Have you ever noticed how we’ll sometimes do anything, no matter how absurd or self-destructive, to avoid doing our inner work?
Almost as if a part of ourselves is longing to wake up, heal and be free … while another part actively tries to protect us from feeling any pain or discomfort – no matter the cost. Some people describe this as the tension between soul and personality.
Turning inward actually terrifies most people.
And, I understand why.
When we truly start to take responsibility for who we are, regardless of what has happened to us, we are bound to come face to face with unpleasant feelings.
Old hurts, stored pain, memories we’d rather forget.
All that stuff in there, literally stuffed away into the shadows.
It’s so much easier to either point our fingers at something outside ourselves (“those people,” “the system/situation/circumstances”) or to stay willfully focused on “only pleasant things,” than to look into our interior lives for relief from our suffering and to clean up what we’ve internalized and taken on from our lives.
Sometimes, we even prefer to die in stubborn ignorance than admit we were in denial, disconnected, disengaged, defensive, unaware, hurt or in fact actually able to do something about our “stuff”.
But, if we don’t turn inward and develop the strength and courage to face and heal what hurts within, we remain victims our histories, our circumstances, our fears and our unawareness.
When your personality is wounded, small and fragile, you’re driven by fears and need a tough exterior to protect yourself.
You develop a shell like a tortoise to hide in.
Spikes like a sea urchin.
Camouflage like a chameleon.
Venom like a snake.
Your life becomes organized around staying safe, inhibited and isolated – because comfort, safety and feeling-good is your north star, and you need particular conditions in order to feel OK!
But, when we start doing our inner work, we turn our attention inwards.
Once we take this foundational step of turning our attention inwards, we start to wake up.
We start to transform.
Instead of just understanding the mechanics of how things work, we begin to live from the life force that animates everything – including ourselves.
Instead of battling the enemies “out there,” we face and disarm the enemies and threats looming within us, “in here.”
What is Inner Work, Anyway?
Inner work brings light, compassion and awareness to the conscious, subconscious and unconscious realms of your being.
It’s about diving inward: speaking to yourself, being in connection and dialogue with yourself, seeing yourself, knowing yourself, loving yourself.
Inner work can be gut-wrenching, bone-crushing, heart-breaking work born from tears, sweat, vomit, sleeping and surrendering.
It’s about allowing yourself to be called out, judged, burned up, exiled, and then built back up again – over and over. It’s an endless cycle of death and rebirth; and endless dance between the interior and the exterior, the violent and the nonviolent, your fears and your desires, your personality and your soul.
It involves searching out the parts of yourself have been exiled, forgotten, judged or dismissed – by you – and welcoming them back in, so that you can be whole, integrated, strong, aware and free.
It’s inner child work.
It’s shadow work.
It’s sacred, witnessing work.
It involves finding all that has been hidden: feelings, beliefs, prejudices, hurts, wounds, shadows, memories and fragments.
And, I’m truly sorry about this, but it’s also about being willing to feel and process the pain, hurt, shame, fear, rage and sadness that you will often find as you begin journeying down the rabbit holes of your interiority.
Sounds truly. dreadful. Why on Earth Would I Go Through All That?
As you take these risks, as you bring more things to your awareness, reclaim more parts, feel more feelings, make more internal connections, soften towards yourself more, you build your psychological and psychic muscles.
Your soul strengthens.
You’re driven by courage, and live with integrity.
You become able to feel yourself, feel your life, feel the impact things have on you.
No matter how crappy something feels, you remember that a phoenix rises from the flames. You stay the course.
That’s what it means to have courage: to feel into the things you don’t want to feel.
To tolerate discomfort.
To challenge your own beliefs.
To examine your attachments.
To do unfamiliar and uncomfortable things.
To reach beyond the whims of desires of your fearful, limited, finite self:
You can stay out in the sun for longer, without getting burned.
You can trek through the snow further, without freezing.
You can scuba dive, without drowning.
Your life orients around expanding, evolving, playing and connecting – even though it hurts sometimes.
