The third hardest thing in the world is confessing a serious failing of morality or character to others and to take responsibility for it, especially where admitting failure must occur before those whose approval we seek. The first step down that road is to swallow pride - which most of us have in enormous doses - and to admit to ourselves a genuine failing. Not the failing of mere moral vanity ("oh, I'm ashamed of myself for having seconds of meatloaf when I'm supposed to be dieting... me me me me") but confessing responsibility for a genuine screwup that casts us in genuinely bad light. For example - "I really crapped on my good friend there. Or on my own dignity. Or God." Y'know, if those things mean something to you.
Admitting failure and taking responsibility for it is really tough to do but I'm convinced that the road to all improvement starts with genuine admission of failure, or weakness. This is so hard for most of us to do that in the Catholic faith, in an old fashioned confessional, you confess sins in the dark, the priest is under a vow of silence that outlives death, and the penance is ultimately far lighter than we ourselves would admit the failure merits. The first two conditions are in place to help us deal with obvious human weaknesses, the third is in place to help us deal with the fact that we, in our moral vanity, are harder on ourselves and less forgiving than God is in His genuine-ness. I told you that admitting failure genuinely, with sincerity and full knowledge, is really hard. When Father O'Malley (and God) is easier on you than you are, you know it's a tough thing to do. You have to do it genuinely; no public official-type "oh yeah, I'm taking responsibility for that" garbage, where you just say you're responsible for your problems then walk away. Taking responsibility means you accept the consequences. That's why admitting your fault and taking responsibility is hard. It comes with retribution, with penance. If it wasn't hard, it wouldn't be worth a damn.
The second hardest thing is getting over yourself, trying to kill off the moral vanity and self-pity that keeps you in whatever dark little spiritual and psychological hole you are standing in as a result of your screw-ups. Obsession with trivial failings - the vain ones - is what keeps you from making the leap and fixing the big ones. You have to get rid of the part of yourself that lets you make excuses.
There was a good Army recruiting ad a little while back in the "Army Strong" recruiting campaign that summed up the Western soldier's ethos better than anything I have ever heard before or since. The ad's argument, paraphrased, was, "There's strong, and then there's Army Strong; strong is being strong enough to get over, but Army Strong is being strong enough to get over yourself." One of the Army leadership virtues that officers (noncommissioned and commissioned alike) are asked to internalize is "selfless service." That means, in its ultimate expression, taking a bullet for somebody else, like a guy in your squad, to execute the general's orders, or to protect people who think you're a dupe for having joined up and risked your butt in the first place. Thing is, what those people think doesn't really matter; what matters is hitting a higher plane of being yourself, putting the parts of you other than those parts intent on sacrificing for others aside. Identifying the unnecessary parts of your ego, the stuff other than the parts which inspire a quiet and informed confidence in your abilities, taking them out behind the shed, putting a bullet in them and burying them in a deep unmarked grave. Killing off that part of yourself that is your own worst enemy, and the enemy of those around you.
Nobody achieves that perfection, but it is a goal. This moderate act of self-abnegation is killing that blindly egotistical, blustering buffoon inside yourself, the part of you that goes from drunk braggart to weeping old alcoholic in a flash. I'm pretty sure that Buddhists make this one of the main points of their religion. It's a pretty big deal. It's also really hard to do.
Maybe you've met that part of your ego on a bike ride. I know I've met him a bunch of times recently. I'm in shit shape right now. No self-pity about that statement, it's an honest observation. (The self pity comes later). I didn't ride enough over the winter, put on the winter 10 while maintaining decent shape, and thinking I'd be just fine going into spring because the December legs were quite good. I got too big for my britches, miscalculated, and my over indulgence coupled with underwork caught up to me when my tendinitis laid me low for nearly a month. So a good solid 20 pounds later, and a month with no activity more vigorous than hoofing to the bathroom on crutches, I'm trying to get back some of what I lost and it blows.
