Tag: mental health (page 1 of 10)

The Need To Break Through

break·​through | \ ˈbrāk-ˌthrü \
3a: a sudden advance especially in knowledge or technique

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary

We all have obstacles between where we are, and where we need to be.

Notice that I used need, as opposed to want. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m talking about our mental and emotional states. What we need in order to survive, rather than whatever desires or other motivations we might have. Physically, we need water, food, shelter, clothes, and the ability to address both medical emergencies and maintenance in order to survive. In the area of the mind, however, what is it that people need, as opposed to what they want?

This is a lot harder to quantify. More often than not, someone other than ourselves — ideally a professional — needs to help us identify what areas within ourselves we need to address, and work to process. As we are each individuals with our own experiences, perspectives, and traumas, so too are our needs vastly different. Some techniques may work for one group of people in spite of their differences; for others, the differences are too vast for that same technique to yield any progress.

That being said, there is something that is absolutely essential for an individual to meet whatever their needs are for moving past the obstacles between them and better mental health: the willingness to seek help.

While some may consider it clichéd, the 12-step program used by addicts to face and overcome their addictions has proven to be an effective template for the discussion of addressing and choosing methods for determining healthy courses of action for the addict. This parallel is drawn in the book Codependent No More as well as other areas of mental health guidance. While it is not an exact 1-to-1 parallel for every situation or for every individual, the first step is the admission that the obstacle exists.

The obstacle could be an addiction, or codependency, or a trauma, or a state of mind that tells us a condition in our lives cannot or will not ever change. The sort of mentality that has us repeating the words “always” or “never” when we talk about our situations, our lives, or our relationships. If we have repeated these things often enough, the words get burned into our neural pathways. Without thought or in the heat of an emotional moments, we can fall all too easily into those charred grooves, like an overplayed track on a warped vinyl record, whenever we place the needle on its surface in an attempt to respond to that moment.

First of all: this is not your fault.

More often than not, the impetus and factors that lead to these toxic lines of thinking were not placed there by conscious choices we made. The choices others made, circumstances we were placed in against our will, and the movements of the clockwork of life — those mechanisms that create tragedy and heartbreak and trauma and entropy — those are what push the needle of our mental focus into the same groove over and over again. It’s not your fault.

It is, however, your responsibility to keep moving that needle to healthier, better grooves.

This is as much a reminder to myself as to anyone reading this words, and I have discussed such matters as they pertain to myself in a previous post. As much as my experiences are not those of anyone else, I feel very strongly that the lessons I’ve learned in the past year are not just beneficial to myself. In my mind, while it is important for me to be kind to myself, it is a kind thing for others when I discuss what’s worked for me, what has lead to a healthier state of mind, and what gets me through moments where I feel the needle slipping back into old grooves, even for a moment.

As I stated above, we all have our own individual obstacles between where we are and where we need to be, in order to more consistently make those choices that are healthy for ourselves and for those around us in our lives. If we want to keep moving the needle, removing those obstacles will make it easier. So where do we begin? What’s the first obstacle we need to break through?

Our first and largest obstacle is ourselves.

We are, in a way, our own worst enemy when it comes to mental health. We can be in denial that our obstacles are our responsibility. We can say that since someone else is to blame, someone else needs to fix us. Or we may believe that we can never be fixed. Or our anger and frustration and fear at where we are, how stuck we feel, overwhelms any capability to see where our individual responsibilities lie and what it is we can actually control. We have to begin by admitting the fact that, when it comes to other people and the world around us, our amount of control is essentially zero.

When it comes to our own selves, however, our amount of control is a lot greater than it might seem. It bears repeating: you are always choosing. You may not have chosen what happened to you in the past, how others treated you, or the unforeseen consequences of a given situation. However, you can choose how you respond to those things. When you lash out in anger at a situation, you are choosing that. Lingering on grief or misery? That’s a choice you’re making. Pushing people away, or clinging to them so much they start to suffocate? Choices, you’re making them.

You can’t choose for others, either. Again, we have no control over others. Saying to another person “I will make you happy” is, fundamentally, no different than “I will make you like scrapple” or “I will make you jump off this building.” This is an unhealthy mentality, and the source of a great deal of abuse in relationships comes from one person trying everything they can to make the other person feel or act in a certain way. Be it desperation at the thought of being alone, an unhealthy desire for control, or some form of self-sabotage, choosing to act in a way intended to force a reaction out of another person is a cruel choice, disrespectful of the other person’s agency, and ultimately unhealthy for the person making that choice.

