Thursday 16 June 2016

Internal constraints can be just as hard to conquer as external ones

Alice discusses the reasons we need to have more understanding of the internal barriers that people face

-Alice McMahon

There are many barriers that can make it harder for people to achieve their dreams. Sometimes the barriers are visible: a lack of money, for example, or a physical disability or illness, or even being the wrong gender or the wrong race. Sometimes it’s not having the right grades - or being born in a country where opportunities are limited. All these constraints are to some extent outside of ourselves, external and quantifiable, and so, in general, we’re more likely to meet with a measure of understanding.

But what about when the constraints are internal? What about when we have everything in front of us, laid out on a plate and we walk away, unable to take a chance because of our own fears and inner demons? Well, then - that’s different. Something must be wrong with you. You’re the one who’s responsible- you’re the one at fault. 

This kind of language betrays a lack of understanding of the internal barriers which keep many of us from achieving our true potential. These barriers can be just as potent as external barriers and sometimes even harder to fight.

To take one example, I remember the terror and dread of piano exams when I was at school. When I was alone, I could play the pieces perfectly well. But as many people find out when they’re being watched, playing in front of an audience was a whole different matter - my heart would start pumping and my hands would shake so hard that I couldn’t place them on the keys. Just do it! People would say. It’s all in your head, forget about the examiner, of course you can do it, they would insist. But - at least at that point in my life - I simply couldn’t. It didn’t matter how many motivational talks my teacher made to me, or how hard or how many times I tried - I just couldn’t wish my nerves away. At that point, I could no more play than as if my hands had been broken and wrapped in bandages. And I felt like a failure for it. 

Many other people suffer similar internal barriers, mild or severe. It might be social anxiety or depression. It might be fear of interviews or fear of flying. It might be fear of failure. It might be fear of letting family or friends down. It’s time to start accepting that these barriers are real - we might not be able to see them, but for those who suffer from them they can feel just as intractable as a steel fence. This is not to say we should passively accept these barriers or think they can never change. Just as broken bones can heal, over the years I managed to overcome my performance anxiety. But people who suffer from internal psychological barriers have the dual burden of being told they can just ‘get over it’. You wouldn’t tell someone to ‘get over’ a broken leg, would you? 

The next time a friend says to you that they ‘just can’t’ do something - whether it’s going on a date or having the courage to go to an audition, don’t minimise it or tell them off for being silly. Don’t blame them. Reassure them, give them a hug - tell them that whatever they choose to do, you’ll still be there for them. Ask what you can do to support them or if they think anything would help them to feel better. Don’t tell, listen - and you might even learn something yourself. 

- Alice is a recent graduate of Oxford University

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