Do you like bullets in your foot?

It really hurts when you shoot yourself in the foot. Especially when you keep doing it over and over.

And over.

I see this happen all the time with people with a rebel, nonconformist kind of mindset. It’s typical for these types of people to sabotage their own efforts and start rebelling against themselves. (I’m one of these types of people, in case you haven’t guessed yet.)

Here’s an example of the way this typically works:

You start something you’ve really wanted to do for a long time. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn how to draw. So you sign up for a class, and you’re really digging it. You’re getting better and drawing all kinds of awesome stuff. Maybe you even come up with a tattoo design for yourself. Sweet.

Then a few weeks later the class ends and you’re still going. But since you’re the type of person that wants to really master something, you start this mental arithmetic of requiring yourself to practice drawing. You want to get better, right? So you practice, and you’re excited.

Then something not-so-good happens. You don’t practice one day and you feel like shit. You beat yourself up over it and now you’re not so sure you’re “disciplined enough” to practice mastering your craft. (You don’t realize that you can establish new habits without discipline.)

But you keep going anyway; you keep practicing. And then you start judging yourself, not when you miss a day of practice or play, but when you don’t practice long enough. You think you could do more. You think an hour’s not enough, because that one guy from your class draws all-the-time. And look at you, you’re not doing it all-the-time so you must not be dedicated, right? Or so you think.

What used to be something you pursued because it was fun and enjoyable, is now a chore. It’s now something you must do.

Your inner rebel is awakened, and it’s pissed. Those of us with nonconformist tendencies typically don’t like doing things we must do. So we rebel. We disobey. We can’t help it, this is just the way we’ve always been.

The problem

There’s some great benefits to rebelling against the status quo and questioning authority. You learn to think for yourself and form your own opinions. You learn to explore, research and investigate; and this helps you to develop your consciousness.

But there also tends to be something not so good about rebellious tendencies… Sometimes you rebel against yourself.

Kind of counter-productive, don’t you think?

But how does this happen? How does being anti-mainstream lead to being anti-you? It has to do with one word:


When you must do something, it’s not fun anymore. Your level of passion completely flat lines. When you must do something, you naturally want to rebel because you’ve backed yourself into a corner. You resist because you feel that you no longer have a choice.

Restoring the choice

I’ve been dealing with this very problem for quite some time. I’ll commit to doing something, but I’ll feel like I’m letting myself down if I don’t commit to Olympic level ascension. I obviously see that this is kind of silly, but I hold myself to high standards. Sometimes too high.

But what’s more than that, we often think that there are less options than there are. You don’t have to do anything. That’s your ego spiraling out of control.

What I’ve found helpful is not just to realize that my standards are absurd, but to realize that there are always more options than you think there are. So here are a couple of good questions to ask yourself when you think you must do something:

  1. What would happen if I did?
  2. What would happen if I didn’t?

Sometimes it’s better to ask “What would happen?” instead of “Why do I want this?” When you ask why, you have a tendency to feel like you have to justify yourself, and it’s too easy to let your emotions cloud your judgment. By asking what would happen, you’re allowing yourself to explore the possibilities of the many possibilities that are available to you. Then you can choose one of those options, instead of feeling like you only have one choice: that you must do this.

Whenever you think you must, ask yourself those two questions. And ask yourself if there are any other possibilities that you might not have considered. Ask yourself if you missed something. Go past your Herculean ego-driven desire to be record-breaking best, and ask yourself what else is there.

Where you previously saw a cage, you may now see a hidden door or an alternative path.

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Comment & Add Your Voice

Justin Steinhart May 5, 2009 at 6:52 pm

Great post! I was deeply convicted by the message…now I’m just trying to remove the bullets from my feet!


Daphne @ Joyful Days May 5, 2009 at 7:17 pm

Great post, Jonathan, and Stumbled. “Must” and “Should” are words I try to remove from my vocabulary, together with “But”. They are not wrong in themselves, just that they lead to thoughts that produce usually undesirable effects, as you pointed out so well in this post.


Ivan May 5, 2009 at 7:52 pm

loved it!
thank you very much!


John May 5, 2009 at 7:56 pm

I feel that you’re right about this. Starting new things is one thing, but maintaining the passion for it is quite difficult. I’ve started Japanese this year and I hope that I don’t lose the fire that burned within me when I started. I want to actually learn a second language because I want to, not because I have to.

Thanks for the post.


