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When You Go Straight Towards Your Kryptonite

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The first time I tried an oyster, I was six or seven and my parents had company over. I immediately gagged and spit it out on the plate. It was the worst thing I ever had in my mouth.

A few months ago, at a restaurant, my friend ordered some oysters and offered me one. I said thanks but I don’t like oysters, and then realized that I wasn’t sure if that’s true, because I had only ever tried one, in 1987, for one second.

So I tried it. It was fine. I get why people eat them, but I’d rather order something else. Mostly I felt silly for steering clear of them all this time, based on barely an eyeblink of real-life experience.

The fact that I let thirty-five years pass before giving the oyster a proper second look is an example of what I call the “kryptonite effect.” The moment you become averse to something, you begin to avoid engaging with that thing, so you never actually get to learn what it’s all about, including any affinity you might have for it. It becomes like kryptonite to you. Ease and comfort around it can never develop.

Learning the ins and outs of something requires that you let yourself experience it, but with this thing you have a rule that you don’t do that. So it remains entirely in the mind, as this withering, radioactive entity that you never get near and never look at closely, even while people around you handle it freely and enjoy it completely.

That time you tried doing cardio

Perhaps it’s no great loss if you miss out on one of life’s great shellfish dishes, but the kryptonite effect can happen with things that matter a lot more. Depending on the person, it can lock down all sorts of would-be endeavors: making art, talking to strangers, traveling, driving a car, having dinner guests, getting in the pool, using a computer, exercising, doing math, eating exotic foods, singing out loud, training for a different career, changing your haircut, baking, volunteering, maintaining houseplants, joining a club, achieving written goals, going to parties, competing for a promotion, wearing brightly-colored clothing, venturing a joke or anecdote to a group of people, and a thousand other things.

I bet for every person there’s at least one normal activity they want to do — which others seem to do with an enviable freedom — but they’ve always avoided it like it’s a deadly radioactive substance. Perhaps early experiences with this activity were painful or embarrassing, so you just turned away from it. That’s all it takes to make it feel forbidden to you in this lifetime. Subsequent attempts to get into it, if there were any, were probably strained and half-hearted and quickly abandoned.

Suddenly no longer radioactive

Getting genuinely familiar with the thing in question could melt away those fears and aversions rather quickly, but that can’t happen if you still regard it as a personal form of kryptonite.

For me it’s dancing. I love music, I love dancing (when other people do it), and I wish I could dance. But I basically don’t dance if I’m sober. I feel too self-conscious. It feels controlled and disconnected from the music. Then I try to correct for that, and end up contorting like Elaine Benes at her office Christmas party.

Me

The logical thing to do would be to practice dancing when I’m alone — get familiar with it when I know nobody’s watching and there are no real stakes. Enjoy the music, find a groove, and add stuff in gradually. The self-consciousness is so intense, though, that even when I’m alone I immediately feel stupid and stop. It’s such a strong feeling. I remember trying to dance in my apartment eight or nine years ago, blinds drawn, and I was convinced that the downstairs neighbor could hear how bad I was by the way the floor creaked. How kryptonite warps the mind!

However, precisely because of the kryptonite effect, these sorts of attempts at breaking through have been few and infrequent, which means I’ve never really made a good, sustained one. We know how familiarity reliably dissolves the initial fear and awkwardness — the kryptonic radiation — of any activity, because sometimes circumstances require us to do the thing anyway. A job that requires you to use power tools daily will massively reduce your trepidation around power tools, freeing you to use them whenever you want to.

Any time you need me bro

When perpetual avoidance is allowed, this familiarity never develops, and the kryptonite effect entrenches itself. The activity in question, however innocuous to everyone else, seems to wither your power and confidence whenever you get too close. Only by getting close despite the effect, and experiencing what dancing, algebra, or working with puff pastry is all about — rather than simply reacting to your old, scorned-outsider’s thoughts about it — can you neutralize the effect.

An Experiment

I’m going to do this with dancing. I want to put my body and mind through the experience of it, repeatedly, long beyond the usual quitting point, to find out what’s actually there for once. I joined a Udemy course on basic dance movement, and I’m going to do the whole thing and then see where I’m at.

