A Second (Bad) Self

“There is a second self inside you, an inner, shadow Self. This self doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t love you. It has its own agenda, and it will kill you. It will kill you like cancer. It will kill you to achieve its agenda, which is to prevent you from actualizing your Self, from becoming who you really are. This shadow self is called, in the Kabbalistic lexicon, the ‘yetzer hara.’ The yetzer hara, Steve, is what you would call Resistance.”

Rabbi Mordecai Finley, in conversation, July 4, 2010

Rabbi Finley

Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah congregation in Los Angeles (one of the few rabbis who was a U.S. Marine) is a mentor and friend to me. When I was working on Turning Pro I invited him to breakfast and turned on the tape recorder. The quote above is one of the things that popped out. I came upon it again recently and it struck me with even greater power than it did the first time.

My own conception of Resistance has always been (probably mistakenly) that this force of self-sabotage is “out there” somewhere. I experience it as radiating off the blank page or invading my brain from some other, extra-dimensional location.

Rabbi Finley sees it the other way.

He sees it as a “second self” that lives inside us.

Somehow, to me, that makes it even scarier.

It’s like a sci-fi movie. Like the first Alien.

The first thing I say to myself when I think of Resistance this way (and I do think Rabbi Finley is right) is, Why would our Creator pull such a trick on us?

(Or, if you prefer, Why would Nature/Evolution have evolved us this way?)

Whatever our answer (and I’ve got one for myself), the subjective reality of a “second self” seems undeniable.

This second self seduces us with distractions and excuses. It terrorizes us with visions of our own defeat and humiliation. It whispers to us in the night (and in broad daylight), convincing us that we are without worth, talent, dignity, resolve, courage.

It runs us down.

It sells us short.

It sabotages our best efforts.

It will kill us, as Rabbi Finley says, if we let it.

I declare on the Home Page of this site

Trust me: you will NEVER, NEVER achieve your dreams until you learn to recognize, confront and overcome that voice in your head that is your own Resistance.

The key word here is recognize.

Paradoxically (and aligning perfectly with Rabbi Finley’s statement above) as soon as we recognize this “second self,” fully acknowledge its existence, and grasp the fact that its intentions toward us are diabolically negative, we have found the strategy and the weapon that will help us overcome it.

Awareness first.

Respect for this foe second.

Then: determination and resolution to overcome it.

Our first self is our real self. It is in a battle to the death with our second self.

Which will win?

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

The-Authentic-Swing

NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

Turning-Pro

37 Comments

  1. Susan Setteducato on November 20, 2019 at 8:07 am

    Awareness, respect, determination. Words to live by. Thank you, Steven.

    • VS Radeljich on November 21, 2019 at 1:13 am

      Have you heard a story about An Elephant and A Rider?

      No?

      Picture this:

      Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime 6-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree which way to go; the Rider is going to lose, he is entirely overmatched.

      This paragraph is taken from the Switch: How to change things when change is hard, by Chip and Dan Heath.
      Psychologist Jonathan Haidt developed the original concept. These are also good sources to study because there is a way to understand this inner battle and whats more to win it.

      Steven’s books on the topic (re-listening for n-th time Do The Work. Thank you, Steven) help to realize:

      a. Everybody goes through this
      b. There is a way to win this inner war
      c. It is never over
      d. Young people should be taught on the subject

      I win in the end.

  2. Mary Doyle on November 20, 2019 at 8:18 am

    Thanks so much for this, Steve. It reminds me of something financial guru Dave Ramsey has often said, referring to when he was both overweight and broke: “If I can control the guy in the mirror, I can be thin and rich.” By extension, if I can control my second (bad) self, I can get my work done. Words to live by!

  3. Rebcca on November 20, 2019 at 8:22 am

    “Whatever our answer (and I’ve got one for myself), the subjective reality of a “second self” seems undeniable.”

    What is your answer? (I have one, too.)

