On attachment, ambition, ideals and the art of letting go.
Iturned 37 on October 3. I spent the vast majority of the day in a rented Toyota, driving from my dad’s house in Northern Alabama, stopping at the bridge in Selma to pay respects to those who fought for Civil Rights in 1965, and continuing on to New Orleans, where I drank Ramos Gin Fizzes at the ornate Roosevelt Hotel. Alone. In silence.
Along the way, I was wished “Happy Birthday” by people in 38 different countries, and that felt gratifying … it felt validating. And yet therein, of course, lies the double-edged sword of affixing yourself to achievement, or believing your relationships are your legacy.
I fall prey to both those pitfalls at times, and as I was driving alone through the Deep American South in the dark of night, I realized what my 37th solar circuit was all about: Tangibility. And we don’t talk much about the difference between pursuing the tangible and intangible.
One of my cruelest and long-running internal jokes is that so much of what I’ve done with my life feels intangible. I ghostwrite for other, more noteworthy people. I brand other companies. I’ve written as the voice of a global corporation. My name, aside from on my Medium page, appears almost nowhere. Yet, there’s a very good chance you’ve read something I’ve written, and it moved you in some way — even if it moved you to change the channel.
Most of my relationships involved some degree of long distance. Many of my stories shared here are deemed too fantastical to be true, and I often question whether they really happened. (They did.) Nothing feels tangible, and therefore my fulfillment never felt real.
Tangibility — proof — is something we crave. They’re the bullet-points on our resume. They’re the line items in our Wikipedia page. Yet — when we talk about how we feel about our lives, those data points feel a bit more squishy. Emotions are malleable, and only mildly tethered to concrete conditions.
When people ask “How are you?” How many of us answer with any real degree of self-reflection? I know I don’t; I’ll often default to rattling off whatever I’m doing that excites or troubles me to support my one-word answer. Yet that relationship between what I’m doing and how I feel is often loose and leaky, because of the interference being run by the intangible. And it’s the pursuit of the intangible that makes life rewarding. Those are the guide-stars worth sailing towards. Now, what do I mean by that?
Not to reference my own mediocre armchair philosophy, but I wrote a piece this past year called “The 7 Noble Pursuits.” Those seven are: Health. Joy. Peace. Purpose. Communion. Wisdom. Freedom. All those things are mostly intangible, yet they make all the difference in how we view and feel about ourselves and the world around us.
Those seven words are ideals — not opinion or belief or idea … Ideals. Ideals are all that are worth striving for. Ideals are all that stick in the center of the Venn diagram between thinking and feeling. Idealism is often chided as romantic and quixotic; I believe it’s necessary and courageous. Committing to ideals is what liberates us from the tyranny of pursuing the tangible attachments that do not guarantee fulfillment.
Ideals never let us down. They never cancel us or cancel on us. They never claim our nervous breakdowns are selfish. They never say we’re not enough. They don’t bankrupt us, nor fire us, nor pass us over for promotion, nor insult us, nor anger or frustrate us. They don’t judge us. They’re merely a magnetic north on the compass.
Most importantly: we can’t anxiously attach to an ideal. Should we get close enough to touch them, we don’t shrink from them or nervously clutch them like an addict would a pill bottle. Instead, they become our life’s work and work’s life. They become the talking points at our eulogies. They become our legacies. Letting go of external attachment is the key to internal liberation of the self and flawless self-expression.
How do we free ourselves from the burden of attachment? From the hamster wheel of tangibility? First, let’s define what we mean by attachment. There are four kinds of attachment styles: secure (non-pathological), anxious, avoidant, and anxious/avoidant.
Ultimately, at the root of an attachment pathology is a current or chronic condition of feeling like we have too much of something toxic or not enough of what we need, stemming from either a lack of self-worth (anxious), or an extreme distaste or contempt for others (avoidant), or both (anxious/avoidant).
These mindsets are centered upon having too much of something toxic or not enough of what we need, and generally caused and/or amplified by an early single trauma or a chronic series of micro-traumas. An excellent in-depth exploration on attachment styles can be found here.
Anxious (desperately craving that which was scarce), avoidant (dismissive or perturbed by that which we already have) or anxious/avoidant (both) attachment styles help make the attacher feel safer, by modulating the closeness and intensity of the attachment. A lot of people talk about it terms of how we attach to other people, yet I’d like to expand that paradigm to envelop anything external to the self.
