Reclaiming Self, Again

Dark, dreary and forlorn
When all seems dark and dreary… how do I find and reclaim myself?

The world seems dark, closing in around me. My vision has dimmed. My inner emotional and mental turmoil grows. Dense, dark clouds of desperation choke me. I feel like I am losing myself, my grip on reality, and wonder how or why I should carry on. And only moments ago I felt okay. What changed? Why am I pitching and tossing as though I am in a tiny boat on a raging ocean storm? Where is my virtue? Why has my positive sense of self vanished? Why do I feel abandoned and alone? Is there a way out of this seemingly impenetrable darkness? Why can’t light flood in as easily as the darkness? What am I to do?

Ever known moments or periods like that? I have. It can seem like goodness has evaporated and darkness is all that is available. What causes such experiences? How can such moments/periods be overcome? Answering questions such as these was part of the motivation behind my book, Appreciate the fog: embrace change with power and purpose. I continue to experience and learn.

Many things can create the loss of light, disconnection from what feels positive and good, and plunge us into chaos, confusion, and uncertainty. Trauma certainly can. New trauma messes with our sense of safety and trust. Events may remind us of past trauma and return us emotionally and mentally to old states. Loss, and the accompanying grief, is another trigger. Losing someone through death, capability through illness or accident, a job through retrenchment, or any number of other sources, can cause us to question life, purpose, and our place in the scheme of things. Shame can trigger the downward spiral or dramatic plunge, as the case may be. It could be through returning to an old habit, one we thought we had beaten, or being reminded of something we have done that we regret. Shame can also accentuate the downward process initiated by other causes. This one has a fabulous ally in the descent into darkness, our inner critic, who, through shame, has received a package of evidence of our uselessness as an individual. We may have a massive job disentangling ourselves from our critic’s habitual negative messages before we can even consider climbing out of the pit. The critic is such a potent voice, and if we attack the critic for being critical, it only serves to strengthen the critic and deepen the hole we are in. There are many other triggers that can take us down.

With the brain surgery I had several years ago came a raft of such roller-coaster experiences. It was traumatic in the extreme, far more so than it actually seemed to be. One moment I was fine. The next I learned I had a life threatening tumour, and had life-saving and life-changing surgery with loss of physical function and capability. It is all invisible disability, but I know it is there. So does my critic. Every now and then I find myself back in the negative soup, needing to yet again extricate myself. In response to the trauma, I found myself plunged back into unproductive patterns I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager where I had little trust that I would be okay. For all the miraculous outcome of the surgical intervention, a brain tumour does highlight safety concerns, and I found myself working with very old patterns and attitudes: isolation, distrust of others and life in general, and a generally bleak mental outlook. “There goes 30+ years of personal work down the toilet” was one of my evaluative internal comments. “Hey, I have written a book about this stuff. How could I get caught in this trap?” Pretty easily actually. The brain never drops old wiring. We may manage to create new pathways and implement new habits, including mental and emotional responses, that are useful and forward moving. In some ways trauma can unearth disused paths and bring them back into use. The difference this time however is that I have worked my way through and out before.  I am armed with that knowledge and capacity. This whole process became another chance to bed down the restorative processes, and heal past old hurts at a deeper level.

So, how can we reclaim ourselves at such times? This is the equivalent of redeeming ourselves from hell, the turmoil created within one’s psyche by mental and emotional processes gone awry. Some examples of methods for reclaiming self include:

Implement new positive routines. These have the effect of reminding ourselves we matter and provide positive feedback and self-care. For me, something as simple as stopping each hour to do a few stretches that break up my day of sitting and working on the computer makes a massive difference to my sense of self and my outlook.

