Second Guessing: The War Within

I have a tiny whisper that goes in and out with me,

And what can be the use of it is more than I can see.

(with apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson)

My tiny whisper goes in and out with me,  such a steady companion that I’m rarely conscious of hearing it. But I react to it, oh, yes! I react to it. What I wonder — before I tell you about it — is whether you sometimes go about accompanied by your own tiny whisper. This is what mine says to me:

How do I feel? How do I feel about this?

An innocuous little whisper, no? And then I dutifully stop, and ponder, before I go to the gym, or begin exercising, or even brush my teeth (full-scale version, with tiny pick and floss as well as paste and toothbrush): How do I feel? How do I feel about this? My tiny whisper is second-guessing me. Giving me another chance to decide something already decided..

And as often as not, my response to the whisperer is to take off the sneakers, to put down the brush and toothpaste. Later. I’ll do it later. I don’t feel so terrific, I don’t feel like doing this right now.

I’ve teased it out for you here, but mostly it goes automatically. The voice, the second guess, the response, mostly negative. Mostly working to reverse an action I’ve already decided on doing. That’s the killer, of course, that’s why I want to bring that tiny whisper’s existence into the spotlight. I, the conscious thinking I, has pulled myself together to do something I think is a good idea. But between the idea and the execution falls, not T.S. Eliot’s shadow, but my whisper.

Which actually is a shadow, of course, at least in the sense that Carl Jung, that great anti-Freud, posits that everyone has a shadow side. It’s our dark side, that’s turned away from our rational good sense and straightforward actions and best intentions. The dark side harbors ugly thoughts, ill-wishes and ill intentions, and hurries to sabotage both others and oneself.

Yetzer hara, yetzer hatov

Monoprint, Judith Bruder

Quite a long time before Carl Jung, Hebrew folklore posited two basic impulses that dwell within each person, the yetzer ha-ra and the yetzer ha-tov, the evil impulse and the good impulse. I’ve always pictured them as two tiny angels, one sitting on each of my shoulders. My better self, my worse self,  arguing back and forth: Do this, no, do that. The war within, a civil war, in effect. And which one wins is a toss-up, every time.

More frequently than I’m happy to admit, it’s the yetzer ha-ra that prevails. The cutting remark that didn’t need to be made. The generous word that was never spoken. The stint on the treadmill that didn’t happen this morning, the teeth quietly accumulating some more plaque — those purely physical phenomena are the tip of a much larger iceberg.

I once was given very sound words of wisdom by a spiritual advisor. “Follow your instincts,” he said. “You have good instincts, so follow them.” But it’s amazing how difficult it is to follow such a seemingly simple instruction! The tiny whisper, always there, below the level of my conscious attention, always second-guessing those good instincts, often subverting them.

It’s only in the past few months that I’ve really become aware how omnipresent this tiny whisper is. It’s only recently that I’m learning to recognize it,  to coax it or chase it into the light, and thereby learn to manage it, and regain the freedom to say yes or no with an undivided heart.

Always a late bloomer, I wonder if I’m the only one. Do any of you have your own tiny whisper? Your own second-guesser? If so, what imaginative shape does it take?  How do you fight your own war within?

And those for whom this is a non-issue, know how fortunate you are, and rejoice!

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This entry was posted in Angels, Challenge, Doubt, Failure, Freedom, Mindfulness, Personal Essay, Wisdom and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Second Guessing: The War Within

  1. Lucid Gypsy says:

    I used to have a very strong saboteur on my shoulder, but he rarely beats me these days!

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  2. Rebekah says:

    Oh boy, do I ever! At times, I’ve been very aware of it — it’s been on and off. I’ve reasoned with myself, when I’ve had episodes like the ones you describe, and I say to myself «Just DO it!» … like some Nike slogan. In fact, that often works. In the tooth brushing case, the good has taken over now, so it’s a non-issue. Now, the teeth are minor, there are other, bigger things. When I worry about things that haven’t even happened yet, and I tell myself just that. Doesn’t help — at least not in the middle of the night.

    Interesting subject…

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      I really hope this post gets specific comments like yours, because they’re so helpful for me!
      Yes, Just DO it may be trite but boy! it certainly expresses the attitude. For something like the tooth brushing — it works.
      As far as worry goes, sometimes I tell myself, Okay, no need to worry now. Tomorrow at x hour, you can have fifteen whole minutes to think about it, and worry all you like. Just not now. That can take you a long way — (but you have to put in the worry time that you promise, at least I do. And even that actually can be helpful).
      Oh, the mind games!

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      • Rebekah says:

        I’ll try that next night it happens.

        If this is my subconscious, speaking to me … then it’s really dark there.

        You mentioned ‘late bloomer’. Well, it took me forty five years to have certain “revelations”, those aha-moments … “strange that I’ve never thought of that before?!”

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        • Touch2Touch says:

          Better a late bloomer than a non-bloomer 😉
          Actually, I kind of hope the aha’s keep coming, even if I do feel a little dumb about being so old to have them!
          (BTW, in some people, it’s their CONSCIOUS that’s really dark, like Stephen King!)

