The Paralysis Inherent In Potential

Flashback to the day my son considered the possibility he could beat some other competitors

I have been ruminating quite a bit lately about what I want for myself and my life going forward. Our youngest will launch this fall, which means my day job as stay-at-home parent will be coming to an end. I have no plans to take on a full-time job, so the stay-at-home part will remain. I will, however, be doing a lot less parenting: less driving, fewer appointments, fewer obligations. All of this is good news. We’re so excited for Luke and his journey, and I am excited to have a little space in my life, time to focus on my own journey.

Figuring out what direction I want that journey to head has been a bit daunting. I’m in an enviable position. I am (or will be this fall) in the possession of both time and means to make choices and changes in my life. This is within reason, of course. I still have a husband and a home and life obligations. My sons will still want input and help from time to time. We have means, but we are not millionaires. While there are some funds for some small, down-to-earth projects (like self-publishing a memoir or book, for example), I will not be able to charter a yacht and sail the globe. Still, even with the modest detractors, there is a fair amount of freedom here for me to tap into potential growth enterprises.

During therapy today, though, I hit upon something I think has been holding me back, and that is the word “potential.” When I think about potential, I think of phrases like “reaching your full potential” or “limiting your potential.” So potential is something that can be squandered, lost, abandoned. It is something you can strive for and miss. As a parent, when I consider my sons’ gifts, I am lulled into wanting them to use them to their greatest potential. But what kind of stress does that put on them? When people say to me, “You should use your writing skills to write a book,” I experience potential paralysis. Because the potential is there for me to do it, I worry that I might fail at it or, worse, I might be so fearful of the potential for failure that I decide not to attempt it at all. Potential, without the self-esteem or confidence in one’s own abilities or the sheer bravado to rise above any obstacle, can freeze you in your tracks.

So, I decided today to eliminate the term “potential” from my vocabulary because it is too much for me at this point. I have decided to replace the notion of potential with the notion of possibility. Possibility is positive. If you are planning a day at the beach on Friday and the meteorologist says there is a potential for rain that day, you might reschedule your plans based on a desire to avoid a ruined day. But if that meteorologist says there is a possibility of rain that day, it sounds like it could go either way, like you might catch a break and the day will be mostly sunny or have only a slight chance for rain. Possibility contains hope. Potential contains burden or weight. Or at least that is how it feels in my mind.

Let’s take my focus on creating a writing career for myself as an example. If I look at this goal as something I have to do so I don’t squander my potential or all the hard work I’ve done working on my writing skills, including earning a master’s degree in writing, the burden to turn out something impressive to others is set in motion. But what if I focus instead on the possibilities available to me if I pursue my writing with a more focused agenda? If I acknowledge there is a possibility I could, with greater dedication to my craft, create a highly trafficked blog site or pen an enjoyable memoir, I am free from the burden of obligation. I am simply moving confidently in the direction of my dreams, unencumbered by expectation. Possibility (I could) takes the place of potential (I should).

I suppose it all depends where you are coming from. If you were fortunate enough to be raised by loving, supportive parents who cherished you unconditionally, then potential might not feel like a scary term to you. Perhaps your parents raised you to believe in the power of your potential and that is a guiding force leading you towards success. If you were, however, raised as I was without acknowledgment or attention paid to your skills and abilities, you might not have enough belief in yourself yet to champion your potential. You might only be able to muster the courage to believe you could possibly achieve your dreams. Deciding you have many possible paths might feel as empowering to you as believing you have high potential to be successful because of your skills.

What motivates you more? The power of your potential or the pull of your possibility?

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