In all of these examples of ineffective choices, the common denominator is the person who is making these choices: ourselves. We see ourselves through certain filters, and project that image into the world. We are glorified or we are broken; we are victors or we are victims; we are saints or we are sinners. We dilute ourselves into a simple projection that is easy for ourselves and others to comprehend. We treat ourselves the way we expect to be treated. I know that I am, in some ways, generalizing the situation, and that each of us is different as I said. The point here is that the greater truth, the fact of the matter, is that we create the first and largest obstacle between our present self and our best self.

Just as we cannot control others, others cannot control us. Others cannot make us move past this obstacle. We can be given advice, we can have professional guidance, we can be prescribed medication, encouraged to change our diet, and taught how to practice mindfulness exercises — just to name a few methods of assistance available to you. The choice to listen to that advice, to seek that guidance, to take those meds and try those other methods — only we can make that choice.

And every choice we make moves us in a certain direction. It all depends on what direction you want to move in.

Here we come back to need versus want. We may want to be in a certain type of relationship, have a particular job, seek our own idea of success. How many of those wants can we achieve if we are making ineffective choices, doing ourselves a disservice, and allowing the consequences of our choices to take a toll on those around us? It begins with us, and those fundamental choices we need to make. Do we set ourselves up for success, or for failure?

I know why so many people choose to turn away from moving in the direction that means taking them through their own self-image and focusing on their responsibility for their own choices. It’s hard. It’s admitting we were wrong, that we had no control over the situations we tried to change outside of ourselves, and that no matter how far we feel we’ve come in our lives, we have a great deal further to go. Perhaps greatest of all is the fact that the process of healing, of getting anywhere closer to where we need to be to lead healthier and happier lives, is a slow and difficult one. It involves work, it involves pain, and it involves changing ourselves into what may be something we no longer recognize in comparison to who we were before.

People will say others “just need to get over it” when we face a difficult situation, or “get over yourself” when we come across as making things all about us. It’s a reductive turn of phrase. It plays into the idea that we’re not choosing to do something that’s easy, or at the very least convenient for the other person. The fact is, moving forward in our lives does not mean getting over things — we need to move through them.

We cannot avoid the facts of our lives, our pasts, or our obstacles. We can try to get around our obstacles or turn away from them, but those are ways in which we set ourselves up for failure. When we face them, and do the work to understand and get through the difficult moments they create, that is when we find health, and peace, and success. It isn’t easy, it isn’t pleasant, and it doesn’t happen quickly. Be it in real time, or within our internal mental landscape, where days can feel like centuries or millennia, breaking through happens one thought and one choice at a time. It’s an ongoing process, and as much as the tiniest bit of progress may make one feel worn out or discouraged, it is still progress, and is worth the effort. You are worth the effort.

Eventually, with enough time, enough work, enough progress, we break through. It’s inevitable. If we set our minds on getting to the place where we need to be in order to be healthier and happier, that is a place at which we will arrive. It’s the same with unhealthier places and unhealthier goals, and while I may be in danger of beating a dead horse — it’s all down to what we choose. If we choose to face our obstacles, take the actions required to begin working through them, and care enough about ourselves to assume responsibility for our own choices for the purpose of making better and healthier ones as consistently as possible — nothing in the universe can stop us from getting from the place of pain and loneliness where so many of us dwell for too long, and arriving in a place where the possibilities of life open up, and our choices make sense, bring peace, and lead to happiness and love.

It’s down to us. We choose what we focus on. We choose what we are determined to accomplish. We choose if we get up when the world knocks us down, face that great obstacle ahead of us within ourselves, and do what we need to do in order to break through it.

You’ve made those choices before. In every day leading up to this one, you’ve made these choices. And you will continue to choose, in every day that follows this one, as long as you are living, and breathing, and feeling.

What will you choose today?

