It’s a supportive idiom that people use when they bear witness to someone they care about getting into an improved situation in their life. And it can be very heartening to hear, especially if you’ve been going through a long hospital stay, an extended period of unemployment, or any number of other personal crises.
However, since brains are strange and often contradictory things, a turn of phrase meant to be supportive or encouraging can create feelings or thoughts that are neither of those things. When it’s suggested that you’re turning a corner, you may find yourself wondering what’s lurking beyond that corner — and how it will end up being even worse than whatever crisis you just left behind.
In terms of the physical world, corners cut off our line of sight. This creates dangerous circumstances for soldiers in combat, police officers in pursuit of a suspect, and a variety of other situations. Hence the comment made by the character of Miller in The Expanse when discussing combat tactics with an inexperienced youngster: “Doors and corners, kid. That’s how they get ya.” A blind corner or an ajar door can have any sort of dangers lurking behind it, and if you aren’t careful, those dangers can harm or even kill you.
If you’ve been hurt before, you will anticipate being hurt again. Our brains, like our bodies, are living things that fight to survive. And when you’re fighting to survive, you’re on the lookout for sources of harm that might lead to losing that fight. It’s why our bodies flinch under certain circumstances. It’s why we can focus on how we were treated previously by individuals or groups, rather than the facts of the current situation, the evidence and circumstances. And it’s why we feel a sense of fear when it comes to potential success or metaphorical corners, often taking the form of speculative questions about the future.
What happens if this works? What pressures will be put on me to repeat my success? How will my life change? Do I even deserve to succeed?
These questions, that fear, can completely paralyze us. We distract ourselves, divert attention elsewhere, procrastinate. We try to maintain a status quo, keep things as they are, rather than risk a big change. It takes time, and practice, to overcome those fears and move ourselves in the direction of that next corner. Even as we check said corner, we won’t know what’s there until we make the turn.
We are responsible for taking the steps forward that lead us around that corner, and how we go about doing so. The other things — pressures put on us, rewards from success, the presence or absence of others — are beyond our control. So if I were to offer a solution in dealing with our fears, it would be to focus on what you can control. Which is who you are, how you show up, and what choices you make to move forward.
From the moment we are born, there will be people around us who will try to tell us what we should be doing, how we should be acting, and by what metrics we should be measuring our success. The influences of our families, societies, popular media, and a host of other sources try to inform us of what is “best”: best behavior, best performance, best goals, best cars, best social media platform, so on and so forth. With so much clamor from so many directions, the messages and influences that encourage us to validate ourselves, rather than seek validation from others, can easily get drowned out. It is one of the most subtly dangerous threats to our psyches that exist, and I cannot overstate how important it is to find our sovereignty within ourselves first and foremost.
There’s no universal set of rules or criteria that can be followed to achieve this. Our pasts, and our present, create a set of circumstances unique to every one of us. Regardless of where you’ve come from, where you are, or what you have or have not achieved so far, there is something that I can say I honestly believe is true for you as much as it is for me: you are worth believing in, and you can find that belief within yourself. I’ve dismissed that idea out of hand in the past, be it with a sincere if half-hearted “thank you” to whatever person was saying it, or acting in a sarcastic manner in reaction. Because of how I looked at myself, I neither saw nor internalized the truth of that statement. It was a denial of my best self. That is one of the biggest things that has changed about me, and that I’m dedicated to not losing sight of ever again.
Our best self comes out when we look within ourselves for our sense of validation. It isn’t easy. Those external sources, those structures of control, can be difficult to eject. Some of the influences, especially from parental figures and role models, dig themselves deeply into our psyches. And sometimes, they are directly detrimental to our self-actualization. Even when we can recognize them as toxic, if they have been a part of our lives for an extended period of time, the idea of being apart from them can be daunting. That challenge of making new choices I mentioned previously? This is where it’s at its most prominent, and where forging those new neural pathways can be its most rewarding and empowering.
As much as a lot of popular media is aimed at making one reach for an external sense of validation, be it financial success or reliance upon a relationship or some fleeting moment of fame or recognition, I’d like to cite three examples of stories in our popular culture that exemplify the challenges and empowerment of seeking and seizing validation from within oneself.
