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Overcome Yourself

I had a professor in college who told me to overcome myself – he said it to everyone, not just me, and he quoted Nietzsche, so he wouldn’t have to completely own the harshness of the directive himself (it wasn’t me, it was that Nietzsche guy, blame him). It was one of his mantras, and he believed it would work for everyone the way it seemed to work for him: overcome your needs, desires, limits, weaknesses, hurts, hunger, pain, exhaustion, opinions – in the service of becoming – what? He never said.

            My sense was that my professor had a very clear idea – from his family, community, religion, or whoever else – of who he was supposed to become, and therefore all he had to do was to make his own internal voices shut the fuck up so he could go ahead and live up to all of those expectations. And he expected me to be able to do the same – except, I didn’t have as clear an idea of who I was supposed to become, and even more importantly, I really didn’t have the skills at self-abnegation that he had.

“Oy.”

            I was, predictably, obsessed with him. I still lived at home, with my father sleeping in the bedroom next door, and I saw this professor as the ideal replacement father, and love interest, at the same time; not that I could articulate that thought out loud. If I’d been able to think those thoughts consciously I would have melted into a puddle of shame, but I can be more compassionate with my younger self, now, and understand that incest leaves marks on your brain that are hard to recognize and harder to remove.

            I’ve been thinking about this professor lately, maybe because of my father’s death last fall, but also because my attempts to figure out how to set my boundaries with other people, and to advocate for myself when my boundaries have been crossed, haven’t been going very well, and I wanted to understand why.

            The dictum – to overcome myself – resonated so strongly with me in college because it was what I’d been hearing my whole life up to that point: overcome hunger (anorexia – check!), overcome your body (over-exercising to the point of injury over and over again – check!), get all of your work done no matter what else is going on (can’t sleep at night but go to school anyway – check!).

“I refuse.”

            But none of those behaviors worked for me long term; because my self, whoever that was, refused to be overcome. When I found books, a few years later, by Geneen Roth, Natalie Goldberg, and Anne Lamott – all encouraging me to listen to those internal voices no matter what the outside world was trying to tell me – I was finally able imagine a path forward that might actually work for me.

In a way, I’ve learned that what works best for me is the opposite of overcoming myself. I’ve learned that what I really need is to have compassion for myself as I am right now, to sit with the pain, or frustration or failure, and offer kindness to myself, instead of impatience and criticism.

“I like the sound of that!”

But it’s so hard to give up the habit of self-criticism, especially when frustration and failure and pain are such regular experiences in my life. I’ve always been warned that self-pity, or self-indulgence, or being self-centered or selfish is dangerous, and therefore, self-compassion, which is another one of those self-things, seems like a slippery slope. I was taught to believe that criticism is the ultimate motivator to help you to become your best self, but it’s never been a successful tactic for me. I respond much better to encouragement and validation and support than to criticism, but criticism still feels much more familiar. Kindness is hard to get used to.

“Not for me.”

            The thing about that professor, looking back, is that he didn’t actually live up to his own mantra. He had a reputation, despite being “happily married,” of having affairs with his female graduate students. I don’t know if those rumors were true, but there was something about his belief that he should be able to overcome himself, and his endlessly imperfect efforts to make it happen, that made it possible for me to see his hypocrisy more clearly than I could see it in my father. I also found out that I could disagree with my professor without putting my life at risk, which didn’t feel true with my father, and that gave me the freedom to start moving away from my father’s world and see the possibility of a different future.

            I think I’ve been struggling with setting, and even understanding, boundaries because it’s a more complicated journey than the literature suggests. I can’t overcome other people any more than I can overcome myself, as if it’s just a snap of the fingers and all of the healthy boundaries are in place and consistent and as visible as neon lights.

            But just like I learned how to argue with my professor, and then to argue with my father, in real life and in my own head (where his voice was loud and persistent), I know I can learn how to argue with the voices around me telling me to accept treatment I don’t want to accept. It will just take longer than I want it to, like everything else. And it helps to know that I’ve been on this journey for a long time, and that I’ve made a lot of progress, at my own pace.

            I think I even said to my professor, though I probably only imagined saying it, that I disagreed with Nietzsche, because it made no sense to me that we should overcome ourselves, as if our real selves are, by definition, bad, lying, and unreliable things, when actually these are the only selves we will ever have. And, given that, shouldn’t these selves be precious, at least to us, and to the people who care about us?