Inventory the qualities and virtues you seem to have lost, and reclaim them. When I hit these sorts of dark places I tend to lose playfulness, trust, hope, delight, innocence, many other child-like qualities. The world seems to be too big, bad and unsafe, so they get stowed for a brighter day. Without them the brighter day doesn’t actually happen. Check in on what you don’t seem to have access to, because you have hidden them away, and reclaim them. Bring them back into active use. For me I metaphorically throw my items into a sack I carry on my back. To reclaim them I go through a process of recognising that has happened, and mentally opening and exploring my sack to find the qualities I want back. Sometimes I use a physical bag full of items and enact the process to strengthen my mental and emotional connection to reclaiming myself. That has a great effect in opening my awareness, establishing the importance of the qualities I am reclaiming, and reasserting them as valuable and available in my life. The world gets brighter in that moment.

Practice loving and accepting yourself. A simple way of doing this is to say: “I love myself and I accept myself, even though I don’t understand myself… and I forgive myself.” You could even list the things you find difficult to understand about yourself. This phrase asserts love and acceptance without judging yourself as good or bad . You can up the experience by standing at a mirror, taking up your own gaze, and then saying it. Do this multiple times and notice your inner response to yourself saying such a simple statement. I find this is an invaluable feedback mechanism. Any difficulty I have when holding my own gaze and saying this statement quickly informs me how strongly judgemental and unaccepting I am of myself in that moment. Staying with myself, when it is difficult, and finding a way back to loving and accepting myself, is a powerful, valuable, and often challenging, investment in self.

Phone a friend. Reaching out can be an incredibly difficult action when surrounded by your judgement of how pathetic you are. A real friend loves and accepts you even when you don’t know how to. It is a great lifeline to have and call on when the moment requires it. If you don’t have a friend available in the moment of crisis, call a helpline or see a counsellor. All these options are positive steps that say “I want and deserve better for myself.”

Gratitude. Find and name a few things for which you are truly grateful. If you can’t find anything, ask yourself what you could be grateful for, and then be grateful for that, and for asking the question. If you have done any of the previous actions, or anything else that works for you, express gratitude to yourself for doing them, for investing in yourself. Work with whatever small sliver you can find, and build on it.

Practice while the going is good. Build up your capacity to reclaim yourself when you don’t need to. It is easier to hit those negative experiences if you are already resourced. As challenging as my process of working through my surgery and aftermath has been, it has been much easier for having already established mechanisms for reclaiming myself. There have been times when, regardless of all I know, I wondered what the point was, but underneath I have known there is a point, and I that I could find my way back.

These are by no means all you can do. What are ways that work when you need to reclaim yourself?

Refer to “Reclaiming Self” for an earlier article on the same subject.

Practised Incompetence

Discovered to be incompetent
Oh no! They’ve discovered I’m incompetent!

Children play, are spontaneous, try new things and mistakes are an accepted part of the learning process. As adults the norm shifts towards maintenance of what we know, feeling safe and secure in our capabilities, with our security built on our competence. Ego demands that any threat to our emotional, mental or physical being be dealt with and encourages us to rely on fear-based survival modes – fight, flight, freeze or fabricate.

At every level of organisational life, ego-driven behaviours can be seen. Fiefdoms are created as individuals and groups seek control, desiring the means to ensure their security, and layers of protection are implemented. Authority (the right to do something) is often confused with power (the ability to do something), and unfortunately do not truly reside with each other as often as we might hope or expect. Too often authority leads to ever greater need for protectionism. Control becomes the key competence as fear runs rampant, and excellence suffers as only the tried and true methods are used, the only ones in which competence is held.

Such behaviours and approaches pose their own threats when we are in an unstable, changing environment. Recent events in the world’s financial markets highlight how uncertain life really is. Organisations are crashing down around us. Job and financial security have deserted us. Old patterns, behaviours, and beliefs are being tested, often to breaking point. The rubble of such change leaves in its wake a cloud of confusion. This is seen at personal, business, societal and global levels.

Is there an alternative? When there is an over-reliance on appearing competent, the willingness to take risks, try new things, and engage with creativity is diminished.