Dry-Dock

I’m a fan of CGP Grey’s analogy of “navigating the waters of the sea of sadness” in terms of making progress with regards to mental health. His video “7 Ways To Maximize Misery” is an incredibly concise and engaging guide to developing better self-care habits, as well as being an amusing exercise in reverse psychology. Thinking about the analogy in my situation, especially over the course of the last year in general and the last few months in particular, leads me to an inevitable conclusion:

My boat’s still leaking.

It’s not as bad as it has been, not by a long shot. I’m handling things in a more healthy manner, and I’m making progress in ways that are not insignificant. I’m aware of that, and I’m glad for it. At the same time, old and challenging emotions — guilt, shame, heartache, and grief — still swim in those dark waters around my boat. When they sense weaknesses in the hull that still exist, they bash against it, threatening to collapse everything I’ve managed to rebuild since I was released from the hospital last April.

It takes a few forms — a difficult conversation, a post on social media, radio silence after a message sent into the void. My heart aches for significant, mutual connections, the more the better. I mourn the good things from past relationships, even those that ended in disaster. Above all, I get battered port and starboard by twin kraken-tentacles of guilt and shame, constantly reminding me that it was my choices, rooted in unrealistic perceptions and unhealthy habits though they were, are the cause of all of this consternation, pain, and loneliness.

I’m healthier, and I’m glad for that. I’m still not healthy.

Being aware of that fact, frustrating as it can be because I’ve been working to be healthier for so long, reminds me of another fact. In a relationship, one partner’s unhealthiness can exacerbate the unhealthiness in others. If I am struggling with self-worth and looking to someone else to convince me that I am “good enough,” in those instances where I am really down on myself, the other person will begin to wonder if they are “good enough.” Thus, they turn to me for validation, and if they need validation, the thought follows that something I’ve said or done is taking away that feeling of validation, which makes me feel worse… It’s a self-sustaining, unhealthy cycle of ever-deteriorating emotions, and it causes damage to everyone involved.

That’s just one example, and it’s something that’s happened to me many times over the course of my life. Someone for whom I feel affection and/or attraction is feeling bad, or is in a bad situation, and I want to show up for them and use the things I have to offer to help them — at times, that’s taken the form of thinking I have to “save” them. I’m keenly aware of how unhealthy and unrealistic that outlook is, now more than ever. That doesn’t change the fact that I jumped into those situations without thinking things through, and once I was in them, I would stubbornly hold on to this idea that “yes, I can make a difference and I can make them better and I have to make this work because I said I would and if I don’t I’m a worthless failure.

I want to pause here to say something very important. This is not anyone else’s fault and I do not blame anyone else for making me feel these things. My damage is my responsibility to fix, and I’m not putting the onus on anyone else to take responsibility for it. I know that I’ve gotten better about those things because I no longer leap into action to tilt at some romantic windmill, or try to fix something that is neither my responsibility to fix, nor am I equipped to actually address. I have better boundaries, now — hell, I actually have boundaries. That’s good. That’s healthy.

I still have those cracks in the hull, though. And they threaten to collapse the whole damn ship all over again, if I’m not careful and mindful and make healthy choices.

That’s why I’m considering myself in ‘dry-dock’ when it comes to romance, intimacy, and relationships. As I’ve said to a few friends, the only person I’m interested in pursuing right now is myself. I need to have a more solid, actionable idea of what it is that I want and expect out of a relationship, rather than letting my goals in a relationship being defined by a partner. I’ve pinned too much in the past on needs and wants that I’ve perceived, some of which never even existed. I want to be able to hold my own ground where my needs and wants are concerned, rather than being ‘blown about by every wind’, a term from Melody Beattie’s excellent book Codependent No More.

When you get right down to it, the most important thing for me to focus on regarding recovery and moving forward is taking responsibility only for those things that are within my control, and choosing what things are important to me and when to act on those things. If I can’t control something — an ‘all hands on deck’ situation at the dayjob, my cat’s whining in protest of me trying set down a healthy schedule for her eating wet food, another person’s feelings or situation that are not my responsibility — I have to let go of the idea that I am somehow obligated to exert control over the situation in some way that is detrimental to myself, exacerbates the situation in some way, or both. We are always choosing, as Mark Manson says in The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck, and it’s a concept I’ve taken to heart in order to make better and healthier choices for myself. The more consistently and constructively I can make those choices, the sooner my heart will be out of dry-dock.

