How to embrace your mental demons and conquer your fears
For almost a decade, I competed as a kickboxer and boxer, winning world and national titles. I don’t know what image that conjures up, but I want you to imagine a strong, fearless warrior. The truth? I was all but paralysed by the fear of failure. I suffered from panic attacks and eating disorders, and withdrew into a solitary world of sleepless worry and ever-intensifying fatigue.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I’m warming up to box for an English ABA title. Something profound had changed. I felt at peace, as if the crowd had been hushed by a crisp layer of fresh snow, and as I walked towards the ring — one purposeful step after another — I knew, for the first time, I deserved the victory.
On that day, after I won I felt a surge of alien emotion. I’m still not sure whether it was happiness, pride or just a good old-fashioned sense of achievement, but it was new. Previously as my hand was raised, I’d lower my head or avert my eyes. In retrospect, my reaction to winning for the majority of my time fighting had been shame. Finally, I could own the triumph.
ONLY GOT YOURSELF TO BLAME
Think of something you feel or do repeatedly, but wish you didn’t. Perhaps it’s giving in to anxiety, resentment or self-doubt, or a behavioural thing like procrastination or binge-drinking. Now, put your hand in front of you, palm up, and imagine the part of your personality responsible is sitting on that hand. This is self-sabotage.
If you could see it, what would it look like? Is it large or small? Dark or light? Humanoid, animal-like or inanimate? What people imagine when asked these questions varies widely. Some see a gremlin-like creature, others a version of themselves or someone else from their life. Many see something undefined, like a blob of slime. I call these “monsters”, because they are entirely fictional, yet feel utterly terrifying when they take hold of our lives.
WHAT’S THE STORY?
Our monsters tell us stories; sometimes to inspire action, sometimes to prevent it. They say we’re too weak, lazy, selfi sh or stupid to deserve what we want. Even when we try to fi ght them, they find a way of tainting our results. I started fighting because my monster told me I was “weak and inadequate.” I learned to throw punches and perform spinning kicks so I could prove it wrong, but it didn’t work. In spite of all the medals and trophies, my monster found a way to make me feel like a failure. Rather than recognising the error in my ways, I kept on fighting my fear, searching harder for the win that would complete me.
But no amount of external validation can heal this internal wound. The only thing I was striving towards was the inevitable burnout and when that happened, how do you think it made me feel? Weak and inadequate.
RESISTANCE IS FUTILE
It’s natural to fight our monsters. Maybe we try to hide them by making ourselves smaller, quieter and refusing to take opportunities that could expose us, or our preference is to numb them with drink or drugs. These are attempts to fight self-sabotage with self-sabotage, making our monsters’ stories feel even truer.
But they’re not true – not in an absolute sense. We can all do stupid or selfish things but that doesn’t mean we’re fundamentally stupid or selfish. It’s just our monsters are experts in making it feel that way. They take control of our eyes, ears and emotions, skewing reality to back up their shameful stories.
PROTECT YOUR MIND
Our monsters do all this in the name of our protection. The unconscious mind strives to keep things familiar, simply because familiarity feels safer than novelty. And that remains true even when what we’re familiar with is misery, self-doubt and shame. If we’ve always believed we’re unlovable, it will feel safer to push a potential partner away than brave the vulnerability and exposure of a wholehearted, loving relationship.
You see, your monster doesn’t realise that it’s your monster. It thinks it’s your saviour, trying to protect you from the unknown.
GIVE UP THE GRUDGE
So, if we can’t fight our monsters and win, how do we break the self-sabotage cycle?The answer, of course, is acceptance. Instead of resisting them, embrace our insecurity and vulnerability to help our fearful parts let go of coping mechanisms. When you visualise your monster, you open up a dialogue and begin rewriting old stories rather than compounding them. This is easier with a visual, because you can’t hug what you can’t see.
It’s easy to think we need to slay our monsters to become “enough”, but the truth is our monsters are a crucial part of our being. They hold the key to a richer, more loving and more successful life. We just have to make friends with them first.
Hazel Gale is a qualified cognitive hypnotherapist. Her book Fight: Win Freedom From Self- Sabotage (£18.99, Yellow Kite) is available now. For more information, visit hazelgale.com