The Internal Whac-a-Mole Game
Have you ever played this game at an arcade or children’s pizza place? Large, plastic moles pop out of a cabinet and you try to whack them with a soft mallet. From either perspective–the player’s or the mole’s—it can seem like a futile and frustrating existence. If you’re the player, another mole pops up the second you successfully whack one. And, if you’re the mole, the second you get to see the light of day, you get whacked back down (well, unless I’m the player, in which case, you can probably just watch me giggle at my own ineptitude).
In my internal Whac-a-Mole game, I’m both the player and the mole. I feel like I need to put in lots of effort to do things perfectly (the mole part), but then, I also feel like it’s not safe to achieve things, so my internal mechanism cuts down whatever I’ve worked hard to do well (the player part). I can see you cringing…it’s not pretty, is it?
To be more clear, this isn’t some rational part of me playing this crazy game. It’s my Learned Distress, which is the feeling each of us absorbs early in life that “there’s something wrong with me being just the way I am.” Learned Distress becomes embedded as part of our sense of self and generates all the negative moments of our lives, without our rational input or control. Our sense of self is the way we feel that we need to be in order to survive.
So, there are these two pieces of Learned Distress that interact in a weird and destructive way for me. The first is this intense feeling that I have to do things perfectly. Whether the task is big or small, whether it has any real bearing on anything critical in my life, I feel the internal pressure to create a perfect outcome. The second piece of Learned Distress is that in order to survive, I have to fail at achieving things. When this piece is triggered for me, my hard work doesn’t pay off and whatever I was trying to accomplish doesn’t come to fruition. It doesn’t make any sense, but Learned Distress isn’t rational—it’s just how we learned to survive before we could rationally evaluate or reject something that is counterproductive.
I end up with a crazy sort of feedback loop between these two pieces of Learned Distress when I’m trying to accomplish something big. I work as hard as I can and often produce things that people are absolutely perfect and of the highest level. But then, the pay-off never arrives, as if some invisible hand just reached out and squashed me. This is often when I have “done everything right” and worked at least as hard as anyone else did. And, then, my inner voice says, “You just need to do things more perfectly.” You can see the vicious cycle.
This happened all the time in my violin career. I would get feedback that I had played an audition perfectly, but they weren’t going to hire me. I’ve seen the same thing in clients. One of my clients has never been able to lose weight, despite eating very healthily and running marathons! Another has an Ivy League education and is very knowledgeable in his field, but often tells me he feels this same sort of invisible hand holding down his ability to accomplish what he really wants.
The contrast for me when I’ve unlearned in this area is almost unbelievable, though. Not long after I started going through my own Quanta Change process, I pulled out a violin piece that I had studied a couple years before, Bach’s Fugue in A Minor for solo violin. The first time around, it was an exercise in minute detail and perfection. Some of the music notes on my part were obscured by colored pencil notes indicating that I needed to think about several different things to make that note “right.” When I asked about performing it in my teacher, Paul’s, studio class (a weekly class with all of his students), he pointed me toward something “more up my alley” (which I took as, “You shouldn’t play this in public yet!”).
When Paul suggested working on the fugue again two years later, I groaned, but practiced the first page (of 5). In my lesson, Paul kept turning pages for me so I could play uninterrupted. Once I passed the point at which I had stopped practicing it that week, I got a little worried, because this piece is so hard for me that I really felt like I was “faking”—approximating it and keeping pace, but not really playing all the notes well (or at all). As I neared the end, I actually was thinking for the first time in nearly a decade of studying with Paul, “He’s going to throw me out of his studio today for being so unprepared.” I still can’t quite believe what happened when I finished the last note. He said, “Well, it’s all there technically and sound-wise. You just need to think about the big musical phrase shapes, and it will be ready to go.” Same piece, same violinist, same teacher, completely different experience.
I’ve seen this kind of shift happen over and over again as this particular combination of Learned Distress is unlearned. When our natural well-being is the generating force behind our moments (because Learned Distress has been removed), achieving what matters to us can become effortless, especially relative to the nose-to-the-grindstone experience some of us have always had. Well-being gives us the sense that our unique contribution is what matters (vs. perfection) and well-being gives us the energy and resources we need to succeed at our goals. If this crazy, internal Whac-a-Mole game sounds familiar to you, realize that it’s just your Learned Distress at work and that there is another experience waiting for you, powered by your natural well-being.
Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest challenges.