My basic resource, until that day more or less intact, was willpower. It had served me for more than 30 years as a human being and more than 10 as a freelance journalist, allowing me to win what I essentially experienced as an inner war. Sure, it had a cost: that morning I had shooting pains under my arms and was trying to ignore the beginning of a migraine – but with a book manuscript and two newspaper commissions to deliver, I simply couldn’t allow myself to stop.
Or so I thought.
It was around 11.15 when, with a jolt, I realised I had been in a sort of trance for some time. Wearily, I focused my gaze back to my computer screen, which was surrounded by sheaves of paper, half-drunk cups of coffee, unopened bank statements and Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the latest in a succession of self-help books I had entirely failed to put into practice. I looked down at my hands lying motionless on my lap like loafing employees, and angrily willed them back to work as usual.
But that morning nothing happened. The order from my brain seemed not to have reached the ends of my arms. The hands stayed where they were. I tried again, to no avail. It was as though two parts of me were deadlocked. I could flex my fingers fine, but nothing would induce them to type another sentence. A sense of something like wonder overcame me.
I should have gone to see a doctor, but I didn’t want drugs or another polite suggestion that I try and relax a little more. Instead, I dragged myself away from the computer and called a life coach.
It was the start of a journey that would ultimately reconfigure my very sense of self.
“So how do you feel,” asked Angela Court Jackson, a couple of days later, “about scoring zero for effectiveness?”
We were sitting either side of a scented candle in her sunlit Edinburgh office, a place of tamed, symmetrical in-trays and fresh white walls, on which a framed print of the Chrysler Building was thrusting aspirationally skywards.
By contrast, my answers to her pre-session questionnaire were a picture of bare survival heading to burn-out.
I look forward to getting up virtually every morning? Nope.
I have enough pleasurable time to myself every day? I felt sad just talking about it. When did life suddenly get so serious?
I told Angela about my hands going on strike. “If I were a company I’d be a pretty crap one to work for,” I summarised.
Angela chuckled sadly. “So, here’s a challenge: how can you, as boss, change the culture of your company?”
But Angela offered something that would come back to me many times in the years ahead. “You’ve programmed this inner critic for a reason,” she said. “I don’t know if he motivates you to get to your desk on time, or what – but on some level he works for you.” Perhaps, she suggested, he might quieten down a bit if he knew he was being heard. “Have you tried thanking the critic? Because maybe some of what he is saying is of value.”
I stared at her. Her suggestion was so counterintuitive and strange that I had a feeling it might turn out to be very wise. I tried it out on the critic as I cycled home.
“Spare me the flaky New Age hokum,” he was muttering. “People pay money for that?”
“Thanks very much for your thoughts,” I said, keeping my (imaginary) voice bright and level like that of a call-centre worker. “Your opinion is very important to us, and we’ll take it into consideration.”
I waited for a comeback. But, for the moment at least, the critic seemed to have hung up.
What truly creates our identity in the world?
By the time we are adults, many of us have accumulated a tangled knot of contradictory labels. I am English, for example, but my home is in Scotland. I could define myself as married, or heterosexual, or white, or middle class, or any of the other categories we tick on census forms, but each demands a narrowing of the complexity of who I truly feel myself to be. I could call myself a searcher or a restless soul, but that would ignore the part of me that is happily rooted in my family and community.
A much more fundamental identity comes from my answer to what Einstein called the most important question: is the universe friendly?
That may shift depending on what happens to me, but as a basic orientation in the world, it will govern whether I go through life looking over my shoulder, expecting to be ambushed – or open-hearted and hopeful. Am I at war, or can I trust myself?
Since adolescence, my basic orientation was governed by my evangelical Christianity – the idea that good and evil would always be struggling for dominance within me. As St Paul put it (sounding in dire need of coaching): “The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.”
Although my belief in God also gave me a sense of the hugeness of possible love that awaited me, it did so at the cost of my self- acceptance, requiring me to give up the idea that I was okay exactly as I was. By the time I passed my 11-plus, I had a kind of trademark clench in me, the start of my relationship with that fierce self-critic who goaded me ever onwards towards the perfection I sought.
In many ways this identity served me well in the world in which I found myself. Through sheer willpower I excelled academically and I became a journalist and travel writer, fascinated by the way people live, how others found their meaning. My ability to force myself to do things I might otherwise have found frightening saw me enrol on a Pacific raft voyage, and then to make a pilgrimage around Scotland on a series of boats, resulting in two books.
But while I presented to the outside world as successful and ambitious, my partner and those who knew me best saw the price I was paying for this. I felt like an imposter, and sometimes the mask would slip. Once, while driving, I suffered a panic attack and had to pull over: I was terrified by a vivid waking dream of smashing my own bewildered face to pulp against the steering wheel.
That morning when my hands went on strike was similarly frightening for someone who had always done everything through sheer effort. What dawned on me was what psychologists increasingly recognise: that crude willpower, like oil, is not a renewable resource. And mine had just run out.
What my life coach helped me see was that perhaps there was another, kinder way to relate to myself and the world. If I was going to avoid a complete breakdown, I needed to stop bullying myself into action, and risk trying out a different identity in the world.
