“I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.
Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”
Gratitude towards your past self, in spite of and because of their blindspots and how they wrestled with them, creates potential for exponential growth and joy now.
March 2020 (left) versus June 2021 (right). The first thing I thought when I found that older photo was “Holy SHIT, I was a mess.” Then, as I reflected on the many, many changes of the last year and change, I started to feel deep, sweeping gratitude and appreciation for her.
Yeah, she was chronically stressed, yeah she was often focused on things she would later realize she didn’t care about, yeah, she was at times unconscious of just how sensitive her body and mind are, and always demanded more out of them, when maybe she could have nurtured them more. Plenty of things I could have been doing differently. And many of those things I have since learned to do differently. But I had to be her, then.
And the more grateful I am for her and what she was doing or not doing, the more gratitude and joy I have now.
It was easy to feel relief that I’m not where she is anymore (where I’m at now is just way better by every objective metric of health and happiness), but I realized I could have quickly begun denigrating my past self, and led myself down an emotion and thought path that could become destructive or unhelpful.
I’m hijacking the A versus B comparison #TransformationTuesday format to point out an element of personal expansion that has been a huge element of many, if not most, of the positive trends in my life right now. It’s the principle of positive self-regard, and how the corresponding emotions can help us when applied to the past.
It’s so easy to look at, for example, visible comparisons and make qualitative assessments of “better,” and “worse.” There may be a time/place for that, but I want to focus on the emotions of comparison, and how positive self-regard applied to the past can be an impactful gift to give ourselves.
How you feel about yourself now is important, AND SO IS how you feel about old you.
Emotion felt toward any version of yourself affects you in real time.
It’s normal and easy to look back and think and feel something along the lines of relief that you’re not there anymore, if “there” was a rough place to be. Relief is close to gratitude, which is a powerful, and really beneficial emotion.
Feeling disdain, guilt, shame, disgust or any kind of venom toward any version of myself, past or present or future, is an unconscious self-sabotage that can reinforce negative ideas about identity, capabilities and self-regard in general. All of those perspectives on the self will affect development in the present.
Every Chapter of The Story You Tell Yourself Matters
Our conscious thoughts about ourselves – the inner movie and monologue – is often (if not usually) a reflexive description about how we deeply experience life. We feel things lightning fast, then tell stories about why.
This doesn’t mean that we have to be the helpless puppets of our emotions, it means that we need to learn to examine and be skeptical of our own opinions about ourselves.
The Inner Monologue is a story you are making up. Why not make it one that reinforces love, positivity, joy, and a meaningful life full of fulfilling challenges?
The story you tell yourself about your own identity can close off, or open you, to ideas about what your life can be and what you can do. If you actively think to yourself “I’m not that creative,” you may find it harder to engage with any activity you see as “creative.”
Or maybe something emotionally triggers an old wound around being creative, and you reflexively think “I’m not that creative.” These perspectives may carry a corresponding emotion – fear, guilt – that affect how you act.
These stories are not limited to the present. If you tell yourself the reason you didn’t complete a certain task or abandoned a certain project was because you were lazy (when maybe you were afraid, alone, and running on fumes), and then feel disdain and disgust for the You that was “lazy”, you are reinforcing a negative emotion loop that can easily leak into how you perceive yourself now.
Thinking of your old self as lazy/stupid etc makes you feel a great deal of disdain and self-loathing that drivers you to behaviors that are, at their core, punitive, and actually self-sabotaging.
If you are actually that bad, then you certainly don’t deserve to grow and experience joy and love and excitement now, right? You could easily be unconsciously punishing yourself now for a belief that you were bad then.
The negative emotional perspective on your past self can handcuff your present self by reinforcing an unhelpful identity story that influences your actions now.
You can be the Hero of your story. We don’t watch the Hero fail and falter and think “What an utter bozo, fuck this dillhole” – we intrinsically understand challenge and failure is part of how Heroes test and develop themselves.
The Physical Landscape Shapes the Story
Lord of the Rings would feel a bit different if it all took place in an Arrakis-esque desert. All the characters would act slightly differently, and their challenges would be slightly different – their survival in an extreme climate would inform how they behave, and would present different challenges.
Your emotions are the climate of your Mind Story experience (Hero’s Journey). An extreme and harsh change in emotion toward yourself will affect the story, no matter what chapter you’re in.
Emotions are a physical occurrence; at least, they are expressed in the physical material world via neurotransmitters/chemicals, hormones (dopamine, cortisol, adrenaline, testosterone, etc). Everything we do, think, ingest, interact with, see, and hear, can affect us mentally and emotionally, which means there is always some kind of corresponding chemical-physical expression informing our body experience.