Jason D Barr May 5, 2009 at 7:57 pm

Jonathan, another great post. It’s something I struggle with, too, and I’ve always wondered how to get past beating myself up. I’ve gotten better over the years at allowing myself the freedom to do things not-quite-perfectly. Your idea to ask questions that probe to the heart of why you want to do something is a great motivator. It gets you focused on the end result, not the junk that you may need to go through to get there.


Ben Johnson (@silverbenz) May 5, 2009 at 9:26 pm

That’s the gentlest slap in the face I’ve ever received :) Fantastic advice. I’m constantly “disappointing” myself because I start something that I’m really fired up about and then end up getting depressed because it’s not going how I hoped. It can get to the point where I don’t even start anything any more – especially if there’s a set up fee (eg. buying a piano) – because I think that I’ll end up quitting anyway.

This post has illuminated *why* and *how* I do this to myself – and I can finally hear that conversation in my head and put it into context. It just fits. Thanks so much.


Tatiana May 5, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Great post Jonathan!

We do ourselves such an injustice with out should’s and must’s.
I particularly appreciate your thoughtfulness regarding those that are most likely to engage in this self-denying behavior (rebels of the world, unite?).

Definitely something I’m going to meditate on tonight.
Why do we keep fighting our true nature and that which makes us happiest?
Have we been taught to believe that we don’t deserve to be happy?



CathD May 6, 2009 at 2:23 am

Great post, Jonathan

We always have a choice. And contrarians like myself value choice and freedom above most anything else. Preserve your own freedom by eliminating words like “should”, “must” and “have to” from your vocabulary!



rob May 6, 2009 at 2:38 am

Good post. When I start anything I feel great enthusiasm then it burns out. And the burn out is judgement. My best projects were not where I worked hardest but where I worked smartest (in the sense of listening to myself.


PS:Any chance of an RSS feed for blog comments?


Jamie Lee May 6, 2009 at 4:08 am

Being a New England-born Yankee … this is advice that is sorely needed and also hard to follow.

Many of us – rebel or no – still seem to proscribe to some strangely Puritan compulsion to focus on tasks we deem “work” or “good for us” or “shoulds.”

You are so right that putting a passion into any one of these categories immediately robs us of all the delight that passion once brought. It’s a high tragedy.

Thanks for the reminder to keep the joy alive. Say “NO!” to that something inside us that demands unwarranted rigor and rules. Just enjoy what you enjoy. Your passion will take you much farther than any enforced routine.

Just dugg you – thanks for the great post.


Roger - A Content Life May 6, 2009 at 4:39 am


Excellent advice!

In the past, I’ve definitely done what you describe to myself. I was particularly good at

“You think an hour’s not enough, because that one guy from your class draws all-the-time. And look at you, you’re not doing it all-the-time so you must not be dedicated, right? Or so you think.”

I would compare myself to others and even if you’re excellent at something, you can still find somebody better at it than you. It’s a tortuous way to live.


Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome May 6, 2009 at 7:38 am

You have just described me to a T. It’s my biggest challenge when dealing with Someday Syndrome. Even though I want to write fiction and build up my Someday Mentoring practice, I get all rebellious and the inner teenager says “You can’t make me!” to which I’ve learned to say: “I’m not making you – you want to do it.” and then the teenager quietly says “Oh, right” and lets me get back to work.


Mary May 6, 2009 at 8:26 am

Oh, Jonathan, you know this was something I needed to read! Full of wisdom! Thank you!


Robin and Linda @ThePowerOfSmall May 6, 2009 at 10:53 am

Jonathan, what a thought provoking post! It’s really amazing to think about all of the self-defeating habits we practice every day, from subtly putting ourselves down to, as you described, turning enjoyable activities into chores. But, by making a slight adjustment to our own ways of thinking, we can, in fact, change our lives. Recognizing this behavior could even be the key for some unhappy workers to find satisfaction in their jobs once more or for failing students to pick up the pace. It’s all about the little messages we tell ourselves every day.


Vincent May 6, 2009 at 11:17 am

Hi Jonathan,

Thanks for the advice. I have something to share over here too. Changing our choice of language will help us to start moving and take action. By changing “I must do it” into “I choose to do it” will help to bring authority back into our hand. I picked this up from the book “The Now Habit”. Hope you guys like it.



IvánPérez May 6, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Hey Jonathan, what if you want to be ‘record-breaking best’ in a suck area? What if you decided you want to dedicate your life to that purpose?

I would like to hear your thoughts on that, how to combine the two worlds.



