Seething inside me is a dark image. A picture of myself that I'd like to change. Part of my journey into Stoicism is about how to gain a more balanced interior world. That begins with taking a step back to acknowledging how I got here.
For me, much of it boils own to the simple idea that I grew up with, reinforced by countless teachers, people all around me, and our culture's preoccupation with "perfect girls." The basic concept: "You should act smart because you are smart.” And more than that: "Be perfect."
This approach implies that being/acting intelligent and competent defines your self-worth. Supporting this line of thinking, the next logical step is to believe that the highest grades, scholastic achievement, degrees, and prestigious careers are marks of your worthiness as a human being. Praise is what matters, and getting something wrong is shameful.
For me, this kind of mentality led to a trap of constant self-doubt about and negativity around my own sense of value, wholeness, and, ultimately, happiness. For years, I’d often tell myself how “stupid” or “idiotic” I was for making what I perceived to be a "dumb" mistake. I’d even say “I am worthless" or "I hate myself.”
I internalized the idea that I had to be perfect, that I couldn’t make a simple error without demonstrating that, in reality, I wasn’t smart or valuable, but in fact, I was incompetent and a failure.
Why did I persist in believing this in the face of so much evidence that I was indeed, in most people's eyes, a capable, intelligent, and strong individual?
I have a theory. Over the years, I used this thinking as a protective shield in some twisted way. In 12-step programs, people look at how their addiction “served” served them in a sense. Perhaps that has been true here too. If I could preventatively say, “What an idiot I am!” then I knew deep down I would feel it less when someone else said it (or when I thought someone might say it under their breath). I’d be somehow immune when other people pointed out my flaws or shortcomings. My horrible self-talk formed a series of pre-emptive strikes.
I’d also force myself to work harder that way: “If I’m not prepared for this test, the teacher will think I’m a dunderhead, I’ll get a bad grade, and I’ll never be successful.” “If I don’t ace this interview, I must be truly incompetent, and I won't really deserve a good job. What a failure I am.” And so on.
Weird and absurd, right? Yet that’s how messed up I’ve been on the inside. That’s the kind of treatment of my own psyche that I used to propel myself forward through very competitive schools and tough work environments.
It has also taken a tremendous toll.
I have had a Dorian Gray-like picture of myself hidden away inside me, eating away at everything good.
You likely recall the Oscar Wilde story: a handsome young man hides away a painting of himself, one that ages and decays and sours and becomes monstrous as he commits bad acts. Meanwhile, his real body remains beautiful (on the outside).
My self-portrait carries the marks of emotional wounds, often self-inflicted, but dangerous nonetheless.
The acid effect of internal damage finally became too great when I found myself trying to drive my own children using the same mentality. Of course, I want them to know I have high expectations because they can live up to them and be their best selves. But I don’t want to plant a Dorian within their young, vulnerable hearts.
That is why I began, a couple years back, to work on my negativity and lack of self-compassion. I took classes on meditation and on mindfulness, I studied compassion and Buddhism, I met with counselors, I did self-assessments of who I am and how I got here, and where to go next to get over this mentality and be healthier.
I learned to care about my own suffering more. The very first step was to actually notice it, to be aware of how I talked to myself. I began slowly to try to focus on satisfying moments rather than fears.
This is a work in progress that still needs a lot of effort. But at least now I can break down why I feel this way in a more granular understanding.
Among all these efforts, my studies of Stoicism and of recovery from addictive behavior have had the most lasting and helpful effect. I am trying now to give my darker thoughts up to the universe and to the force for good instilled in humanity, that “divine spark” that Marcus Aurelius and others refer to.
I have to remember to protect my own spark. Even from myself.
A quote to meditate on:
“The duration of a person’s life is as a point; the substance of it ever flowing, the sense obscure; and the whole composition of the body tending to unravel. Her soul is a restless vortex, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful; in a word, as a rushing stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as smoke, so are all that belong to the soul. Life is a warfare, and a sojourn in a foreign land. Fame after life is nothing more than oblivion.
