Healing the Enemy Within

The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.
— Michelangelo
To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily.  Not to dare is to lose oneself.  
— Soren Kierkegaard


Me against me

I had been agonizing about making a change for years.  I was stuck in the security of the familiar even though I knew I wanted more.  More than just a salaried position with fantastic benefits. I wanted to pursue my passion for helping others find healing and restoration in private practice.  The only problem? My fear of the unknown.

This paralyzing fear is what held me back from what I wanted to do.  Even though others affirmed my talent in practicing psychotherapy. Even though I had years of training and experience. Even though I knew I could do it. I couldn't take the first step in committing to full time private practice.  While my mind was convincing me the decision was unsafe, my heart was wasting away in the knowledge that I wasn't living out my dream.  A dream that was attainable. 

For a long time, my mind won the battle and I avoided taking that healthy risk.  Here are some of the internal thoughts that have seemed to keep me safe, yet stagnate in life:

  •  "I won't be good enough"
  • "I'll fail"   
  • "What if 'they' don't approve?"
  • "I don't have the resources or the time"
  • "It will be too hard"
  • "I don't know how."
  • "I've never done it before"   etc...

Every time I thought about taking action to switch careers, one of the above statements seemed to slither in like a leech and suck the life out of me.  These types of false internal criticisms have the power to dictate reality for us until we're able to acknowledge that they exist and confront them with the truth.  Our thoughts + Our feelings = Our beliefs.  And what we believe about the world is what we live out every day with our actions.

self sabotage

I had already decided in my mind that I won't  do it.  I was afraid, and buying my own lies - or -  looking for internal backup so that I could tell myself I can't do it.  After all, if I can't do something, doesn't it relieve me of all responsibility for making an attempt?  In a nutshell I was practicing self sabotage. As a therapist I'm certainly aware of the fact that this struggle is real and it's not uniquely mine.

Why would anyone want to sabotage themselves?  I believe it boils down to fear of a perceived painful experience vs. relative comfort in our current situation.    If the perceived risk outweighs the present comfort - we stay.  If not - we go.  Nothing new here, right?  Nothing except for perception.  Our brains are hard wired to notice danger far above all else.  It's been said that our brains are like Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good.  To the central nervous system, a perceived threat feels exactly the same as a real threat.  So, we are keenly aware of the risk of certain endeavors because or brain naturally amplifies them to help us prevent injury.  Thanks brain.  This is helpful - sometimes.


What we should ask ourselves is, "does the potential of great reward get lost amidst the risk which is multiplied by our brain?"  Do we completely lose sight of the reward and therefore neglect any attempt to attain it?  Regardless of the outcome, one natural reward is growth. There is no growth without struggle!  Again, struggle is a necessary part of growth.  And struggle, is a natural part of life, it is a given. 

 "Life is difficult.  This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths.  It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth we transcend it.  Once we truly know that life is difficult - once we truly understand and accept it - then life is no longer difficult.  Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.  Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult."             - M.Scott Peck

So, once we really absorb the reality that life is difficult and struggle is not optional, we are set free to move forward and accept the pain that will come.  If you didn't like the last sentence, please re - read it!  None of us likes pain, but it isn't optional in this life.  We can however, make our pain worse through avoidance.  With that said, let's get to the rewards of action.  The rewards of action are these:

  1. Growth as previously mentioned may be our greatest reward when we struggle or risk.  We get to carry the growth with us.  There is no growth apart from struggle.  This is why it is so important for parents to allow their children to struggle without rescuing them!  
  2. We also have the benefit of changing the circumstances that made us uncomfortable in the first place.  As Einstein said, "Nothing happens until something moves." We can positively impact our own situation and make the world better for those around us.  
  3. Finally, action leads to the reward of a deeper recognition of our true inner strength and the renunciation of the negative internal lies we tell ourselves.  This happens when we overcome something we once thought too big for us, and it is exhilarating!  A huge reward, especially when contrasted to the erosion of our sense of self when we don't act due to the lies we've spoken to ourselves.

OK ... now what?

If you want to address your own self sabotage, I'd suggest you dream big about the good things you've always wanted to do in life, but maybe you've held back. Think, and maybe more importantly allow yourself to feel the things that you want.  Next, think about the competing inner voices that tell you to stop dreaming, "I can't because  ____________."  This is your inner critic or saboteur.  This part of you needs at least 3 things in order for you to get unstuck:

  1. Identification - Until we recognize the inner critic, we may feel like it is our only voice and there is therefore no choice but to listen.  The truth is, it is only a part of us, and we can listen to our true self once we take a step back and make this distinction.  Write down your inner critical statements throughout the day and compile a list.  Once you do this you have a choice whether or not to listen.  You've just gone from being a victim of your own thoughts to one who is empowered to choose!
  2. Self Compassion - we must recognize that this voice is there for a reason and serves an important purpose - it has kept us safe and we need safety to function.  Maybe at various points in your life this voice rescued you from real harm and therefore became a trusted internal resource to keep you from more pain.  Name and thank you inner critic for keeping you safe.  Recognize that you can always allow this voice to speak (when appropriate!)
  3. Confrontation - Not in the sense of self hatred, but in the sense that this internal critic has at times become too loud and has likely drown out other positive parts of our inner psyche that need to be heard.  For example there should be a voice inside that says, "This is going to be challenging, but I have what it takes, therefore I can and will do this."  The inner critics words must be replaced with words that are true and positive. 

One of the most wonderful things about your mind is that, if you are intentional, and willing to put in the effort, you have the ability to change negative and broken thinking patterns.  This will take some consistent practice because most of us have spent years listening to noisy internal voices that often aren't that beneficial.  Since our minds naturally gravitate toward these familiar set patterns, we must create a new neuropathway that eventually leads to routinely positive thinking.  One of the most important ways to do this is to invite trusted individuals into the process with us by sharing our new internal dialogue with them.  Does that sound risky?  Why?  Consider the reward!


It may be helpful to talk these things through with your friendly neighborhood therapist!   

- Josh Grover MA LMHC, Abundant Life Counseling