Kaushik May 6, 2009 at 5:30 pm

The whole problem is “shoulding.” Drop the shoulding and magic happens.

Good insights. Thanks.


auramac May 6, 2009 at 7:38 pm

Wow… this would explain why it’s so hard to start (“why must I?”), so easy not to stop (“don’t dare stop me”)… The old explanation was self-punishment. For me, rebellion makes more sense.

One personal pet peeve, though… the tattoo part is a big turn-off. Mutilation isn’t art.

Not.. too.. “sweet.”


Audrey May 7, 2009 at 12:54 am

Hi Jonathan, I’ve read a few posts of yours and I always appreciated them.
I have to say that the one saying that leaders are those who take action encouraged me to kick my butt off to lose some weight I wanted to lose for years. I’m now on a diet and I begin to exercise today.
I decided to post today because what you say is so very true that it’s like you’re reading in my head. Since I’m following you and Leo of ZenHabits, I began being more cool with myself. But there’s still a long way to go. Keep doing the work.


sharon May 7, 2009 at 3:32 am

Love this, so simple yet true about the asking what will happen instead of why. So you’re not concerned with the consequence as much as how it will make you feel (good or bad) doing it and having done it. I’m going through this with sleep patterns lately (you should go to bed kinda thing.. so I stay up lol).


Phil May 7, 2009 at 7:34 am

Thanks for the analogy! I’ve been bloody-ing my footsteps for a long time now. I tend to be very anti-conformist, even when it benefits me, beacuse I don’t like being pushed into a corner, even if I did it!

Thanks again for the post.


Jeffrey @ Eating In The Now Teacher May 7, 2009 at 9:17 am

Great post! It’s the same thing with healthy eating. People think of it as something they “must” do. But the people who do it without effort are the ones who do it because they absolutely enjoy the process.

If you’re going to eat broccoli, eat it because you enjoy it and it brings up positive emotions. Don’t eat it because you SHOULD eat it. I think that’s one of the areas where people trip themselves up the most.


Tiffany May 7, 2009 at 9:44 am

This was an awesome post! Boy do I struggle with this on a daily basis and I think your point finally hit me late last year when my mom said the same words: “You don’t have to do anything.” I felt so much lighter when I realized that you don’t have to work or eat or go to college. The things you do in life are not a must but a choice. There are always others. Telling yourself that you have to or must do something, as you said, locks you into it and no one likes to feel trapped into something, no matter how good it is for you. Again, great thoughts.


Katie West/The Levity Coach May 7, 2009 at 11:55 am

Fabulous article, Jonathan.
Lately, I have thought a lot about how self judgment is like a rampant virus…it prevents, sabotages,and destroys our own inner compass providing a neat and annoying “should” which is like a big magnet lying too close to the compass throwing the answer we most believe off course.
For me, this is why I am so into the laughter thing. It elevates me or the person laughing into a place where the “should” is laughable. It helps me to laugh at self judgment, the shoulds, and everything that is draining to my life.
It has woken me up to the idea that we choose self-judgment, we choose the idea of “should”.
And like you said, we can choose to see the cage or the open door/path.


curiousjessica May 7, 2009 at 5:33 pm

Jonathan, seriously, stop reading my mind!
I am my own worst enemy on a daily basis. One of my biggest challenges is learning to silence my inner critic and just flow like water (love that analagy,too).


Kathleen Keys May 7, 2009 at 6:39 pm

Thanks for that post, it’s like bullet proof shoes and I’m putting them on right now.


Ian | Quantum Learning May 8, 2009 at 12:55 am


This is really great. ‘Must’, ‘Should’, ‘Ought to’, Supposed to’, etc. The language (and from what I know of other langauges it’s not only English!) is rich with words to compel us to do something.

I have an idea that compelling people to do things was quite an early invention when the human race started to ‘civilise’. And it’s so much part of our society still it’s no wonder we use the same tactic on ourselves!

Thanks for suggesting one of the ways out!


Andrius May 8, 2009 at 1:41 am

Epicurus, ancient greek philosopher adviced his students to evaluate all of their “needs” and desires by the same two questions you gave in this article:
1. What would happen if I did?
2. What would happen if I didn’t?

The advice is still as usefull, as it was 2300 years ago.


Sean May 8, 2009 at 6:21 am

Great advice!
Must, should and have to…..blah, blah, blah. It all turns to mush in my mind. You are so right. Anyone, with the slightest non-conformist streak in their personality, will usually rebel once they are told they must , or have to do anything; myself included. This has resulted in many painful bullets in my feet over the years.

