“It’s not nice being inside my head. It’s a nice place to visit but I don’t want to live in here. It’s too crowded; too many traps and pitfalls.”
– Carrie Fisher
So I’m supposed to write something about self-reflection, and how it’s important, and where it may be dangerous. Dangerous, I thought. Interesting. But where would I start? And then I had a week of working eight hours a day in a quiet office where there was no work for me to do. Two weeks after a breakup.
Amazingly, I am now full of material on the subject.
I’ll be the first one to tell you that I think everyone should be in therapy, that everyone should know themselves deeply and well. “Sure, you don’t have to be in therapy,” I’ve said countless times, “But the way I see it, it’s like living without glasses when you need them. Sure, you could squint and see just enough to get by. But wouldn’t you rather see the world clearly and see what life is like without a chronic headache?”
This well-worn pitch aside, if you get to know me at all, there’s not a lot that I don’t analyze from every angle, take seriously, feel deeply. I am one of these people that there are now copious Thought Catalog articles on: the Highly Sensitive types.
For a long time I thought it was weakness, this emotional vulnerability. Always feeling like a sponge that absorbs near-everything with no appropriate avenue to wring out. Sure, everyone says that “it’s a gift, it’s healthy, this is what the Evolved People do”. But it always seemed suspiciously convenient that the people who told me this were on the avoidant side— just sort of opting out of experiencing all the pain.
And a lot of them were men. So it was hard not to hear, “Well, you’re a woman. Women are supposed to feel all the things for us, and we protect them and feed them...and hopefully keep them from dissolving into a pile of tears. You’re welcome, by the way.”
I used to say that I felt like Superman, in that part in Superman Returns where he flies Lois Lane up to the atmosphere and they sit there in silence, looking down at the world and he says, “What do you hear?”
“Nothing,” she says.
He looks down into the cloudy blue, then away into space with this deep sense of melancholy, and he says, “I hear everything.”
That is how I would describe my own emotional processing: I hear everything. I feel everything. The soul equivalent of the headache you get from wearing 3-D glasses outside the theater. And the nausea can make you think...maybe we’re not supposed to do this all the time.
And I have gotten better at not seeing this as a burden. I have come to believe, even when I don’t feel it, that vulnerability is strength. And I’ve taken a long enough stroll on the walls-up side of the fence to realize I don’t want that either. I don’t want it to take a month for me to figure out how I actually feel about something because I’ve been protecting myself on autopilot. I don’t want to be dumbfounded when someone asks me what I want. I don’t want to deaden myself to the world.
Moreover, I do believe it’s my responsibility as an artist to step into texture. I’m not supposed to choose naïveté any more than I choose worldliness with the armor of detachment. Both strip my art of truth and efficacy. I supposed to choose to examine why this or that hurts, and who else in humanity has hurt in that same place, and how connected are we are by our overlapping wounds.
The trouble is, my wounds can become so interesting to me I never leave them, so damned interesting they’ll kill me.
So alluring that I’m watching the car accident of my own life, debris flaming, and I’m just standing there asking for an instant replay, without lifting a finger to help or change. And I could barely tell you why, except that I fear the unknown ahead. I can’t let go of the old thing, so I get caught in my own loops, until I crash into the median and it all finally stops.
But as I’m painting this destruction for you—now is probably an opportune moment for me to pause and make my confession of just how hastily I am wont to mine my life experience for creative product.
Yes, “everything is copy”. Yes, we should write what we know. Yes, art should be truth. But sometimes I’m delaying my own healing by dragging things out to make them more dramatic. I’m wallowing because it makes better poetry—but how good can it be if the cost is that I have no strength to survive the day?
I make pilgrimages to old haunts and catalogue my feelings in months that follow, watching how they shift and change, and maybe it makes good copy. Sometimes, I suspect, it might even be great. But I must be ever-wary not to idolize suffering so much that I forget that even better art comes from transformation and healing and perspective from the other side. Freedom must be the goal.
I know I’m sort of circling more the process of grief than reflection—but they aren’t entirely discrete. If reflection is the awareness of all internal processes, maybe my grief is now magnifying for me the danger of over-reflecting...because it’s in love and in grief that everything is the most magnified.
So it is relevant—because now is the moment to be most cautious of the time spent in my head. I can no more be obsessed with my reflection in the water, standing on the shore, than I can drown in my own sorrow. This is what’s helping me see this.
And as much as I know reflecting will heal me eventually, if I can tread the right balance of seeing enough and not too much at once—it’s difficult not to walk into my psyche and find this endless catalogue of error to keep me company. An ocean of what-ifs to keep you cycling back and back and back...and then suddenly I’m more pinball machine than person:
Insert change here
And all my lights go off
A cacophony of electric and chaos and bouncing off
But never any forward
Never any oxygen
Just clattering against all obstacles backward until I collapse to the bottom And shut back off
For all the bells and whistles
Till some wizard proves me wrong
There’s never a pinball machine at peace
Navel-gazing has been my champion sport at times, but it doesn’t take long before your neck starts to hurt, and at a certain point you become the enemy of your own grace.
And in considering grace and how heavy a thing it is sometimes to be so aware, I’m reminded that reflection without spirituality would surely kill me. Maybe that’s the switch flip to all of this.
Just as living in the moment can become frivolous, “knowing thyself” can become an excuse to never step outside our own proverbial rooms and touch something larger. And if reflection is with the aim of knowing myself, it doesn’t stop there—it means knowing where I came from.
Who created me? Who birthed me? Who raised me? Who loves me? Who hurts me? Who hurts me by loving me...just as I have done to all around me, as we humans do? Why was I born? How can I improve the world around me?
Could one small piece of that plan be simply to consider to the stories of those around me with the same weight and significance with which I view my own soul?
Could this process remind us all of what is shared, that we are not now, and have never been alone?
That kind of reflection, I’m thinking, is the good thing.
And even if most of my life is spent fighting the pinball machine phases of reflection— I choose grace and humility and belief in my ability to keep fighting my way up and out of the glass case, into the larger ocean. Outside myself.
And then maybe, just maybe...my head’s an okay place to live after all.