  4. Barbara L. Newton-Holmes on November 20, 2019 at 8:28 am

    Breathtaking!! Awesome! How lucky we are to get these posts!!
    Plus— ordered your 36 Righteous Men and read it in 2 days. Fabulous! Thank you!!

  5. Francesca Peppiatt on November 20, 2019 at 8:39 am

    Oh, my! I read your posts all the time and always get so much from them, so many thanks for that. This one seemed to send a flaming arrow straight through me to open something that has been locked away for more years than I care to admit. Thank you, seems a paltry phrase for such an epiphany.

  6. Brian Nelson on November 20, 2019 at 8:45 am

    Steve,
    I was listening to the Jocko Willink podcast a year or two ago, when he first started. One of the questions he answered was, “What does it take to be mentally tough?”

    Jocko answered, “It is a decision.”

    My immediate thought was, “Ok Jocko, I agree–however, there are days I have to make that decision 1000 times an hour. I am in a knife fight with myself.

    I like your prescription–and I think where I continue to stumble at times is step 2: Respect this foe.

    When I come out of a rut, and life returns to normal–I forget about my inner nihilist.

    The Yetzer Hara makes much more sense to me. Respect this foe.
    bsn

  7. Jazz on November 20, 2019 at 8:49 am

    I swear, these always come to my inbox on the days when I need them. Thanks SP!

  8. Doug on November 20, 2019 at 8:55 am

    Thank Steven!

    The 2nd, shadowy self Is real.

    I see my life (and these of many friends) destroyed by it.

    And as Steve says, ‘The battle must be fought anew every day.’

  9. Naomi Schlinke on November 20, 2019 at 9:12 am

    I would add that the second self may have some dark powers that you can put into your work. 🙂

  10. Travis C on November 20, 2019 at 9:41 am

    Reminds me of a tale attributed to the Cherokee people: Inside a [man] are two wolves battling. One wolf is evil, anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, arrogance, greed, regret, lies, guilt, shame, false pride, self-pity, and ego. The other is good, joy, peace, love, hope, compassion, faith, [creativity?], and empathy. Which wolf wins? The one you feed. The sooner we recognize there are two wolves, the faster we’ll start starving one and feeding the other. Thanks Steve!

    • LISA on November 20, 2019 at 11:20 am

      To Travis C.

      Thanks, I’m writing that one down. Feed the good one!

    • Travis Fields on November 20, 2019 at 12:19 pm

      I like the tale of the two wolves — one of my favorite artists is George Strombo who makes a point of suggesting his fans “Feed the Good Wolf” before playing his Sunday night radio shows.

      But I don’t think Ego, Anger, or Sadness are bad things.

      I think a lot of us believe they are because we’re taught that anger is the extreme, uncontrollable anger of a Norse berserker, who they say could not differentiate from friend or foe in the throes of their madness.

      But in the real world, anger is given to you by God/Mother Nature as the Fight in the Fight-or-Flight response.
      There are situations when we need to stand up for ourselves, or others, and anger helps with that.

      And should no one ever be sad? It’s only human to miss people when they’re gone, especially when they’re gone too soon. Or to empathize with someone else’s suffering.

      Finally, Ego is formed (so they say) when we realize we’re separate from our Mother.
      We need an Ego to make our way in life. The trick is keeping it from growing too big, or too small.
      Too big, and one has too little concern for others. Too small, and we sell ourselves short.

    • Susanne Dejanovich on November 22, 2019 at 10:07 pm

      So eloquent. So very true. Seems I love both of them. Not a good de al for me. Thank you.

  11. bill on November 20, 2019 at 9:44 am

    Say it ain’t so, this sounds hard but I know it is true. Have been aware but have not been able to wrestle this foe successfully.

  12. Marina Goritskaia on November 20, 2019 at 9:53 am

    When you place the negative force within and the positive without, you become hyper-responsible.
    If the opposite, you victimize yourself.
    Since the good inclination is subjective and is found in the outside world only as a manifestation, the same has to be true for the bad one.
    Hope this makes sense.

