There are many kinds of prison, but none more tormenting than the mental prisons we put ourselves in. Mental prisons that feel as real as those made of bricks and bars. That feel equally difficult to break out of such that you become a prisoner of your own mind.
Your mind can hold you hostage unknown to you. It can keep you locked in a place of doubt and fear even when there is nothing pressuring you from the outside. The locks to our mental prisons are the beliefs that we hold about ourselves and the world. Beliefs about what we are allowed to do and even about what we are allowed to feel. Beliefs that ultimately we have choice over.
While there are many types of mental prison, the Alcatraz of them all is the one that we put ourselves in to serve the sentence of not being ‘good enough’. Where freedom depends on you ‘becoming somebody’. On you achieving that thing (career, mansion, accolade, whatever) that you believe will prove your worth.
So, you cling to various ideas of ‘good’ that you patch together from the arbitrary and confused messages you hear from the day you are born. A flimsy patchwork of status-dependent worthiness that you desperately try to stitch together from what popular culture feeds you.
Prisoner of your own mind
Alcatraz is not a good place to lock yourself up in. It separates you from the very essence of your being. It challenges the worthiness of who you are, when your worth is self-evident by your very existence. You no more have to prove your worth to anybody than a tree or a dolphin has to prove its worth.
The very idea of self-unworthiness — never being ‘good enough’ — is a place of deep entrapment and that is why I liken it to Alcatraz. But, this personal prison is rarely recognised. And, even those who do recognise it, choose to forget it and continue with business as usual.
But, if you are willing, the key to freedom is within reach, if only you dare to use it. You hold the key because you have locked yourself up. The first step to breaking free is then acknowledging the truth of your situation. How, just by being human, we can all be captives of our own fears. And, it really is fear that lies at the root of this.
Let’s talk about fear
Our evolutionary instincts have made fear a fundamental survival response in the face of danger. But, the same fear that allows us to avoid physical threats like sabre tooth tigers and snakes, also has a deep social aspect to it. Humans are social animals and being banished from the tribe would most certainly have been fatal for an individual in an ancestral environment. So, we have evolved instincts to worry about what people think of us.
The problem is that worry and fear can attach to anything in a noisy world of confusion. We are a complex brew of both evolved pre-dispositions AND learnt behaviours. So, particular fears too can become learnt behaviour — conditioned responses built on our instincts that can make us fear what isn’t really going to harm us.
So, fear can attach itself to all manner of things that are not in the same class of dangers as avoiding a poisonous snake. For example, you might fear being considered a ‘failure’ based on the arbitrary yardstick of your socio-economic peer group.
And, here’s the thing. That fear can feel every bit as real as fleeing a poisonous snake. Indeed, we know shame (fear) can drive people to suicide. At the same time, human beings have the capacity to defy fear even in the face of extreme danger — just think of free climbers or fire fighters.
Fear is well and truly a tricky customer. That is why you must deeply investigate your own mind if you are to break free.
Using the key
If the first step is noticing the fear, the second step is really investigating its true nature. Investigating your thoughts and feelings and your internal experience. What is it exactly that you are afraid of? What/whom do you fear? Is your fear in the same class of things as running away from a wild elephant that is charging you? Or, is it based on arbitrary societal narratives that you have been fed?
Have you made yourself a prisoner of your own mind, when there really is nothing to fear?
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.