One of the best scenes in Captain Marvel is Carol’s last confrontation with the Kree Supreme Intelligence. For years, the Kree had been influencing Carol’s psyche with both direct and indirect manipulation; there was a device on her neck representing the direct control of the Supreme Intelligence, and her peers sought indirect control through exemplifying the Kree way of life. Even then, however, Carol didn’t quite fit in, wanting to be her own person. Returning to Earth showed Carol who she had been before the events that put her under Kree control. I love the scene where Carol’s best friend from her past, Maria, tells Carol who she is, or at least who Maria always saw her to be: “smart, and funny, and a huge pain in the ass… the most powerful person I knew, way before you could shoot fire from your fists.” Maria could see the person that Carol was, and wanted to help her see who she could be — to help Carol grow into her true self.
Carol resolved to forge her own identity, using both who she had been on Earth and what she’d learned from the Kree to become a new, better, stronger version of herself. She doesn’t want to go back to who she was before — she knows that’s impossible. And her identity as a Kree warrior, not to mention the entire Kree way of life, has shown itself to be a lie. She rejects the influence of the Supreme Intelligence; she physically removes the device (something else she’d been lied to about), and says:
“I’ve been fighting with one hand tied behind my back. What happens when I’m finally set free?”
What happens next is a direct manifestation of Carol Danvers as her best self. As Captain Marvel. And it came from within herself, from her own inner sense of validation.
Aragorn, especially in the film adaptation of Lord of the Rings, is a man who is fearful of his legacy, the influences of his past. He knows that those who came before him failed, succumbed to their weaknesses and temptations, and he is afraid of doing the same, of not being equal to the task ahead of him. Because of the actions of others, he is inclined to invalidate himself. Even when actively encouraged by others, be they Gandalf or Arwen or Elrond, he secludes himself, more concerned with the possibility of failure than of success.
When he puts that fear aside, and makes the decision to use what has been given to him to its fullest potential, we see a change. He’s been able to lead in the past, when tracking Merry and Pippin or at Helm’s Deep. But when he rides out of Minis Tirith with an army behind him and has to inspire them to stand with him to give the world a chance at peace and freedom, it’s through his own inner sense of validation that he validates others. He knows he might fail, that it might all end in darkness and death. His belief that he can be better, that he chooses to be better, makes all the difference. It allows him to face his fear and, in turn, help those with him to overcome theirs. And that is why they prevail.
Miles Morales in Into the Spider-Verse has to find it within himself to “put on the mask”, to be Spider-Man. He’s in a situation where he knows his powers give him responsibility, and he aspires to be like the Spider-Man of his world — Peter Parker, now deceased. (Whups, spoilers.) The Peter Parker from another dimension, who’s come to care for Miles, tells the young man that he’s not ready, that he doesn’t quite have what it takes to tackle the major threat. This is a sentiment backed up by Gwen Stacy, Peni Parker, Spider-Man Noir, and Peter Porker. They all care about him and want him to be safe; they feel his inexperience makes the situation too dangerous. His father, coming to his door, tells him that he’s worth believing in. In the end, it’s Miles himself that helps him realize that he does, in fact, have what it takes to be the kind of person, the kind of hero, he wants to be.
Into the Spider-Verse immediately became my favorite Spider-Man film, and favorite Spider-Man story period, because of Miles Morales. I mean, yes, the art style is mind-blowing and the attention to detail is staggering; I adore the worn-out alternate universe Peter Parker, the incredibly confident and empowered Spider-Gwen, the uniqueness of Peni, the wonderful delight of Nicholas Cage just doing the most, and my inner 8-year-old can’t stop giggling at the Spectacular Spider-Ham. But it’s the story of Miles, and how he grows and changes, that is sticking with me. From his father to his uncle, not to mention not one but two Peter Parkers, there are a lot of external influences that could push or pull Miles in one way or another. The focal point of the story, however, is how Miles makes his choices in terms of who it is he wants to be. The most important thing to Miles is not living up to anyone else’s expectations; it’s not earning validation from peers; it’s not seeking attention or affirmation through external shows. The most important thing to Miles is being Miles, the best Miles he can be — for him, that’s to put on the mask and take a leap of faith.