In other words I’m going to head directly for the kryptonite, and see how long its half-life really is. I’ll dance how I dance, getting better at whatever I can, remaining in the sickly green rays as long as they’re there. If familiarity is the kryponite of kryptonite, going straight for it should be the most direct path to minimizing its effect. That’s the hypothesis anyway.

Learn to Dance, lesson 1.1

I’ll share what I discover on my experiment page. It feels impossible that this project won’t diminish the kryptonite effect somewhat, and also get me a decent bit better at dancing, given how little good-faith dancing experience I actually have.

Do you have a kryptonite effect in your life? What would it mean to you to to be able to do the thing in question freely? What would happen if you went straight for the kryptonite?

***

Images from Freepik and elsewhere

{ 33 Comments }

Sharon Hanna January 18, 2024 at 11:41 am

So hilarious – the oyster thing. I once spit an oyster into a white linen napkin in a fancy restaurant – dining with others and I didn’t know what else to do. Later (after a lot of wine) I forgot what I’d done….and accidentally whipped out the napkin and oyster guck – green and gray and slimy – flew all over the place. I just don’t get it about oysters, raw that is. Have you eaten them yet? Fried is good ;-)
Trying to figure out what my kryptonite would be; looking forward to others’ responses! Surprised there aren’t any. Always love your writing, David. Thank you!!

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Becky Horton January 18, 2024 at 11:53 am

Hi. Well with me, it certainly isn’t dancing because it’s one of my favorite ways to entertain myself! I do understand what you’re talking about and I do believe that walking right up to the kryptonite and calling it by its name is probably the very best course of action. We’re all wasting time when we allow something to intimidate us, or have us act in a way that’s in authentic. Great article. I appreciate it a lot.

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Rick C Hermann January 18, 2024 at 12:06 pm

I appreciate your emails. I dont ask you to stop but you are preaching to the quire.

My life is filled with people and gifts. Officially I am not a foody, But I operate like one. my mom taught me to try things first. It translated into people. I will meet anyone, and if first impressions suck, I don’t toss them. I get to know why they gave me that impression. there have been a couple, not many, but a couple of people I had to avoid, but most of them I liked or toke under my wing.

gifts such as a freind intorduce me to F3. it is a mens workout group that happens outdoors rain or shine. it is free. and the people I have met are wonderful.

I have lost several jobs over the years but made it to retirement. I am happy, healthy, and wise, (not as wise as I should be) ;)

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Deb January 18, 2024 at 12:11 pm

This reminds me of something from my childhood. My grandparents were trying to get me to eat the fried liver on my plate but I hated it. They told me it was steak. In my 5 yr old mind that made sense. It tasted like a wooden stake. I was probably 35 years old before I actually tried real steak, having politely turned it down many times up until then.

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David Cain January 18, 2024 at 3:13 pm

Many such cases, I’m sure :)

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Jessica January 18, 2024 at 12:28 pm

I wonder if I have the “kryptonite effect” when it comes to relationships?

I’ve been cheated on by two fiancés and multiple partners, so when attractive women show interest in my boyfriend or vice versa, I become extremely anxious and hypervigilant It’s hard for me to distinguish between friendliness and flirting, so I keep these individuals at arm’s length to protect my relationships. I wonder if this is being “averse” to and avoiding individuals I consider to be potential threats. Funny thing is, I have a lot in common with many of these women, but I’ve avoided getting close to them to prevent them using it as an opportunity to get close to my partner.

I’ve been in therapy for years to overcome this (“interpersonal PTSD”) while still protecting myself. I know it’s irrational, but when it happens, my entire nervous system is activated, like I’m seeing a car accident – racing heart, rapid breathing, etc.

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David Cain January 18, 2024 at 3:14 pm

This is definitely a thing! I would think that any sufficiently painful experience can create a lasting kryptonite effect, which could strengthen itself over time.

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Brian Cornelson January 18, 2024 at 12:44 pm

My kryptonite was cold water swimming. I’ve lived across the street from the ocean for two years and hadn’t been in once, even in summer. On New Year’s Day I powered through and went for a polar bear swim. Exhilarating–I went in twice–and not nearly as “bad” as I’d imagined.