Now I am trying to remind myself to think one or two steps beyond. I will still use “must”, “should”, et al., but now I try to think about the why. What is my ultimate goal that this decision is a part of?

For instance if I want to get paid then I have to turn around to my work computer and phone and put in some hours. If there is a goal that I want for myself, or for others, then there are things that I have to, or must, do in order for those things to come to pass. It all hinges on my choice though.

That is the one thing that is always ours no matter what; our choice. OK, OK, OK, sorry about that, I do tend to ramble on my tangents.


Christina May 8, 2009 at 6:27 am

I usually like your posts but wow, this one especially hit home for me. I have definitely been struggling with this lately and have been trying to push myself harder and harder by making myself follow strict rules and such – completely the wrong approach for me! I react with rebellion to any attempt other people make to control me, why wouldn’t I react the same way when I try to control myself? I guess it’s just so ingrained that I SHOULD set out goals and follow certain steps etc, etc, and I lose the passion for the things I enjoy. Just when I think I’m past that sort of thinking, I shoot myself in the foot again!

Thank you so much for this post! Stumbled and bookmarked for when I need the reminder again to stop telling myself I MUST do things a certain way.


li May 8, 2009 at 10:36 am

wow, great post. however, it seems that there is a trajectory in learning any new skill, even one you like, wherein you are great at it and receive maximum enjoyment out of it, but then you try to learn another aspect of it and find out it is not as easy as the first part, the part that came with no effort. how does one keep the enjoyment level up when the challenge also rises to greet you????


Kat May 8, 2009 at 7:25 pm

Having struggled with issues of perfectionism, a recently-realized fear of failure, and cycles of sabotage for about two months now, this article came at just the right time.

Thanks for coming up with such a unique perspective of what seems to be a somewhat similar problem. The description seems very fitting to: an idealist, anti-authoritarian perfectionist. I really like your suggestion for revisions, as well — the idealist in me appreciates room to explore possibilities. :)

Thank you so much for sharing the wisdom – I hope it helps!


Amanda May 9, 2009 at 5:44 am

I just arrived at this post from Zen Habits. I can see myself in this post. I do exactly what you describe and I HATE myself when I don’t do ‘the thing’.

I will try your suggestions and see if they work. I’ll let you know.



mb May 9, 2009 at 9:33 am

possibly your best post to date Jonathon. Original thoughts, great message, well done,


JY May 9, 2009 at 10:15 am

=]this post is really applicable to me
thank you
it’s a real big help


Diana May 9, 2009 at 8:27 pm

1. What would happen if I did?
2. What would happen if I didn’t?

Funny that, when it comes to our work, the answer to both questions is usually less dire than we think. I need to lighten up sometimes.


Annete May 10, 2009 at 4:16 pm

You described me to a T. Thank you for bringing forth that thought. I should stop rebelling against myself.


Lasse Larsen May 11, 2009 at 10:44 am

Hi Johnathan, while i’m removing the bullets from my feet, and slowly evaluating what would happen if I didnt do whatever it is that I feel i must do… not much comes to mind other than… I’d stay at the level I’m at, I’d not make that cash that was on the other end etc. and what would happen if I do it… Well mostly only good things come to mind… Thanks for the reminder… my feet also thank you :-) Great article!!! L


Tess Marshall The Bold Life May 11, 2009 at 1:23 pm

I just printed out a quote:
What action do I most want to avoid doing today?

I’m adding your 2 questions to it. Thanks! I’ll bet all of your readers are rebels!


I TAKE OFF THE MASK May 12, 2009 at 6:24 am

Makes sense. Sometimes we are proud to be rebels, beating the status quo. There is a danger though that we may be rebelling against ourselves and sabotaging our own progress. Good point.


JUELIUS May 13, 2009 at 4:30 pm



Alan Furth May 17, 2009 at 11:34 am

What a great post Jonathan. This is exactly the mentality that killed my aspiration to become a professional guitarist during my teens.

I remember beating myself up by thinking I MUST practice at lest 5 hours a day if I wanted to make any meaningful progress.

Eventually the self-talk got so ridiculously asphyxiating that I concluded that it was 5 hours a day or nothing… and ended up giving up the guitar altogether.

I learned to not be anti-me the hard way. Every time I see a guitar I remember the lesson. I’m adding your article to my mental anti-self-sabotage toolkit.

