Doing ‘The Work’

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”

– Aristotle

Self Knowledge

What is your relationship with yourself like?

I ask many clients this question as it often occurs to me early on in our working relationship that people don’t appear to know themselves very well at all.

When asked, they look at me blankly. “What do you mean?”

“Well…” I go on to explain. “Do you like yourself, or not? Do you feel you are strong or weak? Are you honest or dishonest? Do you consider yourself courageous or somewhat of a coward? Are you a good friend, lover, parent? Are you happy that you are living to your fullest potential?”

I could go on forever. There are so many questions. Questions we might each ask if we are hoping to be strong, to grow, if we are to know who, and where we are.

This knowing of oneself is an essential aspect of the feeling of wholeness and a necessary component of authenticity. These feelings are worth striving for. They are a worthwhile goal and something meaningful to aim at. They are something of an ideal, as they protect us against such feelings as anxiety, depression and hopelessness.

I have spent a significant proportion of my life asking myself such difficult questions. I haven’t always liked the answers. Almost always the answers required action, action I feared, things that were new, difficult, and painful.

However, struggling towards something like an honest and continuously updated personal inventory, has been one of the greatest guiding forces of my life. The actions that resulted made me stronger, more skilful, and ultimately more peaceful and content.

This self-examination and subsequent action are what psychologists and counsellors call ‘the work’ and it is not easy, that is why we call it work. It is not for the faint hearted, or for the one who would rather avoid taking responsibility for the way their lives are going. It is, what M. Scott Peck called the road less travelled as many simply refuse to take it.

Self Avoidance

Sadly, rather than this inner focus, many people spend a lifetime with their focus mainly pointed outward. They distract themselves from themselves with a plethora of clever tactics in an unconscious attempt to avoid the more painful characteristics of their own humanity.

Drinking, vaping, gambling, adultery, pornography, screens, shopping, gaming, dating apps, overeating, undereating, sports, romance novels, masturbation, drugs, toxic relationships, the state of politics, or even our own kids. The list is endless if we are looking for distractions. Some of them are considered socially acceptable or appear virtuous too.

This busy and fast paced world of overconsumption is only too happy to oblige the individual hoping to escape, to distract, or to avoid.

The problem with this avoidance and these distractions however is that we can end up feeling lost. We avoid the pain of our flaws or the problems of our lives, but we also fail to develop our characters sufficiently, or build the very skills necessary to deal with life successfully.

For many living this way, crisis ensues eventually. Their way of life, piles on top of them. The avoided pain builds and becomes so loud they can no longer avoid it. It is then and only then that help is sought. They seek relief from the immediate pain and suffering that their inattention or avoidance has caused. They go to the doctors and are given pills, or they come and see someone like me, desperate to talk and have someone listen, anxious to make sense of themselves or to find relief. They wonder how they have ended up where they are and why they are suffering so much.

“What is your relationship with yourself like?” I ask. “I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it.” they reply.

Have you told your story? Have you made sense of your life thus far? Do you know your strengths and weaknesses? Do you harbour resentment with the important people in your life or with life itself for the cards you have been dealt? Are you taking full responsibility for the outcomes of your life? Are you fulfilled, in your marriage, in your work? Is the content of your mind supportive or is it driving you crazy?

The truth is, we become stronger individuals when the types of questioning laid out above are a regular focus in our lives.

We need to know if we are honest or dishonest, if we are lazy or cowardly. We need to assess honestly whether we are drinking too much, eating too much, if we have become indifferent to our partners or bitter about the state of the world. We should know if we owe someone an apology, or money, or if our lack of availability is responsible for our children’s failing mental health. These things matter, they determine the quality of our lives, and the lives of those around us. They are the things that keep us awake at night when we can no longer distract ourselves from them.

Introspection & Growth

Increasing honesty, and the assumption of responsibility for what we see about ourselves can lead to us making saner, healthier choices. We must show up, and think, and be clear about who and how we are. Then, more importantly, we must act, fearlessly and diligently to address what we see.

These struggles are what make us human. This effort to become more healthy, more honest and more stable are the pathways to self-trust and feelings of personal value. When we overcome our weaknesses, we will begin to like and trust ourselves more, we will also become more available to others, more useful and more trustworthy.

This deeper understanding of us is the stuff of inner strength. It is more meaningful than another cruise, a new car, or yet another Netflix binge. More worthwhile than a perfect home or an expensive pair of shoes.

It is this work on us that ensures we are grounded and in tune with ourselves. It is the solid foundation that we cannot live well without. Perhaps it is the only real approach to true mental health and would render the need for antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications almost non-existent.

Do the work.

If you are young, middle aged or old. It is never too soon, and it is never too late.

Laura How
Laura How

My name is Laura and I have been a counsellor since 2011. I am also a happy wife, mother, exercise enthusiast and personal growth fanatic.

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