I have been questioning myself a lot recently. I’ve taken a blog that used to be devoted to transcending politics and almost exclusively turn it into a platform to fight Trump’s authoritarianism. I’ve started a new Jewish site that’s upsetting a lot of people because it encourages a sort of unbridled honesty that many see as damaging. I’ve grown and shaped my personal Jewish identity in a way that has been confusing for a lot of people, especially those in the Hasidic community I’ve distanced myself from.
I blame my therapist.
I started seeing him about a year ago. I was still overcome with anxiety, still struggling to let go of my medication and the hold this crazy new affliction had on my life. I was taking so much Klonopin that I came to realize I was forgetting most of my days. It reminded me of when I smoked a lot of pot, a sort of cloudy haze had surrounded me.
So I went to this therapist around the time I was trying to quit the meds in a way that wouldn’t just return me to a pained existence of regular panic attacks and a feeling like my throat was getting squeezed by a snake.
He had a strong way of talking. I liked it. Almost all the therapists I’ve gone to are very soft, very kind. Very forgiving. He wasn’t like that at all: he said what was on his mind. And he gave me tools, things to actually he use. In a way, he reminded me more of a doctor than a therapist: he wasn’t my friend. He was there to diagnose me and give me what I needed to get out of the appointment with a treatment.
The first time I came in, he asked, “So what’s going on with you?”
I started talking about my anxiety and my life blogging, and the standup comedy I was starting. I was expecting to launch into a full hour of catching him up on my life. That’s how it usually goes with new therapists: you’ve got to catch them up on an entire life of insanity. That takes time.
Not with him.
He interrupted me ten minutes in.
“You know why most people have anxiety?”
I shook my head, confused at the outburst.
“It’s approval. Approval of others. At some point in their lives, some people just become desperately insecure about their need for approval.”
At this point I started to say something about how with my last therapist I had discovered that yes, I did desperately feel this need and it was probably because of my teachers –
“It doesn’t matter, though, how it starts,” he interrupted again, “What matters is what we do with it now. We have to unlearn all that stuff.”
He wrote down ten words that he asked me to repeat at least three times a day to myself. I haven’t missed a day since. Because every time I say them, I can feel them changing my life.
“It’s not necessary to get everybody’s approval all the time.”
Doesn’t really flow off the tongue. But every word matters. I don’t need everybody’s approval. And I especially don’t need it every second of the day, in every context, in every situation.
The effect of the words happened almost immediately. I didn’t quite realize how much my need for approval had so overcome me, so infected every moment of my life, until I started truly focusing on unlearning it.
I started it off in one of the places that had caused me the biggest consternation: the comment section of my blog.
“You know why it bothers you that they write such things? Because you want their approval. You keep writing stuff, and some part of you hopes that somehow everyone will like it. But you keep writing things based on your inner beliefs, not to make everyone happy. So they keep criticizing you. And you keep thinking something is going to change. It won’t.”
The words of my therapist pounded in my brain as I published about all the changes I was going through at the time. And about the “eruv controversy” that had overtaken my Hasidic community that I had just left. And about this celebrity turned president I had decided to speak out against because I was thinking he had a serious chance of winning.
Angry comments started rolling in. I would want to delete them, block them, write something in anger and then delete it two seconds later. Stew on them, pretending to ignore them.
“It’s not necessary to get everybody’s approval all the time.”
The words would enter me as I said them to myself and the inner need I had to somehow fix the world that had created a disapproving audience started to wash away. There was someone out there I had no connection with, and their thoughts concerned me so? Thought logically, it made no sense. No sense.
It’s not necessary to get everybody’s approval all the time.
Seeing how well the phrase worked, I started saying it at random times. At times when I was feeling anxious, or just at night when I had realized I had forgotten to say it that day. And soon, the words started to affect me outside of the comment section. They started to affect my writing. My work. And my life.
But it was the election of President Agent Orange that truly forced me to face those words in a way I had not expected to.
Like most people on both sides of the fence, I was desperately waiting for November 2016 to arrive so I could put all this election business behind me. To just let it leave, disappear, and go back to my non-political life, my focused on a higher calling, on my soul and on creativity and uniting others.
“Just wait for it to be over,” I kept telling myself.
But then he won. And it hit me that for at least four years, it would not be over. The man who I said we have a responsibility to compare to Hitler was now president.
And I was faced with a choice: do I keep speaking out, do I speak out more? Or do I let it go? Do I focus back on that unity trip? On the non-political side of me? It’s what past-me would have done. It’s what would have been smart, too, if we’re talking “good for a pro-Israel blogger” and “dude with lots of pro-Trump friends and acquaintances.” I had never received so much hate and vitriol as my posts attacking Trump, and I knew that doubling down on the fight would leave me feeling even more alone than I ever did when I stepped back from my community.
But for the first time, the words I had voluntarily said to myself involuntarily appeared in my mind, unbidden: “It’s not necessary to get everybody’s approval all the time.”
And so, I committed: I would write about Trump. I would speak out, and I would speak out in strength, and all the righteous anger I was feeling coursing through my veins. I would go to marches, I would publish my thoughts on those marches, and all the commenters could go to hell.
And that’s what I did. And for the first time in my life, I truly embraced a choice that had absolutely nothing to do with my thoughts of others’ perceptions of me.
In other words, the weirdest thing happened: by becoming unapologetically political, I had accessed a part of my soul I never could have before. Fighting for what I believed in – in a way that was not uniting, that was uninspiring, that maybe wasn’t as artsy as I was used to being – was the most deeply introspective act of my life. It was a decision not based on my definition of myself, but rather based on an inner conviction that transcended identity.
Today, as I struggled with my inner confusion about my writing about Trump, the new site I had launched, my Jewish identity, I realized something. The struggles, the questions I was having, weren’t coming from questions of approval of others: Was I really doing it all right? Was there a way I could improve? What could I learn from the turmoil a lot of these choices have created?
They were about my own inner morality. They were deeper, more honest struggles than I may have had a year ago.
Because it’s not necessary to get everybody’s approval all the time.
And at times like this, it seems like knowing this truth is one of the most important gifts anyone could ever receive.
Thank you, therapist.