          Liked by 1 person

  3. That little voice on your shoulder that stops you in your tracks, or sucks the energy out of you so swiftly and skillfully. My best tool? I say “Shut the $#@! up!” Seriously. that’s what I do. Took me almost six decades of living to decide to do that, though. So here’s to all the late bloomers out there!

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  4. My evil impulse is always one step ahead of my good impulse. Sad thing is, I never knew I was evil. (Or evil a lot of the time) lack of confidence + lack of tact = totally misunderstood. Not to use a overused cliche but I am a work in progress. At least now I’m aware. It’s a start.

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  5. xties says:

    Such a stimulating topic, Judith – especially for people who are powerfully connected to their feelings. On the other hand, some of us are more likely to think and judge, rather than ask themselves How do I feel about that?. For me, the trouble often comes in the middle of the night: my angels are debating angels, not whisperers; they convene endless night-time planning committees, task forces, think tanks … on and on and on … yada yada yada.
    I’d rather hear from the urging angels the Talmud refers to – the angels that bend over every blade of grass and whisper “Grow! Grow!”

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      As soon as I took in the sense of your comment, I was thinking Jung. The four personality types. Yes.
      Much as my tiny whisper is insidious and a Job’s comforter, the idea of debating angels is kind of daunting. Better you handle them than me!
      As far as those splendid bending angels who whisper to us to Grow, grow — well, we were always told there were different “orders” of angels, weren’t we? And these are at the top of my hierarchy!
      Thanks for reminding me of them, S, and thanks for your thoughtful comment.

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  6. Mabel Kwong says:

    I’ve always had this voice in my head that tells me, “Yes, you can do that later! You’ll go home, and after work you have time for yourself…” And somehow, I NEVER end up doing what I need to do, such as sweeping the floor or finish reading that book I’ve started. Then I beat myself up for it…

    But there’s a silver lining. For the longest time I’ve wanted to write articles and kept putting it off. My gut told me too. One day, I just decided to take the plunge and started writing – and never looked back. Starting is always the hardest part. Sometimes to start, you need to forget everything around you, shut out all thoughts and just do it 🙂

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      In my experience that’s exactly the way it is, Mabel — starting is the hard part, and the best way to do it is just as you describe, shut down the thoughts and Just Do It.
      (Of course I really need this embroidered on a sampler that I could hang on the wall in full view!) Thanks for visiting and commenting!

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      • Mabel Kwong says:

        I reckon sometimes we find it hard to start because we’re afraid of failing or making mistakes. Or worry about not getting it done on time. Then again, no one is perfect and getting things wrong is a part of life. We need to learn how to be sensible and accept this, and do what we have to do 🙂

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  7. Jen Payne says:

    My Tiny Whisper and I have had an ongoing dialogue for as long as I can remember. My Tiny Whisper is the bold yin to my cautious yang, the devil who makes the angel sing LOUDLY, the coaxer who takes me on grand adventures (literally and figuratively). And if any of that fails–when any of that fails–my Tiny Whisper feeds me donuts, allows me to nap instead of exercise, and lets me go to bed without brushing my teeth. I just adore her!

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  8. Madhu says:

    I do too!! It is the Yetzer ha-ra with me too Judith, and at this moment it seems to have the upper hand. Your post might be just the catalyst I needed to brush it off my shoulder and take control of my life 🙂

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  9. pauline says:

    Ah yes, the ongoing conversation between “I should” and “I don’t want to.” (Is and Id for short.) When Id wants the upper hand, I usually do one of two things – I do the Is bidding (say, brushing teeth) while letting the Id jabber on. Or, I listen to Id and tell Is to take a rest already, the world won’t end if I don’t brush my teeth this instant. We joke a lot, the three of us. i find humor, even with myself, is the best antidote to needless worry.

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Hmmm.
      If I think about two, I think often of a confrontation and a fight. Maybe a troika, as you describe, might be the best way to go! I’m going to think about this —- thank you, Pauline! 🙂

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  10. Patti Kuche says:

    Judith, I am going to reply with a literal translation starting with the teeth. Because of a long ago car accident I have bad teeth that have needed much work over the years but I didn’t realize how bad they were till I came to the US and dentists shook their heads . . . So much work later and feeling tired and worn out by it all I went for my regular clean. I could feel the ticking off coming from the ex Soviet hygienist, not flossing/rubber tipping enough etc but I was at the point where I had had enough and let her know that I was in no mood to be ticked off, not after all the recent surgery etc. I was there for her to clean my teeth and she could get on with her job but don’t even think of picking on me because I’m not going to put up with it – that Howard Beale moment of being as tired as hell and not going to take it anymore.
    Having said all that (!) I know the time and energy I waste with that shadow telling me to do this or do that is best quieted by . . . . doing it and getting it out of the way which is easier when it comes to flossing etc but so so hard when it comes to more creative ventures. A fascinating topic indeed and so interesting to hear the whispering conversations.

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Patti! Sister! You know what I mean about teeth!
      I have two implants, which cost enough for a second mortgage, and if I neglect them, I put them at risk. But sometimes, like you and Howard Beale — I’m (fill in the blank) as hell and not going to take it anymore.
      So happy you’ve chimed in and added yet another layer to the out-loud (and whispered) conversations.
      Creative ventures are a whole ‘nother topic. I REALLY don’t like to be nagged about them! (Even though my resistance goes way way up.)

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