“If you bring forth what is within you,
what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you,
what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
- The Gospel of Thomas, v.70, quoted from The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
A couple of weeks ago, I published a post called “Loving myself through failure”. In the aftermath of writing that post, I’ve made some good progress toward resetting and restrengthening many of the long-term self-care patterns that had been eroded over the last year as the demands of being at my job every day have come to dominate my life more and more. I’ve found myself being quieter (when not at the job) and more reflective. I’m also getting more comfortable again, gradually, with some of my (un)favorite varieties of pain (boredom, hunger, anxiety, loneliness, etc), a process that has been a precursor in the past to breakthroughs in awareness, creativity, and healing.
Being quiet and listening to myself is a discipline I learned long ago and have continued to refine over the years, but I don’t always do it. I don’t ever stop doing it entirely either, but I do go through periods when I purposefully put my attention elsewhere because that inner dialogue feels so overpoweringly painful and ugly that I don’t think I can bear to be with it any longer. Of course, that doesn’t make it go away, and the volume only gets louder the more and the longer I try to ignore it.
In the end, there’s no making that crowd of pain-driven inner voices go away and there’s no getting away from them because they are all me, each and all, wounded and suffering as they may be in some aspect or at some age of myself. Taking notice of them, sitting with what they’re saying without trying to shut them down or quick-fix them into silence, is not easy, but attempting to turn them away never works for they are manifestations of the force of life itself, however tangled and twisted by injury, lack of love, and bad conditioning they may be, and they demand to be heard.
Listening to the storm inside, really listening without judgment and without prejudice, can be a deeply humbling experience. I want to be a certain way, to think of myself as a certain type of person that I would find acceptable. I want to believe that I possess certain qualities and do not possess certain others. I want to believe that I can rationally craft, from the top down, some perception and experience of myself and my life that will somehow transform anger, disappointment, hurt, and frustration into something lighter and brighter as if by magic, without ever fully feeling, owning, or understanding any of it. I still want to believe I can do that, and I still try to do it, even though I know better.
Fortunately, knowing better can lead, if we are willing, to doing better. In this case, doing better for me means starting to build a friendlier relationship with some of the wild horses that have been running, raging, and stampeding within me even as I’ve been struggling to ignore and disown them. That process begins with seeing and acknowledging them as real, alive, and autonomous, each with its own knowledge, history, and point of view. And as I’ve written before, naming things is important, so I’ve begun to give them names:
- There is a wild horse in me named Envy. I don’t want to be envious of people who’ve been given, at least in my perception, the opportunity to live authentic, creative lives, to actualize their gifts, and to pursue their life’s work freely. But I am, and it burns away at me daily.
- There is a wild horse in me named Impatience with Myself. Few things infuriate me more than having to answer to someone who’s pushing me to go faster and faster and do more and more all the time every day. Yet if I’m truly honest, I have to admit that I do the very same thing to myself. I could write a long explanation rationalizing why it’s necessary, too. Even now I feel the impulse to defend the necessity of pushing myself so relentlessly. But I won’t.
- There is a wild horse in me named Not Appreciating Myself. This horse is the sister of Impatience with Myself. In fact, I’d say they are twins, sister and brother. Few things hurt me more than feeling unappreciated and unvalued, for what I am as well as for what I do. But again, if I’m truly honest, I have to admit that I don’t do a very good job of appreciating and valuing myself a lot of the time. The easy and obvious (and true) reason is that I feel I somehow don’t deserve it, but there’s also an underlying feeling or belief that I somehow haven’t done enough yet to give it to myself, and that if I do, it’ll make me lazy and complacent and I’ll lose the edge that drives me.
- There is a wild horse in me named Lack of Faith. This might be the hardest one for me to own because there’s a strong element of shame attached. I believe with every fiber of my being in my work as a poet, a writer, a guide, a healer, an advocate for other adult survivors of childhood abuse, and a voice for men. I know that this is the work I’m here to do in this life. But there’s also a part of me that has no faith in my ability to do it, that feels incompetent and incapable of ever doing it, and cannot even realize that I’m already doing it and have been for years now. Worse than any of that is my ongoing lack of faith in the work itself, in both its quality and its value. When I allow myself to be fully conscious of that lack of faith in the work, I feel shame because I feel I am dishonoring the work more than anyone else ever could.
One of the reasons I write these blog posts is to provide concrete examples of how the processes of self-awareness and self-ownership can develop and progress. In this case, just sitting and writing about the four wild horses above has moved my relationship with, and understanding of, these dynamic, energetic parts of myself many leaps ahead of where I was only an hour ago. This sort of imaginative externalization of what lies within us, especially of shadow elements that we fear and do not desire, can be an extremely powerful means of healing and reconciliation with the self as well as a highly valuable component of a robust, creative self-care program.
Self-care, in my experience, comes down to one very basic question: “How do I treat myself?” In the past few days, I’ve found myself extending the question in a couple of more specific directions:
- How do I treat myself when I’m under duress?
- How do I treat myself when I feel like no one is there for me (whether that’s true or not)?
It’s been very instructive to keep both of these questions in mind as I go through my days because they’re simple and easy to answer from moment to moment. All too often, the answer to both is “Not very well.” I suppose I could find that response discouraging, and to some small extent I do, but mostly I see it as information. I can choose to use it or not use it. I know from experience that it’s better to face my discomfort, especially discomfort I might be causing myself, than to try to turn it away. I don’t always have the will or the willingness to face it, but both will and willingness tend to get stronger with experience over time, especially as I’m more and more able to focus on the quality of my relationship with myself as the primary measure of how I’m doing in life as opposed to any external criteria I might choose.
In my mind’s eye, I now see those four wild horses, and all of their as-yet-unnamed equine companions, looking right at me, eye to eye, keeping a safe distance, curious but still skittish, not quite trusting, waiting for my next move. What will it be?
Photo credit: Original photo by David Jewell with image processing by Rick Belden. Used by permission.