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David Cain January 18, 2024 at 3:15 pm

I’ve noticed that getting into cold water is way worse than being in cold water. It’s really seconds until it’s not so bad, but in those first moments it seems like that’s how it will be the whole time. Just get those shoulders under and you’re good :)

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Gabriela January 18, 2024 at 1:07 pm

Humans have been dancing forever. Our bodies were made to move and they want to move. Dance is a wonderful way to move stagnant energy. I facilitate a dance/movement modality (Core Connexion) that does not have choreography. It requires an open beginners mind and curiosity. May I suggest you try out some similar dance modalities – ecstatic, 5Rhythms, trance – all about releasing yourself to the rhythm and exploring where the music takes you. It really can be a form of meditation. Have fun! Looking forward to your experiment findings.

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David Cain January 18, 2024 at 3:17 pm

I know, which is why I feel so alienated by it. It’s such a natural thing and I feel like part of me is made for it.

Can you point me to any of these styles? (music, instruction, etc.)

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Jeanette January 18, 2024 at 1:12 pm

I am terrified of driving. I move to NYC so I didn’t have to. now I need to . so scared.

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David Cain January 18, 2024 at 3:18 pm

You can do it. I remember being afraid of driving before I got my license. That was a long time ago, and it quickly became comfortable.

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Sheena January 18, 2024 at 7:32 pm

I have to comment because I just learned to drive at the age of 39! I had avoided it for so long and also moved to a big city so didn’t “need” to drive. I was terrified. I took lessons with a driving school, which helped. And now I can drive! Thinking about driving is so much scarier than doing it. You can do it!

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Jeff January 18, 2024 at 1:43 pm

It’s funny – I had the exact same oyster aversion, until I finally tried one again recently and loved it. Now I’m obsessed with them.

It’s one thing to avoid something your whole life and find out later that it’s not so bad.

It’s another to discover you actually adore what you’ve been avoiding all this time. Reignites your sense of wonder for everything else you might be missing in life.

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David Cain January 18, 2024 at 3:20 pm

This has happened to me with a number of things. Recent ones include whiskey and rock climbing. It’s fun to think about future discoveries that are waiting.

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Tomaz Z. January 18, 2024 at 1:57 pm

Oysters are a great way to get yourself sick, as they are filter-feeders.

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Dave January 18, 2024 at 6:31 pm

Says the person who likely never eats oysters….

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E January 18, 2024 at 1:58 pm

Great post. I had the same experience with dancing – felt awful attempting it even alone in my room. What shifted for me was discovering and taking classes on swing dance. Walking into that first class was one of the more terrifying moments of my life. But I loved swing dancing almost immediately (fun vibe, not too serious, music I liked), and gradually it started to feel more natural to move my body to music to the point that I lost my dread of “normal”, unstructured dancing. Good luck with your experiment!

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David Cain January 18, 2024 at 3:24 pm

This is encouraging!

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Karen January 18, 2024 at 4:21 pm

My name is Karen. And I’m a terrible dancer. But, I love to dance. I’m not sure how this relates but in summer of 2022 I had foot surgery, and the heal time was much, much longer than I anticipated. I missed dancing – much more than I realized. Two weeks ago I took a cruise and a 90’s dance party was on the docket… I walked into that lounge, said goodbye to my husband (not a dancer) and poorly danced my toosh off for hours, not caring one bit for how I looked to others on the dance floor. Something took over my body that I cannot describe. Sometimes, when we’ve missed something so badly and we now have an opportunity to do it again, embarrassing feelings go by the wayside and our kryptonite is suddenly blocked by a much greater force.

I had such an amazing time.

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Sara January 18, 2024 at 7:57 pm

Awesome article David – and such a good reminder. My kryptonite was singing. I always loved it, but due to having a brother who sang like an angel in church, and being told to shush there, I felt I couldn’t (and to be fair I could NOT hold a tune). Fast foward 35 odd years to the March – April 2020 lockdown in NZ, and I found an online singing tutor. For the rest of the year I met with her online every week. It was horrid at first, I used to get off and cry, but I kept going. In October that year I sang to my husband on his birthday – he loved it. In Jan 2021 I joined a community choir, where I was told I had a beautiful soprano. Now I look forward to choir every week, sing in our concerts, sing around the house, sing walking to work. I will be learning and improving my whole life, but now I am a competent singer, who makes people around her happy – not one ‘shush’!

