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“The girl has to kill the rabbit.”

Everyone stared at me. It was my second day of Survival Training, a program that’s meant to teach you how to stay alive in case you’re shot down behind enemy lines.

I had resisted peer pressure before. In high school, I refused to style my hair or wear make-up, despite classmates who told me I could be so pretty if I just tried. I stuck to my guns, even when my mother had to beg her colleagues to offer their sons as dates to dances.

This shouldn’t have been any different. I am a huge animal lover. I have nothing against hunting for food, especially in a survival scenario. But this wasn’t a wild rabbit we’d caught. It was supplied. It was trusting and tame.

And I absolutely did not want to swing a stick like a baseball bat to break the creature’s neck.

This time, however, I felt a need to prove myself, to show those boys I was every bit as qualified to be a military officer as they were. I wanted them to know I was brave and tough. I accepted the gauntlet as the natural fate of a woman in the armed services.

They had found my weakness. 

Looking back, there were so many other ways I could have handled the situation. I could have challenged the assumption with, “Wow, that’s sexist. How about we draw straws instead?” Or I might have called his bluff with a cocky, “Sounds like somebody’s scared. Why don’t you show us what you’ve got, big guy?”

Anything to break that silence.

Of course I was young, and survival training was scary enough even without the sexism. Perhaps it’s not surprising I didn’t come up with some witty comeback. But I think it was more than that.

I didn’t want to be the disappointment of my gender. I was afraid I would kill the rabbit and still be found out for the bleeding heart that I truly was.

I was trying to prove to myself that I belonged and was worthy of respect.

Deep down, the person who needed convincing was me.

I picked up the biggest stick I could find. Someone else was taught to hold the rabbit upside down by its hind legs while stroking its ears. “It calms them down,” the instructor said.

Every cell in my body wanted to run away in that moment. “I can do this,” I repeated over and over.

The guy holding the rabbit looked me in the eye and nodded. The instructor warned me not to swing too hard, or I would knock the rabbit out of his hand. I forced my eyes to stay open and swung.

There was a thud of impact and the rabbit was still.

We touched the rabbit’s eye with our fingertips to ensure it was really dead. No movement.

I breathed a sigh of relief. They were stringing the rabbit up, and the instructor had moved on, showing someone else where to make the first incision in order to skin it.

It was over. I had passed the test.

At the first knife prick, the rabbit started screeching.

It was the most horrific sound I’d ever heard. It filled the forrest and reverberated against the boulders.

“Quick!” someone shouted, “Hit it again! Hit it again!”

I picked up my stick and started whacking. It was like a bad horror movie. We touched the rabbit’s eyes again. Nothing.

As soon as the knife touched its belly, the shrieking started again.

I was frantic at this point. The rabbit was still stung up, so I hit it again and again and again, as hard as I could, until the instructor shouted for me to stop. This time it was dead. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he told us, shaking his head in disbelief.

We were all pretty shaken. My legs felt like jello. I wanted to bawl my eyes out and  scream at them “Are you f@&*ing impressed now?!”

For years, I repressed the memory.

Over and over I heard the rabbit’s scream and it filled me with self-loathing.

Not all situations where we try to prove ourselves will be so dramatic, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing psychological damage in the process.

The need to prove ourselves begins, not with a taunt, but a damaged perception of the self. It’s a hole you can’t fill externally. If you don’t feel you’re worthy, no protestations to the contrary or feats of prowess will convince you otherwise.

Proving yourself is a fool’s errand–one that overachievers are particularly susceptible to. They think “Just one more accomplishment, and my value will be unquestionable.” But the goal posts for success and self-worth keep moving.

Now I use these memories as a kind of self-love boot camp. It isn’t much easier than my military training was.

When I relive the scene that day, I am the ghost in the background, watching over my younger self. “You don’t have to do this!” I tell her. “Forget them. Who cares what they think. I will love you!”

But the younger me can’t hear the wiser me. She is still afraid she is not enough.

She picks up the stick and swings.

“I will love you,” I whisper, “I will love you no matter what.”

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30 Responses to You Don’t Have to Prove Yourself to Others–Love Yourself Instead

    • On
    • December 10, 2013 at 10:37 am
    • Deanna
    • Said...

    Oh my, Jen. I always enjoy your posts, but something about this one really hit a nerve. Finding the balance between proving one’s self and simply overcoming fear is a tricky distinction. This example is a wonderful illustration and fuel for self-reflection. Thank you for sharing your insight (and add a hug to the younger you from me, too!).

      • On
      • December 10, 2013 at 11:36 am
      • Alma
      • Said...

      Thank you, Jen. Your post has helped me reflect on my own behavior.

      This reminds me about a conversation I had with my sister. She told me she was proud of my accomplishments and she actually thought highly of me. But, I didn’t agree. Instead of saying ‘thank you,’ and owning that moment, I quickly replied something in the lines of, “I haven’t done anything, there is still a lot more I want to do.”