Much like redemption, validation is at its most powerful when it comes from within oneself. The people who truly love us want nothing more than to see us succeed, for our own sake and on our own terms. They want to believe in us. Here’s the thing: if we can’t believe in ourselves, how can we expect others to believe in us? If we don’t respect ourselves, why would anyone else respect us? It begins within ourselves. It’s not something that’s touched on often in the media that permeates our society. There are tons of businesses who will be more than happy to sell you something in the name of fulfilling a need within yourself. It’s an easier solution to reach for. To try and find these things on your own, to eschew the expectations of the world, is considered an abnormality. There’s something about it that can, and often does, feel dangerous.
With everything that’s happened, and everything I’m learning, I’ve come to believe that choosing and working become one’s best self is a difficult thing, sometimes even a frightening thing. Your success and failure is entirely on you. If you’re detached from reliance upon and validation from others, you run the risk of either buying too much of your own hype or focusing overmuch on minor setbacks as evidence that you can’t make your own way. Again, this will vary from person to person, but that seems to me to be the nature of the challenge, the flavor of the danger. And it’s understandable to be afraid. But just like deciding to seek your best self, you can also decide how you handle that fear. I used to let it make the decisions for me; now, I can acknowledge it exists, see it for what it is, and then find it within myself to make my decisions on my own terms.
In other words: being one’s best self is often a matter of stepping out under one’s own power, seeing the challenges ahead, choosing to show the fuck up anyway, and saying:
This is something that has been said to me, and about me, in the past. And there are a lot of stories on the subject out there. We want to believe that the people we love, and by extension ourselves, are people that are capable of being redeemed, of coming back from dark places in life into better, healthier ways of existing. Darth Vader pitching the Emperor into a pit to save his son. Boromir running to the rescue of Merry and Pippin after almost succumbing to the temptations of the One Ring. Tony Stark using a box of scraps — and later his vast wealth, creativity, and intellect — to solve problems he created and protect the world.
It’s a difficult thing to stare our demons in the face. Some of the mistakes that happen in our lives have catastrophic consequences. Knowingly or not, we can and often do hurt others in pursuit of our goals. Not everyone has the self-awareness or courage to face those mistakes, admit their fault, and accept the consequences. What makes Zuko’s story special is that he does all of those things, and begins making different choices. Nobody saves him; he saves himself. The only reason he takes the steps down a road to redemption is because he chooses to do so.
A lot of turning points in redemption stories come out of life-or-death situations. Anakin Skywalker’s rebirth, Boromir’s sacrifice, the creation of Iron Man — these all come to pass because the situation is dire and there’s no other moral choice. Zuko, while he endured many similar situations, did not have a dramatic “face turn” in the midst of one of them. Instead, each of his many defeats was a brick in a foundation for a new version of himself, one that he built with his own two hands, rather than the one that had been informed by the influences of others. While his uncle did attempt to guide him, in the end, the decisions he made were his own, both when he doggedly pursued the Avatar and when he decided, instead, to help his former quarry.
He began asking hard questions: what does “honor” actually mean to me? How do I want to make a difference in the world? How did my old choices lead me to failure? How can I make new ones that do make a difference? The answers to those questions, the choices he made as a result, are what lead him in a redemptive direction.
Here’s something you might miss: Zuko didn’t do this to prove anything to anyone except himself. He decided that it was worth the risk, for his own sake, to become a better version of himself.
That is how Zuko redeemed himself. That’s what makes his story powerful.
Because if Zuko, who we meet as an arrogant fuck-up, can redeem himself, for his own sake and on his own terms… then so can we.
There are some things in our lives that we don’t get to choose. I didn’t choose to be born bipolar or bisexual. People close to me didn’t choose how they were born, either. Naturally, others will treat those things as if they are choices, saying things like “just try being the gender you were born with a little longer” or “you just need to do X and you won’t be sad anymore” or “have you tried not being gay?” I hope there’s no need for me to elucidate on just how awful that ‘advice’ is. And I don’t want to make this about that. I felt it was worth saying from the outset, however, that with all of the words that follow regarding choices, I’m focusing on how we as individuals face the responsibilities that are ours every day, and the choices we make regarding those responsibilities. And while I can’t choose to not be bipolar any more than another person can choose whether or not to have been born in a body that doesn’t match who they are, when it comes to how we handle our day-to-day lives and our relationships with others, every single one of us does have a choice.
