For the umpteenth time, the familiar faces sitting in a circle looking back at me helped me recognise that it was a lack of confidence and a brutal internal voice that had chained me up and was keeping my hopes and dreams excruciatingly just out of my reach.
I’m part of an organisation called the Mankind Project, and these men are part of my ‘I-group’. We get together every Tuesday to help one another be better brothers, lovers, fathers, brothers and friends. Putting in the work to be better men with the goal to change the world for the better, one man at a time, starting with ourselves.
I don’t dig it when I think I’ve dealt with an issue and realise that I am nowhere near getting over it. It wasn’t the first time we addressed this issue of my low self-worth during a work round, but I had hoped it would be nearing my last. But, I hadn’t always wanted to silence the bitter judge and jury in my mind. You see, there was a time when this nasty internal voice served me. I created it to help me defend myself, it helped me be one step ahead of my enemies because I would have the scoop on my weaknesses before they did.
School, boarding school, in particular, was a challenging and often defining time for me. Initially, the cruel jibes, comments and criticisms mercilessly flung would knock the daylights out of me, leaving me shocked and reeling. They would bowl me over into a world of pain and confusion. Something I would naturally do anything to avoid.
As a defence, I learned that the effects of these attacks were lessened when the comments weren’t a revelation to me. It seemed an ingenious strategy; if I already had an inkling of what was “wrong” with me before it could be pointed out to me, it would come as less of a blindside wallop. “Say whatever you want, I already know”, was the rationale.
So, I learned to do a daily inventory of all the mean things that could be pointed out to me, all the hurtful things that could be said, my awkward angles, faulty figures, broken bits, a list of all I’m lacking, the ways in which I’m lagging and just how I could be seen as inferior or unworthy. I would get there first, I would be the first to scrutinise, analyse and dissect before anyone else could, and far more efficiently because I had inside information. I thought it would be easier to take the second time around when someone else was saying it. I’d baptise myself with my own bullying to toughen me up for theirs.
It worked and admittedly served me well, helping me to build coping calluses and a defence against worst-case scenarios. I became a type of brutality boy scout, thoroughly prepared.
Here’s the problem. Those mean older boys are nowhere to be seen anymore, and things have changed – a lot. I’m no longer at their mercy and don’t need that kind of defence anymore. I am now an accomplished older, stronger and wiser man surrounded by love and support who is still stuck constructing deconstructive lists for himself. There are still slings and arrows being flung but they’re being cast from within.
“Why don’t you believe in yourself more?” asks my brother over an Italian dinner. “Can’t you see the wonderful traits that we see?” enquire the men in the circle time and again.
But the voices are strong and cutting and I have given them airtime for a long, long time. It’s not that I don’t hear the love and the beauty that those around me are mouthing, but often the voices within reciting the laundry list of my flaws are just that bit louder. My voice is always louder in my own ears.
This no longer serves me, I confess to the others. The value of this flaw-finding “skill” has expired. I tell the other men that I will now work to enlist my inner voices of love and reassurance. I need these now. I can soothe myself too. I cup my ears to hear these voices better. I also cast filters over my internal ears to silence the echoing bile I’ve accumulated, and instead, I whisper my own sweetness within. I work to wake up that part of me I put to sleep back then, and strive to believe myself when I say, “You are beautiful, you are worthy, and you are loved.” “You are a marvellous expression of creation, now allow yourself to be that.”
“Aho!” say the men in my circle. Their voices are also strong, and I hear them.