Updated: Oct 24, 2020
Yet you’ll rarely hear others use it at all.
Let’s look at where unhealthy dependence on the word comes from and why we use it.
Parents, when wanting to encourage their children to attempt something new, be it food, riding a bike, colouring in between the lines, etc, will say:
‘Just try it’ ‘Try harder next time’ ‘Try your best’
This could be said in loving, encouraging or excited tones, (therefore pretty harmless), or it could be laced with frustration, impatience and disapproval, or even in more sinister circumstances.
The thing that we are being coaxed to try might be something horrible tasting (think cooked capsicum), or intimidating, even like getting on Santa’s lap for a photo or climbing up on a pony for a joy ride, (the fear can be perceived or very real); or it might be fun, exciting, delicious and wonderful, (but we don’t know that because we haven’t tried it).
As we grow and learn that attempting things we haven’t done before is hit and miss, we’ll go one of three ways.
1. We will jump in and have a go at anything because we are the more adventurous type.
2. We will hesitate and feel uncertain, procrastinate and waste some time before still giving it a go.
3. We will refuse to do it, because we unequivocally prefer not to face the unknown, and we would rather someone be cross at us for not trying, than suffer the (perceived) consequences of attempting it.
A parent may want to comfort us after failure, ‘At least you tried’. Their intention is to let us know that failure is not the end of the world or teach us that effort is more important than the end state.
However, a child doesn’t have the emotional maturity to interpret the statement for what it is, and we may (depending on our self esteem and past history with failure) feel ashamed that we’ve let our parent down, even if that parent has not said anything to indicate as much.
So ‘at least you tried’ could be received by us as, ‘I’m disappointed in you’, ‘You’re not good enough’, ‘You’ve let me down’ etc.
We will make it mean something, any number of things, and that shapes how we see the world.
Equally, a threatening or impatient, ‘For God’s sake just try it!’ could make us shut down and develop an irrational fear of trying new things.
We will then use ‘I tried’, ‘I tried my best’, ‘at least I tried’, ‘I will try’, as our common phrase into adulthood, and it’s generally tied to shame, fear, or not feeling safe to say ‘no’.
We use it to avoid disapproval, responsibility, or something we are afraid of; or even to justify breaking promises, particularly when we’ve been raised by a parent who’s broken lots of promises to us.
We learn what we live.
They may have excused their broken promises with ‘I tried’, and expect us to be satisfied with that regardless of how hurt we may have been. Even seeing our disappointment, they may be quite indignant, further embedding in us that we don’t have the right to feel upset they let us down, which no one could be blamed for making the meaning ‘I’m not worthy’, or ‘I/my feelings don’t matter’..
Conversely, say we had a parent, or grandparent who was constantly letting us off the hook for not doing something we were responsible for doing, by saying ‘at least she tried’, (because they didn’t want us to get into trouble from the other parent, or even a teacher).
So we will tend to use ‘try’ as a get out of jail free card when we don’t do something we said we’d do, or when we know we probably won’t do it, or don’t want to do it at all (and don’t have the confidence to say so), we’ll say instead:
‘I will try to get there on Saturday’,
‘I will try to get the job done’,
‘I will try to change’,
‘I’m trying to stop’,
‘I will try to be on time’,
‘I will try my best’..
Kids will say anything to avoid criticism, trouble or danger, so ‘try’ becomes a really handy coping strategy that we become hard wired with due to repetition.
It’s serves a purpose when we are young, and if we never really look into what’s behind why we use it, we’ll carry it into adulthood.
The interesting thing is that when we say it, we know we aren’t going to do the thing, or that we’ll give it a half-assed go but we are letting ourselves off the hook before we even start.
When a client tells me they’ll ‘try’ to do their tasking, (specific homework I’ve set them that I know will create change and make them feel empowered), I always ask them this question, ‘When your kid says they’ll try and keep their room clean what’s your first thought?’..
Usually there’s silence.. then ‘ohhhh, oh.. um..’
And when a client uses ‘try’ more than usual, it’s a clue for me to investigate that further with them. There's always beautiful healing at the end of that piece of string.
It's important that we look at the unhealthy coping mechanisms we chose as a child because they are guaranteed to be sabotaging us as adults..