There’s an old joke about a little boy digging his way through a railroad car full of horse manure. Somebody asks him why he’s doing it, and the little boy answers excitedly: “There’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere!”
This well-worn joke contains a message for many of us who are called to a path leading toward the “true self” or an authentic/congruent identity. Every person has an essential individuality – their unique “inner gold” – that is meant to be shared with a larger community. But at times, finding that inner gold can first demand digging through some “horse manure” – that is, inner baggage full of slights, wounds, sometimes even traumas – long buried deep down in the unconscious. I call this “doing the work.” And depending on the extent of that wounding, doing the work can sometimes mean allowing oneself to reconnect with some painful experiences and feelings, and sometimes it can take several years to fully work our way through those long-repressed memories.
That is why pursuit of the path of authenticity or congruence – technically known as “individuation” – is the “road less traveled.” Depending on our life circumstances, doing the work may require us to…
- Stop using: Let go of any addictions, such as alcohol, drugs, overeating, shopping, and sex, that serve to defend us against feeling the pain deep down inside; i.e. the “hole in the soul.”
- Stop running: i.e. to let go of various “life projects” (i.e. exciting but dysfunctional relationships or jobs) that have served as defenses and diversions – i.e. that have helped us to stay a few steps ahead of the emptiness and pain that is buried deep down inside, which is calling out to be remembered and integrated into our conscious being.
- Let go of the false self – We must go through a symbolic “death and rebirth”; the false self (persona) we constructed as a coping strategy, a survival strategy, in our families of origin in order to protect our “deep self” (true self) from ridicule, shame and wounding (to widely varying degrees) must die before the true, authentic self can be once again reborn.
- Let go of life strategies (ingrained, unconscious behavior patterns) that may have protected us at one time, early in our lives, but which have now become counterproductive in our current lives.
- Let go of certain people who are associated with the old, false self; i.e. people that want us to stay where we are because they are comfortable with our old self and don’t want to be forced to change and grow in response to our own changes and growth.
- Give up our pursuit of substitute parents – people who will “take care of us” because we feel overwhelmed by life or unable to successfully assume full responsibility for ourselves.
- Give up our role as substitute parent for one or more individuals who have difficulty with successfully taking responsibility for their own lives.
- “Re-member” – re-connect with and re-integrate into ourselves certain very painful memories connected to aspects of ourselves that we had to deny and suppress in order to survive – parts of ourselves that were “split off” and buried in the unconscious.
- Withdraw Projections – We must reclaim our unconscious behaviors, attitudes and aptitudes that we “find” in other people. We discover that the aspects of ourselves that we had to repress into the unconscious are “found” as traits in other people that “push our buttons”.
- Develop a spiritual life – to develop a relationship with a loving “Higher Power” for strength and guidance.
You may be saying that this is overwhelming, and that you can’t or don’t want to do it! Is it always this challenging (and painful)? The answer is “No, not always.” The depth and extent of “the work” required varies quite widely, depending on the level of health or disease that characterized one’s early upbringing. Some people, who grew up in loving and supportive families, hardly need to do any work at all, because they were encouraged to “be themselves” from the very beginning.
Unfortunately, in my experience such people seem to be in the minority. In my experience, most folks are dragging around some baggage; some a little, and some a lot. Most folks, in my experience, need to do at least some “work.” And doing the work requires commitment, tenacity, patience, courage – even “grit,” and the willingness to allow ourselves to feel the full spectrum of human feelings. It’s a case of “no pain, no gain.”
But it doesn’t have to be a grind, believe it or not! Remember that “the work” is done slowly, over time, in dribs and drabs. Looked at this way, it becomes manageable – a very “doable” part of our lives that will by no means cripple us or drag us down. It can be integrated into our lives so that it’s just one aspect of an increasingly full and fulfilling life. And it quickly becomes very liberating – enjoyable, even – as insights beget positive, healthy growth and change; and as painful feelings subside and give way to peace, contentment and self-acceptance.
Some people absolutely require formal psychotherapy to “do the work.” My experience, however, is that there are vast numbers of people, who need to do at least SOME work, but who absolutely do not require a psychotherapist. What these people need is a “conscious partner” – somebody who has “been there and done that” – someone who has done their own work – someone who is insightful, perceptive, communicative, supportive, compassionate – someone who knows the path and the pitfalls, and can serve as a supportive guide for somebody who is interested in doing the work. In short, they need a superb recovery coach.
The payoff is being authentic, being real; living our lives in congruence with our deepest, most heartfelt values, need and desires; developing compassion, integrity, resilience, fluidity; healing our inner pain; bringing more and more of ourselves to our professions and relationships; attracting healthier relationships; and basically, leading a much more fulfilling life.
Is it worth the work? That’s a question every person must answer to their own personal satisfaction.