What is it then that will guide us? One thing alone: philosophy. And philosophy consists in this, for a woman to preserve that inner genius or divine spark which is within her, from violence and injuries, and above all pains or pleasures; never to do anything either without purpose, or falsely, or hypocritically: wholly to depend from herself and her own proper actions: all things that happen to her to embrace contentedly, as coming from the Eternal from whom she also came...”
A woman-centric version of Marcus Aurelius, from the Meditations, Book II, Section 15
Cascade Falls, Emerald Bay, in Tahoe, California: where my bad mood was suddenly broken by a very tactile moment
Long streaks of water tumbled over the gray granite mountain walls above us. Dark streams gushed past well-washed tree trunks and over green shoots bearing pink wildflowers.
As I stood there taking in the scene, I was angry and frustrated. About a lot of things. Part of me couldn’t even bear to look around. It was too beautiful, and it didn’t match my mood at all.
I bent down to get a closer look at the rushing streams. Then I reached my hand towards the water, drawn to the rushing falls’ clearness and coolness in the midday sun.
The moment I felt the icy cold water touch my fingertips at cascade falls, my mood began to change.
Before that, all the advice and thoughtfulness of my husband, my hiking companion, hadn’t shifted my dark mood. “Come on, make the best of it—you’re in a gorgeous place,” he said, and it made no difference. Our kids were at camp and it was a rare chance to take a hike solo. But all the views of the mountain, the trees, Lake Tahoe, and its crystal water hadn’t broken me out of my negative thought pattern. All the footsteps that led me to these rushing falls hadn’t done it either.
It wasn’t that I had something serious to worry about that day—my terrible mood was a result of a range of petty problems and missed expectations that fed my anger with myself and other people.
But somehow the water, feeling it and being shocked by its frigid temperature, noticing just how clear it was, hearing it wash the rocks, changed me. I realized afterwards that this was an example of something I need to do much more often: Using mindful awareness of my (tactile) senses in the moment to break out of a difficult, negative emotion.
I know I have a tendency to focus on the negative. Actually, on some level, we all do: it’s how primitive humans survived in a dangerous world, by spotting threats and avoiding them. It’s just that today, we perceive so many things as threats, from other drivers (who legitimately are potential killers) to unexpected expenses to disapproval by our family members or our bosses. But my thoughts about our less-than-perfect world often spiral out of control far too quickly. I am trying to understand that, and develop resilience for myself and also for my kids. To be there for them more fully, and to model for them how to handle tough feelings.
Often I talk to my daughters about the importance of calming themselves when they get upset. While deep breathing can often work, some methods are more senses-based and tactile. I recommended that my angry daughter punch a pillow. A counselor I know suggested other things: Try a blowing game where you move a balled tissue across the table with your breath. She also mentioned finger painting, which I now realize was a brilliant idea. Using your hands in thick paint and feeling its texture could activate touch and the awareness of the moment just as the cold water did.
In fact, kids tend to do a lot of things that use their bodies and senses to take them out of their minds this way: jumping in big puddles, turning their faces up to the rain, hitting things with sticks, bouncing into piles of fallen leaves. These are the kinds of exploits that we’re often warning them against—I can hear myself saying, “you’ll get dirty, you’ll be all wet, you’ll catch a chill, you’ll hurt yourself.” But maybe they instinctively know that not only is it fun, but it’s a way of feeling the moment and experiencing life outside the confines of our regular thought patterns.
I learned from that moment at the falls. Using our senses is not merely a way to distract or cover up our feelings. It’s a way to break free by refocusing the body and the mind. No one had to lecture me to change the way I felt, no harsh voice inside me had to tell me to “suck it up.” I shifted from within.
I was still angry when I reached into that water, but it washed the feeling out of me. I noticed my hands, my sense of touch and temperature, and my own body in a way I hadn’t before. And I was able to stop ruminating over negative thoughts, even for a short time--enough time to take in the beauty and fullness all around me.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.