Each of us has secret recesses in our hearts, recesses filled to the brim with things we would never show the outside world. Deep-seated insecurities. Feelings of failure or jealousy. Crumbled fantasies and dreams concerning our bodies, our relationships, and other goals we set for ourselves.
And to move forward in life, it is imperative to explore these hidden spaces. Not avoid them. It’s one of the hardest things to do, but it’s also one of the most important.
Because until we acknowledge our inner life, our outer life can’t change.
Case in point.
I am a chain smoker. My part-time job as a writer has made that worse. And a year ago when I started to take my writing seriously, I put all my other hobbies away. I was addicted to my work. Everything else fell to the wayside.
One of the things I abandoned was a morning running routine. Yes, believe it or not, even with my insane smoking habit, these lungs got me through five miles a day. But as a mother and full-time teacher with only so many hours in the day, I had to make a choice. And so I replaced my morning running ritual for a morning writing ritual.
And as the months passed, I felt angrier at myself for forsaking this running habit that had once made me feel so young and proud. I couldn’t stand the thought of hitting the road again. I imagined myself on the pavement, out of breath five minutes into my run. I then imagined the self-loathing that would follow. And it was easier to erase these thoughts than to challenge them. Easier to accept the fact I was no longer the powerful runner I used to be instead of thinking that maybe some of the “magic” was still left.
But I went to the ocean this weekend, and just for fun, I challenged my fourteen-year-old nephew to a race in the sand, never realizing that I was actually challenging myself.
As the “race” began, I could feel the old power start to rear its beautiful head. My breathing was not labored. My legs fell seamlessly into the rhythm they had known for so long. The “old me” was still there.
All it took was for me to face my fear of failing and “rally” for one minute on the sand. And I’m so glad I did. Because of that moment, I realized the truth, and the truth was that my thoughts and fears of failure were limiting me, not my body.
My epiphany was a new beginning of sorts, a reminder that the dreams I have for myself can only be truly extinguished when I decide to quit trying.
And yes, I’m going to be scared when I hit the pavement today. And yes, I will grieve the fact that I’ve lost the endurance and the speed I used to have. But I will put one foot in front of the other and make progress.
And you can too. That is if you’re willing to do some soul searching and endure a little pain in the process.
Step one: Give yourself permission to grieve the past
Go ahead. Mourn the fact that you’ve put on twenty pounds, the fact that you left a year into college and never got your degree, the fact that you offered your heart to someone and they squashed it into a bloody pulp.
These things broke you in some way. And you have every right to feel sorrow or anger, either at yourself or others.
So curse or cry or do whatever it is you need to do to release the emotions that have been poisoning you from the inside out.
Step two: Give yourself the gift of forgiveness and compassion
No one sets out to make mistakes. We all do the best we can as it relates to the situations that arise in our lives every day. But the truth is we are emotional beings first, and rational beings second. And maybe this fact is responsible for making us do things we knew deep down were acts of self-sabotage. The extra cupcakes we ate. The affairs we had. The excessive drinking we indulged in. The abuses from others we allowed ourselves to tolerate.
These choices were bad ones, and we can’t change the fact that we made them, but to move forward, we have to forgive ourselves. Steve Mariboli, author of the book Life, the Truth, and Being Free, says, “Let today be the day you stop being haunted by the ghost of yesterday. Holding a grudge & harboring anger/resentment is poison to the soul.” And though we frequently see the validity of these words in terms of forgiving others, we rarely see the fact this truth relates to ourselves as well.
However, many times forgiving ourselves is exponentially harder than forgiving others. This is why it’s so important to practice self-compassion.
Kristin Neff, author of Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, states that “self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.”
We need to be compassionate enough with ourselves to see the bad decisions we made at certain moments in our lives were likely impulsive responses to needs that weren’t being met or emotions that were overwhelming us. Maybe it was a need to feel wanted again or to feel desirable. Maybe it was an attempt to drown out the emotional pain we felt at fate, at ourselves, or at the cruel actions of others.
And by no means does understanding these facts absolve us of our actions, but it does allow us to see that there were underlying forces at work in our hearts and in our heads, forces that for some reason we felt powerless to resist.
Step three: Give yourself a chance to change your actions and thoughts
You’ve grieved your losses and the part you played in them. You’ve forgiven yourself and found self-compassion. You’ve been through the fire so to speak, and the “old you” is gone. What remains? A chance to be reborn. A chance to be a phoenix.
Ancient Origins explains the inspirational legacy of this mythological creature, describing it as “a magical bird, radiant and shimmering, which lives for several hundred years before it dies by bursting into flames. It is then reborn from the ashes, to start a new, long life.”
Your mistakes destroyed some aspect of your life: your marriage, your self-esteem, your hope. And you have faced these brutal truths. So begin rebuilding.
For starters, work on rebuilding your inner thoughts. You once believed in the wonderful possibilities that life held, so work to believe again. When you start to feel shame, sadness, or despair due to paths you have taken in the past, think ahead to the steps that have yet to be taken. And as you do so, know without a doubt that yes, you will fail again. But this time you can fail smaller. You can acknowledge your failings and then resolve to take the lessons you’ve learned and keep moving forward, each step taking you farther and farther from the flames that once consumed you.
The bottom line:
Being human is never easy. Life is messy and often we are the ones who make it so, but as former President Barack Obama said, “The future rewards those who press on. I don’t have time to feel sorry for myself. I don’t have time to complain. I’m going to press on.”
So, my friend, press on. And when you stumble backward, press on anyway. And when it happens again, do the same. You’re learning your way towards the phoenix. And the burning is over.