Recently, in my clinical practice, I have been hearing the word “just” an awful lot. Perhaps more precisely, I must have been hearing it for a while, but am now listening to it in a new way. It is usually in the following contexts: “I just need to get over it,” or “I just need to move on.” “S/he just doesn’t get it.” And I have begun to notice that the word, used like this, hides an entire skill set necessary to just do the very thing people are talking about. Of course, that’s the power and brilliance of the ad campaign: don’t get bogged down in a lot of thinking, just do it.
While I think there’s a lot to be said about quieting and simplifying the noise in the head—just see my last post–, there are two main problems I have with this usage of the word: oversimplification and self-blame. Both get in the way of peak performance, and both should be guarded against.
Oversimplification. As I alluded to above, I have begun to hear the word “just” in my practice as a signal that there is some skill, skill set, or process that is being elided when someone says something like, “I just need to get over it.” I usually ask when they are imagining when they say “just,” and I usually get an answer that is akin to “I’ll just wave a wand.” So, there is some magical thinking going on. For example, when people or athletes are talking about getting over a major loss or trauma use the phrase, “I just need to get over it,” they are usually using some rather strong defense mechanisms like denial and avoidance about what it would actually take to get over it. As a result, they are usually almost guaranteeing that they won’t get over it, and won’t reap the valuable lessons that come from loss, or even, trauma. And often, it’s usually not that they’re over-thinking the event, it’s that they’re thinking incorrectly about the event, which, again, guarantees that they won’t get over it, and even runs the risk having it happen again.
Self-blame. I have also been noticing that this usage of the word “just” has behind it a good well of self-blame, because, in our magical thinking culture, we think we should be able to “just get over it.” So, when someone says to me, “I just need to get over it,” I think both about the unseen, unknown skill set necessary to do so, but I also probe for some sense of shame or self-blame that the person must be experiencing since s/he hasn’t been able to do so to this point. In this sense, the word is a signal to the kinds of cognitive traps we fall into when it comes to major losses or trauma.
So, what’s the answer? Well, as I have written in other posts (Scott’s Lytham Opportunity, August, 12, 2012), the main task is to turn toward rather than away, and look at the event with your therapist or coach in as much picayune detail as possible. “I guess I just choked,” becomes, “I really need to get better at breathing or narrowing my focus toward the end of my match/game/event.” Or, “I need to really prepare better for all stages of the competition, beginning, middle, and end.” “S/he just doesn’t get it,” means: “I need to be more interpersonally effective and communicate to her/him what it is s/he’s not grasping, and what’s so important to me about that fact.” In either case, those point to skills either not learned or not employed in important moments. Finally, a great deal of self-compassion is to be brought to bear on this practice. There’s a perfectly valid reason you don’t have that skill set or couldn’t bring it out at the desired moment. Shoring up that gap is precisely the value of engaging in sport or therapy: so that you can acquire it and bring it to bear the next time. Yes, definitely don’t forget the self-compassion. After all, you’re just human.