Doing conscious self-work is not the same thing as having a full-on spiritual awakening. However, doing this work can lead to a spiritual awakening, or at least make the awakening more bearable when/if it does occur. Conscious self-work is what I’m in favor of for (almost) everyone in the whole world. Unless you’re an enlightened being, you can benefit from becoming more conscious of the stories and defenses that keep you believing you’re something much smaller than you truly are.
Almost every single one of us is holding onto a story to protect our egos (as always: me too). Changing your story—and believing this new narrative—can be deeply empowering. But dropping all your stories and seeing that almost everyone is unconsciously acting out a story? That’s next level stuff. It’s amazing.
Enough practice from this place of awareness and you’ll be able to pick up and set down stories at a whim. You’ll become more dynamic and much more at ease. You’ll know exactly what’s real, but maybe put on masks for various reasons: To make change in the world if you choose, or perhaps just for fun. No one has more fun than someone who is without ego. That’s because there’s no longer any falseness to live up to or placate. There’s no flimsy structure of a “person” to appease, with its ideas of “how things should go” or “what they should be doing.” There’s just fearless being and the present moment.
Anyway, all that stuff happens further down the line. What I’m here to address in this post is self-work, how to get started, and what’s helped me to become sober and cigarette-free and doing the thing I was once most scared of almost every day (writing). Also I’ve managed to come back from a severe breakdown and fill my life with purpose, so that’s pretty neat too. I’m also learning how to be alone with myself, how to listen to myself, and how to say “thanks, but no” to the part of my psyche that’s always trying to get me to go back to sleep.
All inner work is aimed at one thing: Becoming deeply self-aware. The best way to do this is to start noticing the connection between your emotions and their corresponding behaviors. We all know what we’d like to see differently in ourselves, but often balk when it comes to seriously examining the emotional triggers for our “bad” behaviors. That’s because it can get really overwhelming really fast.
The logic goes something like this: If we do “bad” things and have “bad” feelings, we can start to believe we are just bad. Then we act out badness due to sheer self-fulfilling prophecy, and a horrible cycle is born. We have to learn to look at our most feared emotions—despair, rage, loneliness, fear itself—through an objective, loving lens as so not to get trapped like this. And there is a way to do this.
I started writing this post to recommend one book specifically. I ordered it sometime before my 29th birthday when I was steeped in shame, confusion, and self-loathing all day long. Even though it didn’t take me all the way home to spiritual freedom, the more I read the book and did the exercises, the more I understood that it’s all about consciousness.
Here’s a link to the book.
Before I go much further, I want to say one big giant important thing: Stop thinking you are too cool to do inner child work. I know how it makes you feel to think about “your inner child.” It probably feels dumb and touchy-feely. Let’s address that.
First of all, it is extremely tragic that we have been convinced to more or less hate our deepest feelings. As far as The Machine™ goes, feelings are only good when they can be capitalized on, and the best feelings for that are those of constant lack and unworthiness. Feeling joyful and whole deals a radical blow to the ill hivemind that encourages us to constantly crave more in the mistaken hopes of feeling like we actually are more. It’s actually revolutionary to just be naturally joyful, so do it!
I recommend you build up a serious “fuck that noise” attitude to the culture that taught you to ignore all your feelings except the ones that convince you you’re not enough just as you are. That crippling insecurity—”I’m not enough”—has been wired into us so intensively since birth that we can easily go through life as empty vessels aimed at constant consumption, achievement, and other forms of “chasing.” I also recommend you embrace whatever feelings accompany that “not enough” sensation, and pay close attention to how those feelings shape the things you choose to do with your time.
Secondly, the truth about such feelings—that journaling to your inner child is weak, or stupid, or useless, or just for those who have been severely traumatized—is that you don’t want to look at yourself very hard. If it makes you feel particularly eye-rolly to think about addressing your inner child, I contend that you are the person who most needs to address your inner child. Anything that reacts, particularly defensively, is an important place to look.
How do I know this? When I was actively drinking, angry, and totally lost, you couldn’t have gotten me to write to my inner child. Like, at all. I wouldn’t have had anything to do with it, because I was too freaked out. I had steeped myself in enough unconscious behaviors and defenses that I somehow managed to pretend I was an Adult™ for like a year or so, and then that shit collapsed hard. At some point, everything I’d been hiding from was like “oh HEY REMEMBER US?!” And I was like “I THOUGHT I DISAPPEARED YOU WITH CHEAP WINE AND MEANNESS!!!”
I’d like to spare you that terrifying surprise party, if I can.
Yes: Facing your stuff can be difficult. No one said digging through your un- and subconscious junk was going to be a good time. Still, it is the only way to become free of the hurt we’ve incurred, and more importantly, it is the only way we become free from the ways we continue to hurt ourselves by ignoring ourselves.
We all have a voice that tells us what we ought to do with our lives, what we want to do with our lives, and what our highest and most honest life would look like. Most of us are pretty far away from what this voice says. We all know we have potential locked somewhere within us. We all know we can be more virtuous, more genuine, more true.
So how do we do that? It’s this easy, and this hard: Honor that voice over everything else—and I mean everything. This is a lifelong commitment to the soul you’ve been shutting down in favor of “being practical” or “fitting in” or “keeping up your end of the bargain” or otherwise “staying safe.” However, this isn’t about taking great, impulsive risks. It’s about the slow, well-considered movement towards the life that voice pulls you towards.
Rightfully, the book is about self-abandonment. Every single time we choose to numb out, or run away, or maladaptively cope, or deny/suppress that voice, we are telling our souls—our heart’s desire and our greatest potential—I don’t want you and I don’t love you. This hurts even more, but the most ridiculous part about this strategy is that in the end, it is 100% ineffective.
The soul doesn’t go away. By definition, it can’t. It’s going to get louder and louder and louder… until you act. Maybe not this year, maybe not in five years, maybe not even in this lifetime. Still, you will act differently one day, because that’s how undeniable and compelling your freakin’ soul is.
Susan Anderson, the psychologist who wrote the book, takes a brilliant approach to the self-abandonment cycle. Her method prevents us from falling into the black hole of self-hatred by encouraging us to recognize that all the “bad” things we do are not reflections of who we really are. Instead, we attribute them to an entity she calls “Outer Child.” This is the side of you that acts out inappropriately in an attempt to protect/soothe the feelings you’ve been ignoring all your life.
You feel bored or sad? Outer reaches for the beer. You feel rejected and alone? Outer texts your less-than-stellar ex. You feel insecure? Outer brings up someone to talk shit about.
Our uncomfortable feelings are never problems on their own. They provide us with information and are meant to be guideposts for how to live well. It’s the gap between your true self and your hurt feelings—where Outer lives, waiting to maladaptively “help” with ice cream, Netflix, and a bong—that perpetuates these negative tendencies. If we can heal that gap, we can heal our whole selves.
I’m going to cut myself off here, but I really wanted to throw this book into the Interworld and say how personally awesome I found it for myself, and how I wish self-work would become as cool as binge drinking and/or watching sports, and how much I love you for reading this post.