These things don’t operate on a timetable. I don’t expect to be “out there” any time soon. There are several fundamental issues for me to address — my overall goal of overcoming my codependency, moving forward in spite of my dual fears of failure and success, and actively engaging in self-care and not taking too much on myself to ‘stay busy’ as examples — before I will feel enabled to function in a healthy relationship. And if I am going to be in a relationship in the future, doing so in a healthy and constructive fashion consistently and compassionately is the goal. It would be a nice change of pace — the reason I’m focusing on addressing these fundamental issues is the fact that those things going unresolved for so long has resulted in just about every relationship I’ve been in up to this point has been unhealthy on one level for another.

I just don’t want to hurt anyone else that I love. I want to stop hurting, too.

So that’s where I am right now. I know it’s been some time since I’ve posted. I’m writing when I can, mostly in a Star Wars fanfic or in D&D backstories. As I slowly gain ground in recovery, I find myself focusing on a few small projects, I guess as a way of working myself up towards actually finishing the novel. I know I need to set more time to accomplish my goals instead of waiting around for inspiration to strike. Hopefully, with things improving at the dayjob and a bit more emotional stability in my personal life, bandwidth will open up so I can do that more actively.

And then, at some point, perhaps soon and perhaps not, I’ll get this boat pushed back out to sea. Because if I start to sink again, I don’t know if I’d be able to come back up, and I don’t want that to happen, to me or to anyone else.

The Importance of Being Honest

Let me kick this off with some honesty: I still maintain standards for myself that are, at times, unrealistic or too exacting. When I expect myself to be flawless in my Magic gameplay, or further along in my personal goals than is realistic, I will still get incredibly frustrated with myself. It can shift those goals from being SMART (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, for which I am Responsible, and Time-bounded) to being VAPID (Vague, Amorphous, Pie-in-the-sky, Irrelevant, and Delayed). As much as we might like to believe, they are rarely strictly one or the other. Much like ourselves, our goals can change in ways large and small based on life circumstances and shifting priorities. What is important is that we deal with these changes as they happen, accept that circumstances are changing, and make the most of the situation. That is a choice you can make. Just like choosing to be honest or not, or to do something helpful or harmful. It all comes down to choices.

Good and evil have nothing to do with inherent virtue, and everything to do with choices.

There really isn’t anything tangible to support the idea that human beings are born with a predisposition towards ‘good’ or ‘evil’. I think that brain chemistry and family history can be factors in what causes a person to make certain choices, and the environment in which one is raised inform a child as to what is permissible, expected, and taboo. These are merely factors; an individual is still responsible for the choices they make.

To be blunt: you’re going to make choices that are ineffective, and sometimes harmful to others. Even if a choice is to cut someone toxic out of your life, there could be ramifications that cause harm for others as a result. What I want to focus on, however, is the mistakes that we make. Either as a deliberate choice we make, or a snap decision that is ill informed or based on false assumptions, we make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes cost us dearly, in money or opportunities. Other times, there is emotional or even physical harm as a result. These mistakes do not mean that you are ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. If you can recognize the mistake, and make efforts in good faith not to repeat it and to correct what is possible and healthy for you to correct, that is a choice that matters far more than any judgement leveled upon you by others. The fact of the matter is this:

You are more than the sum of your mistakes.

Too often we allow the mistakes that we have made to hold us back from being who we want to be, or existing in the moment that is right in front of us. We treat situations with trepidation or even terror in spite of the evidence that is presented to us that the situation we believe exists is not reality. Yes, there are people who will cling adamantly and irrationally to the mistakes they’ve made and the opinions they hold because, tragically, those perspectives have become part of their identity as they perceive it and it will take far greater influences than our mere observations to change that, no matter how adamant we might be. The people who show up and are honest, first and foremost with themselves, and do not hide that honesty behind an artifice or use it as an abrasive bulwark against anything approaching vulnerability, are heartbreakingly rare. To aspire to be that sort of person is to fly in the face of everything modern society encourages us to be — shallow, immediate, knee-jerk reactionary consumers with myopic perspectives easily influenced by social media and broad stereotypes.

I know this is true because it is the kind of person I used to be.

It caused a lot of problems and it hurt people. I’m sorry that ever happened. To this day, it breaks my heart.