      I feel that I am always chasing something. It’s not necessarily bad, but it sure takes a lot out of me because I always feel I have to prove to others I am good enough, and although I know it’s not healthy, I can’t stop! Maybe digging deep to find out where that comes from.

      • Yes, overachievers typically feel depleted. It takes a lot of energy to try to create an image that is not entirely authentic, to others and to ourselves. At the end of this month I’ll be talking in more detail how I dealt with the unhealthy portion of my ambition. I want to stress that I’m not anti-achievement. There’s nothing wrong with accomplishing things that are challenging or enjoyable. But if you are driving yourself into the ground in pursuit of an goal, you have to ask yourself what the real driving force is. The good news is that you CAN stop. It just takes a lot of conscious effort. I’m happy to support you every step of the way. :)

    • Thanks for the hug, Deanna. Coming to grips with this incident has been a long time coming. There are no easy answers, but as you point out, it’s the opportunity for self reflection that I hope is useful.

  1. Definitely another great blog you wrote. Thanks. That is actually one of the things we tend to do most of the time, trying to prove ourselves instead of loving ourselves. That rabbit shriek still lingers in my ears and I am deeply sorry you went through that experience. Warmest wishes for these holidays. May you, your daughter and your husband have a lovely time.

    • Thank you, Silvia. Warm wishes to you too. :)

    • On
    • December 10, 2013 at 1:26 pm
    • Jamie
    • Said...

    This story gave me chills, Jen. The horror of that moment – I can’t imagine. Just reading it made me fold in on myself as if to protect me from the image. So awful – survival or not.

    But you’ve turned a nightmare into an important lesson and shared that lesson. Thank you.

    We do let the opinions and expectations of others drive our decisions and actions. Happens all the time, but it shouldn’t. We should be able to discern between “them” and “us” … between what’s wanted from us, and what we have to truly give. I’m still figuring this out. One day at a time.

    Really great post. Thanks again.

    • Thanks, dear Jamie. I think part of what’s so hard about this memory is that I can so clearly see alternative ways of handling the situation that simply didn’t occur to me then. It’s hard not to fall back into blaming myself, but I know from experience that doesn’t help–not the rabbit nor me. And the unfortunate reality is that whether I backed out of my role or not, the rabbit’s fate wasn’t going to change. That was out of my control.

      I’ve already gotten some private hate mail over this post, which I expected. It hurt, but the voice of self-love was still there. I owe that rabbit so much for its sacrifice–and such debts can only be repaid in love, even for the people who hate me.

        • On
        • December 10, 2013 at 7:45 pm
        • Jamie
        • Said...

        Sorry you’re having to deal with people who miss the point.

        I do feel terribly for the rabbit, but I also realize that whether you struck the blow or not, it’s fate was sealed. You couldn’t do anything to change that – then or now. But, as I said, being able to learn from the experience is something that you can continue to do. Drawing on the lesson of that day is something that you’ll be able to do for the rest of your life. And now, others can start to think about the decisions they are making when someone asks them to kill the rabbit.

        Thank you for sharing even though you knew you’d have to deal with some unpleasantness.

        • Here’s the good news. You were randomly selected as the winner of this week’s giveaway! I’ll send you a note with more details. I’m so glad you won it. I love having you as a part of this community. You make it better! <3

  2. Jen, my heart just goes out to you, reading this. As a fellow animal-lover, I can feel how painful that experience was; your writing brings it to life. Yet even as I felt the cold horror of that memory, I was warmed by the love and acceptance you have given your younger self. I, too, struggle with that over-achieving drive to ‘prove’ myself, and reading your words encourages me to keep doing the hard work of love and acceptance. Thank you for your courageous sharing.

    • Thanks, Caroline. I felt it was time to return to these courageous posts. Safe writing doesn’t help anyone. I’d love to hear what techniques you’re using to deal with the need to prove yourself. Please feel free to share–I now it’s not just us that needs it!

    • On
    • December 10, 2013 at 5:28 pm
    • Diana
    • Said...

    I am reminded of Clarice in “Silence of the Lambs” who still hears the screaming of the lambs being slaughtered long ago. She grows up to become an FBI agent who fights evil in order to silence the lambs. (Of course, Clarice is a fictitious character.)

    Jen, you have become an agent for healing, love and growth. I am inspired by your ability to take your pain and use it as a catalyst to expand your heart and to be compassionate to yourself and to others.

    I never considered myself an over-acheiver, just a “hard worker.” After reading your post, I am re-examing a lot of my “hard work.” I do believe that some of my relentlessness comes from needing to feel worthy and to silence my own screams for safety and love.

    Thank you for your courage and your work.

    • You know, I can’t watch horror movies–they scare me to the core. Maybe I already have too many things to haunt me to willingly take on more. So I didn’t know the story behind that title. It’s an interesting idea. I can’t claim as much conscious direction as Clarice, but I do think the only way to silence the screaming is through an expansion of the heart. I’m grateful to have gotten to this point, and to have people like you to share the love with.

    • On
    • December 10, 2013 at 7:33 pm
    • Esther
    • Said...