For example: hoarders. They, objectively, have too much stuff. Yet they keep accumulating. Why? Perhaps to feel safer, worthy and more secure. Too much can never be enough for them. Same with overbearing parents. They might have an anxious attachment to their kids. No amount of hearing from them or seeing them could ever make them feel loved enough.
On the flip, extreme minimalists and neglectful parents could be classified as avoidant attachers. Stuff and affection could make them fearful. Maybe they fear responsibility or feeling “trapped.”
Sometimes, pathological attaching is a survival tool: when you’re poor, you need to have an anxious attachment to things like food, money and work. Conversely, if you associate money with unpleasant memories (loss, death, manipulative greed) perhaps you’re avoidant with it. And, to reiterate, if you have an attachment pathology, it probably wasn’t caused by you, but it’s on you to work through … though it’s far easier to work around.
How do you know if you have an attachment pathology? A visceral, intangible emotional reaction to something. How do you feel when you think about certain things? Trapped? Smothered? Longing? Afraid? Bitter? However you feel, take note, and try to do so without judgment.Feelings are just data points — emotional states you can process and heal from. It’s not always easy — especially if you’re in the presence of the person who originally caused it — but it’s ultimately the most important work you’ll do.
I, as written here, anxiously attach to opportunities. Why? If you present me with an awesome experience or responsibility that no one’s presented me before, I’m going to say yes to it.
The behavior stemmed from when I was 29 — jobless, homeless and tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Everything was scarce. I couldn’t find work to save my life; I didn’t know anyone in town; I didn’t know where I’d sleep or when my next meal would be. It was incredibly traumatic at the time, and the prospects of nothing noteworthy on the horizon or no money in the bank became incredibly triggering for me.
Additionally, I already had a built-in fear of letting people down stemming from a sensitivity to admonishment. This fear likely predates my memory, as I grew up in an exacting household where I was scolded, accosted and reprimanded for not doing as I was told, or not being good enough, or not allegedly caring enough. I was often called “lazy,” “careless,” “ungrateful,” and “stupid.” What I had, instead, was undiagnosed ADHD.
Opportunity Hoarding comes from the same place as regular hoarding: a scarcity mindset. We hoard things to guard ourselves against loss and insulate ourselves against loneliness, meaninglessness and worthlessness. At 29, I felt like a lonely, worthless failure.
I felt as if the odds of any opportunity coming back around were going to be slim, so I developed a compulsion to say “yes.” I needed to capitalize on your generosity and misguided belief that I’m the perfect person to receive it.
It took a long time for opportunities of any kind to come knocking for me, despite my myriad privileges. It took an even longer time for me not to feel like a lonely, worthless failure. It took until just a few scant weeks ago for me to understand how to mostly protect myself against feeling that way.
The moment I was able properly triage the pathology underpinning my desire to become perpetually more, bigger and better, I decided to let it all go. I stopped the car and stopped striving … until I could figure out what I was lacking to the point where extra could never be enough.
Iquit my six-figure corporate day-job nine weeks ago. This morning, as I do most mornings now, I woke up and knew I had nothing pressing to do. All was quiet and still.
I made coffee. Watched a morning show. Wrote a little bit. Ran. Each day now feels surreal in its emptiness. In a world where I up until recently worked myself to the bone, ran at a breakneck pace, and kept hitting on 18 in the middle of the hottest heater I’d ever been on at the table, the mere act of cashing out and coasting for a while still hasn’t quite clicked.
Realities have faded into memories. Places I used to haunt are now haunted remnants of the places they used to be. I am now someone, somewhere, so different, yet very much still here. I feel both old and new, calm and collected. Chaos fades. Satisfaction slowly seeps through my pores.
Among the most confounding things I think about during this leisurely throttle-down of my thrusters is the degree to which we, at least here in the United States, tie ourselves to ambition and achievement. We’re always told to make our goals tangible. This helps us know when we’ve achieved them, and helps us measure our progress against them.
There’s nothing wrong with this in metered doses, yet the trouble is when we affix our self-worth and our identity to things outside the self: to achievements, relationships, accolades and ambition. We can take pride in these things, and find meaning in them, yet alone they’re not what soothe our existential ache. They’re not what make us worthy or enough.