In the past, I would have wallowed in that pain and used it for one reason or another. We can’t do that to ourselves, though. It isn’t fair, to us or to those around us. I’ve had to let that behavior go because of its inherent unhealthiness. To punch down on oneself repeatedly is to inform others that you are someone who accepts being punched down upon, to at least some extent. Consciously or not, people will exploit that. If you are the kind of person who just accepts the status quo in your own life, that being lonely or marginalized or a failure is “just how things are, so I guess I’m just boned,” that is a choice you are making. And it is a dishonest one. Because it’s not true.

You can stop disasterbating.

We make progress in stages. It happens one day, one hour, one step at a time. It’s slow going. And things can often make us hesitate, and sometimes trip us up entirely. I do still punch down on myself on occasion. More often, though, I find myself disasterbating. Be it at home when all is quiet and calm, or in the midst of a social situation full of clamor and camaraderie, my brain generates questions about how I’ll act, how others will react, what the results might be or could be or should be, and the next thing I know I’m frozen in place unable to act, or so frustrated that I’m beside myself with anger or anxiety. And then, when I recognize it, I can become frustrated with that, and it takes a lot of energy and effort to course-correct and get myself back into a wise mind state.

I wish it were as easy as just saying “stop” and then stopping. I know that’s not the case. I don’t mean to be reductive in giving advice, even to myself. Rather, in a way, I’m setting a goal. I’m putting myself in situations where I’ll have a better environment in which to practice the prevention of disasterbating, and removing myself from those where it’s more difficult. And all of this — the goals, the choices, the lessons — come from a place of honesty.

That’s the foundation upon all of this is based. There is literally nothing more important than that. It begins with being honest with oneself. To see what is within oneself, no matter how ‘broken’ something might seem, and to make choices as to how to effectively address those things. Past that is to be honest with how one sees the world. Do we accept the facts that are out there? Can we honestly address the challenges the world presents? Is it possible for us to let go of viewpoints and opinions that do not fit the facts, or do we cling to what’s been said before, what the prevailing sentiment is, where the bandwagon is going? The more honestly we can answer these questions, the more effective we will be in showing up in a way that features our best self, or at least the best self we can be in a given moment.

I can’t think of a person I’d want in my life who doesn’t want that. We can be better than we were. We can treat ourselves with more compassion, and encourage others to be more honest and more present. We can get there with help, and if for no other reason than so many have been there to help me, I’m here to help others. If I’m asked, if I’m able, I’ll show up to help.

Now more than ever, and for as long as I keep moving forward on this path of honesty and love and determination, you can fucking count on that.

Stop Putting It Off

Normally, I’d save this sort of thing for a Friday 500. However, considering the last entry I posted here was in August, and it’s now bloody October, there’s no reason for me to put it off.

To be honest, that’s the point of this post in the first place.

I need to stop putting it off.

Even now, sitting here, typing these words out, I’m dealing with a lot of frustration and mixed emotions. Some things are exciting and heartwarming. Others, excruciating and heartbreaking. I’m in a place where I can better quantify them, see them for what they are, and remove myself from being in the midst of them to gain understanding and make a healthy choice regarding how to respond and move forward. Sometimes, though, that choice is “try not to think about it and do something else instead.”

Right now, part of me is reminding me that I would rather be playing Doom, blowing the heads off of demons and running to beat my last high score. I’d use that time to blow off steam, and take out some of my frustrations on some imaginary well-rendered fiends. But I’ve already spent a lot of my time distracting myself. I want to do less of that.

As I sit to try and determine what words I type next, it occurs to me that, in this case, what I’d be distracting myself from is anxiety welling up from a deep place of fear. How many times, now, have I put myself out into the world, tried to convey something that has meaning to me, only to have things go wrong? Be it due to self-sabotage and setting myself up for failure, or running headlong into a personality conflict that causes metaphorical explosions, I’d say that I’ve likely failed more than I’ve succeeded.

Why put yourself through that again? asks the would-be instructor basing their rhetoric on lessons of the past.

Like before, you’ll be too much for this person, and you’ll be so mad about it you’ll shove that person away, says the would-be psychic trying to project the past into the future.

These are both perspectives and voices in my mind, and they’re both liars.

