Lessons from Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, and Natasha Bedingfield
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” On its surface, this profound quote attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pertains to the way we treat each other. I’ve also found it can be directed inwards.
Since an early age, I’ve considered my mind an enemy I was deeply fearful of. I was scared of the thoughts, images, and urges I experienced and practiced mental gymnastics to reduce the associated anxiety and stress. But the more I avoided, re-analyzed, or tried to change the content of my mind, the worse it became. I spent hours each day withdrawn in plain sight, battling my thoughts, and judging myself for having them. I felt disconnected from the world, with my life devoid of any meaning or purpose. I was miserable and I felt intense shame and guilt that I couldn’t express to anyone. This lonely, self-defeating cycle continued for decades.
A little more than a year ago, everything started to change. A long journey brought me to a therapist that finally understood me. I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD (watch a video about OCD). It changed my entire world to know that the narrative going on in my mind for more than 20 years was a diagnosable condition shared by millions. I wasn’t a terrible person after all. There was a path to get better.
I started a therapy called exposure and response prevention, or ERP. Through ERP, I began to purposely expose myself to the thoughts, images, and urges I was fearful of, but with one caveat: do nothing about them. No avoidance, no re-analysis, no more mental gymnastics. Initially, this was scarier than what I was doing all my life. But with repetition, courage, and guidance, I learned that I could handle the content my mind was generating. Every morning, I’m reminded by a mug I drink tea from, with a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing every day that scares you”.
Throughout my day, I practice ERP. I also have a daily meditation and breathing routine. Meditation is not about stopping my thoughts – it is about reminding myself to return to my breath when I get stuck with these thoughts. And I get stuck all the time. Every time. Sometimes, for half the practice I’m stuck! But then I realize I’ve wandered, and I return. And I wander again. And I return once more. Returning to the MLK quote, ERP and meditation are the processes through which I turned my mind from an enemy into a friend. These practices are about kindness and love. They are about relating to my mind non-judgmentally, letting myself feel whatever comes up, returning to the present moment, and building confidence that I can handle the uncertainty in my mind and inherent in life.
It’s taken decades of suffering for me to befriend my mind and thus befriend myself for the first time. And I’m so grateful for the journey. This process has taught me that life is full of immense possibilities and doesn’t have to be restricted by a self-created narrative circling around my mind. I now choose a more benevolent understanding of the universe and my place in it. Like singer Natasha Bedingfield said: “Today is where your book begins: the rest is still unwritten”.
By Mook Bangalore
Mook Bangalore is a PhD student at the London School of Economics where he researches environmental issues in developing countries. He is the co-facilitator of the SAMHIN Mental Wellness Support Group for youth.
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Feature image credit Agnes at golenart.com