I spent a huge chunk of time thinking I was broken.
I believed that to heal, I had to find that broken piece and remove it. Cut it out like the tumour I believed it was.
So I dove into my depths to find it. I searched and searched. I swam and swam. Believing if I could just find that bit, the one bit, all my pain would go away.
That my body would heal, my relationships would be insomnia free and I would have the courage to be my creative self.
Everyday I would descend, desperately trying to find it. The deeper I went, the darker the hole got, and more confusing, like being in a maze at midnight during a balsamic moon, with no stars to be seen.
The more time I spent in the darkness, the worse I felt. Because honestly, I had no idea what I what looking for.
Finally I realised, I wasn’t finding anything, but I was losing myself.
And whether I found what I was looking for or not, the price of my sanity was too high. So I walked myself back out of that hole, step by step.
I still believed I was broken, but I realised this wasn’t the way to fix me.
Here’s what I know now:
I wasn’t broken.
None of us are.
It is a false belief that pervades the Western culture.
And one of the odd things about inner work.
The Paradox of Inner Work
There is a strange paradox at the heart of inner work.
In a Western society, we are often imbued with the belief that we are broken. And that’s why our life isn’t turning out the way we expected, because something is wrong with us.
But that’s not true.
That’s another false belief we have to wrangle with.
True inner work doesn’t believe we’re broken, it believes we are and always will be, whole.
If that’s true, why do inner work at all?
I’ve been pondering this for a while, here’s my short answer:
We don’t do inner work because we’re broken, or need fixing, or are unlovable. Because we aren’t broken, we don’t need fixing and we are lovable.
We do inner work to remember those things are true.
We do inner work to remember we are lovable, just as we are.
No one can tell you are lovable, you’ll never believe them. (How many people have tried to tell you you are great just as you are?)
I have no doubt people have tried, it is something we can only learn for ourselves through inner work.
To wrangle with this false belief, we need to answer these two questions:
- Why do we believe we’re unlovable?
- And if we don’t need fixing, why does the world keep telling us we’re broken?
Let’s dive in.
Q1. Why do we believe we’re unlovable?
(Note: ‘unlovable’ is a catchall word for anything we believe about ourselves that’s bad or wrong.)
As kids our whole focus is on survival. We unconsciously know we don’t have the capability to care for ourselves. We need caregivers to feed us, clothe, clean and shelter us, to hug, talk, smile and play with us.
Kids unconsciously know they need all of those things to be survive, to grow up.
AND we also want to express ourselves. We have unique personalities, with our own voice, desires and interests.
We want to be loved and accepted for who we are.
Unfortunately that’s not always possible. Not intentionally, more accidentally. No matter how positive your childhood experience, there will always be times when you had to choose between attachment and authenticity.
And as Gabor Mate says, attachment trumps authenticity every time, because survival needs have to come ahead of authentic self-expression.
And so the question we are always asking as kids is: do you love me for me?
Sometimes the answer to that question is no.
Not intentionally. Parents are rarely trying to make their kids feel that way.
But young brains lack the development and ability to manage the pain of not being seen.
They don’t have the capacity to look at the cultural context of a situation and provide reasons why the real problem isn’t them. Nor can they make the parent “bad” or at fault in anyway, because that compromises their attachment and survival needs.
So all a child can do to live with the pain of the perception they they aren’t loved for who they are, is in some way think of themselves as being the problem. To think they are bad in some way, especially around the area in which they felt unseen.
And if that inner pain isn’t repaired within the family dynamic, that thought sits in our psyche until adulthood where it scales up into the deeper belief that we our lovability.
So its this false belief that needs fixing, not us.
But this false belief worms its way into inner protection system, our ego, and works hard to defend us from anything that reminds us of that early pain of not being seen, held or safe.
Q2. Why does the world keep telling us we’re broken?
In short, because it’s profitable.
When we’re not aware of this underlying false belief, or the pain that we carry around that belief, we naturally do two things.
- We find ways to prove to the world we are loveable
- We find ways to numb our pain from not receiving that love
We look around at the world, our family, our culture and what the media tells us makes us loveable. That might be being friendly, attractive, strong, caring, knowledgeable, or successful. Insert appropriate characteristic here.
Whatever we decide that is, we work hard to make it happen.
And when we struggle to achieve that, or to be rewarded with the acceptance we seek, we find ways to numb out that pain. We can do that with work, drugs, food, sex, alcohol, TV, podcasts, books, social media. We can use almost anything to numb ourselves out.
None of these things make us feel great, but they keep us numb to the pain for just a little longer.
Then we go back to working hard to be accepted and approved of, in the hope we’ll finally feel loved.
When it doesn’t come, we return to numbing and the cycle continues.
And stuck in that cycle, of proving and numbing, we spend a lot of time, money, energy on those two things. Proving to the world we’re loveable and finding ways to numb our pain.
All of which is very profitable to almost every industry. Including the self-help industry.
So when we are stuck in this cycle, how do we break free?
We have to become frustrated at this cycle.
Frustrated at holding this false belief about ourselves.
Frustrated spending our time, money and energy on solutions that reinforce the cycle and our false beliefs, rather than help us break free of them.
Frustrated at a world that benefits more from us being sick, than being well. Benefits more from us living on autopilot. Benefits more from our pain than our wholeness.
So back to my original question: why do inner work if we aren’t broken?
To spend our time and energy on things that truly matter to us.
To not be at the mercy of messages that try to convince you, “you’ll be loveable when you’re…” [insert adjective here]
To not impose the ripples of our pain on the people we care most about.
To live in the grounded confidence of knowing you are loved and you are loveable, not matter what your interests, passions or relationship status.
That’s why we do inner work.
Not because we’re broken, but because we’re whole. Because we no longer want to feel alienated from our wholeness.
And here is the kicker to the inner work paradox, we can never actually receive the love we seek from the world. We can only receive that love from ourselves.
That’s why it’s called inner work. Because we have to go inwards to heal our pain and give that love ourselves.
Inner work is about building the skills and the capacity, and having the support, to sit with those painful experiences, and see them with fresh eyes and compassion.
So if you’re on an inner work journey, or thinking about embarking on one, hopefully these thoughts can serve as a compass to help you navigate your way back to remembering you are loveable just as you are.