot cockroach.

I am concerned that I might be training myself to spend too much time looking for the worst possible option. Is this it? What would be even worse than this? Is there a six-hundred foot cockroach I’ve forgotten about? How much of my time am I spending looking for awful eventualities?

Not only that, but I want to give myself permission to mope. I am an extraordinarily happy person by nature, but my habit of not reflecting on when things were sad or bad or disappointing means that it can take a series of badbrains days before I realize “OH, there have been a lot of horrible and distressing things in my life, perhaps I should consider those caused this.” Framing everything as “not the worst possible option!” means I don’t leave myself for space for sitting with exactly how bad the option I got was.


  1. says

    It’s pretty easy to see how harmful that train of thought can go, you know? “Sure, my partner gets extraordinarily jealous and snipes at me when I go out with other people, but at least they let me be poly.” “Yeah, so my partner calls me names, but at least they never hurt me physically.” “Well, this job is only giving me a stipend I can barely live on without any benefits, but at least it’s not unpaid.” “My parents refuse to accept my life choices and harangue me about them endlessly, but at least they’re not abusive.”

    Sometimes things could be way worse. Sometimes they still suck. Sometimes they suck enough to be intolerable and unacceptable.

    • Kate Donovan says

      Yeaaaah. I haven’t had any of the Truly Awful ones yet, but I’ve noticed a tendency to trade off my own happiness for others with this process, and I worry that I won’t notice if I end up in a situation like the ones you described.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    On the one hand, no one wants to be the Pollyanna — convincing herself that everything is just ducky and thereby skipping chances to improve things. On the other hand, the other extreme is also pretty horrible — the Lindsay Lohan / Richard Corey type person who has achieved success, perhaps with caring friends and family, and objectively has all that one might desire, yet still feels unfulfilled and empty.

    I guess the secret of happiness is that if it was easy, then everyone would be doing it? At any rate, we must strive to thread the needle.

  3. Oob says

    Interesting, but I’ve got a different problem. I just don’t act, or know how to. I get an idea, think it’s a good idea, and am not afraid of failure or anything, but then I lay down on my bed for 4 hours literally doing NOTHING.

    How do you go from being motivated to taking the actual steps? That’s the pill I want made.

    • Kate Donovan says

      If you’re asking as a “do you have resources and how-tos” I can completely deluge you in links. If you’re mostly asking rhetorically, then I have many nods of ‘those feels’ and sympathy.

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