Yes. I’m afraid that the novel I’m writing will cause some form of backlash. I’m afraid of having another D&D campaign abruptly cease to exist due to a personality clash or drama that has nothing to do with the people at the table. I’m afraid that showing up, really showing up, as my best possible self — this person who has a better handle on who he is and what he wants than he ever has before — and being treated like these words I’ve written and this work I’m doing and this person I am does not matter.

Bravery is recognizing you’re afraid, and then doing the thing in spite of that fear.

Obviously, this is more of a guideline than a rule. One probably shouldn’t say “I’m afraid of heights so I’m going to jump out of this airplane!” unless they have a parachute. Likewise, if there’s a situation that is unhealthy for me or in which I will be uncomfortable to the point of being ineffective, the healthy choice is for me to not engage in that situation. The point I’m trying to make, or at least verbally amble back towards, is that making a choice to work towards a desired outcome in spite of fear is not easy, not when there are so many distractions to soothe the anxious mind.

When I was in the hospital, watching the first videos on DBT, Dr. Linehan warned against “too much self-soothing.” Taking breaks and blowing off steam is all well and good, but as with all things, there has to be moderation. Without awareness of what it takes to make progress on a personal goal or project, or the willingness to stop following one’s nose for a moment to take stock of where one is and what the next destination for one’s intent should be, in our modern age we can drift from one distraction to the next without realizing it. The next thing you know, it’s the middle of the night and you’re wondering where the time’s gone.

Thankfully, this moment, right now, is a great opportunity to make a different choice.

Some choices are easy, others are not. What matters is taking the moment to step back and realizing that there is always a choice.

There are some things about our lives that we cannot change. There is no cure for certain physical conditions, and our mental and emotional imbalances will always be with us. We cannot undo the past, nor can we always right the ways in which we’ve been wronged. There are some circumstances we cannot control.

That does not mean we are powerless. And it certainly doesn’t mean we’re helping anything by putting off even just one step that we know we have to take to accomplish one of our goals.

When we feel fear or anger or doubt or heartache, the world is happy to distract us. Now more than ever, we have a thousand and one ways to put our cares aside and get lost in one form of self-soothing or another. We have to ask ourselves: how much is this really helping? Who is benefiting from this choice I’m making to play this game or watch this video or scroll through this social media feed? What is it costing me to put off working towards a personal goal? To what degree is this choice allowing me to get in my own way?

This isn’t to say any of these distractions are in and of themselves bad, or that participating in them is inherently wrong. It’s been said to me that good and bad are not something you are, it’s something you do. I’d go so far to say that it’s something we choose. I think that’s the key. We choose where we go, what we do, who we see. We choose how we engage with or disconnect from the world and those around us. We choose between making an effort to accomplish a goal, and putting it off until later for a variety of reasons.

I’m not trying to be a life coach or anything. This is more for posterity than to dispense advice. However, if you find the preceding pontification useful, I’m glad. I know that it’s very difficult to make decisions regarding how we spend our time and how we treat ourselves sometimes. I also know it can be difficult to make those decisions consistently. The important thing is to keep trying to make better ones, more healthy ones, and not be held back by fear that the wrong decision is going to be made.

Here’s the thing: not making a decision because you’re afraid it’ll be the wrong one is still a decision. And, in my experience, that in and of itself is almost always the wrong one. The right thing to do is to look at your feelings and the situation, weigh your options, and then actively choose one alternative or the other. Following through on that choice and accepting the consequences of it are a whole different subject, probably best tackled elsewhere or later.

What’s really going to bake your noodle? We have to actively choose to actively choose.

We don’t just have to go with whatever is prevailing right now. There’s no reason to soak up ambient stasis or entropy, acting like some kind of negativity sponge, letting that energy keep us from making choices — first of all, that benefits precisely zero people, and secondly, the more negativity you soak up the more you’re going to put back out into the world, regardless of how many people laugh at your self-deprecating humor and sarcastic quips. I’ve seen a lot of people around me fall into a shrugging, grudging acceptance of a sucky status quo, this idea that “everything sucks and I’m going to die anyway, so what’s the point?”

I think one of the reasons I distract myself is to not think about how much that pisses me off.

This is really starting to ramble because I’m getting tired. Let me see if I can wrap this up.

