What “Might” Have Been: When Frustration Actually Moves Us Forward


“Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.” – Adam Phillips

Today’s post is about to float in the stratosphere. Grab the string, if you can, and hang on tight for the ride!

Like many of you, I enjoy the contributions of Brain Pickings, introducing me to heady authors and books I might otherwise miss. One of the most thought-provoking recent editions featured psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and his book Missing Out: In praise of the unlived life.

Personally, I’d wonder about any artist who has not, at one time or another, worried that s/he has “missed out” on the artistic life s/he could have had, or has not lived up to his/her potential. It’s this idea that Phillips tackles, according to Brain Pickings writer Maria Popova, because “potential” is an imaginary reality we or others construct in our minds about what we’re capable of accomplishing.

Whether or not that “potential” is actually possible is another question entirely. One we can’t entirely solve. But oh, how it haunts us artists!

Very often, it’s easy to look at others who’ve achieved more mainstream success and think, “Wow, s/he has lived up to his/her potential.” Which, by contrast, suggests that we have not, since we’re still toiling away for a much smaller audience.

According to Popova, Phillips is suggesting we press “pause” on that idea of “our potential” and examine it a lot more closely than we might normally do.

Potential implies frustration with a desired reality we have not achieved, and as Popova comments, “. . . it is through our frustrations that we come to know our wants.”

Wait. What? Say that again.

It is through our frustrations that we come to know our wants.

Could it be that the reason we fail to achieve in our lived realities what we do in our imaginary ones, is because we haven’t paid close enough attention to what those frustrations tell us about ourselves?

Could frustration really be the key to accessing that “next level” as an artist?

These questions shifted my perspective on “potential” entirely. Normally, I get super uncomfortable with discussions of potential, because I feel like they are arbitrary. When people discuss my potential, I feel like they are pushing a fantasy on me, or forcing me to live up to standards that seem impossible to meet. And besides, how could I possibly control all factors to get to their desired end result?

But now Popova has me thinking.

What if the reason I’m uncomfortable with this idea of “my potential” is because I, too, have a much deeper sense of potential than I’ve ever acknowledged to myself.

Could the frustration or discomfort I feel during these conversations be a clue to what I really care about most, and what I most want to accomplish as an artist?

What if channeling that frustration—observing it without judgment, as many yogis would teach—would ultimately help me chart a more fulfilling course as an artist and as a person?

As Nietzsche has said, “. . . the child’s dawning awareness of himself is an awareness of something necessary not being there. The child becomes present to himself in the absence of something he needs.” 

What if my artistic goals, and my unique path, becomes clear only within in the spaces of perceived lack or emptiness I’m so often unwilling to even contemplate . . . simply because it’s painful? 

Popova has some advice for us, based on Phillips’s conclusions.

“We are just as well advised, it turns out, to keep on nodding terms with the people we could’ve been, the people we never were, the people who perished in the abyss between our ideal selves and our real selves.” – Maria Popova

This is refreshingly opposite of my usual approach. After all, the people I’ve never been and the ones I could have been typically occupy a sort of “jailhouse” in my thinking. I keep them behind bars and often hide the key, even from myself.

What if it’s time I let them out to have a decent conversation?

And in that spirit, I’ll turn the question around to you. How comfortable are you with the person everyone (including yourself) says you could have been or the opportunities you know you could have taken but did not? What about the person you could be but are not yet?

If you’re like me, your relationship with those “versions” of yourself is pretty combative. Especially if you’re an artist. So maybe it’s time we invited them for a conversation, and asked them what they can teach us about the people we are right now.

Maybe, just maybe, they’ll help us appreciate more the people we already are. Cut ourselves some slack, even, and recognize that life is a journey. . .

And also realize what we want to do differently in the future.

As Phillips says:

“It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not …We have to be aware of what is missing in our lives — even if this often obscures both what we already have and what is actually available … to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like.” – Adam Phillips

This might sound heady and psychological, but think about it in terms of actual anecdotes from your life, and it gets concrete really fast.

For myself personally, I realized that sometimes I make artistic decisions because they allow me to maintain control of my product, at the expense of being found by the audience I also desire to have. My “unlived self” is able to reach a much larger audience than the real self I live with every day. She is charismatic and has her pulse on what people are thinking and feeling. Somehow, she is able to speak to those “zeitgeist” issues in her work while remaining true to her artistic vision.

This is the woman I wish I were, or possibly could have been years ago, when I was trying to write for the mass market. But I am not that woman now. In fact, I make creative decisions in direct contradiction to this so-called “potential.”

And on a daily basis, I feel somewhat frustrated . . . which is exactly the emotion Phillips tells me I should embrace and observe.

What might happen if I listened a bit more to that unlived self, that potential, and started making a few decisions based on who she is and how she would act?

Put in other terms, this whole discussion is starting to sound a lot like Tara Mohr‘s concept of the Inner Mentor, which I shared a few weeks back. Perhaps our Inner Mentor is in a sense that unlived woman within us: not just the woman we can become, but the one we wish we had already been.

I need to spend some time observing the gap between my lived and unlived lives, and asking what they can teach me about the one I hope to live.

But first, I suspect we’ve got some making up to do.

What about you?

4 thoughts on “What “Might” Have Been: When Frustration Actually Moves Us Forward

  1. I’ve recently begun an MFA program which has resulted in somewhat of a crisis of confidence. Not only am I writing about events centered on my childhood, but I am also getting direct critique from a respected and successful writer and professor. In a sense, I am exposing myself on two different fronts. Those old wounds of chances lost are rubbed anew. Thanks for sharing this. I will reblog this on my blog.


    • Bill, I have been there myself, and I know how scary and painful this sort of undertaking can be. Thank you for sharing your experience. I hope you get up every morning and tell yourself how brave you are for doing this. Please keep me posted!


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s