I have to scroll back to the age of seven before I can remember an absence of that critical voice. It’s a warm summer’s day, and I am lying in the paddling pool at my childhood home, watching the patterns of sunlight dancing on the bottom, where blades of cut grass move gently backwards and forwards. The sun is warming my back, and the soles of my feet. It seems such an inconsequential scene – nothing happens, and nobody speaks – and yet I have returned to it often over the years, re-experiencing a kind of Wordsworthian yearning for this gentler time before judgement. Why had I allowed myself to become so crowded by adult concerns that I had lost the sense of vividness and presentness I once had? And was there a way of regaining it? I was determined to find out.
So I surrendered, blew some deadlines, let some people down and set out on a period of experimentation. Exhausted with my perpetual schemes for self-improvement, I decided instead to let go. I travelled at home and abroad in search of alternative role models – balloonists, clowns, adrenalin junkies, naturists, travellers, school kids, hippies, monks, spiritual teachers – people who dared to trust that the universe is friendly.
Instead of a binary world of good and evil, I began to see opportunities for engaging with my curiosity about those parts of myself I might previously have shamed and exiled, and offering them hospitality. Jungian psychology was particularly transformative in this reconfiguration, with its theory of the shadow – that part of ourselves that we hide, repress or deny. Like a cat stuffed into a sack, anything pushed into shadow would struggle and scratch – but when brought out into the light it could reveal itself as beautiful and life-giving.
I saw this with my own eyes, when I was facilitating circles of men in the Mankind Project, using shadow-work. Where men would come wishing to crush a part of them that was troubling them – procrastination, say, or self-sabotage in relationships – they were invited, as I was, to try thanking that part of them for what it was trying to do for them. I watched furrowed brows loosen into wonder as men recognised how, for example, procrastination was making space for something else, or self-sabotage was trying to save them from disappointment.
In my own case, I saw how the critic was another name for the editor – that essential part of the writing process that helped me to hone and strengthen the life-giving creative splurge of the child into something ready for publication.
Instead of adversaries fighting inside me, I saw loyal allies with different jobs, needing to be acknowledged and deployed where they were most useful.
Redeploying The Loyal Soldier
This principle is most movingly illustrated by the true story of the loyal Japanese soldier, Hiroo Onoda, who was stationed in the Philippines during World War Two. He fought valiantly for his people in the jungle, but nobody told him when the war ended – so he and his men continued their guerrilla offensive, mistrusting attempts to stand them down as enemy propaganda, with bloody results. In fact it was 1974 – nearly 30 years! – before Onoda’s former commander finally tracked him down to his island hideout and persuaded him he really could put down his weapons.
What moves me about this story is that it would have been easy to treat Onoda as a rogue operator who needed to be punished, imprisoned or worse. But even though he caused a lot of damage and killed innocent people, there was a recognition that he had been doing so out of ardent, if misguided, loyalty. So he was given a presidential pardon, honoured by his country and redeployed to become a peacetime role model for young people. He died in 2014, a national treasure.
In the same way, I have come to believe there is no part of me, or indeed life, which cannot be met with compassion and understanding, befriended and given a new role.
That’s a massive change to an identity that, like Onoda, perceived most of life as potential threat. It has made a huge difference to the way I parent. For example when my adopted son refused to go to school, I quickly gave up trying to use sheer willpower, and decided to trust that he knew what he needed.
Instead, my partner and I decided to home-school him, enjoying the opportunity to give much-needed nurture and attention while he found his feet again. And sure enough, a year on, he asked to go back to school and rejoin his friends.
This new trust in the universe has inevitably governed my style as a coach, with a natural affiliation to the person-centred idea of unconditional positive regard for my clients’ ability to grow. While traditional performance coaching might focus on pumping up willpower, holding clients to commitments and staged goals, I have much more interest in finding out about the part that feels stuck – inviting clients to bring that into the room.
My experience has been that such counter-intuitive hospitality is always enriching and expansive, albeit also a little frightening at first.
One client came to me frustrated by his desire to be creative in his film-making business, finding himself drawn into what he saw as ‘box- ticking’ administrative and logistical work instead. I wondered if there was a reason those two parts of himself needed to be enemies: “What might creative box-ticking look like?” I asked – and watched a huge grin spread across his face, as he realised he was framing as binary something which could be integrated.
A Naïve Narrative?
There are those who might argue that there’s something almost wilfully naïve about believing that the universe is ‘friendly’ – how can someone who has dodged petrol bombs in the Belfast troubles, or interviewed holocaust survivors as I have, reconcile the evil in the world with a view that it is safe to be open-hearted in life?
Here’s what Einstein said by way of elucidation of his question:
“If we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.
“If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.
“But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives.”
An identity of open-hearted enquiry is by no means Pollyanna-ish or reserved for those too privileged to have encountered injustice or suffering. One of the most persuasive proponents of re-storying life did so in the very darkest situation: the psychotherapist Viktor Frankl was a holocaust survivor who lost most of his family at Auschwitz. In Man’s Search for Meaning he wrote:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
His logotherapy was in many ways a forerunner of what we might recognise as narrative therapy or coaching – a recognition of our deep need for meaning in life, our ability to tell more life-giving stories, to change the frame through which we view what happens to us and those around us.
Can we believe in the whole of ourselves, trust in the light without ignoring our darkness? Frankl suggests that it’s hard to do this on our own: our happiness ultimately comes from our ability to surrender to a love that’s bigger than us, bigger even than death.
My biggest fear – that without furious application of willpower, my life would grind to a halt – has turned out to be the very opposite of the truth.
Carl Rogers put it best: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
You can find out more about Nick here.
This blog post is a chapter from the latest Animas free eBook Identity.
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