I made the active choice to stop playing video games and write out this post. Tomorrow I’ll be making choices about how often I tackle new contacts at work, what food I’m buying and bringing home, and how I’m going to spend my evening hours. I have an idea of how to better structure my time, manage my own expectations, and leave myself room to do things like play video games. It might not work; I may slip into a more well-worn mental pattern of believing I’m too worn out by being productive in an office and dealing with my day-to-day mental and emotional gobbledygook to do anything worthwhile, at which point I’ll sit at my PC, refresh my Twitter feeds, and watch the animatic of the moment in “Critical Role” where Keyleth turns into a goldfish for the bazillionth time.

At least this, right here, is proof to my future self that I can, in fact, make the active choice to stop putting something off.

I hope it’s helpful, Future Me. And maybe, reader who is not Future Me, you’ve found this helpful too.

Best Self

From the moment we are born, there will be people around us who will try to tell us what we should be doing, how we should be acting, and by what metrics we should be measuring our success. The influences of our families, societies, popular media, and a host of other sources try to inform us of what is “best”: best behavior, best performance, best goals, best cars, best social media platform, so on and so forth. With so much clamor from so many directions, the messages and influences that encourage us to validate ourselves, rather than seek validation from others, can easily get drowned out. It is one of the most subtly dangerous threats to our psyches that exist, and I cannot overstate how important it is to find our sovereignty within ourselves first and foremost.

There’s no universal set of rules or criteria that can be followed to achieve this. Our pasts, and our present, create a set of circumstances unique to every one of us. Regardless of where you’ve come from, where you are, or what you have or have not achieved so far, there is something that I can say I honestly believe is true for you as much as it is for me: you are worth believing in, and you can find that belief within yourself. I’ve dismissed that idea out of hand in the past, be it with a sincere if half-hearted “thank you” to whatever person was saying it, or acting in a sarcastic manner in reaction. Because of how I looked at myself, I neither saw nor internalized the truth of that statement. It was a denial of my best self. That is one of the biggest things that has changed about me, and that I’m dedicated to not losing sight of ever again.

Our best self comes out when we look within ourselves for our sense of validation. It isn’t easy. Those external sources, those structures of control, can be difficult to eject. Some of the influences, especially from parental figures and role models, dig themselves deeply into our psyches. And sometimes, they are directly detrimental to our self-actualization. Even when we can recognize them as toxic, if they have been a part of our lives for an extended period of time, the idea of being apart from them can be daunting. That challenge of making new choices I mentioned previously? This is where it’s at its most prominent, and where forging those new neural pathways can be its most rewarding and empowering.

As much as a lot of popular media is aimed at making one reach for an external sense of validation, be it financial success or reliance upon a relationship or some fleeting moment of fame or recognition, I’d like to cite three examples of stories in our popular culture that exemplify the challenges and empowerment of seeking and seizing validation from within oneself.

“I don’t have anything to prove to you.”

One of the best scenes in Captain Marvel is Carol’s last confrontation with the Kree Supreme Intelligence. For years, the Kree had been influencing Carol’s psyche with both direct and indirect manipulation; there was a device on her neck representing the direct control of the Supreme Intelligence, and her peers sought indirect control through exemplifying the Kree way of life. Even then, however, Carol didn’t quite fit in, wanting to be her own person. Returning to Earth showed Carol who she had been before the events that put her under Kree control. I love the scene where Carol’s best friend from her past, Maria, tells Carol who she is, or at least who Maria always saw her to be: “smart, and funny, and a huge pain in the ass… the most powerful person I knew, way before you could shoot fire from your fists.” Maria could see the person that Carol was, and wanted to help her see who she could be — to help Carol grow into her true self.

Carol resolved to forge her own identity, using both who she had been on Earth and what she’d learned from the Kree to become a new, better, stronger version of herself. She doesn’t want to go back to who she was before — she knows that’s impossible. And her identity as a Kree warrior, not to mention the entire Kree way of life, has shown itself to be a lie. She rejects the influence of the Supreme Intelligence; she physically removes the device (something else she’d been lied to about), and says:

“I’ve been fighting with one hand tied behind my back. What happens when I’m finally set free?”

What happens next is a direct manifestation of Carol Danvers as her best self. As Captain Marvel. And it came from within herself, from her own inner sense of validation.

“I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.”

