How Facing Yourself Changes Everything
I remember the moment like it was yesterday. I was sitting on the step of my neighbor’s house slowly pulling on a cigarette. I stubbed it out and said “crap!” My neighbor and friend looked at me with a confused expression. I turned and looked at her with a crinkled forehead.
“What’s wrong? “ she asked.
“I’m going to have to go to move into the monastery,” I said with a deep sigh.
“But isn’t that a good thing? Don’t you want to go?” she replied.
“Yes, but I know if I go there I’m going to have to face myself and that’s not something I really want to do”
A few weeks later, I moved my stuff into a small dormitory and would spend the next 2+ years waking up at 3:50 meditating intensely and facing myself again and again. It changed everything about me and taught me that facing yourself is one of the hardest and most valuable things we can do in this life.
The Hardest Part of Change
The hardest part of making real change is facing yourself. Often we think that the things that hold us back are out there in the world. In truth very often what holds us back is in our own hearts.
Facing yourself can be scary and painful. However, if we don’t learn to face ourselves we greatly limit our ability to transform.
Trying to change ourselves by only changing our circumstances is like trying to fix up a dilapidated house by repainting it. The house may look nicer, but the walls will still have termites and the foundation will still be cracking.
We may be able to fool some people. Maybe even a lot of people but anyone with any insight will be able to see right through our façade. When we face ourselves, we create the conditions for deep change.
When we really face ourselves, it’s like waking up from a dream. We can see clearly, what is holding us back. We see clearly, where we need to work to create change.
How to Face Yourself
In my experience, there are two major parts to facing yourself. The first is learning and understanding your values or vows. And the second is accepting and working with your mistakes and your shadow.
The first part is about getting familiar with your light and all that makes you good, noble, and wise. The second part is about getting to know and understand the parts of yourself you’d prefer to ignore or destroy.
In this post, I’m going to focus primarily on the first part of this process, understanding your values. And I’ll follow it up with another post where I focus primarily in working with your shadow.
3 Practices to Discover What Really Matters
1. Write down what I care about –
The first step to seeing yourself is looking at your aspirations. What is it in life that you really care about?
Years ago I read the 7 Habits of highly effective people and in that book Steven Covey suggests that you imagine your own funeral. You do so with as much detail as possible and then you imagine what you hope people would say about you.
I remember when I did this exercise, it brought a lot of clarity about what I cared about. No one at my imaginary funeral talked about all the hot girls I dated, or that I got a high score on call of duty. I realized that if I didn’t care that people talked about those things when I died why did I worry about it so much in my daily life.
I wanted people to talk about how I was there for them. How I was a good listener and friend. How I lived a life of integrity. This exercise sticks with me to this very day.
I think doing this whole exercise is very valuable, but if you just want to get a taste, you can try a shortened version.
Think of the 4-6 most important people in your life. If your funeral was 5 years from now and they each had to say 1-2 sentences about who you were, what would those sentences be? Take a minute to think and then write them down.
This will give you a good sense of the 4-6 most important things in your life.
It might look like this
Partner: He was always romantic and supportive of me.
Friend: He was always there for me and listened to my problems
Client: He supported me in making hard changes in my life and was very kind.
Temple: He was really involved and active in the community
2. Understand the Why?
This is where many life coaches or books would stop. You see your goals and then you go get them, but when you face yourself, you have to do more than set goals. You have to ask the question, why do I want these things?
While the goals people set are vastly different, the reasons we set them are usually very similar. From a very young age, my sister was very focused on making good grades. She used to get upset when she got a B on a test and worked tirelessly all throughout high school.
Years later when I asked her why she did this, she told me she wanted to make good grades so she got into a good college and got a good job. She wanted to have a good job so she could live in a nice house and support herself and her family.
I on the other hand goofed off in school. I spent more time socializing and did sports. I was much more interested in making friends and having a good time. I always wanted to have lots of friends and enjoy life as much as possible.
From the outside it may seem like our motivations were very different, but actually we are very similar. We both wanted to live happy lives, we wanted security, and we wanted to feel good about who we were. But we each went about this in a different way.