Within the realm of stress, our Fight/Flight response (neurochemicals coming to our aid) is a power that can send us into powerful Attack or Get the Fuck Away mode whenever we need it to, and that chemical Level-Up is most effective in small doses – less so in a constant drip.
We burn out under a steady current of emotional stress, we develop all kinds of health problems, mental and physical. Stress precedes growth (mental and physical) yes, but that growth is usually more effective and beneficial if the stress occasionally breaks (more on negative emotions in a little bit).
You have to get out of the heat to cool down.
Our physical form and its complex web of chemical signals and poetry is always informing our present moment. Emotions don’t exist in the void of our head, they are body-experiences.
Which is to say, that any narrative thought and corresponding emotion about your “past self” is actually registered by your body as being about yourself NOW. The body does not differentiate between the past and the present in this sense.
If you feel disgust for Old You, you feel disgust for you now.
If your emotional climate is hostile to any version of you in your Mind Story, you’re going to have some problems (or, more problems than you need).
Pain is Part of Transformation
We’re never done. Adaptation and change is what life is. And part of change is pain. It’s the stress of challenge, it’s the fear of the unknown, the disappointment of failure, the grief of loss.
Negative emotion can’t be run from constantly, it needs it’s space and time. To fully appreciate your present moment and continue to pursue fulfilling life patterns, negative emotion must also be treated as a natural current that doesn’t “mean” you messed up, or are “bad,” or what have you.
It deserves to be heard and felt, not have some instantly self-exorciating story made up around it.
Rage, disappointment, and sadness are full of potential, and they are natural reactions to painful and damaging events and life circumstances beyond just change. To deny the darkness of your own human emotion is a form of self-sabotage.
A moment of negative emotion can also be catalyzing – that horror-struck realization that you have taken a destructive path and you’re suddenly filled with visceral anger. Letting yourself feel the anger, and then letting it move through you, is a powerful and ultimately necessary thing.
Like cortisol and the Fight/Flight, we simply don’t want to live in a constant drip of negative emotion. When it marinates, it causes issues, and when we tie stories about our identity to intense negative emotions, we can find ourselves caught in, well, negative feedback loops that affect our present.
Negative patterns are frustrating of course, because we don’t usually choose them consciously, and feel pretty at their whim. How to break these patterns and build their corresponding emotions into something healing is the deep work of any person’s life.
Working through issues of identity and self-regard is complicated stuff, I have personally had the most powerful and healing results through a combination of psychedelic use, talking with very close friends, and spiritual-magical practice to directly address old wounds (read Aidan Wachter’s books Six Ways and Weaving Fate for some specific ritual work I have found immensely beneficial). This is it’s own immense topic, so I’ll leave it there for today.
Maybe There Are No Mistakes
Objectively, I’m happier and healthier now than I was then (March 2020). I can easily point out the things that no longer help me and go, “Phew, I’m so glad I’m not doing that shit anymore.”
But the rub may always be this: I had to stray and experiment and wonder and do the “wrong” things in order to be Me now.
And the more I’ve appreciated each step and perceived misstep, the further each step takes me. The more I’ve come to believe there are no missteps, only growth.
Sure, there will likely be things I’m doing now that in time I will look back and shake my head at (probably my haircut. Just kidding, it’s sick as fuck #biznessinthefrontpartyintheback), but even if I shake my head, there will be a smile on my face.
I don’t look back in relief that I’m not March 2020 Cara anymore, I look back in deep gratitude. Yes, I’m doing a lot differently now, and I’ve learned a lot since then. I was under the earlier described chronic stress drip, and it was not fun.
But I’m very proud of that woman. While I have no desire to go back, she was doing something necessary and meaningful: pushing the rhythm and capacities of her life; always seeking more.
I would not be me now without her. This photo represents taking one type of exploration as far as it could go, stopping completely, and allowing something completely new to emerge. It was a completely necessary step, as far as I can tell.
There were no mistakes, and there is nothing to regret, or cast negative feelings toward myself for. That perspective gives me peace and helps me feel love for myself then, which helps me feel love for myself now, which deepens my presence and engagement with life, NOW.
Here’s to transformations, may they be perpetually ongoing; may we explore and appreciate every temporary state, however delightful or difficult, as deeply as we can. May we appreciate the past versions of ourselves that got us to today.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this essay, you can support my film, art and writing on Patreon.
For film, you can check out my 6 episode spiritual thriller webseries about a street exorcist, and May 2020 lockdown-produced supernatural short film about how friendship and helping each other is the antidote to confusion and despair.