I struggled heavy with depression throughout most of my teenage and young-adult life. Actually, I didn’t really even start to get my foot on its throat until the beginning of 2017 (just barely 30 years old), only a few months after I escaped a year-long intense battle with suicidal thoughts.
One of the things that has really helped me over the years, and even more so these days since I have a healthier perspective of myself than I did back then, is using symbolism to represent and remind me of personal truths.
It doesn’t really matter what the symbols are, as long as when you look at them they communicate a quick and clear reminder of a truth solid enough to pull your focus back to reality.
I have a Sacramento Kings hat that everybody hates, because I’m in Golden State Warrior’s country. Whenever a new person sees me wearing it they give a disappointed, “Kings, huh? Why?” And they give me an even greater look of shock when I say, “I like the logo, I’m not even a fan of basketball.”
That probably comes off as blasphemy, but it’s something that helps me stay grounded in who I am. Unfortunately, the conversation never gets that far, because all they see is me wearing a rival team! Ah well.
Totems For Finding Reality
In the movie Inception, the premise is that go into the dream world to inject ideas into a person’s subconscious, so that when the person wakes up they have this seed of an idea that they think is theirs, and they will execute on it. However, it’s revealed that the longer they stay in the dream world and the deeper they go the more they risk losing their ability to distinguish between what’s real and what’s a dream.
To combat this issue, the protagonist, Cobb, comes up with the Totem. The Totem is an item special to each character, each with its own characteristics that they use when things get too intense and confusing, to help them figure out if they in the dream or not. Cobb has a spinning top. If he spins it and it falls, he’s in reality. If he spins it and it continues spinning, he knows he’s in the dream.
This appropriation of symbols works under the same idea as the Totem.
My most helpful totem is the image of a crown. I have others, but when thoughts and feelings of insignificance and worthlessness come creeping in, the thing that keeps me grounded in reality the most is remembering, “I’m not worthless, I’m not insignificant, I’m a king.”
It helps me remember what my role is. I’m not in a “king” in the sense of entitlement and I deserve honor and riches, but a king in the sense that I always want to make sure I’m serving my people and helping the “kingdom” (world) as a whole do better.
Rather than having to write that down everywhere and read it if I get bombarded out of nowhere, it’s easier to sum it all up in a symbol. Then all it takes is one glance at the image and it speaks all of the truth I need to hear. (A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say).
It doesn’t always make the intense thoughts and feelings disappear, but it pulls me out of that sense of drowning and insanity by reminding me that not everything I’m thinking and feeling is the true reality. And when my surroundings are getting so crazy that I can’t tell what’s what, I run to my “totem,” and it helps me get my bearings straight.
Guidelines for Picking a Powerful Totem
Just like the totems in Inception, however, mine doesn’t have to be yours. In fact, the more personal yours is, and the more specific and meaningful it is to you, the better.
The most important word of advice I can give on that is it needs to be something that isn’t based on emotions or other people. For example, I don’t want my Totem to be an ex-girlfriend or even some trinket from a current one (a totem based on the emotion of love). Why? Because feelings and people are generally unreliable, as far as being trusted as the overlords of our internal well-being.
Let’s say my totem is a hair-tie from a girlfriend, and every time I feel unloved, I look at that hair-tie and it reminds me that “Hey, regardless of what I’m feeling, I know I’m loved because this girl loves me!”
That’s good. Now what happens if we have a bad break up? That Totem immediately goes from being a secure foundation to keep me grounded in positive thinking and becomes a meteor that destroys my entire house with negativity and insecurity. Every time I see that hair-tie from then on I know I risk giving room to think that maybe I’m not really lovable or worth anything, because if I was why didn’t it work out? Why did she stop wanting me?
A crown is absolutely true about me, regardless of what’s going on internally or externally. I believe it about myself: my deepest desire is to lead my people and serve them, as a king who loves his people would. Sometimes the goings-on of the world bury the awareness of it under stress, mistreatment, worry, etc., and I become so wrapped up in my fears and needs that I withdraw from my people, and start to look at them with disdain, so I need something around that will act like Mufasa coming out of the clouds in The Lion King, a authoritative voice that says, “Son, remember who you are!”
The same is true for feelings. Feelings in and of themselves aren’t bad, but they can be very unpredictable and deceptive if we allow our internal truth to be dictated by them. That makes them unreliable for building sustainable structures on.
I don’t want to build the foundation of my identity on how I feel, or on the approval of another person, because I’m not guaranteed to feel that way tomorrow, and that person isn’t guaranteed to still approve of me in the morning.
A totem must be something you can be convinced is true in spite of what thoughts, feelings, and other people might be SCREAMING. It’s a constant, an absolute, a solid piece of ground that crumbles for no one and apologizes to nobody. That’s why it holds so much power, because nothing and nobody can ever change it, not even you. All anyone can do is become blind to it, and in that blindness try to downplay its strength.
If depression sneaks in and lays me out, I can still believe I’m a king, even if I don’t feel like one, even if I’m failing to act like one. If a person I was hoping would approve of me doesn’t? I can still say, despite the knot I might be feeling in my chest over rejection, and the voices growing in volume at the entrance to my ears, “See, you are worthless! You are unlovable. It would be better and easier if you just died.”
And I look at my crown and say, “No. It doesn’t matter if I’m rejected. It doesn’t matter how this thing or person made me feel. I’m still a king, and my purpose is to serve people, even if it’s thankless, even if I get abused in the process by the people I’m trying to help. I’ll keep going, because truth doesn’t change.”
It’s not a psudeo-affirmations to make myself feel better about being rejected. “Whatever! Their loss!” Stop that stuff. You’re just covering the fact that you’re still being controlled by rejection. You’re trying to make yourself feel better by hardening up, and allowing the person or circumstance to dictate your response, instead of finding strength in the ground you stand on that none of them can touch.
Don’t be afraid to admit something is getting to you, or a person has made you feel bad. People are so afraid to come to terms with that because they don’t want any weaknesses exposed. The consequence is they remain weak and can only put up a front of what they think strength is, but it’s strength that will inevitably fail them.
Admit it so you can shoot that thing and move on. Don’t feel bad about seeing something you’re struggling with internally, get excited that there’s light shining on it. It’s not exposing it to make you feel bad, it’s exposing it so you can go, “Ah! I see it now. Let’s get rid of that thing!”
Exposure of our weaknesses is the first step to turning them into strengths.
“Whatever! Their loss, I’m a king!” No, it’s not like that. It’s a conviction I have about myself apart from them. So you sincerely wish them well and move on, confident that nothing about who you are has changed, even if they’ve failed to notice it, and more importantly they don’t have the power to take any of it away.
You are in control, and the only way they get power over you is if you give it to them.
Exposure, oftentimes, is just a revealing of where we’ve given people power that doesn’t belong to them. So don’t ever let it shame you, let it boost you forward in excitement that you just found another area to grow.
I’m not back-handedly making them out to be worthless so I can feel worth at their expense. I’m digging my feet into the truth that my worth was never dependent on them in them first place.
Your worth, regardless of what you’ve been through, regardless of the pressures people have put on you to live a certain way, get a certain job, go to a certain school, make a certain amount of money… none of that stuff has anything to do with who you are in the reality of absolute truth.