“Jung observed that the Aboriginal people of Australia spend two-thirds of their waking lives in some form of inner work… We modern people can scarcely find a few hours free in an entire week to devote to the inner world.”
– Robert Johnson, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth
The time comes when life as you’ve been living it is no longer working. Perhaps you’ve been taken down by illness. Perhaps insomnia is punctuating your sleep night after night, week after week, year after year. Perhaps you’ve reached your breaking point with the incessant barrage of worry and intrusive thoughts that parade across your brain every hour of the day. Perhaps you’re exhausted by your lifelong tendency to absorb other people’s lives and care so much about what others think.
Guided by an extroverted culture that teaches us to externally-reference our sense of Self, we habitually reach outside of ourselves for relief: a psychic, a guru, a relationship, a job, a city, a therapist, a pill. Please, can someone or something rescue me from my pain. Fueled by an addictive avoidance of our inner world and a habit of not trusting our own authority, we believe that if we keep going, searching, Googling, reading, Facebooking, working, advancing, climbing the ladder, we can stave off the discomfort of our inner world.
Yet somewhere inside we know there is another way. When we stop even for a moment we know what that way is. We pause. We breathe. We lie in bed one morning and sit with the gauzy dream that hangs on the edge of consciousness. We realize, in a rare moment of unwavering truth-telling and stillness, that the way we’ve been living is no longer working. And then we know that the time has come to turn inward.
Anxiety, intrusive thoughts, worry, insomnia: they are messengers from soul. What we call symptoms are actually little boats of wisdom paddling along the canals of our psyches bearing gifts. I know it’s hard to believe when you’re drowning in the frothy currents of anxiety, but that’s because we have bought into one of our culture’s greatest amnesias: We have forgotten how to tend to soul. We have forgotten how to turn inward and nourish the inner world, to get to know who we are, to engage with the symbols and characters that populate our inner landscapes. And when we don’t turn inward, the inner world will grab our attention in other ways. It grabs and yells and waves its red flags in the form of anxiety, intrusive thoughts, insomnia and other “neuroses” until we finally stop and ask: What is needed? What are the messages inside these symptoms?
We simply don’t realize that inside the darkness lives great wisdom. We don’t trust that we can be the guides along our own pathways of discovery. We learn early on to place our self-trust outside of ourselves, buying into the myth that everyone else knows better than us. Without self-trust, we are boats lost at sea, searching for the lighthouse of someone else’s wisdom.
The answers aren’t out there. Happiness doesn’t live in the perfect job or marriage or house or family (not to mention the fact that perfection itself is a fantasy). And yet we’re taught from nearly our first breath to externalize our sense of self, to believe that others know better than we do and if we can achieve just so, we will find the Holy Grail. When we hand our authority over to others, we lose touch with our inner, intrinsic compass that allows us to know ourselves and trust ourselves. When we buy into the insidious myth that well-being lives in the fantasy of external perfection, we stand little chance of finding true meaning and fulfillment.
The answers dwell within. And they aren’t answers so much as guideposts, inner experiences with which we must actively engage if we are to create a rich and meaningful life. By this I mean we take time each day to slow down, turn inward and ask, “What is happening inside my mind and body right now? What is it that wants to be known?” Again, we’re not looking for answers; that’s the linear, achievement-oriented way that believes that there is a single answer to the complexity of life and when we arrive at it we’ll hear the ding-ding-ding of the game show bell. Guided by curiosity and a genuine desire to know ourselves, we’re looking to encounter what lives underneath the surface of our lives.
Yet the habit is so strong to reach outward, not only to esteemed and perceived wise others, but now more than ever, because of our technological and fast-paced age, toward external distractions like a digital device or a sleeping aid or to internal distractions like ruminations and intrusive thoughts. We so desperately want to avoid the fundamental groundlessness of our being. Conditioned by a culture that pounds us with the belief that the answers are “out there” we naturally reach outward when we come face to face with our pain
But there is another way. When we find the courage to turn inward, to become curious about the labyrinths and tunnels that comprise our inner world, everything changes. We become our own lighthouse. We no longer care so much about what others think. We’re no longer consumed by the search for perfection. We have room to make mistakes – and recognize that it’s through mistakes that we learn. Living in the flow of self-trust and trust in life, life becomes more fun. We feel curious. We soften into compassion, both for ourselves and others. We connect to our intrinsic gifts and aren’t afraid to take the risk of sharing them with the world.