Everyone has a choice. Everyone can, and must, choose who they want to be. It may be one large overarching choice, or it can be a series of small choices that lead us to being who and what we are. There can be obstacles that make a particular choice difficult, or perhaps even obscure certain choices. At the end of the day, we are what we choose, consciously or not. And when we choose, there are ramifications of that choice, for better and for worse.
One of the biggest challenges that come with making choices is when we’re faced with choices that are new to us, outside of our comfort zones, or challenge our identities. There’s a lot of advice that people will try to sell you about not being afraid to make choices. You’ll hear things like: “Follow your dreams!” “Be bold!” “Seize the day!” Not unlike some of the other advice mentioned above, such pithy platitudes tend to be the opposite of helpful. It creates and reinforces the erroneous idea that these things are simple and straightforward. Sometimes they are — “do I toast a bagel or pour a bowl of cereal” is a pretty straightforward choice. So many other choices, though, may seem simple, when in fact they deserve at least a moment’s pause and consideration before we commit to the choice, and accept the consequences.
Clear, consistent decision-making isn’t something that we’re born knowing how to do. It takes practice. The more you do something, the better you become at it and the more ease you experience while doing it. Making decisions is, in that way, not unlike training to play a sport or learning to speak a language. It has to be done over and over. As we grow, decisions we make contribute to who we see ourselves as being, and the course that our life begins to take. And the more contributions are made towards that self-image, of both our present and future selves, the more the decisions that follow tend towards those selves.
So what happens when we try to choose something new?
Some of us fall into patterns that are bad for us. Others learn to play it safe — stick only with what “works”, what is known, even if that way doesn’t really advance any of your goals or bring you closer to accomplishing anything significant. Whatever it might be, our brains forge neural pathways associated with a set or series of choices, and our thoughts and decision-making fall into those pathways. They have their own gravity. Like the most well-worn groove on an old record attracts the stylus of a record player, our perceptions and analysis of our choices are pulled into familiar ways of thinking that, in my experience, can often lead us away from a better path forward and into stagnation or, worse, a downward spiral.
This is why it can be downright terrifying when we come to the conclusion that we need to try something new. It threatens our world-view and our state of mind. Humans are highly adaptable; we can adjust to just about any situation. We can acclimate to high altitudes, working in zero gravity, travelling to the deepest part of the ocean, and so on. Our minds are no different: given a state of affairs existing for a prolonged enough period of time, and the human mind begins to accept it as ‘the way things are’. We create a narrative for our present circumstances, and assign ourselves a role within it. The days roll on. The groove gets deeper. Our choices almost seem to make themselves.
And then, when something changes, when an event occurs that shakes things up, or there’s a moment of clarity regarding what was a toxic or untenable or stagnating situation, the idea of choosing something different, something new, rattles our cage and sets our teeth on edge. It feels like we’re doing something dangerous, something potentially catastrophic, just thinking about it. Hell, even writing on the subject somehow feels provocative, and the thought keeps occurring that maybe I should just pitch the whole damn thing and watch The Expanse again instead.
Our brains will actively resist us because the thought patterns are new and unforged. They’re not familiar. They’re not “safe”. Even if the current situation is ineffective or unsustainable, it’s what we know, and therefore it is “safer” than choosing something new. We may even find ways to reason ourselves into continuing to make those ineffective or unsustainable choices when it’s clear that making a different choice is either morally correct or will yield better, more progressive results.
That’s the thing. It’s the most frustrating, challenging, and ultimately rewarding aspects of working to make better, healthier choices for ourselves. We get to define who we are. In spite of the aspects of our lives that are out of our control, regardless of happenstances of biology or circumstance that were defined before we took our first breath, every day, every moment, is an opportunity to make at least a small tweak in the course of our lives. Some of those tweaks are more difficult to make than others; it’s the difference between “I’m going to have the spicy thai thing instead of a salad today for lunch” and “I’m going to be honest about something I’ve been ashamed of for a long time.” One is just a potentially scary experience for your tastebuds and may require a lot of extra hydration; the other could throw your entire life as you know it into upheaval.
