Chasing external sources of happiness may have failed you, as ultimately our deepest satisfaction comes from within. But often when people turn their attention inward, they don’t like what they find. Here are three ways to constructively engage with your inner life.
We all know the road to greater life satisfaction has more to do with how we feel on the inside than with any external riches we may gather, whether they be material possessions, good looks or accomplishments.
Engaging Your Inner Life
We all know we should meditate, connect with our deeper self and learn to be content with life as it is right now, rather than waiting for some imagined future where everything will be wonderful. However, many who turn their attention inward don’t like what they find: stress, inner criticism or maybe just a blank space that isn’t all that engaging.
In my 20 years as a psychotherapist, I have developed a number of simple and constructive ways to check inside that my clients tell me have changed their lives for the better.
3 Steps to Master the Art of Engaging Your Inner Life
My goal is always to make my suggestions simple, doable and effective regardless of what might be going on outside life, where so much of what happens is beyond our control. At least with our inner world, we have some ability to temper and modulate our responses.
Getting stress levels under control is the first priority for so many of us. My sense, in working with so many clients with anxiety or depression, is that stress levels are chronically high, and we are not always aware of it. If you are in this boat, I suggest imagining an inner tachometer – and for those who don’t drive a car with a standard transmission, this means the device measures the RPM of the engine.
It idles in the green zone, works hard in the orange zone and can do damage in the red zone.
Try it now: where is your inner tachometer? Those who suffer from chronic stress spend too much time in the red zone. If you tend to take on too much and are always too busy, try to assess decisions about whether or not to add something more to your plate by the state of your inner tachometer. If it’s pushing toward red, do something to bring it down.
Say no to the extra commitment, or to packing your appointments so close together you are always rushing. An engine that stays in the green zone lasts longer and our bodies are like that engine. We can’t always control the RPM, but this simple exercise in awareness can shift the tendency to rev on the red line too often.
2. Befriending Yourself: Taming the Inner Critic
The next thing many people find when they look inside, once they have taken the RPMs down a notch, is a nasty, critical voice that seems to find just the right thing to say to undermine confidence and stall forward momentum. Everyone has a version of this, an inner authority figure that combines parental, teacher and employer’s voices to tell us all the ways we are not measuring up.
DON’T take it seriously!
For many, it is a revelation when I tell them this voice doesn’t speak the truth. It is an artefact of childhood, and the more challenging our early years were, the harsher this voice will be.
A good test: how would you feel if a friend spoke to you in this tone of voice? You would rightfully be insulted and push back. Do the same with your inner critic. Since our brains are wired to focus more on the negative, you need to counter this tendency with something positive.
Recruit an inner cheerleader to debate with the critic. Imagine what your best friends and biggest fans would say in response. Engage in an inner debate, don’t just agree with your critic, and you will begin to loosen its hold.
Recruit the critic. Ask yourself what the purpose of this inner critic might be. Inner reflection shows they tend to be afraid for us, want us to succeed, and want us to be motivated. You could start an inner dialogue with the critic and request that it find a better way to talk to you. As you would with a child, tell it to ask nicely for what it wants. Find a way to change its tune so it becomes more of an ally.
Give it a name, learn its theme song, and listen only when the music sounds pleasing. Otherwise, change the channel, turn your attention elsewhere.
3. Attend to Your Dreams: Your Inner Barometer
One of the most accessible ways to develop a rich inner life is to engage with your dreams. We all dream of a feature film’s worth of dreams every night, although only a fraction is ever recalled. But if you pay attention to your dreams, write them down and ponder them, they become easier to recall and begin to speak to you directly from your deepest self.
Many people tell me they don’t recall their dreams, or if they do, they can’t make sense of them. One way to understand dreams is as picture-metaphors of whatever feelings are currently most important. Dreams are not meant to be understood as a linear story, but more as an image of your inner life.
Spending time with the felt sense of the images in your dreams, drawing pictures of them, telling others about them and carrying them with you like an essential question will often open up the dream and bring you critical information from your authentic inner self. In short, do not ignore your dreams! Instead of trying to figure them out, let them come alive inside you, and ponder them as you would a poem or piece of art.
To sum up, we’ve covered three simple ways to master the art of engaging with your inner life. The first two suggestions are aimed at making it more attractive to look inside — since stress and the inner critic are two of the main reasons many of us prefer not to look inward.
The third suggestion, to listen to your dreams, has the potential to open up a richly imaginative world that is a huge untapped resource in your journey toward your deeper self. Dreams regulate our emotions, point to what matters most, and can be our best guide on our life’s journey. They can also be funny, creative and compelling, all the more reason to go play inside.