Who’s driving?

Photo by Samuele Errico Piccarini on Unsplash

“I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want—instead, I do what I hate.”(Romans 7:15).

As critical as I often am of the Apostle Paul, sometimes he kept it 100. How often have you gone into a situation determined to do something different or feel something different only to fall into the same tired patterns you’ve been in for years?

It happens to me a lot, and I’m often left wondering why? If I want to do something different, why can’t I?

For instance, when I’m with some of my dearest friends, I often feel the most anxious and insecure. These are people that I will be friends with until the day I die. We’ve got that LeBron-Dwayne Wade, or JT-Jimmy Fallon type friendship.

We’re vulnerable with each other. We challenge each other, and most importantly, we laugh with each other. They’re great people, yet when I’m with them, I notice my chronic anxiety go into overdrive.

I feel anxious aftershocks reverberating through my body; starting at my chest and pulsating outward. I breathe deeply, focus on the moment and try every trick I know to shut the anxiety off, but the aftershocks continue. Each one carries a different version of the same question:

What if I’m not enough?

Black enough, funny enough, smart enough…there are an endless amount of enoughs that I can generate to convince myself that I’m not worthy of the love and acceptance I’m experiencing.

Question after anxious question runs through my mind. One voice reminding me that I’m loved and accepted as I am. The other voice screaming that I’ll be rejected as soon as they realize I’m not good enough.  

Back and forth it goes until the moment passes, and I regret not being able to be fully present. If I don’t want to feel anxious, and I know that I’m loved and accepted, where does that other, anxiety-ridden voice, come from? Who else is vying for control of my psyche?

Cue boxing announcer, aka, Michael Buffer voice

In one corner, we have 30-year-old millennial who stands 5’7 ¾” tall (I’m counting every fraction of an inch) and 145 lbs (I’m being generous). His confidence often outweighs his abilities, but he’s got a lot of heart. Known as Btapp, Tapper or to those that know him best, smartass. Ladies and gentlemen its Ben Tapper.

In the other corner, is a 9-year-old lean mean anxiety machine. At 3’9″ tall he is light enough to be blown away by a stiff northwest wind. He’s best known for bossing around his younger siblings and getting nose bleeds at a moment’s notice. He can destroy a plate of biscuits and gravy in under 2 minutes flat. Introducing ’97 Ben.

If you managed to read all of that in Michael Buffer’s voice, give yourselves a pat on the back. 2019 is going to be a great year for you 🙂

 ’97 Ben is the source of my anxious messaging. He carries the weight of the world on his small shoulders and remains vigilant in order to protect the people he loves. He is an anxious string bean of a boy whose fears are as strong as his smile is bright. He knows that rejection and disappointment are waiting around every corner, so he lives each moment bracing for the worst. 

Which is why he is constantly looking for reasons I might be rejected. I can’t possibly be enough for anyone because he’s never felt like enough, so he’s watching and waiting for things to go wrong like they always have.

Here’s the thing though. ‘97 Ben is more than an over-burdened, hyper-anxious 3rd grader. He is also strong, adaptive and determined. He survived child abuse and neglect. He lived in homeless shelters, played in roach-infested motels and spent many nights sleeping in the car.

To name only the anxiety and worry is to incompletely define him as a person. The truth is, he embodies both my deepest insecurities and my boldest resilience. 

The trouble is that ’97 Ben has been in the driver seat of my life for too long. He helped me survive a very traumatic decade, but I don’t need him to be in charge anymore. I don’t need to be constantly guarded, and I don’t want to spend every second bracing for the worst. If I’m to be fully present with the people I care about, I’ve got to let ’97 Ben off the hook.

To do this well, I use a contemplative exercise that is part meditation and part imagination. I close my eyes, breathe deeply and imagine myself in a car. I’m in the passenger seat traveling on I-65. I look to my left and see my younger self behind the wheel. His eyes are locked on the road with all the intensity and focus that a 9-year-old can muster. I ask him to pull over so we can talk. Once the car comes to a stop, we both get out, and I kneel down so we’re looking eye to eye as I begin talking.  

“Hey lil man. I really appreciate you driving for so long. You must be tired.”

He nods and warily waits for me to continue.

“Without you, I wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be here. Thank you so much! You’re amazing. The good news is, you don’t have to be in charge anymore. I got us from here. We’re okay.”

I rub his head, tell him he gets to relax now, and invite him into the back seat. There is a game boy and a to-go box filled with my mom’s biscuits and gravy waiting for him. I buckle him in, and as he picks up the game boy, he looks up at me and says “thank you.” I close the door, move to the driver’s seat, take one last look in the rear-view mirror to make sure he’s relaxed then start the car and go.

It’s an elaborate visualization, but as wonky as it sounds, it works. It eases the anxiety and reminds me that while my past will always influence who I am, it doesn’t have to be the driving factor in every moment.

Who is in the driver’s seat of your life?  

Reflect on the mountaintop and valley moments of your life. Have you experienced sudden life changes or traumatic experiences? Where were you when they happened? How old were you? How did you feel?

Take note of these things because it is those moments that can freeze us in time and allow past selves to remain in the driver seat long after the moment has passed.

As you’re able to name significant moments and see your past selves begin to take shape, imagine what they what they need to hear in order to move from the driver seat to the back seat. Remember that they embody both your greatest and most uncomfortable qualities, so even if they’re unhelpful right now, they served a purpose and deserve to be treated, even within your own imagination with love and respect. How might you let yourself off the hook with grace?

If we can find and connect with our past selves, we’ll experience freedom we’ve not yet known. This work of connecting with ’97 Ben is ongoing for me. He’s been driving for so long that my constant anxiety and obsession with rejection feel normal. It will take some time before a new standard is set for me, but it is time well spent.   

As you enter the New Year, I invite you into a deeper awareness of the internal voices that influence you. Take note, be curious and receive all of the love, grace, and acceptance you need to move forward. Know that you will grow tired of this work. You won’t catch yourself every time, and you’ll feel like you should be further along than you are. That’s normal my friend. When it happens, pause, breathe in the love you need and give yourself permission to keep doing the work without judgment.

We don’t have to spend 2019 falling into the same patterns that have always dogged us. When you get a chance, ask yourself:

Who is driving?  

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