OWN

4 Signs That You Are Your Own Worst Enemy

Beware! Your most formidable opponent may be nearer than you think.
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“Keep your friends close,” says Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part II, “but your enemies closer.” I don’t often follow the advice of fictional mobsters, but in this case, I’m all in. My worst enemy is as close as it gets: She’s literally under my skin. Oh, there are other people in the world who have hurt my feelings, called me names and sabotaged my work, health and relationships. But when it comes to acting against my own interests, no one can hold a candle to yours truly. 

I’ll bet that you, too—at least sometimes—are your own worst enemy, though you may not realize it. You may be a kind of double agent, innocently disguised as someone who wishes you the best while betraying you at every turn. Here’s a short list of ways to recognize an enemy. See if any of them apply to your relationship with yourself. 

An enemy is intolerant. 
By definition, enemies want to either conquer or destroy the other side, often because they hate some fundamental part of their opponent’s identity. An enemy may abhor you for looking the way you look, talking the way you talk, thinking the way you think or all of the above. Quick: Think of something repellent about yourself. Did it take less than ten seconds? If so, check the nearest reflective surface. Your worst enemy will be staring back at you. 

You don’t need a West Point degree to realize that shacking up with the enemy is a suboptimal strategy. Since you can’t exactly retreat from yourself, this might be a good time to broker a truce. The best way to begin is to practice accepting—not necessarily loving or even liking—the things you hate about yourself. Your wobbly belly, your social anxiety, your talent for losing your keys. Notice that you can’t change those things right this second. But if you simply allow them to be, you may find yourself feeling less anxious. And as you learn to tolerate your shortcomings, they become less entrenched and easier to shift. What we resist persists; what we accept can be changed. 

An enemy spreads propaganda. 
Every warring army needs a propaganda department, because using cruel, dehumanizing language is an excellent way to persuade normal people to kill one another. What cruel, dehumanizing language do you use about yourself? When those jeans don’t fit, do you think, What a cow? If you forget to pay the phone bill, do you say, “I’m such a dolt”? Welcome to the mind of a war criminal in the making. You can work toward peace by trying to eliminate that hate speech, whether you’re talking to yourself or others. Use the kind words you’d offer an ally. 

An enemy exploits your weaknesses. 
Do you sweat like a feverish piglet when preparing for a dinner party, a work presentation, a parole hearing or any other significant event? Afterward, do you replay every single thing you didn’t do absolutely flawlessly while you cringe and curse in shame? That’s your enemy at work, looking for the places where you’re most vulnerable and swooping in for the attack. Next time you’re under assault, fight back by telling yourself: “It wasn’t perfect, but it was fine.” Or, “You did your best. Can’t do more than that.” Or, “Oh, well, what the hell?” 

Say these things, and you’ll be expressing the majority opinion. Psychologists have found that most of us tend to think our attributes and actions get much more attention from others than they really do, a phenomenon called the spotlight effect. This is a recipe for self-conscious paralysis. 

Take the spotlight off yourself by learning the 20-40-60 rule. It’s a bit of folk wisdom that goes like this: At age 20, you’re sure everyone’s thinking about you. By the time you’re 40, you’re starting to care less that people are thinking about you. And when you hit 60, you realize the truth: No one was ever thinking about you. People are generally so busy being their own worst enemy that they don’t even notice your flaws. 

An enemy never forgives. 
Remember the office New Year’s party in 2002, when you had one margarita too many and did the Pee-wee Herman “Tequila” dance? Of course you do. But even if you’re positive everybody else does, too, I guarantee no one is replaying the incident on an endless loop in high-def. Who has that kind of time? Only your sworn enemy, that’s who. Next time Peeweepalooza 2002 looms in your mind, try this: Stop what you’re doing, grab a pen and paper and write down every detail of the incident. Once the story of your sin is complete, move to a different chair. Get a fresh sheet of paper and write, “I have heard your confession, and I forgive you.” 

Self-forgiveness is the essence of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer (below), which helps you accept what’s in the past and change what is both in the present and within your power to change (e.g., your habitual self-sabotage). 

A war against yourself can never be won; the only true victory happens when you lay down your arms and befriend the enemy. And if you can make peace with yourself, you’ll find the whole world becomes a kinder, gentler place. 

For a secret weapon in the struggle against yourself, keep in mind Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, which began as a church sermon and became the litany of 12-step groups everywhere: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” 

Martha Beck is the author of, most recently, Diana, Herself: An Allegory of Awakening. 

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