For a long time, I felt I always needed to be “more.” Even in my writing. I needed to write ever-more and ever-better, just to reach some moving goalpost of fulfilled. I needed to always be more eloquent, more important, more prolific. More. It was a drag race in neutral. Confession №1: I don’t always have great content. (Accent on the first syllable.) Confessions №2: I really just want to be content. (Accent on the second syllable.)
I’m not sizzle, although I have plenty of it. I’m steak. And I’m rare. I’m not your idea of a good time. I’m ideal. And that’s enough. I’m writing this while watching Seahawks-Niners. Eating pizza. Sometimes, I pet my cat. That’s a weeknight for me.
I’m merely a man who likes to write things, run and travel. I like being kind to people and making dad-jokes. I like watching sports and occasionally playing them. I like to eat good food and occasionally cook it. I like listening to good music and occasionally playing definitively mediocre music. That’s it. That’s the John Gorman Experience. I plan my weeks on Sunday evenings. I get my haircut once a month. I wear beanie caps and zip-up hoodies when the temperature drops below 60.
The whole globe-trekking marathon-running, socialist-policy-ghostwriting story-spinning sex-positive demigod … it’s exhausting and it’s not my entire identity, nor should it be. I should not have to feel like I need to be an all-star in nine sports just to stay in the league. That’s an anxious attachment disorder with achievement.
And, if I may extend my thought to you: There’s no reason to develop yourself into a quote-unquote awe-inspiring person to feel you’ve earned your time on Earth. Your mere existence comes with it the knowledge that you’re worthy and enough as you are, as you were made, and that you’re entitled to treat others in kind.
The root of all evil is pathological self-interest, which can be easily defined as a pathological attachment to something: money, power, status, identity, achievement or validation (to name a few). Those who do harm do so to feel safer, more worthy or “enough,” and so they execute on their monstrous ambitions, fueled by their delusional views of themselves and/or others — as elementally unsafe, unworthy, not enough, or undeserving of belonging.
So, what does the relentless pursuit of intangible, of what outwardly looks like nothing, look like? How do you map out how to confidently march in place? Here are some questions I’ve considered, and may be worth asking yourself as you design your life:
- Who do I want to surround myself with?
- Who do I want to be remembered as?
- What do I want to spend my time doing?
- What do I want to suffer for?
- Where do I want to live?
- Where do I want to go?
- Why do I want to take care of myself?
- What do my mind, body and spirit need?
- How do I want to feel?
- How do I want to spend my money?
Then, you work backwards from those. Notice I left out questions that start with “when.” Timelines are arbitrary. There’s no proper order when it comes to being enough, or being who you were meant to become. Improvements in emotion, in joy and peace, wisdom and purpose, will inevitably improve other areas of your life and raise your overall satisfaction.
When it comes to making those decisions, I’ve found the less time I spend deciding, and the more time I spend acting, the better those decisions turn out to be.
Overthinking is, usually, a symptom of anxious attachment to something that we truly want or value. We fear losing, or not attaining, the thing in question, and we trigger our own flight-fight-freeze response system. We trick ourselves into believing that if only we have more information, then can we safeguard against failure.
Sometimes that reconnaissance bleeds well past the point of expiry when we should’ve began our march and re-calibrated our GPS along the way. When we inevitably enter the doomsday state of analysis paralysis, then we try to convince ourselves we weren’t quite ready or didn’t really want it in the first place.
The more we truly want something — the higher those stakes are — the more prone we are to choking under the weight of our own desire, or the importance of the decision and the moment. I say this from a point of hard-earned experience: It happens to me all the time, too.
The true “white whales” of my life, to date, were mostly analyzed and fumbled away into oblivion, causing a “donut-shaped” accumulation of tangible desires — everything but the life partner, the starter castle, and the professional success commensurate with my talent, privilege, connections and work ethic. The inner solar system is empty, but the galaxy’s full.
I tend to get almost what I want, early and often, because I have no stakes invested in what I deem to be run-of-the-mill awesome. I come through spectacularly when nothing is on the line, yet when something’s expected, demanded or truly yearned for … I have a tendency to wilt. That’s anxious attachment again, which also manifests itself as impostor syndrome, survivor guilt, self-sabotage, and passive-aggressive behavior.
