This entry has some raw language. There are phrases in the post which may make some who know me uncomfortable. But, in an effort to be honest- truly honest, not that slightly adjusted, “filtered for fear of perception” honest, but that seizing, maybe shocking, maybe disconcerting, maybe infuriating, cathartic honest, I have decided to share this with you.
I am sorry to those who would never want to associate me with these words, or whose hearts may ache because they learn that I or people in their lives, have similar stories- unspoken. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I only want to help people who may hurt like me, and share with others how to become active healing forces in their lives. I only know how to do that this way…
May I share a conversation I had recently with you? It was birthed from a pretty innocent cycling competition. In the end, I was beaten, thoroughly, but continued to enjoy my night, until I was alone. Then, this happened…
“I’ve been working to get stronger, to be more capable and fit- for 4 years! I have more muscle, but less power…? WHAT THE FUCK?!”
“But you’re two different people!”
“What does that matter?”
“You shouldn’t compare yourself to other people.”
“Then what the fuck is sports?! You’re talking out of your ass!”
“Calm down. You know what I mean. If you compare yourself to other people, it’s a losing battle. There will always be somebody out there who is faster, or stronger, or smarter, or more artistic-“
“Does Lebron James say that?”
“Are you serious? You’re comparing yourself to Lebron James?!”
“I’m asking a question: does Lebron James compare himself to other people? I’ll answer for you: He does. He’s said himself ‘I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world.’ People compare themselves to others ALL THE TIME.”
“Oh, I see. So, you’re going to keep doing that and feeling like shit whenever you ‘come up short?’ How’s that been working out for you?”
“Well, smart-ass, it’s been working just as well as the alternative. When all I had was myself as evidence, I thought things were fine. I pushed myself as hard as I thought I could, every day that I could, only to find out, consistently, inevitably, that somehow the way I approached it was wrong. This is just the latest example. Neither way works!”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“Where am I wrong?”
May I introduce you to someone? His name is Mars. I didn’t really know who he was until very recently, but he’s been around for some time. I used to mistake him for the devil. Sometimes, I wish he was- that would be easier. But Mars isn’t the devil. For me, Mars is the inner voice turned against me- my past actions, my current state, my “wins” and “losses.” Mars judges them… and me. He’s a separate voice that presents the worst part of me, berating me for what I “should have been.” He’s intense, swift with his comments, and unrelenting! These were the first things I distinctly remember Mars telling me:
“I fucking hate you.”
“You’re such a loser.”
“You can’t do anything right.”
“You’re a piece of shit.”
“You’re so fucking fat.”
“You disgust me.”
“God hates you.”
“I hate you.”
“I wish you were dead…”
“YOU ARE NOT ENOUGH.”
These are terrible things to say to ANYONE. These are terrible things to hear. And he was saying them, and I was hearing them, every day. Once down this path, the comments would build and get more hurtful. And when you don’t know how to deal with them, they start to sound like the truth. I believed him. Until eventually, he no longer needed to say anything. I would be saying it.
“I fucking hate myself.”
“I’m such a loser.”
“I can’t do anything right.”
“I’m a piece of shit.”
“I’m so fucking fat.”
“God hates me.”
“I hate myself.”
“I wish I was dead…”
“I WILL NEVER BE ENOUGH.”
It’s awful, right? And listening to that all the time can lead to some dangerous choices. I remember driving from Chicago to my hometown one night, under that sustained weight and constant barrage, and I started to cry, just a bit (fully crying is hard for me). But in that little bit, I started speeding more and steering less. After veering across multiple lanes at 90 mph, a wave of fear washed over me, and I pulled off the highway to 83rd St., took out my phone, and called the suicide hotline. The person on the other end, helped me just enough to get me home. (So, when I mention the life-saving help that these people can provide, I speak from experience.)
Why am I sharing all of this? Well, sometimes I think that we talk through things, human things, in rosy terms. For example, the phrase “negative self-talk” isn’t new. It’s thrown about a lot. It is certainly discussed and written about. Sometimes though, I think that the unedited exposure to this negative self-talk can be very useful. It shows us the truth: It’s not just that this voice is harmful. This voice is deadly. It’s exhausting. It’s excruciating. It sucks your marrow from your bones, your blood from your veins, the air from your lungs. And if we don’t approach it knowing the true danger, we leave ourselves vulnerable to a force that can end us. I mean literally, not metaphorically.