    I feel compelled to comment. At first I was horrified at the depth of what you felt you had to do to feel worthy, included. Yet this powerfully honest, no holds back telling of this personal story by you helps me so much. WOW. Thank you so much for this. It hit home in a big way.

    • Thanks, Esther. I struggled a lot with how much detail to include. But in the end, I felt the detail was a necessary part of the story. Thanks for your note of support. I’d love to know how it helped you. What did you take away from it for yourself?

        • On
        • December 12, 2013 at 11:09 am
        • Esther
        • Said...

        What I took away from the story was the visual. I finally have a visual (even though its yours and not mine)so that when I feel pressured to saying YES when I mean NO, I think of the rabbit. And that helps me say “NO. I will NOT kill the rabbit”, meaning I will NOT do the thing I don’t want to. VERY powerful story. Life changing to have read it.

        • I don’t know why I didn’t think of it that way, but what a great idea. A powerful mantra to help you stay true to yourself and see the consequences if you don’t. Thanks, Esther. That’s brilliant.

    • On
    • December 10, 2013 at 11:47 pm
    • Fran Sorin
    • Said...

    Dear Jen –

    I cringed as I read the post and heard my inner voice say ‘No Jen, don’t’ as you got closer to killing the rabbit.

    This is one of the most powerful posts I’ve read on the consequences of not listening to your inner voice.

    The pay off though for all of us, your readers, is that you have used this incident for fodder on your spiritual journey – which gives us the awareness that we can as well.

    Once the Wise You is guarding where you were/are in life and standing over you with unconditional love, you have experienced a significant transformation.

    Thanks so much Jen for being vulnerable and teaching us -through your experience – a meaningful lesson.

    With gratitude – Fran

    • Thanks dear Fran for summing this up in such a positive way. I feel better already.

    • On
    • December 11, 2013 at 8:12 am
    • SallyBR
    • Said...

    I am speechless. This was amazing, having worked with you for several years, I can visualize the whole thing very well. And I understand and admire you.

    • Ok, I’m kinda crying now. Thank you for understanding and loving me too. xoxo

    • On
    • December 11, 2013 at 8:05 pm
    • Eugene
    • Said...

    Thank you for writing this, Jen. This is something I struggle with constantly, and reading your words bring some compassion and love to those parts of me as well

    • Happy this can help in even a small way, Eugene. I think it’s always nice to know we aren’t alone in our struggles.

    • On
    • December 14, 2013 at 2:34 pm
    • Vanessa
    • Said...

    thanks so much for sharing this story – I can imagine how horrifying that memory is. I often feel underestimated by others but I am starting to learn that it stems from underestimating myself. Feeling like i have to prove myself in the office (smart, hard working, mature enough to keep around and promote) and to my parents (independent and sound enough to be okay no matter what) provides a constant soundtrack.

    This concept of a lack of self love and acceptance, irrespective of personal achievements, is my current pursuit and I think the key to living a more fulfilling and aligned life. There is work to be done but all I will say is that whenever I think I have built a healthier relationship with myself, a test circumstance like the one you mentioned above comes and indicates there is still more work to be done. Maybe it is a life long process and can definitely stem from less traumatic memories/experiences. You rock as always!

    • Yes, that’s a great way to put it: I often feel underestimated by others but I am starting to learn that it stems from underestimating myself. I do think it’s a life long process, but that we can move ourselves along that continuum. That is, we can make big initial improvements by changing our thinking, and then move into a kind of maintenance phase. Did you see Esther’s comment on how she’s using this? I thought that was particularly helpful. Be well, Vanessa!

    • On
    • December 16, 2013 at 3:57 pm
    • Sheila
    • Said...

    “Just one more accomplishment, and my value will be unquestionable.” I spent years at a job saying that again and again to myself. I finally “gave up” and left the job, feeling like a failure who was unable to prove my value. But this post helps me realize I will take this same thought into the next job unless I begin to find ways to value myself. Thank you for this timely post!

    • Happy to help, Sheila! You’re completely right and the way to value yourself, in my opinion, is to start by defining success for yourself. It’s the only mechanism I’ve found to keep the overachiever-ness at bay.

    • On
    • December 17, 2013 at 11:29 am
    • Tom Southern
    • Said...

    It’s takes a brave soul to stand up to the mob.

    You never know whether that soul will be you until the time comes.

    I can’t help mentioning that the rabbit’s response is a common rabbit reaction. Which makes me wonder about the real outcome being taught in this exercise.

    That aside, this story reminds me of what I’ve learned so far from times in my life when I’ve let others drive me: Trying to prove you are what you aren’t isn’t productive. But often the lesson we learn isn’t about ourselves directly, but about the people who would presume power over us to do what they want us to do.

  3. Thanks for the great post Jen! Loved this article. I’ve touched on this subject once in my blog too and I must admit, I’m guilty of this once upon a time in my life and looking back, I felt real stupid for doing something I didn’t really want just to belong and get the approval of others. I didn’t want to live in regret so I just moved on from it but if I can change anything, I would have not give in to peer pressure.