When I’m not busy overthinking stuff, and just doing what I need to get what I want, or just jumping in to try something, shit just works — it always does, and it works like gangbusters.
This is why it’s usually best to bounce your gridlocked decisions, about the things you’re anxiously attached to, off impartial third parties — confidantes, therapists, if you can afford them (and, lord, should therapy ever fall under the umbrella of universal healthcare) — and get other people to help you take the necessary steps to set the wheels in motion. These folks don’t have stakes invested. They’re not anxiously attached to, nor afraid of, getting what you want —why are you? As they offer their insights, it’s important to ask yourself that question and examine your feelings and associated underlying context.
Toaid me in my quest for quiet, I’ve given up drinking, again. Not just in Austin, but even while traveling. I find my tendency to anxiously attach to things and people fade away as my mood has moderated. I’ve done small administrative activities to get my ducks in a row to fill in the empty space.
As I’ve moved away from the end of my romp through the edge of reason, and hunkered down into a quieter, less chaotic life, I’m noticing things changing.
I crave sex, booze, human contact, validation, opportunity, thrill and approval significantly less. Maybe the levels for all those have dropped 60–70%. This was a desired result, although it’s more of a side-effect, as I haven’t actively eschewed these things.
I had a stretch where I dropped 11 pounds in 17 days. My blood pressure’s dropped 40 points. My resting heart rate dropped 20. I’ve started sleeping eight hours a night. Again, this is a desired result, although not a conscious effort.
It’s become mostly easier for me to say no to things and draw boundaries. I’ve become more comfortable with silence and asking for what I want (which is usually space and time). I feel a sense of being all the way caught up on things and have let go of many of the opportunities I’d been hoarding. This is also a desired result.
Ispend most of my days now deep in thought, checking off tasks, taking care of myself. I run. I drink water. I read. I work (sometimes). I’m largely silent and have been mostly unavailable. I spend an afternoon each week in therapy. Simple stuff. This is purposeful — a course correction after so much time spent racing the speed of light. It’s nice to look at a clear plate and a clean slate. Been a minute. I can relax now.
I still think about love sometimes. I want it, of course. Not in the anxious way I once did that blew up spectacularly and prompted the initial Medium maiden voyage, or in the avoidant way that I usually do — all the casual sex and long-distance trysts I seem to find myself engulfed in. No, the real thing. Local. Leisurely. Wherever and whenever life takes me.
Yet I’m content to stand alone for now, build my reserves, shine my own inner light, and remind myself that solitude isn’t synonymous with loneliness. Ultimately, fear of loneliness, along with their close cousins meaninglessness and worthlessness, are what cause me to be so attached to opportunity, achievement and relationships in the first place.
Every day, I seem to keep getting better at explaining myself to people, asking for what I want and need, and not allowing myself to simply acquiesce to others and immediately say, “yes sir, yes ma’am,” or “you’re right, my mistake,” in the interest of being easygoing or well-liked — in the interest of being worthy and enough. If the Hallmark of who I am is being likable and perfectly nice, then that isn’t much of a Hallmark at all, and certainly not worth sacrificing my sense of self or my ideals for.
So, no, I don’t want to do things for the sake of doing them. I don’t want to work so hard. I don’t want to drink so much. I don’t want to fuck for fuck’s sake. I don’t want to flirt with you. I don’t want to make you smile and laugh. I don’t want to do unnecessary favors. I don’t want to gloss over conflict.
I want to travel. I want to improve the world to the extent that I reasonably can. I want to feel. I want to give love. I want to write. I want to feel genuine joy while wearing a neutral expression on my face. I want to heal. I want to be genuinely kind. I want to cut myself off from you if you don’t do it for me. I want to care. I want the truth. I deserve all that shit.
What I’m allowing myself to do, for the first time, I think, is unapologetically bring the confidence and vulnerability I display on the internet into my real life. I’m allowing myself to feel fully neutral and empty, and relentlessly pursue absolutely nothing in service of growth, so that when I say “everything is okay” when people ask me, “How are you?” it’s not a repression, or devoid of self-reflection, but rather a manifestation of a future state that I’m confident will be.