A library as big as the universe lives inside of you, waiting for you to sit down in some dimly lit, quiet corner so that you can discover its contents. Are you ready to learn? Is so, please join me for my next round of Trust Yourself: A 30-day program to help you overcome your fear of failure, caring what others think, perfectionism, difficulty making decisions, and self-doubt. The course is now open for registration and it will begin on August 1st, 2015.
Hi Sheryl, I’m becoming more and more interested in your “Trust Yourself” program, but this next round is not the right time for me. Will you be offering this course again in the future?
Thanks in advance!
Hi Maja: I will likely offer it again at the end of October/beginning of November.
Hi Sheryl, that is so beautiful and so true. I do struggle to get out of the old habit of looking for a quick fix from externals. What i mean by that is i need family and friends to take away my pain i need there guidance and permission. I dont look for alcohol or drugs which a good thing but i always need reassurance from people. I still struggle to listen to my inner compass, i find it challenging Sheryl.
It’s challenging for so many people, Angela, but with true time and attention turned inward you can develop that compass of self-trust.
I’m curious Sheryl, if most people and our culture believe you learn from making mistakes (because I’ve heard this from almost everyone) why are mistakes so shamed from others? I know you won’t know the answer for everyone but I don’t generally feel that our culture supports an environment to make mistakes. Of course everything in reason as in people need to learn there are certain consequences for behaviour and action. But is there any explanation for why there is so much judgment from people when mistakes are made, when everyone seems to know “everyone makes mistakes and that’s how you learn”?
I ask this because I am frustrated. For myself, as long as I can sense that someone else has not made a mistake intentionally and is motivated to learn from it (and perhaps even if I don’t sense this) I don’t want to shame them because I know how it feels. I also know it’s not helpful. I also know I am frustrated because I am very very sensitive to sensing judgment (and shaming) from others. I want to change this but I don’t find this culture generally supports someone when they make a mistake. This really really fuels the fear I live in where I am so scared to “mess up big”. Could this be even more motivation to take the responsibility to tend to our own inner world and build a loving adult?
I have been working through your wedding e-course, and I am continually grateful & extremely thankful for your work. Reading your musings — thought out & resourced by experience & knowledge, have been so encouraging in one of the… scratch that, THE most difficult season I’ve yet faced. And yet, I know I’m learning lessons & digging into truths that are vital for understanding, even though sometimes I just weakly wish they were all gone. Anyway, all this to say thank you. This article also was spot on & beautiful. Through this whole journey I’ve been taking notes, doing research, etc., in hopes of someday being an advocate for friends and or others who are in need of help in this area, for it still is a very stigmatized topic. No matter what I write, I will gratefully be listing you as a leading, if not the leading, figure in this area. Thank you for your work. Thank you for your wisdom. And thank you for using your gifts the way they were intended to be used.
Thank you, Meghan. It’s clear from your comment that you will, indeed, become someone who can guide others through their dark night of the soul. Keep going, keep doing the inner work, and you will become the advocate and guide you seek to be (and probably already are).
I’ve been in 3 relationships in the last 4 years. They always end with me “suddenly” being over it. I get a nagging feeling that it’s either “not right” or I just shut down completely and I bolt. I met a wonderful guy 4 months ago, well, we were planning on just being friends with benefits, but it naturally developed into more. He doesn’t have the greatest track record with how he’s treated women in the past, but he treats me like gold and honestly I can say I trust him. However, I’m starting to get into old thinking patterns. And recently I’ve felt unattached to him. It’s very disheartening, given the fact that I really believed this one would be different. I’ve done things differently however, such as be honest with him about this. He’s nothing but supportive. I do a lot of writing and praying around it. It seems to be worse hormonally (ovulation-period) and I’m not on birth control. Something inside of me tells me that this isn’t a matter of “God doesn’t want me in this relationship” or that I’m just “over it”. I’ve had enough experiences to see the common denominator is me. Granted, I don’t regret breaking up with my exes now so sometimes I wonder is it a matter of not finding the right guy? Or is it something deeper, such as fear of intimacy etc. This article helped nonetheless, even though I did get spiked. How do I find a therapist who specializes in relationship ocd/anxiety? Which program would you recomend for me? Thank you.
