“We deny that in order to do something well we must first be willing to do it badly. Instead, we opt for setting our limits at the point where we feel stifled, smothered, despairing, bored. But yes, we do feel safe. And safety is a very expensive illusion.” –Julia Cameron
A railroad-switch, from one track to another. That’s what my mental and emotional recovery has felt like: a railroad-switch in my brain. My usual train of thought was on a fixed course of depression, anxiety, and crippling low self-esteem. This was how it had always been: the same track, the same thoughts, the same overpowering monologue repeating the same theme, “Something is wrong with you. You’re not enough. You never will be.” My Inner Critic playing the role of the maniacal conductor, driving me forward, hellbent on my destruction – or on keeping me from ever taking a single risk – though I would consider those things the same.
When you have issues in such areas, people like to offer advice. Ironically, the people who are most vocal about what you should do are those who have never known such a struggle. They ask questions like, “What are you depressed about?” Which is like asking someone with Cancer, “What are you cancered about?”
See, it isn’t about anything. It’s just there, hanging on to you, enveloping everything in a dense fog, making the smallest tasks seem impossible.
People like to tell you what you need to do. “You just need to be happier, more grateful. You just need to stop letting those things bother you. You just need to believe in yourself.”
They’re all eager to tell you what to do. But no one tells you how.
How to begin to love yourself. How to feel happier every day. How to stop giving people or situations the power to derail your entire day or week or month.
And so, this is my how.
A few years ago, something in me snapped. It became clear that this route I was on, I didn’t like. It no longer seemed acceptable to feel the way I did every day. What’s funny is, it hadn’t occurred to me until that point that I had any right to even have an opinion about the state of my existence. I had been stuck in survival mode, accepting any scraps that were left to me without considering I could ever have more, calling any good things happy accidents, flukes, not to be expected or depended upon.
This was the breaking point. It was as if my heart had become so tired of watching me sleepwalk into co-dependent relationships, crippling self-doubt, impulsive people-pleasing, social anxiety, wishing I could just disappear into walls, that it started acting out. From deep within me, it began demanding more, causing a ruckus in my soul, making every effort it could to wake me up.
And bless my heart, wake up I did. I can’t say exactly when. It was a process. Up to that point, I had been living in a zombie-like resignation to my day-to-day life. After a while, I started getting anxious, fidgety, discontented, and I didn’t know why. Everything was the same. But that was the problem. Everything was the freaking same. So many aspects of my life started to feel silly, contrived, pointless. I started to dream, all day, of other worlds, other lives. My boss pulled me into her office to point out that I had been neglecting my work.
Then came the anger, which, I see now, is one of my dearest friends and allies.
“Anger is fuel. We feel it and we want to do something. Hit someone, break something, throw a fit…but we are nice people, and what we do with our anger is stuff it, deny it, bury it, block it, hide it, lie about it, medicate it, ignore it. We do everything but listen to it.
Anger is meant to be listened to. Anger is a voice, a shout a plea, a demand. Anger is meant to be respected. Why? Because anger is a map. Anger shows us what our boundaries are. Anger shows us where we want to go. It lets us see where we’ve been and lets us know when we haven’t liked it. Anger points the way, not just the finger. In the recovery of a blocked artist, anger is a sign of health. Anger is meant to be acted upon. It is not meant to be acted out. Anger points direction. We are meant to use anger as a fuel to take the action we need to move where our anger points us. With a little thought, we can usually translate the message that our anger is sending us.” -Julia Cameron
Seeing it was going to take more than a bit of day dreaming to get me to make a move, anger rose up and shoved me in the right direction. It was like the Darvaza gas crater burning in my soul. I got defensive of my own time, of the things that actually mattered. I started yelling in rush-hour traffic, beating my fists on the steering wheel at anything that stood in my way. I took an art class. I started setting boundaries with people. I stopped giving time to those who mistreated me. I started trying new things, not to appear good at them, but to just see how it felt. Work became intolerable, an obstacle in the way of real life. My boss pulled me into her office to tell me I needed to stop yelling at customers.
I felt less like me and more like myself than ever before. I slowly realized that, hang on, this is my train! My identity! My existence! I needed to take control, to claim my own life because nobody else was going to, nobody else could. I needed a new way of thinking.
“Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go.” -Alan Watts
Oddly enough, the first step to that was surrender. Letting go:
-Of trying to save everyone. (They can walk.)
-Of trying to control other’s perception of me. (Impossible.)
-Of the concept of security. (Delusion.)
-Of harmful love. (Aka: not love.)
-Of the Frankenstein standard of who I was “supposed” to be. (Funny, but not annoying. Smart, but not intimidating. Nice, but not a pushover. Creative, but not weird. Open-minded, but not one of those liberal hippies. Pretty, but still tough. Assertive, but not a bitch.)
((Basically, I took a scalpel to any admirable part of another person and stitched them together until I was left with a big sack of dead skin. And this is what I was comparing myself to. Self-sabotage is hilarious.))