But it’s still your life.
And as long as you are alive, you get more and more opportunities to make better and better choices.
You’re not always going to get it right. Because in addition to being alive, you’re human. Unless this is being read by some nascent upswell from the Singularity hidden somewhere in Amazon’s servers, in which case, hi we’re pretty wasteful and petty little shits most of the time but a lot of us are really nice once you get to know us so please don’t wipe out our entire race thanks? Being human means you’re fallible. You’re imperfect. And that’s okay. If you were perfect, there’d be no room for improvement. You’d have nowhere to go. And you’d be just as inscrutable to us mere mortals as we would be to you. But since so much of consumer culture tries to sell us on this or that image of “perfection”, we often find ourselves acting out of fear that we will move further away from our particular flavor of that illusion if we make some new or different choice.
And yes, you might experience a setback in pursuit of whatever it is you personally want to achieve. Hell, a choice you make might involve giving up that pursuit entirely, because it’s an unsustainable journey, or the path which would lead you there is unhealthy for you or someone you love. There are consequences to every choice we make. Even if the choice you make is to do nothing! “Nothing will happen right now if I do nothing, but I’ll keep feeling shitty and miserable.” Guess what, that’s still a consequence. Sometimes, doing nothing is the right choice, and it can be very difficult to make that choice in a situation where you feel morally or otherwise compelled to do something to make a difference. That’s all part of the horror and wonder of the human experience: seeing your choices, sussing out the consequences, and then committing to your choice.
Stepping out of the pattern of choices you know into uncharted territory can be a harrowing, earth-shattering experience. There’s a reason why a lot of people don’t do it. But if we don’t make the choice to challenge ourselves — if we don’t make apply our thoughts actively to weighing our options, considering the potential outcomes, and then making a choice that will move us in a better direction, even if it scares us to do it — what about us, and our lives, and our world, will change?
Here’s a simple question: what do you feel you are owed?
If you put in hours and hours of your time at a job, you are owed compensation for that time, right? That’s how jobs work. If your employer says they don’t owe you anything, you have rights. You can sue their asses. You earned that money. You put in the time, therefore you deserve the pay.
When people talk about entitlement, often it’s in reference to someone who quite obviously hasn’t done anything to deserve what they are after. Here’s a quick example from Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A Fuck:
Ever watch a kid cry his eyes out because his hat is the wrong shade of blue? Exactly. Fuck that kid.
There are a lot of people who, in one way or another, don’t grow up past that stage of their lives. The most obvious example is the male-bodied Internet denizen who’s acting pissed because a woman isn’t giving him the time of day, let alone nude selfies. “Look at this pathetic motherfucker,” you might say. “He’s so entitled it makes me sick.”
I’ve certainly said something along those lines in the past. I’ve also, in my own way, acted like an entitled asshole. I’ve acted like the world at large owes me something. I felt the world owed me special treatment because I was born bipolar, got bullied, lost a sister, and basically got emotionally and mentally more and more fucked up as time went on.
I was different. I was special. I felt like dogshit and I hated myself. I sought to destroy myself and sabotage everything good to prove that I deserved nothing good, especially the love of others, who in my mind should hate me too, for being such a disgusting entitled hairy nerdy weird-ass male. I was so wrapped up in hating my entitlement that I didn’t realize I felt entitled to special attention, in this case having women take turns to spit on my grave. And while I feel that, for the most part, I’ve managed to shake off a lot of that bullshit, there’s a part of me that wants to convince me that how I feel makes me somehow a special snowflake.
I feel frustrated. I feel lonely. I feel that I could have done more to not fuck up my life.
To which I say, to myself: “Guess what, dumbass, so does everyone else. And if everyone else feels that way, you are not special.“
Here’s the thing: if I’m not special, if how I feel isn’t different than how anybody else feels, what am I owed? What have I got to prove?
Not a fucking thing, is the answer.
Accepting that is more important than I can say. Along with my expectations, my other flaws, and my mistakes, once I accept this sense of entitlement, I can let go of it, and that leaves room for me to love myself.