A few weeks ago, I discovered a new NPR show titled Invisibilia. The show covers topics like fearlessness, entanglement and other juicy topics. The first show, The secret history of thoughts, is fascinating and inspired me to write this blog post. My big nose
I can remember standing in front of the mirror at 16 and seeing only one thing…a giant nose. I recall obsessive feelings of revulsion boil up inside myself. I felt ugly. I know now teenagers go through a lengthy period of awkward transformation and irrational feelings fueled in part by hormones and the liminal process of becoming an adult.
I survived my teenage years through athletics. I had to turn off my thoughts in the pool and focus on breathing and movement alone. For a time I would forget the awkward, ugly person I kept discovering in the mirror. I also excelled in athletics and my success created a positively reinforcing feedback loop; negative thoughts, swim, endorphins, get stronger, swim faster, win, rinse, repeat.
Being an adult survivor of alcoholics, I also contend with the neglect and unspoken rules inherited from my parents. I believe athletics literally kept me alive. Swimming was like a natural antidepressant and it gave me just enough of a boost to make it to college.
I attended New College in Sarasota Fl, a school devoted to critical thinking, self motivated learning and creativity. It was a perfect fit for me, small, intimate and academically rigorous. It lacked one key element, athletics. Within one semester at New College, I became overwhelmed with anxiety. My advisor at the time, a sweet socially awkward man named Tony, told me, “John, you are like a fish out of water. You need to find a physical activity to pursue or you are not going to make it through your first year here. There is a yoga class meeting twice a week on campus, I want you to go tohttps://wordpress.com/stats/day/74911532?sb the next class”. One simple suggestion would completely alter the course of my life.
Some 25 years later, I still look in the mirror and see an imperfect man, an aging man, a vulnerable man looking back at me. The 16 year old now has more than two decades of life experience behind him. There are still days when I don’t like the person looking back at me in the mirror. There are days when I have a hard time looking in the mirror at all.
I could blame my parents, they certainly made some questionable choices. I could point to our culture and the way it emphasizes youth and addiction to short term gratification. Perhaps my problem is rooted in the injustice and inequality of western society? Blame is a distraction at best and it has never solved the problem.
The truth is much harder to accept, no matter the source, I engage in negative self talk on a regular basis. One of my reflexive life diminishing thoughts is, “Crazy. You are too chaotic inside, no one can ever love you”. When I met my first therapist, Anne, I described the feeling as, “icky all over,” and we both agreed icky was the perfect description. My icky thoughts take on many different forms, some relate to success, others circle around beauty or intelligence but they all source from the churning chaos.
I have come a long way from the 16 year old boy starring back at me in the mirror. I have learned painful lessons and discovered beautiful parts of myself buried under layers of intense pain and confusion. I have seen a man emerge slowly, where before all I saw was a broken five year old boy. Nonetheless, I still battle with negative thoughts and unproductive self talk.
This post is about me but I wonder if it might also be about all of us. Negative thoughts play a part in much of the inner an outer conflict in our collective lives. My thoughts have had power over me because I have tried to hide them. I wonder if the same could be true for you? Shame can be a tight gag indeed but it stops having power when we shine a light on it. The hard part is finding the courage to stop listening to the negative thoughts rooted in shame. The hard part is trusting we can find a way to engage with our negative self image and still experience joy.
I cannot make you any promises. I can only encourage you to take the time to listen to what you are telling yourself. It may be hard to grapple with your own inner dialogue, it certainly has been for me at times, but not doing so could mean your life is a reaction to increasingly negative thoughts, habits and behaviors. Your life could also be, as mine has been, fits and starts of growth, discovery and increasing joy.
I try to think of this process as risking everything in each moment. I invite you to do the same with me. So take a deep breath with me and lets see where we are…