I have spent my life largely reliant on intellect, isolation, and protectionist behaviours to feel safe and navigate life with a false sense of control. Now I choose to engage with life and the people I encounter with authentic, heart-felt connection. Feeling vulnerable is common as I hold this intention. Yet I also feel powerful, grounded and alive in a new way. I am releasing reliable patterns I have drawn upon in the past. I feel incompetent in situations where I have feigned confidence or used practised behaviours. Sometimes (frequently) I fall back into old patterns. One measure of my embracing life in an authentic manner is that more frequently I feel incompetent, don’t know what to do. I have to do something anyway. Sometimes it works. It is always real. I feel very much on my edge. I confront long held fears that my protections have masked. This is a form of incompetence I choose to embrace and experience as an integrated part of my life. I choose to live spontaneously, enthusiastically, authentically connect with myself and others, and fully engage my heart. Goodbye to protections used to offer false security, the maintenance of which robs me of life and energy, and debilitates my availability to love, care and connect fully and freely.

Now I am actively learning to step out into the unknown, encounter vulnerability, be with the new, the unknown, and the chaotic. I am discovering how being competent in not knowing opens me up to new possibilities, and provides greater versatility and capacity to deal with change. I am practising incompetence, becoming better at it. While that does not mean I am abandoning what I do have competence in, it does open the door to greater versatility and being more capable in new ways that may enable greater resilience in the future. It enables me to be more spontaneous, better able to be adequate in new situations, or to take new approaches adequately in old situations.

Imagine managing a project where the team were comfortable giving new ideas and approaches a try; an organisation that recognised and rewarded innovative practices without penalising the learning process; or a partner in a relationship who welcomes and encourages a new, even if stumbling, approach to communicate. Such possibilities do exist, but not nearly enough.

Are you up to practising incompetence and developing greater capacity personally and professionally? Will your organisation support you in such attempts? Practised incompetence is one benefit of truly appreciating the fog associated with the new, the unknown and the chaotic, and choosing to develop personal and organisational power in such situations.

Reclaiming Self

The innocence of children
Children, relatively free of protective patterns of behaviour

When we are born into this world we are innocent (in my belief system) and unfettered by protective patterns of behaviour. As we experience life, encounter pain of varying kinds, we learn to erect protections to keep us safe. These become increasingly complex as layer upon layer of protection is established in response to all that life throws at us. Each protection requires energy from us to support and maintain, and as a consequence robs us of our life force and capacity to freely respond to life. It is often a crisis that makes us aware of how our behaviours interfere with our ability to engage with life in a meaningful way. We may experience ourselves as “too…”, an indication that our internal Critic or Judge (or external, when heard from those around us) considers us as having wandered from appropriate expression. Examples include “too volatile”, “too reserved”, “too pleasing”, “too aggressive” and any number of other judgements, singularly or in combination. These behaviours, when the judgement has some merit, have typically been developed in response to our needs being unmet and us seeking to satisfy them to the point that the behaviours become patterns that are applied without conscious thought, long past their use by date.

In becoming aware of such behaviours, perhaps through the failure of relationships, difficulties fitting in, negative feedback from multiple sources etcetera, the question then arises ‘What should I do about me?’ The process then becomes a matter of reclaiming oneself and finding ways of freeing our life force, returning to a spontaneous, creative and adaptive way of living, being better able to respond positively to the present.

In my own life this process started with a crisis of identity in my early 30s and has subsequently seen me free myself up and how I live and present myself to the world, an ongoing process. Earlier this year the surprise need for life-saving surgery plunged me into a whole new cycle of self-reclamation. The process of recovering from surgery required adapting to the loss of hearing in one ear, and developing physiological strategies to compensate for impairment in my balance processes. The physical recovery, while being a challenge, has been easier in many respects than the process of reclaiming my concept of self. In many respects it is as if the surgery sliced through significant protective mechanisms and unleashed old patterns of thought and feeling that I haven’t seen since I was a teenager and that I found particularly difficult in the first instance. Now, it is difficult seeing poor concepts of Self return, but at least they do so in an environment where I know I can process and work through them in a constructive fashion. In a sense, a very real sense, I’m back to dealing with old issues all over again. The reality however is that I am now working at a much deeper level, as if I have taken the head off and am cleaning out an infectious boil, rather than dealing with a superficial spot. While the issues are similar, feel very familiar, and are, I am better equipped to deal with this new level of emotional healing than I have been previously. The act of staying engaged with what arises within me, riding the wave as it forms rather than trying to escape it, will eventually lead to me being freer than ever before.

