Whenever I’m in a really bad place, I think about The Matrix. That’s right, the green-colored, philosophical action flick from 1999 starring Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss. If you haven’t seen it, there’s still a fair chance that you know what it’s about: an ordinary guy realizes that our entire reality is really a computer simulation run by malicious machines. It’s up to the guy, called Neo, and a band of similarly enlightened individuals, to bring the machines down and wake humanity from the eponymous digital illusion. Oh, and did I mention that Neo gains super powers? Apparently, being inside the Matrix while knowing that it’s a computer program allows you to bend its laws of physics and essentially become Superman.
Why then, is The Matrix my go-to therapeutic blockbuster? Why do I turn to a film with such a bleak premise when I’m in a bad place?
Well, I suppose I should explain my “bad place”. Basically, it’s when I become convinced that I suck, that my life is going terribly, and that I need to change a million things about myself. If I don’t improve, I’m not worthy of love. It’s not a single feeling that I can try to shake off. It’s all around me, like a choir of perpetually disapproving voices. Based on conversations with friends and therapists, I’d wager that this is a pretty common affliction, and it wouldn’t surprise me if you, the person reading this, know exactly what I’m talking about. For me, these periods of self-loathing can last between a couple of hours and several weeks, and everything in my life suffers as a result, from my sleep cycle to my work. And most of all, I’m scared. Because if I am indeed as worthless as I feel, well, what’s the point of existing?
Back to The Matrix. About two years ago, I felt this way almost all the time, not only intermittently. My bad place was commonplace. But then I realized that maybe, I was like Neo. Caught in a perfect illusion, fooled by an ingenious lie. For the first half hour of The Matrix, Neo (and the first-time viewer) is completely deceived by the simulation, never suspecting that everything he sees, hears, tastes, and feels could be false. And yet it is. Similarly, it had never occurred to me that my unbearable feeling of inadequacy could be an illusion. And yet, maybe it was? What if the Matrix was analogous to my bad place, and, just like Neo, I could break out? What if the world of self-loathing that I was stuck in, convincing as it may be, wasn’t real? What if I just had to reject the lies in my mind and wake up?
My bad place didn’t take kindly to this epiphany. It stepped up its game and spent several hours every day enumerating the hundreds of things that were wrong with me. Whenever I tried to object, it shut me down with the perfect counterargument. For example, if I tried to remind myself that, at least, I’m pretty good at designing things in PowerPoint (fun fact: I made my Avatar there!), it would scoff and remind me that I really should be using Adobe Illustrator. Only amateurs still use the Office suite. Initially unable to argue with the bad place, I would often give up the fight and continue to swallow its vitriol. But the revolutionary idea had been planted in my mind (kinda like Inception, but we’ll stick to one sci-fi analogy for now), and it slowly grew. Slowly, I opened up to the possibility that I was a perfectly all right guy, fooled into thinking he was all wrong.
And one day, I finally woke up. I realized that my life was, in fact, going totally fine. And I was fine. I didn’t need to change one bit. I was already worthy of love.
Now, if you’ve seen the movie, you know that the Matrix has Agents, computer programs that keep the simulation running smoothly and ensure that the humans stay convinced by it. Similarly, my bad place still has several tools at its disposal that help it reassume control over me. The most effective one by far is its ability to warp my reasoning. When it senses that I’m vulnerable, it strikes with frightening precision, turning every single one of my thoughts into more proof that I suck. Just yesterday, when I was nervously setting up the blog and uploading my avatar, the PowerPoint/Illustrator thing came up again and it made me doubt the entire idea. How could I hope to be a blogger if I couldn’t even be a proper graphic designer? Trust me, if I hadn’t remembered to use the Matrix method then and there, this very website wouldn’t exist!
So, the next time you’re overwhelmed by negative thoughts about yourself, and the world seems pitch-black and unforgiving, try to be Neo. Don’t try to think your way out of the problem, because your thoughts are, in all likelihood, being twisted by your inner demons. Try to have faith instead (this is one of the few times you’ll hear me advocate faith over reason). Trust that you’re a perfectly fine person stuck in an incredibly convincing illusion. I know it’s really hard to not buy into a lie when it engulfs you completely. But if you dare to believe it’s a lie, you will break free eventually.
And then you’ll be unstoppable.