    • Elise Allan on November 20, 2019 at 10:32 am

      Thanks, Marina, that makes a lot of sense! Seems to distill a huge amount of what I’ve experienced and observed.

    • Brian Nelson on November 20, 2019 at 11:00 am

      Marina,
      Would you mind elaborating? I feel like I”m on the cusp of understanding what you mean–and I think it is important. Reminds me of Jung’s ‘incorporating the shadow’.
      bsn

  13. Peter Brockwell on November 20, 2019 at 9:56 am

    “Even scarier” Absolutely!! And surely in the service of preventing growth and creativity, doesn’t this second self drag every other aspect of yourself down? Small-mindedness, egotism, dismissiveness, regret, moodiness…etc etc. Or perhaps that’s only me.

    It seems imperative too to understand that that ugly voice of Resistance isn’t ‘me’. I’m reminded of Jill Bolte-Taylor who says in her book ‘A Stroke of Insight’ that the insistent toxic voice of the left-brain comes from a small clump of neurons, and she reminds us that that voice “isn’t you”. It’s something other than you.

    Without Steve exposing this enemy to daylight, would I have ever become aware of it? Categorically no! I’m so grateful to Steve. Even though I still regularly fail to beat that swine (Resistance, not Steve), at least I’m aware that I’m in a daily battle for my very soul.

  14. John C Thomson on November 20, 2019 at 10:39 am

    An elderly friend of min, now deceased was once asked how she could attend a Transcendental Meditation Group and be a Christian. Her response was I am old enough and wise enough to have learned to “pick the meat and leave the bone” to him in particular she also said, I wouldn’t advise you try it. She recognized his closed mindedness. All that to say (and I am 75 with a whole lot of life beneath the hood) there is a lot of meat here to pick. I also recognize a higher power because after almost 20 years in prison a prison school teacher told me God could change my life, and He did, but the war of the wills continues on. The difference is that now I know I have a choice on which one to feed. Oh, and I married the prison school teacher almost 40 years ago and together we remain.

  15. Suzanne on November 20, 2019 at 11:01 am

    As a psychotherapist and writer, I’m completely on board with the identification with the concept of resistance. I notice it within myself and within my clients and it doesn’t show up only in creativity. It’s a relational concept. Resistance from within is about our relationship with self; and resistance to and from external circumstances is often a reflection of our relationships with our earliest caregivers, which have become internalized.

    I am wary of identifying inner resistance as a second self to be “battled to the death” in that we dis-identify from it and try to harm it some way or distance ourselves from it. In making it a “second self” which must be killed, we’re essentially fragmenting within.

    In my personal view, I think the opposite needs to happen — we need to empathize with that part of ourselves, heal that part of ourselves, and integrate the wounds that caused it to be borne in the first place. How did we get so far from our original soul selves by living as humans, that our egos are now trying to keep us even farther apart and starting wars within?

    Wars don’t end because of death. Wars will only end when people come together in love and compassion. Fragmented aspects of ourselves will only come together in integration and peace when all parts of ourselves — the “good, successful” ones and the “bad, resistant” ones — are accepted and seen, and not judged.

    Be curious about the resistance. Be empathetic about the pain that caused it to arise. Be the pain’s best friend. Seek to understand it. And bring it closer. Battling it, suppressing it, numbing it, killing it…. will only make it stronger, and you will be separating yourself from yourself.

    Resistance usually arises in early childhood when we’re creating our own internalized belief systems based on how we’re nurtured. Were caregivers encouraging? Safe? Able to be patient and teach patience? Did they allow creativity? Were they naturally curious and allow us to be naturally curious? Did they allow us to freely make mistake? Did they focus on enjoyment of the process, not the outcome or the achievement?

    If we didn’t have caregivers like this, we formed limiting belief systems, which we carry forward until we change them. It’s the limiting beliefs that we label as resistance.