But I have learned a few things these past years that have given me the will and power to fight back- to change the monologue into dialogue–
1. I need to understand Mars…
One of the more interesting facts I’ve learned is that this inner voice I call Mars has been with me since the beginning. I always wondered: “Is this my depression? Is this because I’m gay and God is punishing me? Is this because of the bad experiences I’ve had- humiliations, or failures, or embarrassments, or stumbles? Is it demon possession? This can’t be normal!“
An amazing woman, by the name of Tara Mohr, explained this in a group session she led- that the inner critic extends from our most primal fight or flight impulse. As humans, we were conditioned to avoid the dangers of a hostile physical environment, and while the advances we’ve made have lowered the physical dangers, that instinct to avoid danger has spread to the emotional. So, using our own intellect, our bodies have created means to help us avoid potentially emotionally damaging situations- thus ‘Mars’ was born.
That made sense to me. Every one of the horrible sayings I heard from Mars, connects with some pain or fear from the past- “I hate you (so don’t expect love from others and when they leave, we won’t be hurt). If I say all these hurtful things to you, the worst things, then if others say them, they won’t hurt as much. I’m protecting us.”
That’s just it- Mars has been with me since the beginning… and he thinks he’s protecting me. It’s a pretty perverse method to try to shield oneself from the unknowns of the world outside. To prevent one from taking risks, from trying, from striving, reaching, even dreaming. I can’t say it’s done me good and it definitely wasn’t sustainable. There’s a line between caution and paralysis. I’m not always on the right side. But I’m thankful that there are areas in my life that create new dialogues.
2. I put affirmations everywhere: POST-ITS, CARDS, PAPERS, EVERYWHERE.
In the past, I shared my struggles with Depression, and something that I learned from that illness, is how important it is to tell myself good things. But this was much more difficult to do than to say, especially since I didn’t believe any positive things about myself were true. Fortune gave me another way- affirmations. Where I work, there is a tradition of writing something positive about a colleague and giving it to them. This was an outside validation, and whenever I received one, it affected me in a profound way- it would alter the way I had come to feel about myself. I’m not sure what led me to this, but I was convinced that whenever I received one, I should post it where I could see it every day. Over the years, I collected more and more, until my desk looked like this:
This created a passive, constant string of positive comments in my mind. Every time I sat down, these words of encouragement, would pierce my eyes and brain. The goal wasn’t to completely believe them right way, but to create an environment where my subconscious would absorb this positivity. I even added affirmations from myself after the advice of a great friend.
And… even though I don’t always feel like these are true, I have noticed that sometimes… these quotes would interrupt my internal dialogue: “I am a leader.” “I am a good person.” “I can learn ANYTHING.” “My voice matters.” “I CAN DO THIS.”
You see what’s created there? REPRIEVE! RELIEF! HOPE! And those are powerful. Every second I’m saying, thinking, or feeling something positive, is one second where I’m living more, and dying less. And that, I can’t understate.
3. I see my dreams every morning…
One of the most painful comments that burden me sometimes is, “YOU ARE NOT ENOUGH.” I think, now, that the unspoken part of that statement is: “We’ve tried to aim high, and the falls hurt. So, if you don’t try, you don’t have to hurt anymore. We can’t handle there being things in this world beyond us, people that are beyond us- that maybe we’re not smart, or strong, or leaders, or capable. I’ll just spare you the pain of trying and failing.”
There was a LONG time when I ‘understood’ that, “I’m not going to be anything.” I watched myself waste away, physically (gaining about 75 pounds), mentally, emotionally, spiritually. I think in some ways, I was still trying to kill myself, only slowly. At the same time, I would ask these questions: “Is this all there is? Is there not more to life than this? Does life have to be this way?” As I started asking these questions more, I opened myself to more ways to think differently. THIS BOARD WAS ONE OF THOSE WAYS-
It began with a woman named Patience, who taught me the value of a vision board. A method of focusing your mind on the things you want, by gathering visuals of words, people, places, things, ideas, which inspire you, or drive you; things that you want or dream or wish; BIG, AUDACIOUS, CHALLENGING IDEAS, and affixing them to a poster board. I wanted change more than anything, so I took every dream that I had, and found a visual to represent it. Then, I placed it on my wall. This board hangs in front of my bed and I wake up to it every morning.
I’m amazed to say how much of this board ACTUALLY CAME TO PASS FOR ME- travel, physical fitness (blog on that coming soon), career growth… and with each positive experience or achievement, came new dialogues (here’s one I sent myself):
Do you see the large image in the center of the board? That says, “SEIZE YOUR SIX-PACK”? It was after achieving that goal that I sent myself this along with a picture of my progress.
“You’re so fucking fat,” I used to say to myself. But now, it just wasn’t true objectively, so I would respond, “That’s clearly not true.” And the words, plus the visual, would override Mars’ voice. Now, I don’t hear that comment anymore.
I don’t know if I have the words to say what that feels like. I can only say that it gives me hope about other things Mars says to me and what future positive things I can and will say over him.
4. I’m creating ‘space’ in my mind…
I came across this book, after speaking with a friend from work, called “The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness” by Andy Puddicombe. This was my first exposure to meditation.
