In the first volume of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the RingsThe Fellowship of the Ring, we meet a Gandalf the Grey, a wizard who takes on the responsibility of shepherding the fellowship, whose task it is to carry a powerful ring to the only place they can destroy it. On their journey, they encounter a terrifying monster—a Balrog—and Gandalf sacrifices himself to save the other members of the fellowship. Unfortunately, he is presumed to be lost forever as he falls into an endless pit with this deadly monster. So it comes as quite a surprise when, in the second volume, The Two Towers, three members of the fellowship come across a powerful wizard adorned in white—Gandalf, no longer the Grey, now Gandalf the White. He battled the Balrog through space and time, and finally, after what was for him an eternity, he defeated the monster. And so he returns a wiser, more powerful, more expert wizard, still himself, but the best version of himself.

About eight years ago, as I was battling my own demons, I told my therapist that I understood that the work he was asking me to do would help me eventually, but I didn’t want to do the work it would take to get better. Because the truth is it takes a lot of work and time to become the best versions of ourselves. I know that there is a better me out there. There is a more emotionally intelligent, intentional, compassionate self. But it’s on the other side of arduous work.

I’m not suggesting that you will be happy if you bear down with determination and strength of will. First of all, happiness is temporary, and second of all, I don’t care for toxic positivity that insists we stay positive even through profoundly hurtful circumstances. What I’m suggesting is that we can change and be changed. It’s challenging and takes crazy hard work, but slowly we can become our best selves, one step at a time.

I’m a profoundly critical person of everyone and everything. Especially myself. But slowly, I am undoing the wiring in my brain that has set that as my default. Bit by bit, through intention and practice and acknowledging when I slip back into my old patterns of thinking, I am battling my Balrog. And I will come out the other side transformed—wiser, more powerful, and more confident than ever. And my life and the lives of those around me will be better for it. You, too, can battle your Balrog. You can look it in the face and say, “No, you shall not pass. You don’t get to dictate who I am or how my life is.” It’s hard work, but it’s worthwhile.

—Sam Blewis—