I have a problem.
There is this person in my life who is constantly trying to steal my joy and drag me down. She talks to me in a way that I would not dare speak to another human being. She berates me, tells me why I am not good enough/smart enough/skinny enough, and never misses an opportunity to compare me to others, always letting me know that I am "less than." She is more or less the definition of a jerk.
Now, I know what you're thinking. Why on Earth would I allow someone like that in my life? Cut the cord! Tell her to kick rocks and leave you alone! Her behavior is despicable and altogether inexcusable. Be done with her already!
But here's the problem - she lives inside my head. Unfortunately, evicting her is not that simple.
There are a lot of names she goes by. Some call it the ego, others the inner child or the small self. I not-so-lovingly refer to her as my "inner asshole" because, well, the shoe fits.
My inner asshole is not an actual person in the human form sense, but she is just as real as the person sitting next to me in the coffee shop. Some of my very first memories involve her. When I was in 7th grade and my ballet teacher told me I was too muscular to be a dancer, my inner asshole told me that what she meant was I was fat. That same year (apparently not a good one for me), I had a math teacher who literally told me I would never be good at math. My inner asshole told me that I was stupid in every subject, not just math, and I don't think it's any coincidence that I never, ever was able to understand math throughout the rest of my schooling. When I gained my "Freshman 15" (okay let's be honest, more like 25) in college after quitting competitive swimming, my inner asshole told me I was a disgusting embarrassment and that the best solution would be to start throwing up my food. This led to years of bulimia and brought me more than once to the brink of suicide when I was too ashamed to look myself in the eye. In a desperate effort to just SHUT HER UP, I engaged in years of high-risk behavior, which often took the form of drinking until I blacked out to get some relief. That's what alcohol and drugs did for me - they gave me a brief respite from the agonizing chatter of my inner asshole whose entire purpose seems to be to convince me I will never, ever be enough.
Since I got sober in 2008 and chemical sedation of my inner asshole was no longer an option, I have spent years of my life and thousands of dollars on self-help books, experts, support groups, and anything else I could think of to try and control her. I thought if I just spent enough quiet time in meditation, or learned the right affirmations, or lost enough weight, or [insert other behavior here] ... then I could be rid of her. I would finally be able to kick this villain out for good, who has been living rent-free in my head for 34 years. I have wanted desperately to figure out how to make her behave. I have pleaded with her to be kind, and when she wouldn't listen, turned to the Universe to ask for relief. "Please God," I would say, often aloud on my knees. "I beg you - please make her leave me alone."
Sometimes, my inner asshole quiets down long enough for me to enjoy myself. That's when she is the trickiest, because I actually think I've finally outsmarted her and she's gone. I start to stand a little straighter, engage with people around me more, and do things that she has told me I'm incapable of. And boy, does that feel good! So I push myself a bit more to step outside of my comfort zone, little by little. I feel empowered even more! I have won!
That is, until something happens that hits a nerve that has not yet healed from my past. Suddenly, she's back. DAMN IT. She's telling me how clearly I haven't worked hard enough because if I had, this wouldn't be happening. She would be gone if I wasn't such a failure. Just like that, it's as if she never left.
This cycle has repeated itself for as long as I can remember. It is exhausting. But, there is some good news to be had - I think I have finally discovered the most effective tool in my arsenal for dealing with my inner asshole. It is not what I expected it to be, namely some forceful use of the will to eradicate her from my life. In fact, it's the exact opposite.
When my inner asshole starts to rage, the best thing I can do is absolutely nothing.
I know that sounds ridiculous. It seems counterintuitive, at least to me. I have always been a "do-er," not a "be-er." Society tells us that our value is measured in our accomplishments, and mastering my inner asshole has been a seemingly unwinnable battle. But the truth is, I have no greater chance of shutting up my inner asshole by exerting my dominance over her than I do of beating a world-class fighter in a boxing match armed with nothing but sheer willpower, having never gotten in the ring.
The truth is, I have to give my inner asshole space to exist. It is like a little boy who starts sobbing when his favorite toy is taken away - would it be effective to start shrieking over him, telling him he has to be quiet? I am sure there are some that would say yes, you have to show him who's boss, and if that works for you, great. For me, I would say absolutely not. Sometimes, he just needs to cry it out. Would I judge his character and think that he is weak, foolish, and undeserving of love and support? Never. I would allow him the space to have his moment, knowing it will pass. I would accept the tantrum for what it was without judgment. If he needed it, I would console him. So why is it so hard to do that for myself?
