While asking this question won’t change your life, it can help pause your inner critic and create space for possibility, says therapist Susan Henkels.
This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from someone in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.
Susan Henkels has worked as a psychotherapist for more than 45 years. That means she’s spent decades smiling and nodding, decades handing over tissues at the appropriate moment — and decades hearing people tell her all the things about themselves that need to be fixed.
One day, as she was listening to a patient take her through the “whole list of what was wrong with her,” says Henkels, “I thought in the middle of this litany, ‘What? There’s actually nothing wrong with her.’”
From that moment, she realized there is a surprising power to be found in prompting people to ask themselves, “What if there’s nothing wrong with me?”
This does not mean we’re perfect. For instance, most of us could stand to eat better and sit up straighter. But we can stop spending so much time dwelling on our personal shortcomings and imagining how our lives will be better once we finally — finally! — vanquish them. “We create this whole list of what we think is wrong and then create an entire life around it,” says Henkels, who is based in Flagstaff, Arizona.
In fact, the attributes we think of as problems can be our strengths. Henkels tells this story. She once found herself chatting with a director after a screening at a film festival, and he asked her what she did for a living. She said she was working on a book called What If There Is Nothing Wrong With You?
Henkels recalls, “He looked at me and said, ‘I can tell you right now eight things that are wrong with me.’ So I said, ‘Name one,’ and he said very defiantly and certainly, ‘I have oppositional defiant disorder.’ I said to him, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ He said, ‘Well, I would always defy my parents and teachers.’ I asked, ‘Well, what’s wrong with that?’ ‘I wouldn’t comply with any of the rules at school and I didn’t do anything I was told to do at home. ‘What’s wrong with that?’ He said, ‘Well, I was always in a bad temper, I argued with my parents all the time, I never had any friends, and I loved being alone.’ I said, ‘Well, what’s wrong with that?’ We had several interactions like that, and at some point … he said to me, ‘Hmm, you know, actually I really liked being alone, and I was able to write stories, write film scripts in my head. Come to think of it, oppositional defiant disorder has made me who I am.’”
The next day, “he came up to me and told me: ‘I slept through the night for the first time in years. I wasn’t having to make myself wrong and decide what I should be doing and shouldn’t be doing,’” says Henkels. “He said, ‘You know, I’m going to look at those seven other things that I was so sure were wrong with me.’”
“What if there’s nothing wrong with you?” is about building the skill of acceptance. Acceptance is a core aspect of Buddhism (where it’s known as “equanimity”) and a quality that scientists are beginning to study. In one experiment, researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University found that a mindfulness app that featured acceptance as part of its training reduced the impact of stress on its subjects. In a more recent experiment from the same research team, subjects who used the app showed increased feelings of sociability and decreased feelings of loneliness.
Henkels says this question is about pressing pause on your inner critic and making “a choice to let go of all the ways you’ve made yourself wrong,” as she puts it. To be clear: “What if there’s nothing wrong with me?” is not a magic question. It will not all-caps CHANGE YOUR LIFE. But it can help you create a clearing in the busyness of your mind and life, a space of promise and possibility that is yours to plant and cultivate.
Watch her TEDxSedona talk here: