Today I'm excited to be talking to Gary John Bishop who’s the bestselling author of -- I can't even say this if there are kids around. Make sure their ears are closed. It’s called Unfu*k Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life. Gary John Bishop runs Unfu*k Nation which includes a blog called The Asterisk and online classes. He’s one of the leading personal development experts in the industry. Originally from Scotland, he now lives in the US with his wife and three children.
Hi, Gary. It’s Zibby Owens from “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Gary John Bishop: Hi. How are ya?
Zibby: Good. How are you? Thanks for letting me push this back a little.
Gary: Sure. No problem. I'm great.
Zibby: Good. Your book was fantastic. I feel totally empowered having read it, although I had to hide the title from my kids. My daughter was like, “Mom, what are you reading?”
Gary: I know the feeling. I've got a thirteen-year-old, a six-year-old, and a four-year-old. It’s a little bit of a dance in my house when it comes to the title of the book.
Zibby: Wow. Actually, there are a lot of ways that this book can help parents. One of the ways I thought it really helped is I feel like there's a lot of self-doubt in the art of parenting itself. Am I doing this right? Is this the right punishment? Should I go in or leave her alone for a time out? In the book, you say we have about fifty thousand thoughts in a single day. I'm wondering what would your advice be for how do I channel the doubts and give myself more confidence as a parent?
Gary: I think I'm able to answer this both from the perspective of what I do and from the perspective of being a dad. One of the first things that I really had to give up in being a parent was that I knew what I was doing. Really, mostly people parent as a reflection of their parents or in some kind of reaction to their parents. You're either going to be just like your mom or totally not like your mom, or your dad or whatever. People are invariably either trying to recreate or react to the childhood they had. The more you recognize that, the more that I recognize that, the more I figure out a little bit more room to breathe.
Settling myself down was, “All right, look. This is a first for me too. I've never done this before. This is a new world for me.” I found out with my oldest son, really let him know, “I'm not always going to get it right with you. I want you to know that the intention is always there to get it right. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don't,” which gives me a lot of freedom with him, freedom for myself and freedom for him too to be authentic with him and tell him the truth rather than “I'm the voice of everything you'll ever want,” and really could give up the notion that I was somehow the voice of god or somethin’. That was really empowering for me as well. Then I could say, “If I get it right, I get it right. If I don't get it right, I don't get right. At least we’ll both learn somethin’ out of this.”
That's part of the dance with being a parent. We’re really committed to not screw it up, mostly. There's a lot of good intention there. Often, the intention behind the action isn't communicated. All the kid’s left with is the action. If you're obvious about the intention, “You need to learn something new here,” or “Whatever you're doing here doesn't work, so we’re going to do this instead,” all of those things allowed me to really connect with my children authentically as opposed to trying to fake it ‘til I make it. Did that make sense?
Zibby: Yeah, totally made sense. I wanted to talk a little more about what you said a minute ago about how we parent in reaction to our own parents. You wrote in your book that many of the clients have this subconscious desire to prove that their parents did a bad job in raising them. That plays out in their life in many ways. How do you see that playing out in how people become a parent, not just in the habits they pick up throughout their lives?
Gary: Your determination to not repeat the past is what repeats it. If you start with an ocean, everyone either reflects or tries to do a better job than their own childhood, “I'm going to do what my dad did. That was really great,” or “I'm not going to do what my dad did. That was terrible.” You end up with the opposite. You end up with either the opposite or the same. One of the things we fail to notice is what do we think our children are going to do with that? Your children are going to do what you did. What's that? They're either going to do that or the opposite. If you do the opposite of what your dad did, and your daughter does the opposite of what you did, they're going to do what your dad did. That's really the very crazy cycle we get ourselves into as parents. It’s like, “My mom wasn’t very loving with me, so I'm going to be really obvious in my love for my children.” Some of your children grow up, “Oh, my god. My mother suffocated me. It was too much. I'm going to leave my children alone.” Then their children grow up with, “Oh, my gosh. My mom never showed me any love, so I'm going to show it to my kids.” The cycle just keeps continuing.
My focus with my little ones is I'm not trying to make up for some stuff that I didn't have in my past. That just went the way it went. I'm not trying to replicate the things that happened in my past because they're gone. The way I look at it with my kids is, I'm more interested in what works, what's going to work here, what's going to work for you, what's going to work for us as a family. All of that is shrouded in my complete and unequivocal love for them. I always tell them, daily I tell my children many, many times every day -- I don't just mean like, “See ya. Bye. Love ya.” I really tell my children I love them and how much they mean to me. Again, I'm always in this practice. Sometimes I notice it. Sometimes I don't. I'm always in this practice of really trying to disconnect myself from makin’ up for or replicating something that's already happened.
Zibby: So important. It’s a vicious cycle, these things you're talking about. Time to stop it now. No time like the present. You said also in the book, which I found to be really helpful on a personal level but also as a parent, you wrote, “You must first accept that while there are things that have happened in your life that you've had no say in, you are a hundred percent responsible for what you do with your life in the aftermath of those events.” It seems like an obvious concept, but it’s so easy to lose the plot and not remember that in day-to-day life.
What are some adaptive ways to cope with the past? I know that's a broad question. How do you manage things that are out of your control like that?
Gary: It’s funny. I look at the way we are as human beings from a very distinct place. I don't look you as a human being from the position of, say, psychology. I don't look at you from a position of neuroscience or something. Those things are interesting. Don't get me wrong, very interesting. I tend to come from a very philosophical standpoint. I get really empowered by philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre says it’s all meaningless. It’s all empty and meaningless. What does that really mean? It means if you look back in your past -- you can only do that in your head, by the way. You can't look back any other way. There's no standing on the precipice of a cliff lookin’ into the past. It’s not out there. It’s all in your head. If you sit and recollect the past, you'll notice you've given some weight and significance to some things as opposed to some other things. Another way to say that to a human being is you, like all human beings, have cherry picked your past. You've made yourself a nice little basket of goodies that you're going to carry forward with you as some kind of template for how to live out your future.
When you really dig into it -- I've really dug into this. It’s maniacal levels at time. I realized I could've come up with a lot of different versions. I noticed that I came up with my version. One of the things I notice as an adult is that I'd become really dug in at my version of my past. If you dared question my version of my past, I was on the defense. I'm like, “You can't tell me what happened in the past.” I noticed that I would say I want to get over my past, but in certain cases if you poked me enough, I would fight for it. I'd be like, “I want to get over this garbage. I'm done with this thing.” If you dared question how I saw it or my experience of it, I would defend it.
I started to get the absurdity of that. What am I doing here? If I'm really interested in lettin’ go of this thing called the past, one of the things that might get me there is comin’ to terms with that I have a version of it. That was a long process for me. I started to realize that the moment I got over what had been was the moment that I realized how I'd used it to justify myself. The moment I could that, it was shocking. Oh, my gosh. When I'm doing this, I explain it by talkin’ about that. I'm doing this over here. I explained it by talkin’ about that over there. I realized I'd frightened all my jerkiness around it. It was rarely like, “I'm awesome, and it’s completely a function of other people in my life that make me awesome.” It was always like, “I'm awesome in spite of the people who attempted to screw me up.” I would say I gave away my power. I was stuck in the matrix of old thoughts and old emotions and old approaches and old ways of lookin’ at things. If I truly wanted to have a future, an unrecognizable future, I'd have to give up that my past has any kind of say in that.
Zibby: That's powerful stuff. I'm sitting here in my head thinking, “How can I rewrite my past?” Maybe I need to take some things out of my little basket and put some new things in there.
Gary: The question you ask yourself is, “How can I rewrite my past?” That's a great question to ask yourself. At first, it meant that you wrote it. That's the place you would start. What if I've screwed myself? I'm not weighed down by what happened, but rather I'm weighed down with what I told myself about what happened. What did it really mean? If that happened in my past, what does that mean about me? What does it mean about life? What does it mean about other people? Those things are the anchors that keep you down. It’s not what happened. It’s what you settled upon after that. That's what has you by the throat.
My new book goes into some of this in a lot more detail about the ways in which as human beings we are pretty much in a cycle of attempting to confirm what we've already concluded. What we've already concluded is not good news. When you see your own version, when you actually catch yourself in the act of perpetuating the mess of your own past, you actually catch yourself, there is a lot of shock. I've coached many, many, many thousands of people. It’s always shocking to them when you reveal somethin’ that they’ve concluded. Then they actually get a chance to get a real broad view of how they’ve lived their life with that. For many people it’s stuff like, “I'm not smart enough. I'm not loved. I'm never going to make it. I don't belong. I don't fit in.” Whatever your personal brand of it is, you're actually out to prove it every day. You're out finding evidence for it, confirming it, then trying to get over it, and then returning yourself to it, and then trying to get over it, and then returning yourself to it. Then you die. That's how that goes.
Zibby: Okay then. [laughs] I don't know if I can ask this, but there were many references to the “grit” of your early life and a crisis you went through yourself. I was wondering if you were able to share what it was in your past that inspired you to take this path and share this help with others?
Gary: Absolutely. I see you would ask me that question given the context of the conversation we’re havin’ right now. Like everybody else on this planet, if you'd asked me to tell you about my life, I could explain it to you. If you'd asked me to tell why it turned out the way it turned out, I could explain that too. If you'd asked me to tell you about my success, I could explain that. My failures, I could explain that too. It was in my late thirties, started to realize that I was quite -- I don't think I was a bad man or something. I wasn’t certainly not morally bad. Let's put it that way. I would've looked on myself as a morally good person. Like all human beings, I get to write off my nonsense by saying, “And I'm flawed,” rather than just ownin’ the whole thing. In my thirties I realized that, for the most part, when I looked at the cruddy parts of my life, I could explain that by talkin’ about the way my mom raised me. I could explain it that way. If I looked at the good parts of my life, I could explain that by some of my character traits. I'm independent. I'm driven. I'm charismatic. That's why I'm awesome. Here's why I'm not so awesome, my mom didn't do this, didn't do that, not enough of this, not enough of that, needed more of this. She was never there for that, all that stuff.
I wasn’t going around broadcasting this on every corner, but in the darkest corners of my mind, I was explaining it to myself in terms of, “I’ll never get what I want because my mom screwed it up in the first fifteen years.” That was the sum of it. There was lots more to it than that. There was a lot of Gone with the Wind to it. There's a lot more drama to it. I won't bore you with the details. Ultimately, it’s just boring. It’s just like everybody else. I'm blamin’ somebody for the way my life turned out. I started to realize if this is how I'm going to frame my future -- I haven't lived with my mom since I was sixteen. Here I am, thirty-eight and still talkin’ about it to myself. I had this big come-to-Jesus in my head. I called my mom up. I thanked her for my life. I thanked her for the privilege of being a man and who I've become. I told her I loved her. I said, “I love you.” In that moment, it hit me. I hadn’t told my mom that I loved her since I was about nine. I noticed in my life the process had already started by the time I hit nine. I was a good kid. I was one of these fundamentally good children. The resentment was building. I was building a case for myself and for her. It was no coincidence that I live three thousand miles away from her.
It was radical. Suddenly, I could see my mom in a whole other light. I literally rewrote my past. I recontextualized every action she’d taken. You have to do this, by the way, meticulously. You can't just do this in a blasé statement like, “Oh, yeah. [indiscernible],” which is what people say. It’s nonsense. They're not confrontin’ anything. I looked back. What did she do? She raised four kids. My dad mostly wasn’t there. He was an alcoholic. She was in her forties. Basically, her life was done. There was nowhere else to go. There's nothing else to do. There I am complainin’ that you didn't do this, you didn't do that, I didn't get this, I didn't get that, as a kid would do. Then I really started to come to terms with I complained that she wasn’t loving with me in the way I wanted her to be loving.
I really confronted the notion that I'd turned it into my own little narrative. I'd become that guy. That guy was a stoic, hardworking, “Don't do that lovey stuff with me.” I'm not at my most comfortable there. I'd literally become the thing that I complained about. I realized I'd become that way with her. On this full-on [indiscernible] demonstrate my love for her, for people, for my family, it all took for me in the space of about five minutes. My whole life pivoted. I realized that my life was all about me. I lit my mom up that day like a Christmas tree in a way she hadn’t been touched or inspired. I realized that I could do that with my life. I could have somethin’ to be here for. That's what I've been doing ever since.
Zibby: Wow. What a story. That's really beautiful and inspiring. I can just imagine how your mom must have felt that day. I'm hoping other parents out there are getting calls like that as a reaction to this. How do you feel now that you have dedicated your life to helping other people with your books, with the courses that you teach? Tell me a little more about the classes you teach. What are you getting from it yourself? What are you offering out there to the universe?
Gary: I've been in this game -- I don't mean a game like a setup. I mean literally I've been using my life for somethin’. You're always using your life for somethin’, by the way. That's always surprising to me when people think it’s noble. “Oh, you're using your life to make a difference?” Okay, but the alternative was I was going to use my life to run a small construction company. I decided against that. I decided to use my life for making a difference for people. One of the things that I experienced when I was first doing personal growth work, to me anyway, a lot of it just didn't land with me. It didn't do what I wanted it to do. I wanted to be awakened. I realized to awake me, you needed to provoke me. You couldn't awaken me by telling me to unleash my inner spirit. It just didn't work with me. That's not going to do it for me. I need somebody to tell me, “What are you doing, you jerk?” If somebody did that with me, I was like, “Oh, huh? What? What do you mean?” That allowed me to confront some sacred cows of mine, which is never easy.
We’re organized around these things. We've built lives around them. Then somebody says, “You might want to question that. That's not accurate, actually,” You're like, “Huh? What do you mean? I've been doing this for three decades now. You mean that might not be accurate? Of course it’s accurate.” All of my work is in that genre and that style of confront. I am firmly of the belief that the most powerful transformations of your life are ugly and snotty and have tears in them. You hate every moment of it. You know it’s completely necessary for what's on the other side of it. I haven't had any significant transformation in my life that was a joyous leap across a blanket of flowers in a country field overlookin’ the Swiss Alps. I never had any of those. I'm not saying they don't exist for people. They never existed for me.
My courses and my books and everything that I do is to present people with certain absolutes. You present people with an idea, they always take road out. They immediately start thinking of somebody else in their life. Sometimes I’ll put stuff up on Facebook and Instagram or say stuff like, “Humility: it’s not just for other people.” Then I’ll see people tag their friend with it. [laughs] I'm thinking, “No, it was for you.” It’s not easy to challenge people with absolutes. When people are [indiscernible] being analytical, all they want to do is talk about the theory of it rather than confront “What if this is true about me? What does that then mean?”
That's what I invite people to do when they interact with my work is to look at it like I'm talking only about you and this thing totally applies to you even though first you might think, “This doesn't apply to me.” If you sit with it, and you're still in it, and you allow yourself to be with what I'm proposing, you often get shocked at how penetrating it is. That’s something we don't really do enough of as human beings. We’ll do the critical thinking to break things down for ourselves and question ourselves. It seems to have really been a powerful approach for a lot of people. The book, it’s about 800,000 copies or something now. It’s been received in such a passionate way by people. People want something else. Sometimes they want to cuddle. Sometimes they want to wake up. I'm the wake-up guy.
Zibby: That's awesome. You have a new book coming out. On your blog, The Asterisk, which is such a cool name, you wrote, “I've been working on the next book for the last eight months or so, and as with everything I write, I've gone through my usual library of negative self-talk.” Then you go on to say, “Ultimately, what it comes down to is whether I'm going to define myself with all this stuff, the past, or am I going to strike a blow for some as yet to be uncovered future? And that's the choice we each have, to be defined be what has been or what has yet to come.”
Tell me how this applies to writing. I know there are a lot of writers out there who are plagued by self-doubt and don't have enough of the positive self-talk that you preach. How did that play into your writing your next book? When does it come out?
Gary: Firstly, it comes out May 7th. You’ll actually uncover your very personal self-sabotage in this book. You'll actually see yours. You'll see the whole of it, not just a bit of it. You'll see the whole model. You'll actually see, “Oh, my gosh. This is what it’s all based in.” One of the downsides with a lot of personal growth work has been this propensity to have people constantly be positive, which has a value, but it leaves you short if you're strugglin’ with that. You're pretty much toast if you don't have something, if you're not in some kind of positive state. Every negative thought you have, if you stop and listen to it and get the nature of it, you'll see that it’s based in some already existing notion that you've adopted. I can't do it. It’s too hard. I'm not smart enough. I don't trust people. It’s too much of a struggle for me. It’s never going to happen for me. I'm not loved. I'm incapable.
You've already had all these thoughts. It’s not something new like, “Oh, my gosh. I just came to the conclusion that I'm a Smurf.” [laughs] When you're pressed in life -- people call it overwhelmed or stress, I call it pressed -- it seems like life is on you. It’s squeezin’ on you. When life is on you and it’s squeezin’ on you, that's when the juice comes out. It’s not like the awesome juice of a mango or something. It’s your ugly snot juice that comes out. It’s when you're at your worst. Seemingly, you're at your worst when you need to be at your best in life. That's what I've noticed anyway. I really need to be confident right now, yet somehow I'm drained of any last modicum of self-belief.
My position with people is, “What if you could still act on something else while gripped by this negativity?” In my new book, I actually talk about the illusion that we have as human beings that somehow we are caused by our past, there's some kind of direct correlation. It’s not even a correlation. It’s more like a causality. I am this way today because of that thing that happened this morning or happened last night or happened ten years ago. Everything that I am today is a function of something that's already been, whether it was two minutes ago or twenty years ago. Included in that notion is that causality only travels in one direction, only ever travels from the past to the present. It can only ever be caused by what's been. Again, if you give that some thinking or some [indiscernible], which is usually pointless, but you actually give it some thinking, there's been plenty of times in your life if you just let yourself be with it, when causality has actually travelled from the future.
That might sound a little abstract. If you've ever booked a flight to go on your vacation and you've experienced the excitement of going, yet you haven't gone yet, you're being caused in that moment by the future. The future hasn’t happened. It’s reachin’ back to you and lighting you up. You're actually being inspired by something that hasn’t even taken place. I say to people, if you're an author, you say, “What's my book? What's my masterpiece I'm about to create here? What if I was caused by that? What if that was what got me out of bed in the morning, even though the past might be trying to pull me in another direction?” That's the little crossroads where you'll find yourself, in that little intersection there between being pulled to explain yourself by your past or being caused by a future that hasn’t happened yet. In that moment, all it requires is you to be a potent demand of yourself to act on your future as opposed to succumbing to the thoughts and emotions and moods and outlooks of your past.
You don't have to feel it to do it. You only have to do it to do it. If you just get that to your bones, “I don't have to feel it to do it. I don't have to do it to do it.” When I wrote my book that's out now, there were many days when I didn't want to go to the laptop. I did it anyway. I did it because I said I would do it. That was the only reason I was there. I would sit there and type and type and type and type and type. I might not have liked it. I might have thought it was terrible. I'm just going to keep going. I'm only going to keep going because I said I would keep going, not because I feel like it or even that what I'm sayin’ is decent. I'm only going to do it because I said I would. I'm going to keep doing that, and I'm going to keep doing that. I noticed I could be highly productive even in my most negative space. In fact, some of the juiciest things that I wrote in the book were given by being someone could relentlessly produce those results in the face of myself.
Zibby: Got it. That's awesome. I think we’re out of time. Thank you so much for sharing all of this amazing advice. I'm now going to be rethinking my entire life for the rest of the day, thanks to you. You will be in my thoughts as your book is here on my desk. I’ll be thinkin’ it through. Thank you so much. Thanks for inspiring all the listeners and doing all you do to help people. It’s really amazing to find someone who's so generous with their life’s work. Thank you.
Gary: Awesome, Zibby. Thank you.
Zibby: Take care.