On Mastery and Simply Showing Up

Two summers ago, I spent my Thursdays in hospital conference room completing an Emotion Regulation Skills Group as part of my release from the psychiatric ward.

It feels like a whole world away, sitting here on the cusp of the summer of 2018. Yet, I couldn’t possibly be where I am now –probably wouldn’t be alive, honestly—had it not been for some those skills that I scoffed at for a full 13 weeks. Like a sullen teenager, I spent the summer at the back of the class with my arms crossed. I contributed the bare minimum to discussion and made a swift and silent exit the very millisecond group wrapped up.

Each week we worked through different skills, some of them things I’ve since written about, like radical acceptance and mindfulness. At the time, the notion and application of “Mastery” struck me as utterly ridiculous. In hindsight this is probably because it struck a particularly raw self-esteem related nerve (and elicited snotty thoughts like “You know what I am a master at? Being a totally useless human”).


Mastery, as it applies to Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, is a strategy for helping you remain grounded rather than being controlled by your emotions. Mastery is not about being an expert in any one thing, it is simply about engaging in activities that make you feel good and increase your level of competency. “When you feel good about who you are, your abilities, and your accomplishments, then you’re more likely to use Wise Mind during stressful situations. This means that your vulnerability for letting your emotions control you significantly decreases,” writes Ayesha Ives.

So here’s the thing about all those weeks in the outpatient area of the psych ward—you learn some shit, whether you’re conscious of it or not. Fast forward to the summer of 2017 and I had something

Learning how to surf on Maui, November 2017

of a tiny epiphany. Is that an oxymoron? Can you have a very small revelation? All I’m picturing now is the world’s most pathetic fireworks display.


Right, back to the small epiphany. So here I am in the summer of 2017, and one of my dear friends had tried everything to help me with the “get physical exercise” portion of my ongoing mental health initiative. Pilates was not for me. Nor was a treadmill at the women’s only gym. I even attempted Zumba with a bunch of senior citizens, which was not only surprisingly sweaty but also wildly humiliating. I can’t blame Zumba on Kiersten. That one was all me being like “OMG YOU GUYS I’m open to so many new things!” (I wasn’t.)

Finally, and with a considerable amount of rather sly trickery, my friend (she knows very well who she is) convinced a couple of us to be brave enough to enter a new gym up the street from my house. So we did. And we died, just a tiny little bit. But in the best possible way one can die, I guess? Short of perishing in Ryan Gosling’s arms, obviously.

Suffice it to say, I was hooked. Endorphins are a helluva drug – and also the best anti-depressant I’ve ever had. Long story short – I was hooked, and here is where the tiny epiphany takes place. On an otherwise unremarkable day in a crossfit gym and a rope climb.

I had never in my life climbed a rope, but in that moment everything I had refused to accept about Mastery but had internalized nonetheless came to fruition. I looked at the rope, wrapped my left leg around it, and climbed. I didn’t make it to the top, and it didn’t look like much to anyone else, but to me this was the awakening I had been working on for a year. This was the moment when all the disparate and subconscious pieces came together and I realized why Mastery matters.

Mastery is silencing the little voice inside you that says “you can’t do that” or “you’re not good enough to even think about that.” Mastery is showing up, again and again and again. It’s showing up when things are hard, or scary, or unfamiliar. It’s looking at that rope and telling yourself that you can climb it. And then actually climbing it. Whether you make it to the top is irrelevant – it’s the showing up that counts.

I think back on that rope climb often to remind myself that mastery begins with merely showing up. Nobody starts as an expert, we all begin at zero and risk looking silly or having to ask for help –but instead of feeling Shame, what if we remind ourselves that there is Bravery in showing up and just trying? That rope climb was with me when I boarded a plane to fly to Maui all by myself. It was there the first time I got up on a surf board, or learned to drive a tractor (not that I’ve mastered either of those things).

TL;DR: Mastery Starts with Showing Up. For yourself.

I’ve been a regular at my gym for over a year now. I’ve made it to the top of that rope again and again. No, I can’t lift as much weight or run as fast as some people – but I’ve learned to stop comparing. Showing up is enough. Showing up is the bravest thing I’ve ever done.