Some ways of engaging in the process of reclaiming Self include:

  • develop capacity to identify and observe behaviours in yourself that do not fit well relative to how you would prefer to be and what would work best in your context
  • develop love and acceptance of self that is free of needing to understand why you behave as you do and that opens you up to being able to forgive yourself unconditionally
  • define your core values, life purpose, vision and mission which will provide you with clarity about how you would prefer to live and present yourself to the world, something to aspire to
  • establish goals for moving forward into new, more productive, behaviours
  • find trusted individuals who are able to provide you with love, support, and constructive feedback
  • recognise that life is an ongoing journey and while you may have a preference for where you end up, and how you behave, perfection is out of the question and any vision you hold is a guide rather than an edict that must be obeyed at all costs
  • appreciate the fog that arises when life serves you growth opportunities, and allow that fog to water your life as rain does fertile soil

Through these approaches we can reclaim our lives, incrementally bring ourselves back to a fully free and available space to manifest our full, unfettered potential.

Construction Zone, New Development Underway

Construction zone
Construction zone, new foundations forming

A specific change within ourselves may be initiated for any number of reasons. Two significant motivations include recognising and consciously deciding to attend to an underdeveloped or absent role that we require; and a specific situation demanding responses that we are unable to sufficiently offer. Whatever the catalyst for personal change, the more dramatic the change and the urgency or drive to change, the greater the upheaval you will experience. It can look very much like your inner being is a construction zone. Internal structure are pulled down, old patterns and beliefs that have been dormant may be liberated and occupy your psyche, even if unconsciously, and groundedness may disappear while a new foundation is formed. This all depends on the magnitude of the change. Life crises can often stimulate such upheavals, with examples of such events being birth of a child or grandchild, divorce, illness, death of a loved one, or the proverbial “mid-life crisis”.

A recent example from my own experience has been recognising patterns I have around taking leadership roles. Based on my life and experience there is no question that I can step into leadership and do well. However, my journey into leadership often takes me through one of the following routes:

  • If others are seeking the leadership role, I step back and say to myself, “Let them have it.”
  • If no one wants a leadership role (or it is an initiative I have started), I throw myself in with energy and gusto.
  • If I am invited into leadership, there is some degree of internal resistance that doubts my capacity and pushes the opportunity away.

All of those being true, I have sometimes surprised myself and moved forward with a degree of ease, though internal resistance invariably manifests at some point.

Lately, as I have recognised these patterns more fully, I have decided to develop my capacity to gracefully claim leadership, step into the space and occupy it with a sense of ease and belonging, and allow myself to be seen. Sounds easy! What a journey it is so far. In a recent situation where I was facilitating I was feeling great, owning the space, and fully there, and then familiar voices sounded off in my head that I was inadequate, should not be there, and I would surely fail. I realised that the difficulty for me serenely and gently occupying space is that I then hear the cacophony of voices that pull me down and back. That moment became a process of choosing to stay in that space, recognising all my own internal nay-saying voices, expanding my capability for intentionally remaining in leadership and cutting, or at least acknowledging and loosening, the bands that hold me to past experience and beliefs. In the meantime my internal world is in a state of relative turmoil, with anxiety and shame being merged with excitement and hope of a new way of being. This is a great time for me to appreciate my fog, recognising it is a natural part of the process of change, and that at some point the dust will clear. Then, I will have easier access to the new capacity forming within me.

What do you do when the fog arises from within? Do you allow it to be, and recognise it as a natural and necessary part of the process of change, or do you avoid the change or otherwise attempt to suppress the fog?

Why ‘Appreciate the Fog’?

About my motivation to write my book
Why did I write ‘Appreciate the Fog’?