    Limiting beliefs often appear as an “either/or” proposition. You’re either creative or you’re in resistance. But what if it’s a “both/and” proposition? You’re being creative and resistance is there too. I think they’re both sides of the same coin — you can’t have one without the other. You’re a soul, but you’re also a human. The soul is always confident and the human is often fearful. You can’t separate them (until the human actually dies). The goal is to bring them closer together so the lines of communication are clearer.

    • Susan on November 21, 2019 at 9:08 am

      A difference between men and women.

    • Laura on November 22, 2019 at 6:20 am

      This is my experience, as well. I see the work as relational, and the voice as arising from this conversation. Nice to hear your view, Suzanne!

      Laura

  16. Travis Fields on November 20, 2019 at 11:32 am

    The great screenwriter Dale Launer once described his take on what you call Resistance to me.

    It went something like this:

    Hopefully, you’re still in touch with your “inner child” who wants to play and have fun.
    That aspect of you is enthusiastic, passionate, and *enjoys* being creative!
    It likes to create regardless of outcome or consequence.

    Your “inner parent” is more strict and critical: it tells you to follow the rules and do things correctly.
    This aspect of you is concerned about having the right outcome and the right consequences.

    Of course, we need both aspects of ourselves to be strong in order to create good art.

    Without our inner critic to discern the difference between good work and not-so-good work, we could be deluded into thinking our worst work is equivalent to a great artist’s best work. Or our own best work.

    But when the voice of the inner parent/critic is too strong, it becomes more difficult to be creative.
    It’ll tell you that your work isn’t good enough. Not good enough artistically. Not good enough commercially.
    It may even tell you that *you* aren’t good enough — then you can’t create anything at all.

    If that happens, you need to tell your inner parent/critic to STFU and go away and let you play!
    Because for an artist, our play *is* our work!

    Ideally the act of creating should be a joyous one, not a laborious one.
    To put it another way, you’re not having fun writing, you’re probably not doing very much of it.

    I nearly didn’t post this last thing Dale said, because I don’t want to put any bad ideas in anyone’s head, but it’s the truth. You might find having a glass of wine or taking a puff on a joint helps shut up that inner critic.

    He’s right. It can help. It used to help me. There were a few years when I did my best writing in the evenings with a few glasses of wine. Not only was it more stylish than my morning writing, but I wrote faster and said what I wanted to say in fewer words — just because my mood was boosted. A good mood does wonders for creativity.

    But there was a time when I felt like I “needed” to have my wine in the evenings. It was so helpful in quickly killing the nervous tension that had built up from a long day at work, and I could get into my creative writing groove faster.

    But no one really “needs” to drink or smoke to be creative — none of us needed it when we were kids.
    When I’ve worked with creative people at a job I enjoyed, I didn’t “need” anything to be creative on the job.

    So drinking or smoking is really just a shortcut to a good mood. It’s kind of cheating.
    And it can be a slippery slope to an unhealthy dependence on a substance you don’t even need.

    I don’t smoke myself, but a number of writers I know claim Blue Dream and other Sativa strains helps their creativity. However, I’ve noted most of the artists I know who regularly indulge in it tend to be more self-absorbed, flaky, and more likely to struggle to maintain long-term relationships with their significant others than those who abstain.

    So…have a drink or a smoke if you feel it helps, but be sure you’re conscious about it.

    • Travis Fields on November 20, 2019 at 11:36 am

      (Writer Pet Peeve: that post looked better on my computer. One of these days I’m going to either figure out why the “line breaks” look differently after something I’ve written posts — it must have to do with hitting the return key — or I’m going to stop posting on any site other than my own).

  17. Lyn Blair on November 20, 2019 at 12:02 pm

    You sure hit pay dirt with this post! There are many names for this shadow self, whether Resistance, yetzer hara or the carnal mind, as it’s called in the New Testament. The “inner critic” is another good description.

    When we go back to Genesis where the snake introduced the first lie, the lie was believed and the shadow self was “born.” Hence the downfall of Adam and the beginning of duality. Two selves, instead of the one real self. As you said, the shadow self and the real self are locked in battle; one is a lie and the other is the truth. The real self was/is the likeness of Source, which is infinitely good.

    In our human condition our saving grace is that we have free will. We can choose. Choosing occurs moment by moment. Travis pointed out the good and evil wolves in the Cherokee legend, and asked, “Which wolf will you feed?” Resistance only has power when you feed it. Indeed we have to recognize Resistance as unreal. It’s the shadow. Buddhists approach this dilemma with the world by seeking non-attachment, which they describe as freedom from lust, cravings and desires. The challenge is learning how to discern and weed out the lies. I don’t think we need to respect a lie. Inherently, it’s just that — a lie, not real. We need to expose a lie and fully see it, at which point it fades away. Truth remains because it’s real and forever constant. A shadow (when believed) occludes the truth, but truth is always there. Shadows are illusory. The deeply you understanding the truth, the more obvious the lies become.

  18. Travis Fields on November 20, 2019 at 12:07 pm

    Perhaps another way to view the dichotomy and tension between the Inner Parent/Inner Critic and the Inner Kid/Inner Creative theory would be to look at it as the tension between SuperEgo and Id. Or Logic vs. Emotion.

    Ideally, we want to integrate all of that stuff.

    Because you need all of it if you’re going to make people care.

    About 10 years ago, I read a script by an American guy who was a technically perfect writer, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about anything he’d written about, because I didn’t feel any fundamental passion or talent.

    I really didn’t know what to say to help the guy, and I felt bad about it, because he’d been a friend to me, and he was completely convinced he was on the right track. He had at least 10 other scripts, each of which, I suspected, suffered from the same problems. I asked a mutual writer friend (who was and probably still is a better writer than I am) what he thought of the script, and he corroborated my opinion, only much more harshly.

    That writer knew all of “the rules” of spelling and grammar and screenwriting — but it didn’t matter.
    I instinctively felt like he needed a professional psychiatrist, but how could I possibly say that to him?

    On the other hand, I once read a script by an Irish (?) guy that was chock-full of spelling and grammatical errors, but it was so passionate and evocative that I tried hard to be very encouraging because he had such a strong voice. I remember the script was called “The Collectors” or something like that. I believe his name was Liam Mulvey.

    I wasn’t sure if it was possible for him to ever get his basic writing skills up to a professional level, but I hope he did.
    I couldn’t help but admire that guy, for putting his wart-filled work out there into the world for criticism, despite the fact that any high school English teacher would have given him a “C” at best because of all of its errors.

    On some level, knowing “the rules” is important. That guy’s never going to get work as a television writer.
    Or any other kind of writer, unless he gets his basic skill level up, or hires a proofreader and an editor.
    But he had heart and courage and he had a real ear for dialog. At least I felt that way.

    I’d much rather read a better-written version of his script again than one lacking feeling.

  19. Pauline Brin on November 20, 2019 at 2:27 pm

    Great read. I often feel like you are the General who comes to the trenches to tell us how we are going to get out alive. There’s an old EST saying: The only way out is through. Through awareness, respect, determination and resolution. Thank you, Steven Pressfield.

  20. Elaine Dodge on November 21, 2019 at 5:37 am

    “Why would our Creator pull such a trick on us?” He doesn’t. The Creator wants you to succeed, to become the person you were created to be far more than you do. The resistance you’re talking about comes from the Creator’s greatest enemy, the one who is out to destroy anything and anyone he can. And if you don’t have a tight relationship with the Creator, you may find it easy to be persuaded by this enemy to give up.

  21. Jay Arthur on November 21, 2019 at 9:20 am

    In Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) we assume that every part of us has a positive intention. From this point of view, the shadow self may want to protect us from criticism or harm.
    If we give it a voice and ask it what it’s positive intention might be, it might be something like “I want to keep you safe.”
    If you respond, “Thank you. If you were able to keep me as safe as possible, what would that do for me that’s even more important?” it might respond, “To enable you to accomplish your mission.”
    (So it’s trying to help me accomplish my mission? Really? Who knew?)
    Then you can ask: “If I was able to fully and completely accomplish my mission, how would that keep me safer than you can possible imagine?”
    When this part realizes that accomplishing the mission keeps you safe, you get a lot less resistance.
    There’s always a higher level purpose, but it’s going at it the wrong way.
    Turn resistance into an ally.

