We don’t have to be heroes to be stubborn. We can just be pains in the butt.—Steven Pressfield, Do the Work
In therapy last week the topic of self-esteem came up. My therapist asked me to make a list of twenty positive qualities about me. I got three down before I gave up. Most of that has to do with my abysmal self-regard, but I also felt put on the spot. When I showed her my list she zeroed in on the first word: Stubborn.
Surely I meant “perseverance”?
We spent the rest of the session talking about why I thought of stubbornness as a positive thing. She couldn’t quite wrap her head around the idea, and my arguments didn’t sway her. I understand, though. She is right that to be stubborn is often seen as a negative trait: to continue on against the advice of others out of misplaced pride. And her suggestion of perseverance makes sense … just not for me.
I’ve always felt that perseverance was a word for those on the outside and after the fact. We say someone persevered, not that they are persevering. it is a word to describe the struggle after it is over, not while it is ongoing. And when you are slogging through the shit on a daily basis, when you are struggling to keep your head up, when your goal has been obscured by all the obstacles, perseverance is a euphemism, wholly unsuited for the situation.
I’ve spent most of my life stubborn, in ways great and small. Sometimes it has bit me in the ass: I stayed in my previous marriage well past the “Use By” date, for example. But more often than not it has been armor against those who told me what I was doing was stupid/rash/foolish. The ability to say, “Oh yeah? Just watch me,” when told I couldn’t do a thing has propelled me through several tough times in the past.
Is it easy? Hell no. Every day that negative self-esteem eats away at what little self-confidence I have. I am assailed by doubts all the time. “Am I really doing this? Is this the right path? Do I actually know what I am doing?” Mere perseverance would tear like tissue paper under the weight of my insecurity. Only pure stubbornness has provided me with the strength to carry on.
At the end of the session, my therapist remained unconvinced. She didn’t dwell on it, though. Instead she gave me homework: to come up with seventeen more qualities. My Jerk brain has been whispering to me that I won’t be able to finish the list because I don’t have any other qualities to write down.
“Oh yeah?” I tell Jerk Brain. “Just watch me.”