Ihave no doubt that as I continue to experience and notice these metamorphoses that my silence and disappearance, stoicism and sudden urge to gently say “no” is leading to, or will lead to, people feeling like I’ve been disingenuous before, or that I’m being boring, cold and unfeeling now.
It’s not that. My biochemistry is shifting faster than I’m able to describe or predict. I’m as surprised in real-time as the miffed are mad. Other people’s disappointment is a fear I need to let go of, as letting people down is, often, at the root of my tendency to say “yes” to opportunities and hoard them.
The irony of what’s about to happen is this: the healthier I become, the more I’m going to anger people or let them down. It sucks, but it’s what I have to do. I have to break these chains to achieve my fullest form.
I wasn’t in a bad place before. But I saw a path to a better, brighter, simpler place — and I’m taking it. Folks may not come with me, and I will miss them, but it’s for the best.
When people fall for a sub-optimal you, even a new and improved you will subvert their expectations, because people value consistency above all. We admire people and things that predictably and repeatedly meet our expectations.
Weirdly, in pursuing that which is intangible, via living by a set of ideals, it’s that consistency that I’m working towards, and that shift is monumentally jarring. When I told my dad on the afternoon of October 3 that I wanted to leave his place in Alabama to go home (through New Orleans, it’s quite a long drive to do all at once), because I was tired and needed alone-time and a chance to rest, he told me he found that “unusual.” He was right. I’ve never once asked to leave anywhere early because I was “tired,” and in the past, I would’ve felt as if I was letting him down to properly voice what I needed. Ideals are not moving targets and the steps taken to move closer to them are simple, though not necessarily easy.
As previously written: “The treatment, to this point, is, truly, just a basic regiment of self-care. I feel more like an adult when I dress well, take care of my body, eat healthy, go to the doctor, invoice clients, pay bills on time, clean the house, run errands, buy matching pieces of furniture and wall decor, ask for the things I want and the grace to fail, go to therapy, and do the things I say I’m going to do … The easiest way to feel like a functioning, responsible adult is to perform responsible adult functions, over and over again, until they become a little bit easier.”
These are the activities, ultimately, that lead me to feel less like a fraud, less anxiously attached, and feel more worthy and enough as I am without needing to do or become more. I deserve that, and it’s something that can only come from within. These are the activities comprise the optimal me.
I’m going to keep ruffling feathers. I’m going to keep refining my methods. I’m going to keep morphing. I’m going to keep leaving. I’m going to keep letting you down. And I’m going to keep taking care of my wants and needs, and betting on myself that I can keep doing better.
Imostly want to develop a stronger set of habits and rituals. I want to be healthier, move slower, laugh longer, and find a love that lasts. I want to be a kinder person, to keep learning, and to polish my self to a squeaky shine.
I aim to cultivate better, more wholesome relationships, and do well by others while honoring both my boundaries and theirs. There isn’t much else to this. I’ve moved from unchecked ambition to unimpeded care-taking, from broadening my capabilities to nurturing them.
I don’t want to make more money. I don’t want more power. I’d rather stand for something, work to make it so, and ease the burden of suffering. I’m trying to create the optimal user experience for myself, and for all of us orbiting the sun, in whatever tiny ways that I can.
Idon’t lack anything of note. I travel. I get to spend my days doing what I want. I sleep when I’m tired. I eat when I’m hungry. I drink when I’m thirsty. I talk when I’m feeling social. It’s a content, warm, fine place to be. I have enough, I do enough, and I am enough. Life is already good for me … I’m out here trying to feel as much of that good as I can, and maybe help others feel it, too.
If you get the chance — and I understand how rare this chance is, which is why I’m so hellbent on taking it — there’s no shame in walking away from the table, flush with a little extra house money, to rest and recoup. Now that I have, I’m taking a breather for myself. I have but one enormous bet left to make in the coming months, but aside from that, I’m coasting.
We weren’t put on this Earth to be so damned ambitious. We exist to belong. To be satisfied. To help others find belonging and satisfaction. To pursue health, joy, peace, purpose, communion, wisdom and freedom. To embody truth and love, discover our own strength and be inspired by the strength we witness in others. To forgo the tangible and ephemeral for the intangible and the eternal. That’s it.
Well — that and a tasty Ramos Gin Fizz and a night in New Orleans every now and again. That’d be … *ahem* … ideal.