Thank you!


Justin May 28, 2009 at 9:15 am

Wow, I have just found your site and it rocks! Great article, and I can’t wait to dive in further.


Jeannie May 30, 2009 at 7:03 am

Thanks for the much needed insight! Cant wait to delve in more to your website.


prufock June 2, 2009 at 6:17 am

I do this with music and poetry. I feel like I have to be perfect, and I find it difficult to keep working on something that isn’t turning out just as I want it.


Leslie June 2, 2009 at 7:50 am

I do this to myself ALL THE TIME! This is a really helpful post – Thanks!


LB June 4, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Came here via Zen Habits and boy, did I need to see this today. Thank you.

Long story short, I have successfully arranged my entire life, and made a lot of personal sacrifices, so that I could have the freedom to write.
But am I writing? No. What I am doing is constantly beating myself up and taking my frustration out on others. I’ve come too far and given up too much to turn my back on this but I’m going to use your suggestions to see how I can at least bring down my blood pressure and that of those around me. So thanks again.


Arsalan July 21, 2009 at 12:35 am

Okay, I have to be honest, I was skeptic at various times while going through your blog, now, I know what the F* you are talking about, and I love it, I F*ing rebel against myself, but I subconsciouly used to imagine the do’s and don’ts situations on my own, that kinda gave me the initial drive later on, now I know how to awaken it… simple article straight into your face. good work mate!



Steve September 1, 2009 at 2:19 pm

this is a really wonderful post & a wonderful blog.. i found you from zen habits but have grown to appreciate these posts more than most of the content on zen habits. like you, i am a nonconformist (vegan avant-garde poet/activist), and this summer i got really involved in personal development (thru babauta), so these issues really coincide with what i’ve been facing.

specifically this topic, which you cover in many posts, of forcing yourself to achieve/change, and then feeling oppressed/limited by your own program because you have an aversion to force. your posts are very spot-on for me at the moment. also your personal story–blogging for a living at 23 or so? this gives me hope. i was looking at graduate school for poetry, but this would be a far better way–not so reliant on institutions.

i started my own blog to explore some similar issues to these–being excited about life, and how that tendency interacts with radical art, zen, & liberatory (anti-oppression) politics. i don’t suspect the blog has enough content yet to really thrill you–3 posts, i think–but i would love if you (or anyone likeminded) would stroll in with some early feedback.

thanks again for what you do (!)


jah September 12, 2009 at 5:00 pm

very stricking post, thank you for this, truely an eye opener


Mark March 31, 2010 at 11:06 pm

Struck a chord


Stephane April 1, 2010 at 6:04 am

Thanks Jonathan for this inspirational post.
I honestly admit that I sometimes shoot myself in the foot too. I believe that committing to our passions can be renewed by asking the right questions and paying attention to our feelings. Fun, joy and enthusiasm are good indicators that we are enjoying the ride whatever the destination. Thanks for this insightful reminder.



Dana May 12, 2010 at 6:45 am

This is a great post! And I can see by the comments I’m not so alone as I thought.
The advice is sound for things we start that we love but somehow get to hate but there are ‘chores’ in life we MUST ABSOLUTELY DO, whether we like the word must or not.
When it comes to these every day must do’s, the only thing that gets you to get through these is Love.
Think about dishes, cooking a meal, washing the clothes and all the other drudge work that fills our lives and can keep us from doing the things we really enjoy.
We do them because we love our family, our companion animals and ourselves. It stops the complaining mental chatter that fills the mind and foments discontent in our heart.
When your heart and mind are filled with Love and loving thoughts, that will carry you through the worst “chores”…don’t you think?


Arti June 16, 2010 at 1:13 am

I feel at peace after reading this post knowing now that I am not the only one.Learning how to defeat the self defeating tendencies is another plus.Thanks.


Andreea M. January 9, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Man, you’re so right!!! I have a huge problem with stuff I must do. Sometimes I start a new activity, which seems very interesting and fun, because it’s NEW, and after a while, I get bored because it seems to be compulsory.
I’ll try to do what you suggest and see if it works :)


gooey prickle December 13, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Dude…this is so spot on its creepy. This blog is sick, I just stumbled across it tonight. Cheers.


Jr. July 23, 2012 at 11:37 am

I like the advice about asking yourself the 2 ‘what ifs’ questions instead of the ‘why’ questions. This would help promote positive energy towards the things we are doing. Love the new look and the new name.


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