I highly recommend that you start with the Conscious Weddings E-Course. It will help you break through your old and familiar patterns so that you don’t walk away from a good man.
Thank you Sheryl. You are a God send
I’ve done so much reading on your site and I can say that your articles are like little miracles that calm my overwhelming anxiety for a brief period of time before the intrusive, doubtful, fear powered thoughts commence once more. I believe I’m struggling with the fantasy of perfection–of having certainty when certainty is (supposedly) almost impossible, especially for an anxious person. I’m curious though, I’ve done lots of reading (also not on this site) and I see posts and comments from people that say they have found “the one” the “right” guy without any doubts or nagging internally that this may be a mistake or not the person they should marry. These people also write that they have been in prevouis relationships where they did have the doubt, so they left and then they found their perfect guy. So how do you know? Is there a difference between their previous doubt and then their certainty in comparison with mine ( and others on this site) doubt and anxiety in our relationships? IF I left because of the doubt, would I end up in the same spot– with a wonderful man who I love (when not bogged down by doubt and anxiety) but anxious to tie the knot? How can others be so sure of the One in this world but yet others plagued with fear and doubt? Is that just the simple difference of personality– there are those who “know” and those who have anxiety and doubt and fear before finding relief. What’s the difference between relationship anxiety that feeds doubt into a good relationship and a relationship that’s good but won’t work out? Like there are good relationships that end because someone felt it wasn’t right or it wasn’t going to work out… Is that different than what relationship anxiety and fear dole out? That must be where you turn inward and spend time with your soul to find some peace and severity and an answer. I guess I’m jus terrified to dig inward and realize I’m in a relationship that won’t make it. Because something in me desperately wants it to make it–to have love and happiness and comfort with the man I’m with now. Perhaps that’s the difference. I WANT to be with him and make it work despite the fear and doubts.
However I know people who have wanted so bad to be in love with the good man they have to make it work but they just can’t. Is that because they are looking for the wrong love, because they aren’t truly choosing to love them, or because they didn’t belong? These people also years later find their husband or wife saying they did the right thing leaving the other(s) behind because they found their One. Is that still due to different personality and maturity and growth that the next one is one they can choose to love , that they feel they can make it work with instead of the other guy….
So many unstable and confusing things to consider when finding your life partner. I know I asked a million questions. Even one answered or touched on would be a blessing. A comment or reply by anyone would be amazing. Thanks for all your work Sheryl. It really makes its way into the heart and mind.
What I can say is that all of your questions are infused with so much fear that it doesn’t really matter what answers I provide; you’ll still be wracked with fear. The work is address the fear, and then you will be able to answer all of your question from a clear place inside of you. If you can’t trust yourself – which means knowing yourself and loving yourself – it’s very difficult to find your way through the morass of relationship anxiety.
I guess then the best way to address this fear is to take your course which I’m trying to save up for. I guess my last question is will addressing the fear and putting it in the back seat allow for a future of happiness and hope–one not filled with nagging doubts and crippling fear. I see this opportunity for a wonderful life and future with my man but I feel like it’s through a giddy lens. I’m sure that lens is out there by fear… Fear that it might be what I had always imagined or planned, fear that the future I see now is too good to be true or too good to last. Fear that although it seems so amazing, that it might be a mistake someone. That its with the wrong person even though the future imagined with him would appear great. I believe I’m suffering from the idea of finding the One and being unsure if my absolutely amazing, loving, thoughtful, caring man is indeed meant for me. When I take a step back the fear seems silly and the Happy future seems possible. Then fear takes hold again.
Long story short—is the ecourse going to really help me handle and battle the fear back far enough for that happy future I envision? Obviously my success lies within but fear today tells me I’ll go through it and still have doubts to battle everyday about my spouse. Is there a truth to tell that fear?
Thanks for everything Sheryl. I hope to get to know you more personally with time.
Yes, once you can work through the majority of the fear you will be happy to embrace the happy future that you envision.