            Yeah, I probably didn’t say that out loud when I was twenty. But I thought it, which was a good place to start.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

38 responses »

  1. I like the idea of being kind to ourselves. I think that will result in more long term success than self-punishment… hope so anyway!

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  2. wonderfully expressed! i think that the way of woman is softer than the way of man. men are like an arrow, zooming to the mark: such energy rooted in testosterone!

    woman are more inclusive, take a gentler & more circuitous approach.

    truly, for each of us it’s a little bit of both since we do have DNA from both male & female humans. i think we combine both approaches in our life, according to many variables. but it is a true thing that the masculine approach is what we hear the most because mostly they have written the “rule books”. all are expected to comply. luckily now that communication is so much easier & more rapid, we are able to select from a grand assortment of choices. we can also create our own personal private ‘rules of engagement’ regardless of the opinions of others. it is a lifetime journey, but it is also our own creative lifestyle, ours to adjust according to what works best for us. this is our big adventure that is ours alone, with no comparison to any other. but sharing! ah, sharing with like-minded souls, especially those whom we probably wont meet in the flesh, gives us rich opportunity express new thoughts & realizations.

    i love the quality of your inner work, your subjective ‘tikoon’, repairing of that which calls for attention. your comments give me food for thought as well.🙏🏼❤️🤣🙏🏼

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  3. If this professor blamed Nietzsche for the bluntness of his words, he must have felt some shame in being so brash and slightly cruel. Why else look for someone else to blame? It’s like saying, “Get over yourself.” Not very nice, really, even it were right. But I don’t think it’s right for another person to tell you what to do about your feelings or your fears and hopes. I think a kind word might have been more useful. Anyway, Rachel, I don’t believe you need fixing. You’re okay just as you are. Just believe it.

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  4. Excellent understanding of your younger self and her confusion about the professor. As for the advice of overcoming yourself, it stems from self-loathing. Why else would you see yourself as the enemy as did the professor. I love Janina Fisher, if you haven’t read her. “All parts are welcome.” Our interior life is exquisitely constructed to protect us. Sadly too often it is constructed to protect us from danger that no longer sleeps in the next bedroom. May you find increased safety as you reduce boundaries around safe people.

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  5. Rachel, you are the most insightful person I know … at least the most insightful one I “read” or pay attention to. It hurts my heart to remember what you have been through, but keep writing! You are a gift to the rest of us. 🤗 And now I must go look up self-abnegation.

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  6. It seems that rather than overcoming self, becoming self made more sense.

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  7. Accepting ourselves and loving ourselves is a requirement for a happy life IMHO. Take whatever steps YOU want to be happy.

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  8. also liking the possibility that (under the photo of Cricket) Oy could be an acronym for Overcome yourself.

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  9. It’s always easy to say to someone “overcome yourself”, lol.

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  10. We often forget to be kind to ourselves—especially when we are busy being kind to others.

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  11. Although Friedrich Nietzsche had many wise philosophical reflections, I always take his quotes with a huge grain of salt because Nietzsche was a pretty messed-up guy with plenty of his own demons. He died as a tragic figure.

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    • I remember trying to argue with my philosophy teachers that we should look at a philosopher’s biography to better understand his philosophy (we never studied female writers), and they rolled their eyes at me. Oy.

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  12. He was an egotistical prig- his ideas were recognized and he was in love with his sister!

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  13. Yes, that Was and Is a good place to start. It’s good advice for us all.

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  14. kindness hard to get used to, thank you for putting this up here; today I will try being kind to myself as well, if you do too…!

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  15. “I respond much better to encouragement and validation and support than to criticism, but criticism still feels much more familiar. Kindness is hard to get used to.”

    SAME.
    This whole piece i was nodding yes.
    Commiseration is comfort. Thank you.

    Reply
  16. A wonderful post! I had never heard the “overcome yourself” trope. In my life, it was phrase, “just get beyond it”. Ah….the infinite ways to diss somebody else’s experience…
    Thank you so much for your writing.
    Julie

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  17. “In a way, I’ve learned that what works best for me is the opposite of overcoming myself. I’ve learned that what I really need is to have compassion for myself as I am right now, to sit with the pain, or frustration or failure, and offer kindness to myself, instead of impatience and criticism.”
    Well said. 🙂

    Reply
  18. Enjoyed reading this piece. So many points where I paused to digest your words. Lovely writing!

    Reply
  19. So insightful and beautiful. So much to gain from this lovely post.

    Reply

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