When I lived in Italy after college, I was an indoor cycling instructor and absolutely loved it. Over the years I got more involved in weight lifting and cross training, but after a series of injuries I was forced to find something lower impact that would not involve constant pounding on my joints. A couple of months ago, I decided to get back into spinning, and fell head-over-heels in love with a boutique cycling studio in San Luis Obispo. The vibe is amazing and the owners have truly cultivated an environment based on support and self-care that makes me feel safe and honored. So, when they told me they were going to be piloting a new instructor training program, my initial reaction was excitement - how awesome would it be to get back up on the podium and encourage other riders? I signed up and was so looking forward to getting started.
And then, my inner asshole decided to attend the first training with me.
As soon as I saw the other five girls who were to be going on this journey with me, my inner asshole saw her opening. They were all younger than me. They were all skinnier than me. They were the girls I had always aspired to be but could never quite measure up to. What the hell did I think I was doing there? "No one wants to look like you, Lisa!" she told me. "You're like the bad "before" picture on an Instagram fitness journey!" I conjured up mental images of my wedding day less than three years earlier, remembering that I was many sizes and pounds smaller than I am now. Never mind that I was quite literally starving to death at the time of my wedding. For the eight months before, during my husband's brain cancer journey, I was living on Red Bull, protein bars, and anxiety, because the stress made it almost impossible to eat. No, somehow the fact that I had "let myself go" after he died conjured up all of those old feelings of uselessness and embarrassment.
Normally, my inner asshole's tantrum would have either directed me to make up an excuse to leave immediately, or to bow out for the rest of the program. I would have felt perfectly justified, and given myself permission to not put myself through the inevitable mind-f*ck that would follow if I completed it. Honestly, if that had felt like the right thing to do, I would have. But it didn't. I knew that this was the next act of radical self-care that would be required of me on my path to self-acceptance. So, I strapped in for the ride, knowing that it would at times be excruciatingly painful.
Throughout the program, I gave my inner asshole permission to feel however she needed to feel, without getting attached to those emotions. When some photos were taken of me on the podium and posted online, I cringed as she told me how fat I was. When some of my song profiles did not go exactly according to plan, I allowed my heart to sink and I heard her when she called me a loser. She told me that I am a lawyer, not a fitness expert, and I had better just knock it off and get back to what I know whether I hate it or not. But this time, I didn't tell her to shut up or try to out-shout her. I acknowledged her feelings, and let them pass. And pass they did, every time. When I felt that tightness in my gut that is so often intertwined with a tantrum by my inner asshole, I made a conscious effort to relax and release them. I started to realize that the feelings were not real. Finally, the saying "feelings aren't facts" was making some sense.
Over the weeks of the program, I started to feel more and more confident, realizing that I can bring more to the room than a perfect body. I can bring kindness. I can bring strength. Every one of the challenges I have faced, whether real or imagined, makes me more well-suited to inspiring people to become the best version of themselves because that is what I am trying to do in my own life. The truth is, I have overcome far greater obstacles than the fear of being judged for my imperfections. (I will note here that every single one of the beautiful women in this training group also brings SO MUCH MORE than a tiny waist - they are each kind, incredible people who I have had the pleasure of getting to know!)
Today was the last day of our training. My inner asshole showed up at the end, because all of a sudden the possibility of really getting up in front of a class full of strangers instead of my supportive ladies became real. She told me, again, that I am not good enough - that maybe if I lose 20 pounds I could consider teaching. She had me in tears before even walking out of the studio. So, on my way home, I let her cry. I recognized that underneath all of her bluster, a greater part of my soul wants nothing but the best for me and my physical, emotional and spiritual health. That is the part of me that I am interested in nurturing.
I used to say that I hoped someday my inner asshole would be nothing but an unpleasant memory, like the first time I tried oysters and they made me violently ill. I have started to feel, however, that the concept of hope simply means that I am refusing to accept circumstances as they are today. The more that I search for external validation, whether it be a certain number on the scale, the right feedback from riders in a spin class, or the "perfect" job, the less likely I will ever be happy. I have spent my lifetime subscribing to the belief that I have to earn love and respect from not only other people but from God, because Lisa in and of herself is not enough. The more that I understand that my presence on this planet gives me inherent worthiness, the better off I am.
For now, my inner asshole is still a part of my experience. As long as she is, I am going to work on allowing her to do what she needs to do to work out her issues rather than trying to shove her face in the sand. And the next time she has an opinion, I will simply thank her for sharing.
Lisa O'Leary is a lawyer, cat mom, widow, sports enthusiast, truth seeker, soul searcher, meditator, and consciousness practitioner who is actively engaged in quieting down the mind to allow the song to play.