When I was introduced to my inner child as part of a counselling process, I judged him as pathetic, weak, vulnerable, and something to get rid of. I then spent several years fighting and punishing that part of me which created a significant life crisis for me. That seems to be a pretty obvious result now, but at the time I experienced a life filled with fear, anguish, and darkness, and I did not see a link to my treatment of myself, most of which I was unconscious of. As the pain and panic grew, life became increasingly intolerable, and I grew desperate. A friend attended a personal growth programme and I saw the real benefit it was for her so I chose to go for myself. On that course I became deeply aware that I not only lacked love and acceptance of myself, I hated myself.

That was the beginning of an intense process of getting acquainted with myself, learning to manage my anxiety, trust others, and develop love for myself. I became hungry to fix myself, and over time learned that was a fallacy. Beneath all the layers of hurt, fear and angst was a beautiful being that radiated love, beauty and power, and did not need fixing. He was buried by all the protections I had erected to keep him safe and shielded from the dangerous, scary world.
I started to peel away the layers of protection (behaviours, beliefs, perceptions, attitudes) that locked that part of me inside and pushed the rest of the world away. I earnestly worked on myself, tried to sort out all the stuff in my way of being, and I one day realised I was so earnest that I was creating a lot of the still current crap in my life. I was clearing something up, and instantly looking for the next thing to work with. The actual process of working through my crap and sorting myself out was creating more crap. I was not allowing time or space for my life to settle. The image of using a stick to stir up the bottom of a pond came to mind, and I realised that I never stop stirring, and was desperate to work on the next issue. I realised I could stop stirring, remove the stick, and allow the pond to settle. When a bubble dislodged from the bottom of the pond, as they do, and erupted on the surface, I could then work on whatever that bubble contained. Life slowed. Plenty of work still presented itself, but I experienced ease and peace.

My life has certainly been filled with experiences to create the anxious man I was (and sometimes still am). Some of the key experiences/contributors include:

  • My father leaving the family as I was turning eight. I effectively ruled him out of my life, and after a few years I did not know if he were alive or dead, and I did not care.
  • My mother remarried when I was 11, and at 17 she and I evicted him from our home for the safety of the family.
  • I grew up in a fundamental religion that instilled many beliefs around how I should live, including many beliefs and fears associated with disobedience
  • These and other experiences contributed to my pervasive confusion over my personal identity, relationships, sexuality, and a host of other attitudes and beliefs about life.

As I peeled away the layers and got closer to my true essence inside, I became deeply acquainted with my inner child, learned to love him, and developed a relationship with him. Now we effectively walk side-by-side, and if needed I protect him as necessary from the world, but he no longer needs to be protected from me. I love him. I love myself. From that space I find it much easier to shine, be real, and be myself. Life still has fog and patches of darkness, but I navigate those easier because I have more certainty about who I am, and have stopped being my own persecutor. When I find I am struggling the solution is inevitably to reconnect with myself in a loving and accepting manner. I came to realise that appreciating the fog is much easier and more rewarding than struggling to force clarity and certainty from a life that is meant to contain unknowns.

The book ‘Appreciate the Fog’ (click here for more information) emerged from my own experiences that took me into many a fog, and the learning process, both formal and informal, that has taught me how to better work with my fear-based responses. The outcome is the capability to operate consciously, with power from a basis of love. The aim of the book is to offer what I have learned in the hopes that others may benefit. I have certainly benefited from writing it and getting clearer about my own processes that get in my way.

From the book…

If you live life to the full and pursue your purpose with passion, being out of the fog is a short-lived experience. Being in the fog does not have to be a bad place. It becomes more like home as you develop comfort in not knowing and connect with who you are even when feeling lost. It is a real treasure to love and accept yourself, no matter the situation, and to be integral to who you are, your values and dreams, and passionately express yourself irrespective of people you are with and your circumstances.
Others will find strength and peace from the confidence and comfort you exhibit while in the fog. As you trust your ability to work within and through fog, others will feel secure and be more willing to travel with you. Then you are a leader by right rather than decree.
– Stephen Harrison, Appreciate the Fog, pp. 302-303