05/28/2015 10:57 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

On Elephants and the Obnoxious Roommate: Seeing the Full Picture Inside Our Heads

I don't know when I first read the parable, but I know I was young. I can distinctly remember the accompanying line-drawings, a near-black blue on a light blue background.

The blind men and an elephant. You know the story.

The tale originated centuries ago in the Indian subcontinent, but has spread around the world in several variations. In the version I read, there were three blind men, and of course the elephant, which the men encountered on their journey. One felt the tail, and thought the elephant was a rope. The second felt a leg, and insisted they'd found a pillar. The third felt the trunk, and was sure it was a tree branch.

The point of the parable, of course, is that our perceptions are limited by our subjective experiences; that in any situation, we need to remember we may not have all the facts, or we may be reaching conclusions based on incomplete information.

The story is generally applied to external situations, of course: disputes between countries, conflicts between people. What is less often recognized, though, is how the parable applies internally, to the stories we tell ourselves.

I'm reading Brené Brown's book Daring Greatly right now, for my book group. At the same time, I'm taking Arianna Huffington's online Thrive e-course. This means I'm getting a double dose of reality these days on the ways we beat ourselves up, and the ways we could be kinder to ourselves.

I'm a bit embarrassed to admit how much I beat myself up (Arianna refers to this as the "obnoxious roommate in your head"), because from the outside it feels like I'm the only one who does this. But, Brené and Arianna tell me I'm not alone in this, and who am I to doubt Brené and Arianna? So this post is for those of you who, like me, sometimes battle the obnoxious roommate. (And if that's not you, consider yourself lucky!)

This morning I was in a "not good enough" hangover, having beaten myself up pretty well yesterday. The desire to believe I'm good enough is strong, but when I start to go there, a voice in my head screeches out, "But there is so much evidence that you are not."

Today, when that voice loomed large and hopeless, that's when the story of the elephant and the blind men emerged from the depths of my memory into the light.

When we listen to the gremlins as they present their undeniable evidence that we aren't good enough, we're seeing just one part of the elephant, and ignoring all the other evidence. We aren't seeing the full picture. We're taking one small thing we know, and stubbornly insisting that from that bit of information we can draw irrefutable conclusions.

But there's more to the elephant.

My brain loves analogies, so when I made this connection, it was a bright "aha" moment for me.

I vowed at that moment to spend the day looking for other evidence, evidence I know exists, evidence that I am fully and completely good enough, that I am worthy and wonderful and fabulous.

Certainly the Obnoxious Roommate or the Not Good Enough Gremlin has some evidence to support his own cause, but it's far from complete. Our worth is not defined by a trunk or a tail or a leg, any more than the elephant is. We are more than the sum of our parts. And if we have to choose which evidence to look at, then why not seek out and believe the evidence that supports the idea that we are worthy?

We have given more than enough time to the conflicting evidence. It's time to let the prosecution rest, and see the bigger picture of our worth.


Speaking of elephants, this is Rupert, drawn by Kenneth Schrag. He's a little different from your average elephant: If you look closely, you can see he's 2D rather than 3D, and what's more, he exists in a place called the Hub, a place that is both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Rupert is the elephant in my young adult sci-fi novel, The Universes Inside the Lighthouse, and though he's different, he's perfect exactly as he is.