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Ben Werdmuller

Open morning pages: take the dark thoughts

5 min read

When I was a teenager, maybe 15 or so, I started to be overcome with a feeling that something was wrong with me. I couldn't figure out what it was. I just knew that I wasn't right, and that because it was obvious, everyone else had to know, and they weren't telling me in order to save my feelings. I was frustrated: if they would only tell me, then I could do something about it, and then there wouldn't be this thing that was obviously overtly wrong with me.

It took me years to understand that the thing that was wrong with me was my feeling that something was wrong with me.

This chronic low self-esteem followed me for most of my life. I'm not sure how many hours I've spent lying awake in bed wishing I was someone else completely, but it certainly adds up to days; possibly even weeks. Some mornings I'd wake up weeping because I was trapped inside myself, yet again, for another day.

The irony was that this manifested as a self confidence deficit, which in turn changed the way I interacted with people. For a lot of people, there was something wrong with me, because I was conflict avoidant, timid, and would give in easily. This became fuel for my self-doubt.

There's a phenomenon in flying where, if you have no visibility and aren't paying attention to your instruments, you can easily find yourself circling towards the ground without even knowing it. That's what I was doing: with no way to step outside myself, or trust feedback from anyone else, I was heading groundwards faster than I realized. 

Like any demon, it loses power if you give it a name. For me, the turning point was understanding that this was a kind of disease, and the thoughts in my head weren't authentic. Rather than distrusting feedback from the outside world, I came to identify the patterns of thought that would lead to these dark places, and distrust them instead. Identifying harmful thought patterns - and they are patterns, repeating themselves again and again, digging grooves in your brain - is the biggest step towards unchaining yourself from them.

I still have dark moments; if I've been particularly exhausted for days on end, for example. But they're moments, few and far between, and twenty minutes later they'll be gone. I think those bubbles of self-doubt are more normal, and even a part of learning. The key is how you interact with them and choose to carry on. Sometimes I'll write them down, because taking them out of my head and seeing them on paper reveals their ridiculousness. And sometimes I'll just talk to someone, because, these days, the single best way I have to feel better about anything is to talk to the people I care about.

One thing I've realized about myself through being more aware of my thoughts is that I'm energized by people. On paper, I should be an introvert: I have a risidual shyness that worrying about my wrongness for years has left me with, and choosing to work in front of a screen rather than with other people is often a sign that not dealing with people is easier. In reality, the opposite is true for me. Every time I spend time with other people, I come away feeling refreshed and excited; if I'm alone for too long, I feel drained. People are good. In social situations I still have to quieten the lingering worry that they don't want to talk to me. But other people are the best part of life.

For a while, years ago, I decided that someone was only as good as the things they made, because that was the impact they had on the world; that was what they would leave behind long after they died. I don't think that opinion is uncommon in developers. And it's completely, 100% wrong. Our legacy is in the relationships we make; who and how we love. We're all connected to each other, and the biggest way to make a dent in the universe is to leave an impact on the people around us.

This presupposes that we should all be trying to make a dent in the universe, which I think is another fallacy, which I think partially comes out of the kind of self-doubt I experienced. The idea that you are insignificant if you don't have an effect on the way people live their lives is flawed, and even harmful; every single person makes an impact and changes the world around them through everything they do. Nevertheless, if you are trying to make that dent, making more things is not necessarily the best way to go about it.

I'll say it again: it's about who, and how, and possibly why, you love. In the words of the great Kurt Vonnegut, writing in God Bless You Mr Rosewater:

"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies - 'God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'"

You've got to be kind. To the Earth, to the people around you, and perhaps most of all, to yourself.