But that isn't where the ego gets me. Where it gets me is on a ride where I'm cruising along and the ride gets a little hard. This happened on a group ride this morning. It wasn't that bad. But damn, I was hurting, and other people were just chatting. The ego - that drunken braggart - was now the tired old drunk in the corner of my mind, weeping and telling me how sorry for me he was. Begging me to quit the ride, just take it a lot easier and spin in. Drop off the back, tell the guys you're going to take it real easy, see ya later. You know all the excuses; so do I.
This voice was the strongest internal voice I've heard in months. The positive internal monologue has been damn near silent and quite intermittent. But the negative monologue? It was friggin' relentless. After a while I worked through it and hung on, resolved to stick, slip climb up hills, pound downhills and flats to close gaps, and not worry about the fact I felt horrible while everybody else was doing, basically, a zone 2/3 spin. So that's what I did.
As I worked through this mental swamp, I came to understand the stuff I just told you about in the preceding seven or eight paragraphs. While I was riding, and probably while I was sitting there laid up eating too much and doing nothing, I was kicking my own ass for totally self-defeating reasons that are utterly unhelpful.
Now at times, you need to have your ass kicked. When you are not putting forth full effort, you need that. When you have a big hill to get over, literally or metaphorically, you may need a kick in the ass. When you've really screwed up and unaware of how screwed up you are, you need a kick in the ass.
The problem with the internal drunk guy is that he doesn't kick you when you need it. He's too busy telling you to have another Dorito, let the good times roll! Instead of kicking you in the ass then, when you really truly need it, the SOB kicks you when you are down. His gig is when the times get tough, to fall down weeping, to sit there indulging in self-pity, in moral vanity, and turn little tiny molehills into the psychological version of hill repeats on Mt. Ventoux.
What makes the little SOB really live, his tequila shots, Red Bull and chicken wings, is our own moral vanity, our depression, our willingness to let events get on top of us and kick our ass. Our ability to find fault with ourselves when sure, maybe we're wrong, but when the faultfinding saps our energy and drives us backwards.
I realized this is just effing pathetic. It's lame. What a waste of time and energy to let that happen. Things are tough enough without playing the silly childish game of feeling sorry for ourselves. I realized I do this all the time, and knowing damn well that I'm not unique, I bet a lot of other people suffer from it too.
The way to beat this problem is to do the Hardest Thing in the World.
The Hardest Thing in the World is to quit indulging in self-pity, in feeling sorry for yourself and making excuses. It's to kill the maudlin drunk, to accept your circumstances, and to go as hard as you can. If you get blown off the back, no pity. If you screw up your diet, forget the screwup and redouble your efforts. Mess up a valued relationship, go crawling back and make it right without letting yourself sit still to enjoy some of the more pathetic sort of navel gazing - ignore honest self-evaluation in favor of throwing a pity party for one. And on the other hand if you do okay, the Hardest Thing in the World is to do no crowing. Just sit down, have a steaming tall mug of STFU, and continue to work hard. Enjoy it but don't get full of yourself. Your situation is nowhere near as bad as you think it is, and when things are going great, they aren't anywhere near as fine as your (wishful) thinking about how perfect everything is. Because it's life we should be satisfied with it whether or not it's our turn in the barrel.
Being able to handle the highs and lows without becoming alternately smug or self-loathing and depressed, getting over our ego's domination of our outlook, is The Hardest Thing in the World. I think it's do-able though; I achieved it for 45 minutes or an hour during the ride today. I quit chewing on my woes as if they were a handful of Flintstone vitamins, just let 'em go for a while. So it's in reach.
To reach it, however, you have to take the first two hard steps which are (1) admitting at least to yourself that your self-absorption is posing a serious problem; and, (2) resolving to kill that part of yourself that isn't helpful, that part which can only either puff you up with false praise or use your own moral vanity and self-centered nature to down you. Just let all that other crap go; give it the boot. Once you've done those, it seems a lot easier to turn the pedals (and do everything else), even though you're suffering.