  22. BING on November 21, 2019 at 10:01 am

    John 10:10 “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill and to destroy.
    I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.
    KJV

  23. Carol Holland March on November 21, 2019 at 11:24 am

    Thanks for this. Steve. Interesting that Judaism has a name for it too. Very like the “negative animaus” of the Jungians, the “predator” of the shamanic tradition, and the “sinful sel” mentioned in the Seth Material. Also the “archons” of the ancient gnostics. To notice it and realize the negative messages are not from me, but from the negative seff, seems the work of all of us who aspire to higher awareness and to live a creative life. Although I don’t personally resonate to the “battle with my enemies” metaphr, it certainly has worked for you. You are a light int the darkness.

    CM

  24. Sandra on November 21, 2019 at 6:00 pm

    “There is a second self inside you, an inner, shadow Self. This self doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t love you. It has its own agenda, and it will kill you. It will kill you like cancer.”
    The Rabbi understood what ails mankind.
    “Trust me: you will NEVER, NEVER achieve your dreams until you learn to recognize, confront and overcome that voice in your head that is your own Resistance.”
    The Author provided me with a strategy to overcome…to win.
    Thank you, Mr. Pressfield.

  25. Aaron H. on November 22, 2019 at 11:53 am

    Semper fi Rabbi Finley!

    The inner battles are the most difficult ones we face. These posts are the armament we require to do battle.

    I wonder if it is a coincidence, the striking similarity between Ohr HaTorah and the battle cry of the U.S. Marines: Oorah!

  26. Jule Kucera on November 23, 2019 at 4:53 pm

    I believe that Resistance does not believe it is harming us. Resistance mistakenly believes it is acting in our best interests. It is the most primitive part of our brain that–above all else–wants to keep us safe. If resistance could lock us in a cinderblock cell to protect us from every possible danger, it would, not realizing that the cell would kill us.

    I’m not a marine. My uncle was in the army. My dad was in the navy but doesn’t consider himself a veteran because the war ended when the submarine he was navigating was only four days into the Pacific. My brother was in the army. When he came back from basic training he looked like a different person, and he showed off by doing 50 push-ups followed by one-handed push-ups.

    The marines tried to recruit me in high school–I probably got something from the marines once or twice a month. When they called and asked to speak to Jule, I said, “This is she.” The man said, “You’re a girl.” I said, “Yes.” He said nothing so I did. “You don’t want girls, do you.” “No.”

    Instead of going to war with the me that is so afraid she puts on battle gear to beat me into a cinderblock cell, I say this:

    “I see you.
    I know you want the best for me, you want to keep me safe.
    I am going to write now and it’s okay. People might not like what I write but that won’t kill me.
    Thank you for wanting to protect me. Thank you for doing the best you know to take care of me.”

    Then I tell Resistance it has to get out of the driver’s seat and sit in the back. I give it a blanket and some animal crackers.

    Resistance settles down.

    And I go to work.

    This approach isn’t better, it’s just the difference between the yang and the yin, the male and the female, the sun and the moon. We need both.

  27. Jason Youngman on November 25, 2019 at 4:36 pm

    Been soaking up Finley’s ideas for years. Not so much these days but I’m glad to be reminded of the yetzer hara, which is a royal pain in the arse.

  28. Ramil on November 28, 2019 at 2:51 pm

    Although I resonate with the idea of Second Self, I’m doubting that the nature of it is purely evil. To me, the Second Self is a delusional part of my character, that helped me to survive in the past, but most of the time it is playing too safe in the present. Maybe it’s better to have a collaboration between the two rather than a war?

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