Have you ever felt a tug-of-war taking place inside you?
Not just a tug-of-war between two teams, but between multiple teams. Two teams tug on the smart/stupid assessment rope, each at opposite ends. The stupid team pulls furiously, dragging you slowly to their side.
Two other teams tug on the attractive/ugly rope; the ugly team manages to find enough “evidence” to give them the win.
Other teams tug on more self-images: kind/unkind; generous/stingy; strong/weak; on-and-on, dragging your esteem through the mud. The teams that pull on the dark traits seem to win more battles. Their voices are loud; insistent; convincing. The Judge stands over the games, hears the critical voices, and declares the winners. The Judge’s scales tilt in favor of the demons; somehow those voices are easier to believe.
Those battles went on in my head for years. They were torturous and painful and left me feeling at times as if a dark, wet blanket were draped over me. Battles still occur—they always will—but I have more tools available when they arise; light exists to counterbalance the dark.
I’ve built up and drawn upon a lot of resources over the years in my efforts to find my light. I’ve tried self-help books; therapy; anti-depressants; nature; exercise; journaling; spiritual searching; dance. Some helped more than others, but they were all steps along the path.
One specific year of self-improvement was particularly noteworthy. It was 1999 and I pledged to do therapy for a year. Previous therapy attempts had been crisis activated: short-term in response to specific disturbances in my life. A year was a commitment.
During the same year, I started attending a new-age church and took up swing dancing. It felt like a trifecta of resources all appeared at the same time.
Each thing was good; together they were empowering. They contributed to layers of learning. They helped me see things differently; helped me shift my perspective. By listening to different speakers and reading different writers, I made slow—sometimes halting—progress toward feeling more content with myself; toward realizing the dark stories I told weren’t the only stories to be told.
When I made my commitment to therapy, I took a piece of paper and wrote two headings on it: Personal Difficulties and Personal Strengths.
Under Personal Difficulties, I wrote 13 things down I viewed as failings to address in therapy; things like being hard on myself; being defensive; getting angry; a belief that failure wasn’t ok; poor self-esteem; a sense I needed to be perfect.
I still have that paper; it gave me something against which to assess where I am now compared to where I was then. Sometimes I wasn’t sure I was making progress; reviewing the list assured me I was. Even if it was slow.
One thing about that paper I still marvel at is the section titled Personal Strengths; that half of the sheet is empty. I had strengths; I just had a hard time acknowledging them.
I looked at that list hard before making the leap into therapy. My frugal character didn’t want to spend the money therapy was going to cost. But some other character—one I wasn’t familiar with—had concluded that having the money while being unhappy and super self-critical didn’t sound like a very good way to live the next phase of my life. I sucked it up and signed up.
Dance was brilliant in that it got me out of my head. The thoughts—which bandied about like bats—couldn’t fly while I focused on which foot I was supposed to move next. I loved the feeling of freedom dance gave me; I loved the passion I felt for it; I loved the people I met. I thrilled to have a few hours each week where my grey, critical thoughts were quieted and music and joy and light lifted me up. I was far from perfect learning to dance, but I was taking classes with equally imperfect people, and we all had smiles on our faces.
Church served up fresh points of view and ways of seeing the world, and of myself in it. The messages leaned toward kindness and compassion; they introduced the idea that our mind is powerful, and has a lot to do with how we experience life. Church encouraged new layers of thinking to be put down and inner shifts to happen.
The old, self-critical voices suddenly had some competition; encouraging voices were now tugging on the opposite ends of the ropes, making headway. The tug-of-wars became more matched.
I have more tools now with which to steady myself when difficulties present themselves as personal failings. I continue to uncover and nurture a recognition of my personal strengths. The teams tugging on kind and compassionate and patient now show up; they pull; and they are now often declared the winners.