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The Grandiosity Trap: Why We Choose the Impossible

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Beth Anstandig

We’re inspired to choose the road less traveled and we think it’s what will make us heroic and extraordinary. But have you ever noticed how much trouble we get into along the way?

One of my favorite things to do is wander around on horseback with no particular goal. It’s not something that humans do much in the 21st century. Evolving into these super-predators, we’ve become goal junkies and we seem to have an insatiable appetite for things like solving problems, chasing goals, digging into the meaty flesh of ambition, innovation, and building empires. Our minds and egos love those challenges the way we used to love to hunt, and because our latent inner-mammal doesn’t get to come out and play, we put those energies and drives into so much of our daily lives. The horses, as prey animals, have a completely different vibe. Along with my aimless ranch rides, I’ve also learned from them the art and practice of grazing. I get it. Grazing is not a spiritual endeavor for horses; it’s just what they do to eat and live. But when I join them for the quiet and gentle meander of their grazing, as they forage through the fields, it has really shown me a new way of moving my body and being in my mind.

So I was doing a ride-about with my lovely mare, Rosie and having a relaxing afternoon on the ranch.  The view between a horse’s ears frames the world into an almost impressionistic landscape. We had gone to the front of the property to check out some guys trimming trees across the road and to say hello to neighbors riding past on bicycles. I saw a feather and stopped to take a photo of it. A hawk flew overhead, so we noticed and watched. This is what we do. Pause, look, breathe. Move on. I’m telling you this activity is a bit of heaven. But of course, the human mind can only take so much peace. Mine got a wild hair. An idea. Game on. At first it was just a thought and seemed innocent: Let’s head to the back of the property. Rosie could feel the energy behind that thought and her pace picked up, her walk stretched out, and her stride grew. To get to the back of the property, we needed to cross a fence-line, and there are a series of gates along the way to choose from. We got to the first one, I looked at it, and decided to move on.

Here’s a moment of honesty. I VERY CLEARLY RECALL seeing the gate and thinking: Why are you passing this one? It’s the easiest to open. Instead, I rode on. We made it to the next gate and I turned my nose up at it like a bad sweater I wouldn’t be caught dead in. We passed the other gates too, our pace still purposeful and our direction focused. Something had profoundly shifted. The relaxing ride had morphed into some kind of a personal challenge, funny enough, one I wasn’t even fully aware of until it was too late.

We arrived at the final gate, the last chance to get to where we were going. It was a gate alright, and it’s been a gate for close to 100 years. Sturdy, resilient, almost wise. And just a pain in the ass to open. I reined Rosie over to the gate and positioned myself to open it. I think, in that moment, I felt like a pioneer woman, a kind of old west cowgirl, wrestling with old wood and a rusty latch. It was tough and gritty, both the gate and my attitude. We made it to the hardest one and now we would conquer it. I liked how I felt in the challenge. I liked it until I fell off my horse. She hadn’t moved. No, she’s a solid citizen and was waiting patiently for me to enact my human drama with the gate. What happened is a leaned too far toward the gate and lost my balance. Thinking back, I had lost my balance at that first gate when my ego had taken over and I had become a puffed up version of myself, looking for a problem to solve—or just looking for trouble.

I landed on my hip and Rosie lowered her head to check me out, her nose pushing along the legs of my dusty jeans. I always wonder what the horses must be thinking when we make ridiculous choices and we’re face down in our own consequences. That first gate was pretty easy, friend. Maybe next time. So much more connected to energy conservation and survival, they would never, and I mean never, make things more difficult just for sport. That’s what I sat with, sore rear end and all, the confounding question as to why I had done this to myself. Even though I hadn’t hit my head, the tumble jarred me enough to trigger an ocular migraine so I spent the rest of the day on the couch with an ice pack and plenty of time to consider the lesson.

There are five levels of difficulty and the game is designed to start with level one so you can learn and progress. No, thank you! Sounds like a total bore! Give me level five or I won’t play. What is that? Why are we so seduced by the impossible challenges? Well, let’s look to the dark side for the answer. There’s an inner hero thrashing around inside of us and she wants to win. She doesn’t want to be good enough–she wants to be the best. She wants to be seen, to be recognized, to be thrown a parade in her honor. And my goodness, can she get us into trouble. Miss Ego likes a challenge so she can rise to the occasion and show her stuff. The problem is that Little Miss Ego likes quick fixes and flashy footwork. She wants little work with enormous reward. That’s how grandiosity works. It’s greatness in perception but not reality. We know when Little Miss Ego is in charge when we take simple things and complicate them or rush past the slow process of learning with the hope of displaying mastery. I see this with my daughter when she practices piano. A new piece of music? No problem! She’s an expert. Until she hits the first wrong note.

The middle of the road solutions are quiet and often unnoticed. Not a lot of hype and drama. They are the slow and steady progressions to greatness, hours of practice. Not the virtuoso performances or freak wins. So how do we evoke the wise, old broad of leadership when Little Miss Ego is running the show? I have been working on a few questions for myself:

  • Is there some reason I’m feeling “not enough” right now?
  • Do I need connection or support or friendship?
  • Is there a difficult feeling I might be running from?
  • Is there a reasonable problem I can give my mind to focus on?
  • Is there a productive way to use my drive or ambition right now to do something small and manageable?

It can be hard to convince this part of ourselves that the middle ground is more stable. She wants to stand on the mountain’s summit and get her picture taken So try to speak kindly but firmly to Little Miss Ego: Look, you fierce warrior. Remember that time you landed on your ass and spent the day on the couch? How about a bunch of small steps to make up an extraordinary day? I promise we can celebrate at the finish line. I promise to tell you that you’re the best.

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