Recognizing the judgments we all pass on ourselves, says Bonnie Friedman, is the first step to freedom.
A novelist friend of mine stopped writing fiction and confined herself to journal writing and the occasional email. I couldn’t understand it. The novel she’d published four years earlier was beautiful, masterfully composed, and delectable to read. Besides, she often indicated that not writing fiction plagued her. Why had she quit?
Over coffee she explained to me that she’d felt shame after her book was published. Some critics had been harsh, some book club readers outspokenly unsympathetic to her protagonist. To me, it didn’t add up. She’s a writer down to her core—the kind of person who is always jotting observations in her notebook. Even in a casual letter, her way of portraying the world glints with a unique sensual vision and canny, telling drama.
The day after our coffee together, it occurred to me that perhaps the shame that had subsumed my friend’s career was really a guise of her own personal verdict. We each live in our own verdict, by which I mean the story we tell ourselves about ourselves and our work and how we deserve to feel. Some people—I’m sure you’ve met them—characteristically feel good about their work. And others characteristically do not. As a professor, I have ample opportunity to observe this. I see that the verdict a person places on their work often doesn’t correlate with how good the work actually is. I am writing here about you. I want to wake you up to your own tendencies.
A person’s verdict has a life of its own, a rhythm of its own, an endurance of its own in the way bureaucracies have an endurance of their own. Whether we feel good about what we do or whether we always connect with what’s wrong with our work, we feel we’re being quite rational. This is a key aspect of our verdict; it wraps itself in reason. There is always a potent justification for why a person whose verdict is “I’m not good enough” is, at any particular time, sure he or she is warranted in feeling that way. The verdict exists before any action we take. It goes looking for reasons to incarnate itself, and when it finds one—and can’t it usually?—out it springs. This is why it’s not at all obvious to us when we are being captivated by our verdict.
I came to discover my own verdict by noticing its persistence over time, how it endures despite changes in my reality. The achievement that I am convinced will warrant me deserving of my colleagues’ respect almost instantly seems dull as soon as it is achieved, and I am back to ducking down the corridor, smiling with a sense of fraudulence at anyone who congratulates me. I am left, again, with the old hunger, the old craving. If only I can achieve that next thing—then—then how good I’ll feel! I can’t wait!
It’s easy to see someone else’s verdict but difficult to recognize one’s own—and so we live within its confines. What are you telling yourself before you wake up? What is the inner verdict by which you yourself live? Do you, like me, wait for the triumph that will decisively and permanently make you feel good? Do you, like me, wish for the success that will justify your colleagues’ respect? And do you, like me, find ways, different ways, from day to day, to banish most of whatever good feeling accrues?
Last week my friend Caroline, also a writer, had a novel accepted after ten years of being unable to publish. Finally, she said, she would have the respect of the newer, younger faculty! But a day later, she told me, “I’ve decided that publication shouldn’t be so significant to me, because, if it is, then when I don’t publish I’ll feel bad. So I’m not going to let this acceptance really matter.”
No? Was one day of joy after a decade of misery really too much?
Most interesting of all is that the verdict presents itself many, many times every day. It’s the way you feel about how long you took for lunch. It’s the way you feel after chatting with a colleague right outside the office, as you turn and begin walking away, up the pavement.
To free yourself of your verdict, you must first know what it is. Ask yourself: what is my verdict? Notice it whenever it appears. Here is your old jailor, your old fate. Shall you bring it a drink and a hassock on which to rest its feet? If it’s true, as hamlet says (echoing Montaigne, a favorite philosopher of Shakespeare’s), “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” then it’s true you are inventing your world.
It’s simple (although not easy) to make a difference in how satisfied you are in life once you discover this principle: you can change your verdict. Awareness is the first step, awareness of how we mesmerize ourselves. This is also the essence of Buddhist practice: to free yourself from the verdict that lives in you unless you wake up to it.