In the first weekend of my coaching class, they discussed three meta-narratives that permeate Western society, and yet are toxic and corrosive. They were:
- Performativity: something has value only if it can measurably achieve a desired result
- The Inner Critic: the feeling that “there’s something deeply wrong with me”, which I’ve mentioned a couple times in other posts
- The Island (which I’ll discuss in this post)
What I found interesting was how people in the class were so attached to these meta-narratives that they were defending them and explaining the value of having these narratives, and insisting that they weren’t toxic or corrosive in how they appeared in their own lives. For the sake of this post, I’m going to focus on The Island, as it seemed to be the one that people wanted to hold on to the most.
The Island is short for The Island Where It All Turned Out Well, the place where everything is great, if only you could get there. Some ways in which The Island is envisioned include: I would be totally happy if only…I made a little more money OR …I had a girlfriend or boyfriend OR …I lost ten pounds OR …I got a promotion, etc. And when I achieve that goal, I discover that somehow I’m still not happy, so I set off for a different Island where everything will turn out well e.g. if I thought I needed a girlfriend, now I need to be married, or if I thought I needed to be married, now I need to have kids. Whatever Island we aim for is a mirage, such that whenever we get there, it’s not what we hoped it would be so we are disappointed and look for more.
The Island is a toxic narrative because the flip side of The Island being the place where it all turned out well is that if we are not on The Island, then we are unhappy. We are anxious and frustrated and striving as we move towards The Island, and if we don’t get to The Island, we are sad and hopeless. So we are unhappy when we aim towards The Island, and yet somehow we are not happy when we reach The Island, and set off for another Island immediately. This puts us in a perpetual state of unsatisfied despair.
This is when people in the class started questioning the toxicity of The Island narrative, as they claimed that they needed to have a goal to strive towards or they would become complacent. They felt that ambitious goals had driven them to achieve more than they would have otherwise, and therefore The Island had value. I didn’t feel like the coaches in the class had a great response to that objection, but I’ll take a swing at responding here.
I think that the distinction is that there is a difference between setting goals and the narrative of The Island. The toxic nature of The Island only appears when you decide that you can’t be happy without reaching The Island, thus setting yourself up as Tantalus, perpetually unable to reach your desired goal, and tormented that it is just out of reach. If you set goals, and then accept that sometimes you won’t reach them and that’s okay, the toxicity dissolves away. In other words, if I decide I want to get a promotion and try very hard to achieve that, that’s great. However, if I declare myself a failure and a loser for not getting that promotion (The Island thinking), that same goal becomes toxic to me.
I think The Island narrative appears when we grow disconnected from the present, so mindfulness and meditation are relevant to this discussion. If we become perpetually future-focused, as we do in The Island narrative, then we are not satisfied with the present. However, if we stay connected to the present and do what makes sense in the moment, we do not rely on the promise of future happiness on The Island; we can achieve happiness in the flow of the present moment.
To make this more concrete, let’s take the writing example from my last post. The Island version of a writing goal would be “I’ll be happy when I finish my novel”, and then if I don’t finish the novel, I’ll beat myself up and declare myself a failure. Or if I finish the novel, I won’t be happy and will set out for The Island of “I’ll be happy when I publish my novel”, and then “I’ll be happy when I sell X copies”, etc. Meanwhile, the non-Island version of a writing goal could be “I will write each day for as long as I feel like it”. There is nothing there to make myself feel bad. I am not even saying I have to write every day, so I can’t beat myself up if I miss a day. But I suspect that those who use the non-Island strategy will (a) be happier and (b) write more, than those that use The Island strategy, because The Island strategy will put so much pressure on the result to determine if all the work was worth it. In one case, the writing is its own reward; in the other, the writing is only valuable if it achieves a result so the pressure on each writing session becomes unbearable. The non-Island is under one’s own control, while the Island strategy is not so much.
Over the past few years, I’ve started to attempt to shift my emotional well-being to depend more on those things that are under my own control. That means I can’t let my well-being depend on results, as results are unpredictable. It can’t depend on the praise of other people, as that can come and go. How do I find the regard and compassion within myself to fuel my own contentment and happiness?
This has been a difficult shift for me, as I had fueled my whole life on results, and yet was never satisfied; I would always pick a new challenge as soon as I achieved a goal. And that can be healthy if I am pursuing the activity because I enjoy it in the moment, and don’t beat myself up if I don’t reach my goal. Interestingly, sports has always been in that realm for me, perhaps because I grew up a nerd, and never expected myself to be good at sports, so there was never any pressure.
Meanwhile, I was expected to succeed both academically and professionally, so those domains became fraught with much more pressure to achieve results. I eventually grew tentative at taking on new challenges because I wasn’t sure I was “good enough” to succeed; that’s why the first precept in my personal operating system is “You are enough!” and the second leads with “Be generous to myself”. So I struggle with questions such as if I accept myself as I am, will I grow too content and passive? Did my insecurities drive me to my present level of achievement, or will I be able to take on even bigger challenges if I accept the possibility of failure? These are difficult questions to confront and consider.
Anyway, I wanted to share these thoughts after the small steps post, as there is a danger when setting goals or directions to succumb to the siren call of The Island narrative, where the goal is what matters rather than the steps/journey. I’m curious whether this explanation makes sense to you; I’ve tried explaining The Island toxic narrative to several people over the last couple months without much success, so we’ll see if putting it in written form works any better. Please let me know what you think.