Earlier I mentioned that Mars can be unrelenting. There just never seemed to be a break from these destructive thoughts, even when I wasn’t ‘facing’ something new, I would still hear his voice. It was exhausting. Originally, I tried fighting every single thought, but that didn’t really lead to success. I’ve learned that the best way to train the mind is to affirmatively focus it. To aim towards something rather than avoiding something.
That’s what meditation has taught me- to give my mind a break by focusing on other things: my breathing, the space around me, the physical sensations that I experience every day, especially the ones I do without thinking.
Whenever Mars speaks up, whenever his words become my thoughts, I take about 10 minutes to close my eyes, relax, and focus on inhaling and exhaling (I’m still a beginner), on the physical space I’m in, on the activity I may be doing, and whenever a thought or vision comes to my mind, I do my best to gently refocus on that physical thing. You know in every communication, there’s a place for silence. That’s what I find in meditation. A time where Mars goes away for a little bit, USUALLY LONGER THAN THAT 10 MINUTES!
5. I make lists…
When I last wrote about Salves, I mentioned the combination of unique traits that we each have. That this combination makes us special. I believe that, but I don’t always remember that. And when things get tough, the fact that I’m special is the first thing I deny. Or rather, I hear that I’m special for all the wrong reasons. “Of course, ONLY you would find this difficult. Of course, ONLY you would screw this up. I hate you so much.” For me, it can be very easy to descend into a negative spiral; for Mars and me to intertwine; to deny everything and anything good. Even now, those times can overwhelm me and bring me to tears. I don’t want to wallow in this… ever, so I sought out help. By the time I sought counseling, Mars was pretty much speaking whenever I opened my mouth.
The counselor helped me to pinpoint this right away. It was he who instructed me to give this voice a name. Naming Mars enabled me to directly engage him. But that was only the first part. I needed to write more truths to combat the untruths Mars was telling me; that he was using me to tell the world about me. It felt so unnatural, but I sat down and wrote a list of everything I liked about myself, ignoring the sly voice saying, “You’re bragging, that’s bad.” “You’re lying, you’re not that good.” “This is a talent? According to whom?” At the end, I had a list… of things that were special about me:
It wasn’t enough to just write it. I needed to read it, to say it out loud everyday… Because repetition works; it adds new words to the dialogue and displaces some of the old. This activity actually helped me to realize a truth about myself that gives me great joy. “I can LEARN ANYTHING.”
All my life, I have found myself listening to other people, and Mars used to say that meant I didn’t know anything… that I was stupid. But, I am realizing it’s the contrary- it’s the act and joy of learning for me which makes the people in my life so fascinating, and whenever they’ve shared of themselves, their experience, and their knowledge, I’ve grown. I am the sum of my unique traits and the lessons taught me by the men, women, and children whom I call family, friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and strangers. And those lessons have transformed me and opened my life to new horizons I was too afraid to imagine.
I still need to come back to this list every day. The perilous part is how easy it can be to forget. To forget that these talents are good things, that this list isn’t the victory, but part of the process, as are all these different lessons learned. And to accept that Mars will probably never go away, because he is part of me.
BUT EVEN THOUGH HE IS A PART OF ME, HE DOESN’T GET TO CONTROL THE DIALOGUE.
Days do bring new difficulties, but each day, I find myself more equipped to talk with Mars on a higher level. The conversation at the beginning of this blog, that was progress. In earlier days, Mars would have been the only voice heard. But now, I hear my own voice. And my voice is speaking more life than before.
I know that everyone reading may not have Mars, but you have SOMEONE. Some inner critic, or voice of death. It’s present in all of us. And maybe it affects you as it affected me. Maybe it’s grown out of control and paralyzes you. I understand, and I ache with you. I hope that, if some of these activities seem foreign to you, that you would give them a try. That you would give activities, knowledge, YOURSELF, some time to change your dialogue. Any time and effort you spend on you, on giving yourself a voice of hope and life, is more than worth it. I don’t believe, now, that this is a matter of victory or defeat, winning or losing. This is a journey towards getting to know yourself better. As Mars is a part of me, so this part, sometimes ugly, angry, scared, or sad, is of you. Engage it. Hear it, then take the lead.
For me, Mars still speaks a lot, but now I say to him: “Mars, I know you’re afraid. I know that you want things to be perfect, and they aren’t. I want you to know that I’ve heard you, and that I understand. You remember our life one certain way and you want to avoid every possible negative. Thank you for trying to keep us safe. You need to know that we have to venture out again. We have to put ourselves at risk, because there is no joy, no reward, no GOOD, in doing nothing. We were not put here to waste away and die. There is a better life out there for us. So, I need you to come with me, even though no part of you wants to. I will drag you along kicking and screaming… but in the end, you’ll thank me.”
Then, I go about the business of living.