When I was 25 I read a book called ‘Eastern Body Western Mind’ by Anodea Judith, a recommended reading for my Yoga Teacher Training course. This book broke me in the best of ways but it was not enjoyable, in fact it was immensely painful and it left my crying and distraught for a year.
Two particular subjects tore me apart: the chapter on guilt and shame and the one on narcissism. I felt broken, lost and torn apart as though the very ground had been ripped from beneath my feet. I was supported but I didn’t know where to turn, I was guided but I felt un-helpable by the methods available. It took me at least a year of crying and collapsing to be able to speak out loud to my partner what these subjects had brought up in me. And then another 4 before I finally sought the help I needed. One of these subjects is deeply personal and it is not the right time or place to share it right now but the other began a process of cracking apart everything I thought I knew about myself.
I remember reading the characteristics of a narcissistic personality and thinking, fuck! I am a fucking
narcissist! It was crushing but it also explained a lot. I had spent a lifetime worrying about what everyone was thinking about me, being concerned about what I looked like, being worried about how I was coming across, trying to break free from ‘convention’ to find an ‘individual expression’ of myself (so as not to be associated with others, so as not to depend on anyone, so as not to need anyone and therefore not to put myself in the position of being let down or hurt by anyone again). The moment I recognised these behaviours as narcissistic tendencies was the moment I began to stop being so anxious. How freeing to be released from the unreal thought that everyone’s critical gaze was pointed in my direction! As if everyone doesn't have enough of their own shit going on?!
This is not an easy personality trait for anyone to share but I feel ok sharing it because I know now that it is not who I am but part of what makes up who I am. I am not unthinking and ego-centric but there are aspects of these traits that live in my shadow and bringing them out into the light is one of the best ways to start the process of feeling whole. To not let one thing identify who I am but to see it as just another layer of behaviour that I have learned. This was how I learned to interact with the world and just as I had learned it, I could unlearn it.
I come from a long line of story-tellers, addicts and depressives and this makes for some really interesting people full of incredible tales, aspirational highs and crashing lows but it does not role-model empathy, kindness or compassion and most importantly it does not value or teach listening. So it came as no surprise really when I read today that ‘self-centred, egotistical thinking is the defining attribute of the addictive condition’*.
I am super lucky to be with a man who is the epitome of a good listener and has taught me over the years the joys of shutting up. It wasn’t that I wasn’t a good listener; I just hadn’t learned how to have a conversation. How ridiculous is that?! When all you have known for 25 years is people talking at you, it becomes pretty tricky to unlearn the art of no questions conversations. I used to think I had to say something useful or to provide eloquent advice in order to be there for someone but Josh taught me that all I needed to do was listen, enquire and understand. And this opened up a way of existing that felt so natural, so right, so easy that I can’t quite understand how I didn’t come to these conclusions myself but behaving unconsciously for 25 years can all kinds of weird and wonderful things to your personality.
Putting this unattractive quality on the table opened up the doors for more to come through and over the years as each layer of conditioning gets peeled back, more and more come tumbling out with tears and self-loathing. And the pattern is always the same: uncomfortable feelings of restlessness and a need for distraction, giving in to the distraction, getting totally carried away with the distraction and letting it consume and harm me, quitting the distraction completely when I feel good, facing the distraction head on when I feel terrible and cracking open to immense pain and suffering and finally unearthing the root of the pain. It used to stop there but now I journal about it, meditate on it and share it with my partner. It’s fucking painful and it’s often really ugly but it’s the only way I can continue to become the kind and caring person I know I can be. Letting shadow and persona meet and meld, trying to let go of who I think I am and truly open up to who I might be.
This year has felt like a series of synchronistic situations that have led to a spontaneous recognition of a path away from pain and an inevitable bulk processing of years of repression and suppression. It has also led to finally feeling ready to admit that I am powerless to the cycle of addiction that keeps me trapped in pain (and to use the ‘power’ word has taken years of work) and unable to truly connect. I am finally ready to fully admit to the pain and destruction I have caused and that I may cause again if I do not stay true to this path. I have laid my problem substances and situations on the table, I have laid the ugly, cruel and unthinking parts of me out to bare and I am ready to be held to account. And I am even beginning to be ok with a power much greater than I (and that's something I never thought I would say!).
And as I turn my will over to a mystery I am still learning to trust, I find my shadows are pouring out faster than ever and each time I shine the light on these painful and shameful aspects of myself, I find a freedom I hadn’t known until that point in time. Each unveiling leads me further from individualism and self-focused recovery and closer towards a real, true sense of connection, compassion and true understanding (a work in progress!!). I am certainly still an incredibly flawed human but I feel that more than ever before I can see that I am the causer of my problems, I am the root of my suffering and that compassion, community, connection and understanding are my path to freedom. A freedom not based on my individual sense of self but a freedom in knowing that we are all going through this shit together
*From Russell Brand’s book: Recovery, pg.22
Photo: Lisa Chapman (c).