Like so many things in life Sheryl, I wish our society talked more about grief, transitions and change.
I work with Aboriginals in my corporate job in Australia and I have learnt so so much from them. Their culture, especially their traditions around death and the sprit world have captured me. I remember as a child my mum reading to us the Dreamtime books and I continue to do this with my sons.
Its been about a year since I have come off a low dosage of an anti-depressant which I chose to do after the death of my previous boss. I wanted to move through the grieving process with open arms and really feel everything that was coming towards me. As much as her death has been difficult to process, she has taught me many wonderful things in this life after her death and sitting with uncomfortable feelings and putting in place a support mechanism and understanding my triggers has been a positive. Thanks for writing this article.
Thank you for sharing this, Jo. What are the names of the Dreamtime books that you’re reading to your sons? I’ve been drawn to the Aboriginals for as long as I can remember, and especially their work with the dream world.
I’ve been researching dreams and their meanings because I’ve been having the same recurring dream for as long as I’ve been with my (now) husband. I’m desperate to find out what it means and just read the entire book “The Wisdom of Your Dreams” and didn’t find anything useful in it that directly applies to finding meaning in this dream. I’ve also researched all over the internet for what it might mean but am coming up short of having any “aha” moments which is painstaking. Do you know of any online Dream Groups I could bounce my dream off of? Any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated 🙂
I recommend you contact Billie though her site. She’s studied under Jeremy Taylor for fifteen years and is a highly skilled dreamworker worker who works over phone and Skype:
Thank you so much!!
Hi Sheryl, first off thank you so very much for all the work you do. I took your Trust Yourself course and it helped me immensely.
I am getting much better with dealing with my relationship anxiety, but I still struggle sometimes.
My boyfriend, who I’ve been dating for 4 years now is the most kind-hearted and considerate person who treats me so well. We live together and we rarely argue, there is a mutual respect and I feel safe with him.
He suffers from worry, anxiety and possibly mild depression at times.
He beats himself up a lot and has very low-self-esteem. He compares himself others constantly and says he feels stupid, that he has nothing to contribute to conversations, and that everyone else ‘knows so much more’ than him.
Problem is, my relationship anxiety centres around my feeling that maybe he doesn’t challenge me intellectually, maybe there is another person out there who would. I always had this image that I would find a partner that would inspire me intellectually, complete me etc. etc. The thought of being without him rips me apart. He truly is my biggest fan and I don’t think he’s stupid at all. I just feel that he lacks confidence and is not traditionally smart in a book sense. He is technically-savvy, and I tried to get him to see that that a different type of intelligence and that he should embrace it.
He is truly the warmest-hearted person I have ever met, we have so much fun together, but I always have this nagging “what if there’s someone better” feeling. I hate it. But Trust Yourself did help me a lot.
Any advice Sheryl?
It never ceases to amaze me how we magnetically attract partners who are our perfect match on every level: his lack of confidence around his intelligence dovetails perfectly with your need to be with a partner who challenges you intellectually! The learning possibilities are endless for the two of you, which, in my book, is wonderful. He needs to learn how to embrace his true self-worth, and you need to learn how to become inspired intellectually by other sources. This doesn’t happen overnight, so please be patient with yourselves and try to trust that you’re in the right place.
I have been reading through your site, Sheryl, and it has been very helpful!
I have one question though. Now, that I realised what was my main source of anxiety, the longing for aliveness, I understand that it was the primary reason why I began the relationship in the first place. I felt bored and unfulfilled and that’s why I decided to give it a try and since I did not experience any feelings of in-loveness from the very beginning I started to panic.
Does this mean that it is better to break up?
On the one hand relationship are very good, but on the other, if that wish was the sole reason I began all of that, does this mean that I will only torture myself by continuing them and trying to fall in love?
It means that now you have an opportunity to learn how to fill your own well and learn about real love. If you’re with a loving partner in a good relationship, there’s no reason to leave.
Thank you for answering! What is still bugging me, though, is another question: if I will fill my well and find excitement, won’t I understand that I actually don’t need the relationship?
It’s not what I typically see, yet it’s a very common roadblock that prevents people from turning inward to do their personal work.