The Drivers

National tournament, day two. I should not be writing this, it is only going to be one of those upsetting posts where I tell you all about how terribly I fenced, but the demons are chattering and I have not been able to get them to stop, despite having stayed at the venue to watch my event (Div II Women's Foil) all the way to the end. Chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter.

"Be perfect," the first one says. "You missed that action, you rushed, you failed you failed you failed you failed. What did you think you were doing, trying to fence these girls? Don't you wish you had been fencing when you were their age? They are already much much better than you are."

"Hurry up," the second demon chimes in. "That girl only started fencing three years ago, and she is miles better than you are. You suck, you're slow, you're never going to learn how to do this."

"And you should," Be Perfect chides. "You've been doing this how many years, and you still can't control yourself well enough to fence your best every time? You should always be able to fence your best, otherwise you're just a loser. So what if you did better in this event at Nationals? You suck today and that's what counts."

"You need to try harder," a third demon whispers, seductively. "Right, let's make a deal. You are going to go home and work and work and work and work. Then you will fix everything that you are doing wrong now. Drill, drill, drill; footwork, footwork, footwork. Push yourself every practice until you can't move anymore. Then you will get better."

"You would be able to try harder if you were strong," notes a fourth. "Nobody wants to hear how frustrated you are today. Buck up, stop blubbering. The only reason you can't fence perfectly is that you're weak. See, look how tought that other fencer is. I bet she never cries or gets upset about how well she is fencing."

"And I bet she never has a bad day, either," Be Perfect adds. "Look, there's your friend coming to coach you," a fifth demon notes. "Be sure to be nice to her, you wouldn't want to upset her when she's being so helpful to you. You don't want to be the bitch in the pool."

"You shouldn't get so upset," Be Strong butts in. "Look, nobody else is getting upset, you're just a baby. Baby, baby, baby, baby, look at the little baby cry. Run on home to your mother, baby, you will never be tough enough to stand up to these girls."

"You will if you try harder," Try Harder suggests, comfortingly. "You just need to get everything under control. Right, Be Perfect? So, lose 10 or 20 pounds, practice perfectly. It's the only way to fix what's wrong with you."

"No excuses," Be Strong insists. "Nobody is going to care if you had a hard time getting to practice or have other things in your life that you need to take care of. Listen to Try Harder: she knows what's what."

"Besides," Please Everybody reminds you, "you will disappoint your coach and your family if you don't win."

"Not to mention embarrass yourself," chides Be Perfect. "Look, the other Veterans are doing fine today, you don't really have any excuses. You're just lame."

And on, and on, and on, and on. I know that the demons are liars, but I've been listening to them for so long, I still believe them, especially Try Harder. Be Perfect can get me every time, and Be Strong is always waiting there to make sure I feel guilty about not being perfect at everything. Hurry Up is perhaps the worst: I cannot stand the thought that others who have not been fencing as long as I have already have greater success (as defined by Be Perfect) than I have. And then, when the first four demons have me thoroughly wound up, Please Everybdoy sticks the boot in and reminds me that I shouldn't get so upset because it will be upsetting to others.

So I had a hard day today. And I feel even worse (cue demons) because I thought that I had it all under control (see yesterday's post). I thought that I had been Trying Harder, working on paying attention, staying focused, doing my point control exercises. I thought that I understood that it was okay to have difficult feelings, that I didn't have to Please Everybody by never feeling angry or disappointed or anxious or scared. I thought that I had learned not to listen to the temptation to Be Perfect, not (as my sister likes to put it) to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I thought that I had learned to recognize the way that Hurry Up worked, always pushing me to do more faster, while at the same time belittling whatever else I had already been able to do. And I thought that I had learned how to recognize Be Strong's efforts at shaming me.

Apparently not. Or--given that I have actually written this post without tears and, in fact, a fair degree of good humor--perhaps, after all, I have. If only I didn't have all of these difficult feelings to sit with, then I would Be Perfect, Hurry Up, Be Strong, and Please Others. Wouldn't I? Maybe I'm just not Trying Hard enough.

*Demons' names courtesy of Pamela Butler, Talking to Yourself: How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Change Your Life (Kindle, 2008), chapter 2.


  1. Since you seem to be having a bad day I wanted to take the opportunity to share a thought that's been with me for months now: I am so grateful for your blog. Thank you for your honesty and all of your insight.

    I'm a fencer, and an aspiring academic--a medievalist, no less (and we've actually met twice: once when I visited Chicago as a potential MA student, some 7 years ago, and again three years ago when I fenced with my club team at the Phoenix Duals, which you were kind enough to direct). So I love reading your blog, because darn near everything you post touches on my own experience and anxieties. I don't have a dog, though. But I still find those posts helpful.

    You can't possibly know how heartening it is to have a senior scholar, someone who is respected and whose work is universally read (there isn't a medievalist at my school that hasn't read From Judgement to Passion and had it on their comprehensive exams!), share so openly the struggle for success and for balance and perspective. Whenever I'm having a rough time, and thinking I can't do it, I look at your blog. My worst demon is the "This should be easy" demon: the one that says it shouldn't be a struggle for me to write/read/teach, and that if I am struggling to do it (or do it well/efficiently) that I shouldn't be in this line of work. It should be like grace, right? if this is my calling, it should be easy and unproblematic. But you prove the lie--it's doesn't have to be effortless for you to do it well.

    Anyway, I am not sure this will help at all with today's demons, but I did want to share. I'm a bit of a lurker (unlike you I'm not brave enough to have much of a web presence) but I've been wanting to say thanks for a while now.

  2. Thank you so much! It means so much to me to hear that you have found my postings helpful. Indeed, one of the hardest things for me is still the Be Strong driver demon, which is always there to tell you that nobody else has the fears and anxieties that you do and that if you were any good at it, it would be easy. But even the strongest fencers have bad days and even the ones who look like they have never lost their cool do on occasion. What happened yesterday was my friend came over and tried to talk to me, but I was so wound up, I just wanted to scream. So she marched me away from the strip side and said, "You are not having a temper tantrum. Breathe." At which I started snort-breathing, like you do in Kapalabati. Which was just too funny, and I started laughing.


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