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David Cain January 19, 2024 at 8:33 am

I love this anecdote because I feel like it’s a quintessential example of the happy version of the story. Something painful happens early on, and you write the thing off, but you never stopped loving it on some level. Then one day you have the guts to try it again, and there’s an initial wall of pain and awkwardness, but it can’t survive the growing familiarity if you keep at it. Then it’s behind you. I will take inspiration from this!

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Rick January 18, 2024 at 10:13 pm

My aversion is to tobacco smoke for as long as I can remember. Growing up with a mother who smoked obsessively has undoubtedly affected my life from exiling myself to my room or playing outdoors as a kid, to avoiding careers where I would be exposed to it. As a lifelong amateur athlete, I’ve benefited from the aversion, but it has also cost me in terms of who I let into my life. I’ve also avoided recreational drugs for similar reasons. Just no need to go there. Fortunately, I’ve found good people and places to thrive in other dimensions of my life. Fortunately, society is restricting the habit in modern times, but the 1950s and ’60’s were brutal during my developmental years. BTW, I prefer cooked oysters. lol

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Paulina January 19, 2024 at 1:22 am

Love that you wanted to learn dancing, moreover coming from you. I think is great you want to do that.

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Rob January 19, 2024 at 8:16 am

As someone who shares your kryptonite, I’d love to know which class you picked!

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David Cain January 19, 2024 at 8:35 am

This one: https://www.udemy.com/course/get-on-the-dance-floor/

I’m a few lessons in so I can’t be sure yet what it’s like but the reviews are good.

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Christy January 19, 2024 at 8:23 am

Hi Dave,

I’ve been reading your posts for a while now—resonating with many. This one compelled me to respond. I think I’ve overcome most of my food kryptonite (except bananas, which I still find cringey), but I do have years-old aversions to some of the would-be endeavors you listed, including dancing.

I appreciate you holding space for this silly, stifling phenomenon that serves nothing and no one. For me, it seems to balloon with time. I look back on my younger, more resilient, more confident self and think—what happened to you? When did you become so uptight and scared to—what? Look silly? Fail? Nobody cares but me. I need to get out of my own way.

Thank you for the wake-up call.

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David Cain January 19, 2024 at 8:36 am

I think we do tend to collect fears and aversions over time. But we also get wiser, so maybe we can bring that wisdom to bear on some of those accumulated fears.

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Sarah January 20, 2024 at 5:35 am

I have read your posts for a very long time and have always appreciated them – this one is no different. There’s something in it about allowing yourself to feel fear, anxiety, worry etc when approaching a kryptonite and giving yourself permission to feel those things, knowing that they don’t mean that you’re doing something wrong or bad. Trusting that you can and will look after yourself if it doesn’t work out. There can be big rewards for facing fears when you look back at how scared you were and how far you’ve come. Can’t wait to hear how dancing goes.

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Laura January 21, 2024 at 1:15 pm

David, I am so excited about this experiment you’re doing, and can’t wait to hear the updates. Will you share your progress with Patreon subscribers?

I have so many lifelong aversions that I know I could conquer if I applied myself, but the fear and avoidance are just so strong. I think the avoidance becomes its own kryptonite somehow. It’s like, as soon as I look at my abandoned acoustic guitar, this wave of of shame around my avoidance of trying to learn to play it hits me so hard that that I just look away and push it out of my mind. It all hurts so much.

That said, I did have an early triumph that I’d like to share. When I was a kid I hated tomatoes. Like, if a slice of tomato even touched my sandwich, I’d be repulsed and refuse to eat it. At age 16 or so I decided, this is ridiculous. I liked eating healthy and wanted to like tomatoes. So I started eating them and they were fine! Not my fave food, but the aversion was just gone. Somehow I just made the “decision” to not be repulsed anymore, and I’ve enjoyed tomatoes ever since. Why can’t I do this with my guitar??

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Genie Hughes January 25, 2024 at 4:01 pm

Oh, that was me and hard parmesan cheese – which I now love and could eat right off the knife – but I’d cut my tongue. ;)

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CC January 26, 2024 at 8:51 am

My big fear/kryptonite is going underwater and getting water up my nose due to some bad experiences in my childhood, so I was always the kid who chilled out in the shallow end by myself when all the others were diving and roughhousing in the water.

I always thought it looked like a lot of fun for those people that can do water sports and go underwater without thinking about how they are going to hold their breath and avoid getting water in their lungs, like it’s just something intuitive for them that I never got the grasp of.

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