For me being happy meant living a life full of adventure, for her it meant living life based on a set plan. For her security meant a good job, for me security meant having lots of friends. I felt good about myself when I was in the center of the action, she felt good about herself when she made big achievements.
Our strategies were different, but the needs those strategies served were very similar.
Often our goals reveal our strategies, but they don’t reveal what needs those strategies serve.
Take that list of 4-6 sentences and ask yourself, “If all these sentences were true about me how would I feel? Who would I be if they were true?” And write down your answers.
Let’s take one of my sentences from above: Friend: He was always there for me and listened to my problems.
If this sentence was true (and I’d like to think it is) it would make me feel like I had connected with my friends and that I was part of a community. If it were true, it would mean I was a person who was reliable and was present.
This statement reveals why being a good friend is important to me. It shows I care about, connection and community. I indicates that being reliable and present are things I really value in my relationships and something I want to share with others.
3. Examining Your Life
Once you have a good sense of why you want you want you’ll have a good sense of the needs that are important to you and the principles that you value. Knowing this about yourself is very valuable information. Now comes the hard part.
You have to ask yourself with all honesty, “Am I living inline with these needs and values?” The reason that this question is so hard is that very often the answer is no.
In some ways, it doesn’t make any sense, if we know what we care about why don’t we live our lives in accord with our principles and values. The reason is that expressing these values is scary. Very often, they lie at the center of our hearts and reflecting on them makes us feel naked and vulnerable.
We know on some level that we aren’t living in accord with them and we feel guilt and shame. And so, we do our best to distract ourselves. We focus on work, on recreation, and anything else so we don’t have to feel bad.
We think that if we own up to these values we will see how lacking we are and we can’t bear that feeling. But that is exactly what the practice of facing ourselves demands.
Once we know our values it’s time to take a serious inventory. We have to ask ourselves why isn’t this happening.
Looking at your list of 4 – 6 things and the needs that are associated with them ask yourself. Am I living in alignment with these values? Am I meeting these needs? And write down your answers.
Try to think of yourself as a dispassionate accountant who is merely looking at your life circumstances. This exercise isn’t designed to make you feel awful about yourself but just to help you see what is standing in the way of your real and lasting transformation.
In the example I’ve been using I ask myself why might my friends not say I was always there for them and listened. I think about interactions with my friends where I wasn’t present and I wasn’t reliable. As I do this, I remember times when I was messing with my phone instead of listening to them. I remember times when I didn’t return their phone calls or showed up really late to stuff we were doing together.
When I think about those things, I feel sadness that I didn’t live up to my aspirations. But I am not caught up in the pity party I just feel the sadness in my body. I can see why those things stopped me from being present.
4. Notice What Matters –
Often when people discover that their life is out of whack with their values their initial instinct is to restructure your entire life, but the truth is short of moving to a monastery drastic change is hard to sustain.
So instead of trying to change your whole life this week, I encourage you to write down the values that you discovered everyday. I also encourage you to notice when you are making choices that support these values and when you aren’t.
You can easily add these to a daily journal practice or use another system to keep track of them. Ask yourself, what can I let go of that would give me more space to choose what I care about?
The first and hardest step to creating changing is seeing what really matters and how our lives are or are not in alignment with that. Once we have seen this clearly it becomes easier and easier to make choices that are right for who we are and what we are called to do.
Be patient with this process and focus on observation. The more you learn now, the more it will help you further down the path.
Taking Action Vs Observation
Discovering your aren’t living a life aligned with what you care about can be overwhelming. And the desire to take drastic action or slip into denial is completely normal.
Which is why before I encourage any of my clients to make any big changes, I encourage them to take a deep breath and spend some time getting to know these values.
You can start with the simple practice of reading or writing these values everyday and noticing the choices you are making to move towards or away from them. You can do this by adding it to a simple journaling practice or by making it a practice all it’s own.
But don’t worry too much about the fact that your life might be a little out of whack right now. What really matters is that you are working to discover and clarify what matters to you.
One of the key teachings of mindfulness is that change comes from our willingness to notice and observe our lives with acceptance and compassion. Just by noticing these values you will begin to move towards them and even more, by being willing to bring these values consciously into your life, you have taken the first big step to creating the mindful, balanced, and happy life of your dreams.