Once I gave myself permission to obliterate this illusion, this unattainable standard, I was finally able to begin the process of actually liking myself for the first time. That is not an exaggeration. I’ve only recently learned to like who I am for the first time, ever.
Because that’s where it all begins and ends: my relationship with myself. The way I treat myself. What I believe about myself. To me, the world is a mirror. We see what we want to see by projecting our feelings, perspective, opinions, onto everything.
“Destiny is a feeling you have that you know something about yourself no one else does. The picture you have in your own mind of what you’re about will come true.” –Bob Dylan
I learned, from a young age, to disapprove of myself. In fourth grade, all of the kids in my class loved recess. I hated it. I wasn’t social, and didn’t have anyone my age to play with. I’ve never really liked games. Where’s the story? The deeper meaning? Why I am making an ass of myself attempting to wrap this stupid tether ball around a pole? Recess was loud, chaotic. All I wanted to do was stay inside the quiet classroom and read Harry Potter. Which I did, as often as my teacher would allow.
It was at that point where I started to see the ways in which I was unique. Only, I didn’t see it as uniqueness. Because of my environment, I saw it as something weird, strange, wrong, undesirable, deficient, broken. I saw myself as broken.
Enter my obsessive concern for what others think of me. It creeped up, wrapped itself around me in a tight grip, sunk its invasive roots into my skin, heart, bones, entangling itself so deeply into the substance of me until I could no longer separate the two. It took over my every conscious thought, projected my insecurities onto everyone’s faces, twisted their expressions until they were all jeering, laughing, staring in disgust.
“They think I’m broken,” was more or less the anthem to my existence. Anything anyone did, regardless of their real intent, was evidence of it. Why? Because I believed it myself. And, of course, there were payoffs to the belief. If I’m broken, if I already know that I can’t, then I’m the exception – I don’t need to try.
Life, over the past few years, has been the process of painstakingly detangling this belief from what I really am.
“I literally had to reprogram my brain. You can’t take one workshop or read one book and say, ‘It didn’t work.’ No. No. You must say your life is worth fighting for, you are worth fighting for, and you must decide to be worth fighting for.” –Rhonda Britten
To love myself, I had to first convince myself that I was worth loving. I didn’t believe it. This was obvious in the way I was suspicious of anyone who offered me a compliment. “They had to say that,” I’d think. Or, “They’re just trying to manipulate me. They can’t actually admire me. That’s ridiculous!” And this is where the track switch comes in. I had to begin to build a new track. Pave a new road. Blaze a new trail in my mind. Make way for new thoughts, for entirely new ways of being.
Think. How many negative thoughts about yourself do you have on a daily basis?
If you’re lucky, it’s a pretty low number. For me, it was huge. That little voice in my head would berate me, criticize and pick apart every single thing I did. And so, it was time to fight back. It was time to say nice things to myself. To compliment her. To nurture her. To give her permission to exist. To give her some damn credit.
At first, it felt hopeless. Impossible. Pointless. We resist change, even good change, because it’s more comfortable to just stay where we are. Even if that’s a horrible place that does us no justice. Building a new track is difficult. It doesn’t happen all at once. Certainly not. You do it piece by piece. There is no other way. Sometimes, it feels like progress. Other times, it feels like trying to puzzle back together every star in the sky. (Though, I suppose that would be beautiful no matter where you put the pieces. And maybe that’s the point. Just build the thing. Get going. You’ll figure it out as you go.)
But, eventually, there was a shift, a change. I started having more good days than bad. Even the bad days weren’t quite as deep and dark and devastating as they used to be. I learned to be aware, mindful of my own thoughts and feelings, to identify that inner critic, to argue with it, to fight back against it.
It would make the same old attempts at devaluing me. Some snarky comment after a particularly awkward social exchange, “That was horrible. Who would ever want to be friends with someone as painful to talk to as you? I mean, you can’t even manage a normal human interaction! You’re worthless.”
Only, instead of allowing that thought to snowball out of control and convince me to run home and hide for a week, my thoughts went something like this: “Actually, no. False. I’m not worthless. And here are five reasons why that I have stored in my mind because I wrote them down yesterday and read them to myself again this morning. So THERE, Inner Critic. You’re not only inaccurate but unpleasant in a manner most unnecessary.”
Though sometimes, I want to give up, go back to sleep, to the familiar, let my inner critic take over again. But that’s the point, I think, of this whole thing. This is why I refer to my experience as a “recovery” instead of a cure or permanent shift in consciousness. Just like an addiction, these core negative beliefs that fuel my mental illness will most likely be there, in some capacity, my entire life. They are deeply rooted and know exactly how to break me down. I’ll have the occasional relapse, but now I know what those beliefs are. I’ve identified where they came from, how they serve me and how they hurt me. And because I know them, I’m learning how to keep them at bay.
You can’t fight an enemy that you’re unable to identify or don’t understand. And so, that’s my how. Lean into your demons, your shame, your dark parts. Listen to what they’re telling you, learn their stories. And then fight them. Fight for your own self. No one else can.
You must make your life happen, or your life will happen to you. And the things that scare you the most are the very things you must do.