Dance with an Inner Tyrant

 

I met Jungian analyst Marion Woodman on paper in the 1980’s, when I tucked her second book, Addiction to Perfection, under my arm and went off to visit a friend in Maine. It was summer. I was running on the treadmill we all know well. A single mother with three children, I worked as managing editor of an elegant fabric and fashion magazine, my life dedicated to keeping them healthy and happy as I fought against loneliness and depression. “Maybe this book has some psychological insight that will help me deal with my increasingly nasty dreams,” I thought. “For sure I’m a perfectionist, but what’s wrong with that!”

Little did I know the price I was paying. Reading Addiction to Perfection made for an incredibly painful vacation. Yes, there were walks every day through sweet-smelling pine woods, swims in a pristine lake and canoeing down a small river that reminded me of my two years on the Amazon—so quiet, so steeped in nature, interrupted only by the swish of the paddle and the sweet or raucous calling of a bird. But there, in the sudden freedom from all my duties and with Marion’s help, I began to understand that I was being victimized by an Inner Tyrant.

Too busy maintaining a decent life for my children, I’d never noticed that something had gone wrong in my inner life. In spite of the fact that I was doing my best to keep the family afloat, an inner accuser was on my case, telling me how inadequate I was. Nothing I did was acceptable. Critical inner voices harried me by day and morphed into threatening tyrants in my dreams. The good guys never had a chance face to face with the power of these absolute monarchs who were untouched by human feeling. As I read Addiction, I began to question my lifelong objective: to be the perfect daughter, the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the perfect journalist, the perfect seeker of Truth. Was my dedication to perfection the reason an inner tyrant was on my case day and night? Was it time to accept that nothing and no one could match the standards I’d set for myself, and that I could never please this inner judge? It seemed that no matter how hard I tried to succeed, I fell short of the implacable ideal that I myself had forged. In those two weeks I woke up to the fact that I had been in a depression ever since I left Peru five years before, returning to New York with a seriously compromised digestive system. Still fully functional, I maintained a demanding job that barely provided for us, worked till late, then rushed home to make dinner for wrangling adolescent kids. What a life, and what a dead-end emotional situation!

That was when I decided I had to enter the dance with my inner Tyrant. I began by asking him, “Who are you and why do you attack me so?” That first question began a twenty-year effort to relate to the darker sides of myself, through a series of dialogues, dances and paintings-from-the-unconscious that told me more about the Tyrant’s point of view, as well as that of other parts of myself—personas or complexes that lived a very real life inside me. As C.G. Jung said, “We have in all naiveté forgotten that beneath our world of reason another lies buried.” Helped by visits to an analyst as well as intensives and workshops from time to time with Marion Woodman, I gradually woke to the presence of an inner guide who helped me come to terms with my inner Perfectionist. I dubbed him my New Leader. You’ll want to know, did the Tyrant and his minions vanish forever? Absolutely not! He spent some months, even years, making clear what he thought of me, which was quite useful if I could avoid feeling under attack. But over time his tone of voice softened, often replaced by another authority I called The Lord of Discipline. Still bossy, but not hurtful. But you also might like to know whether anything changed for me once I dared to undertake this weird inner dance. The answer is a resounding Yes. The endless path to knowing myself better was never easy but always inspiring. Over time both dominant critics quieted their attack although they can still point out to me where I’ve fallen short. As for my inner guide, he found a central place in me. I call him the Lord of the Heart.

I heartily recommend this inner dance to anyone who feels hemmed in by his or her own opinionations and inner judgments stemming from the perfectionist attitude in which nothing is good enough. You may be helped by my second book, TAMING YOUR INNER TYRANT: A Path to Healing through Dialogues with Oneself. The gradual growth of an ability to see and relate to our inner complexes exposes them to a purifying light. How we’d like to destroy them but we can’t! However, we can bring them into our fold like a good farmer, or have them take their place in the orchestra like a good conductor. Once we begin to absorb the energy they’ve stolen from us, we can grow younger every day.

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