It Has Always Been You
The Ouroboros is a circular symbol of a serpent eating its own tail. Is this self-efficient or self-destructive? Can it be both?
One common thread through the various mental health strategies I have tried is the idea that we are not in control of other people's emotions or actions. In fact, we are not in control of our own emotions. We can only choose how we react. Psychiatrists, self-help books, groups, and formal courses of cognitive behavioral therapy stress that change comes from within. A doctor can guide you, but you are the one really doing the work. I may not be able to choose whether or not I am angry, but I can choose the behavior of walking away versus throwing a punch.
We have agency, even in our internal, emotional world. No one can remove the tail from the serpent's mouth. The serpent is the only one with the ability to stop themselves. There's no magic pill, no secret therapy that will completely erase trauma. It is up to us to move forward ourselves. Unfortunately, this strategy aligns perfectly with the shame based philosophy that has been distilled in many of us, 'You have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”
At least for me personally, that ol' chestnut feels shameful. We know that systematic issues are prevalent in the world. In many cases skin color, financial worth, gender, sexual orientation, and race will actively prevent us from helping ourselves. Even if we set aside the systematic problems, I think I am not alone in seeing the phrase, “It is nobody's fault but your own” in the “bootstraps” mantra. Telling a child he will never graduate school is not a great way to motivate him to succeed. There's also resistance to 'pulling myself up” because if it were possible, I have already failed. I wouldn't be here to begin with if that strategy worked, right?
Questions work far better than fortune cookie wisdom. Why am I struggling? I hate school. Why am I angry at the school? Exploring emotions allows us to accept and process them. This can clear our minds a bit more to then work on picking yourself up. Drilling down to the core of the issue is not something we are comfortable with. It is scary. The path of least resistance is assigning blame.
In my own journey, some of the shame and self-hate came from some childhood experiences of peer pressure. When the doctor reminded me that I was a child and did not know any better, there was a desire to blame others. My peers mistreated me. The adults around me never taught me to handle things properly. Again, the emotion was still there, anger. After sitting with the anger, allowing it to be without pushing it away or acting it out, I was then able to apply the strategy of agency. It's okay to be angry. It's natural and completely human. Now, I would like to move forward, and I can because nobody is forcing me to eat my own tail.
This is super difficult work. There's a tendency to want to leave the past in the past. Yes, I got upset, but today is a new day. That's the path of least resistance again. It is not a flawed thought, but one must determine how they feel about that thought. Am I now mad at myself for remembering that time I got upset? Is there still some anger here today? Am I okay with feeling angry? Or, perhaps I am here in the present. Perhaps, “Yes I got upset,” is me telling myself that I accept my emotions.
Body scans are really good for those of us who do not have a lot of experience with noticing and labeling our emotions. If I am clenching my jaw while thinking that today will be a new day, that means I might have some anger inside me. If my neck and shoulders are relaxed, and my chest feels uncharacteristically open it is safe to think I am being mindful and moving forward in the present.
A bit of a ramble today. I had what felt like a run-in with the bootstrap bullshit today. I felt like I wasn't being heard. However, I may have been not listening well either. Goes to show that I might apply the asking questions advice externally as well.
Be curious, not judgemental.