You start reaching for what you want, instead of just avoiding what you don’t want.
Inner work means taking full responsibility for yourself, by…
acknowledging what you have emerged out of, without taking what has happened to you in life so personally anymore
seeing everything that happens to you as the ground from which you are meant to grow (think: compost > roots > shoots > fruits)
harvesting the nutrients and acknowledging the strengths and capacities that your particular circumstances gifted you with, and reclaiming all fragmented and lost parts.
And the Rewards of Inner Work?
As we quest into the rich, dark realms of our inner work, we discover that we can be alchemists in our lives.
Join me in the sacred practice of emotional strength training.
Turn pain into power…
Dissolve shame through storytelling.
Turn anger into focused, protective energy.
Soften sadness into surrender and flow.
Melt conflicts into connection, and judgments into compassion
And for me, nothing is more rewarding, exciting and enlivening than being an active co-creator of your life, of deliberately and intentionally freeing myself from my conditioning, gaining mastery over my biology and expanding my spiritual being into all that she can be … in this physical body … in this lifetime.
What about you?
After being with much of my extended family ( for the first time since our mom’s funeral 7 yrs ago) for the funeral of my 29-yr-old niece and her unborn daughter, your words today are the powerful reminder that I needed to pick myself up …again and go inside again to "do my work" around the memories that surfaced over the weekend. Thank you!
This line summarizes for me the many insightful offerings here:
"You start reaching for what you want, instead of just avoiding what you don’t want."
It occurs to me we might also summarize the purpose of awareness with the immortal words of Ram Das: "Be Here Now".
Mary Oliver in Wild Geese puts it this way:
"Tell me about despair
"And I will tell you mine.
"Meanwhile life goes on…"
I became aware of an inner motivation one day during Jury Duty some years ago. It hit me like a ton of bricks. It was a drug case and we were asked as Jurors if we could decide the case based on the facts. I unhesitatingly said yes. One of my values is honesty and I didn’t pause to consider the implications. Later, deliberations unfolded like a reverse Twelve Angry Men. I was the last "not guilty" holdout.
Asked by a fellow juror to run through my reasons, I gayly tripped through the reasons I had. He asked without judgement or rancor when I finished, "oh, then you think there was a conspiracy among the police and prosecutor?" "Not at all", I shot back without thinking. "I think they were mistaken". There was no evidence of this and I knew it once the words left my mouth.
I realized what I had done. You see, I was (and am) unalterably opposed to drug laws for adults and particularly negative to "sting" operations. I thought the law was wrong, but I nevertheless promised I would uphold it. In short, I lied and built a fantasy to support it. I cannot overstate how painful that moment of realization was. Fortunately, I avoided bursting into tears … but it was a close thing. Everyone in the jury room could feel the emotional charge – I even heard a few "oh my god’s" from some who saw the shock on my face.
I often wondered, before that happened, why some "others" seemed unwilling to face facts and own up to reality. Now I know. Would I could say that was the last time for me, but it did help to remind me of the real cost of faking what is true.
I’d love to hear any other stories where you face a similar cross road and how your inner landscape became clearer.
I read your posts every week, but this one stirred a sense of awe and joy. One of the best things that ever happened to me was my son telling me that I was crazy and needed therapy. He’d come back into my life when I had "changed." I complied with his demand for therapy, not because I believed him, but to achieve my own goal of reconnecting with my grandchildren.
Your article resonated because you often told me, "I was doing the work." All the feelings you described happened to me and within me. But, " doing the work" with a loving guide transformed my life. Its been 2 years since I last saw you, but by working through my own stuff, I was finally able to understand and empathize with "his stuff" without being defensive or fearful. He and I are enjoying a relationship I never thought possible! (We are going on a family vacation together in December!!!!!!)
I am proud of myself for not giving up and for seriously "doing the work." I am so grateful to you for safely helping me through the scary, icky, ferocious feelings. It was SO worth it!
Thank you, Yvette. This sums up the whole journey so succinctly and beautifully.