Aragorn, especially in the film adaptation of Lord of the Rings, is a man who is fearful of his legacy, the influences of his past. He knows that those who came before him failed, succumbed to their weaknesses and temptations, and he is afraid of doing the same, of not being equal to the task ahead of him. Because of the actions of others, he is inclined to invalidate himself. Even when actively encouraged by others, be they Gandalf or Arwen or Elrond, he secludes himself, more concerned with the possibility of failure than of success.

When he puts that fear aside, and makes the decision to use what has been given to him to its fullest potential, we see a change. He’s been able to lead in the past, when tracking Merry and Pippin or at Helm’s Deep. But when he rides out of Minis Tirith with an army behind him and has to inspire them to stand with him to give the world a chance at peace and freedom, it’s through his own inner sense of validation that he validates others. He knows he might fail, that it might all end in darkness and death. His belief that he can be better, that he chooses to be better, makes all the difference. It allows him to face his fear and, in turn, help those with him to overcome theirs. And that is why they prevail.

“… this spark in you; it’s amazing! Whatever you choose to do with it, you’re gonna be great.”

Miles Morales in Into the Spider-Verse has to find it within himself to “put on the mask”, to be Spider-Man. He’s in a situation where he knows his powers give him responsibility, and he aspires to be like the Spider-Man of his world — Peter Parker, now deceased. (Whups, spoilers.) The Peter Parker from another dimension, who’s come to care for Miles, tells the young man that he’s not ready, that he doesn’t quite have what it takes to tackle the major threat. This is a sentiment backed up by Gwen Stacy, Peni Parker, Spider-Man Noir, and Peter Porker. They all care about him and want him to be safe; they feel his inexperience makes the situation too dangerous. His father, coming to his door, tells him that he’s worth believing in. In the end, it’s Miles himself that helps him realize that he does, in fact, have what it takes to be the kind of person, the kind of hero, he wants to be.

Into the Spider-Verse immediately became my favorite Spider-Man film, and favorite Spider-Man story period, because of Miles Morales. I mean, yes, the art style is mind-blowing and the attention to detail is staggering; I adore the worn-out alternate universe Peter Parker, the incredibly confident and empowered Spider-Gwen, the uniqueness of Peni, the wonderful delight of Nicholas Cage just doing the most, and my inner 8-year-old can’t stop giggling at the Spectacular Spider-Ham. But it’s the story of Miles, and how he grows and changes, that is sticking with me. From his father to his uncle, not to mention not one but two Peter Parkers, there are a lot of external influences that could push or pull Miles in one way or another. The focal point of the story, however, is how Miles makes his choices in terms of who it is he wants to be. The most important thing to Miles is not living up to anyone else’s expectations; it’s not earning validation from peers; it’s not seeking attention or affirmation through external shows. The most important thing to Miles is being Miles, the best Miles he can be — for him, that’s to put on the mask and take a leap of faith.

Much like redemption, validation is at its most powerful when it comes from within oneself. The people who truly love us want nothing more than to see us succeed, for our own sake and on our own terms. They want to believe in us. Here’s the thing: if we can’t believe in ourselves, how can we expect others to believe in us? If we don’t respect ourselves, why would anyone else respect us? It begins within ourselves. It’s not something that’s touched on often in the media that permeates our society. There are tons of businesses who will be more than happy to sell you something in the name of fulfilling a need within yourself. It’s an easier solution to reach for. To try and find these things on your own, to eschew the expectations of the world, is considered an abnormality. There’s something about it that can, and often does, feel dangerous.

With everything that’s happened, and everything I’m learning, I’ve come to believe that choosing and working become one’s best self is a difficult thing, sometimes even a frightening thing. Your success and failure is entirely on you. If you’re detached from reliance upon and validation from others, you run the risk of either buying too much of your own hype or focusing overmuch on minor setbacks as evidence that you can’t make your own way. Again, this will vary from person to person, but that seems to me to be the nature of the challenge, the flavor of the danger. And it’s understandable to be afraid. But just like deciding to seek your best self, you can also decide how you handle that fear. I used to let it make the decisions for me; now, I can acknowledge it exists, see it for what it is, and then find it within myself to make my decisions on my own terms.

In other words: being one’s best self is often a matter of stepping out under one’s own power, seeing the challenges ahead, choosing to show the fuck up anyway, and saying:

What’s up, danger?

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