When someone reaches out to me - and many have - to tell me about how they are finding it harder to get out of bed in the morning; finding it harder to get to their high paying job they feel they should be grateful for in times as tough as these, the subtext I hear is often this, “I am crying out for meaning, I am crying out for creativity and fun, I am crying out for independence, for legitimacy, for honest self-expression.” This person knows that a meaningful life is not to be found in amassing volumes of dollars and cents per se. What this person is longing for is a deeper, more fulfilling life experience. But they also know that fear is holding them back. They remain stuck and fundamentally a prisoner of their imagination doing a job they hate, in an environment they despise, unable to summon the inner strength to let go and honour who they feel in their bones they truly are.
Finding the inner strength to be able to thrive in your own life, largely on your own terms, is a skill we are rarely taught as we grow up. As the Seligman experiments have shown, we each learn helplessness at an early age. From an early age our minds become boxed up into certain defined perspectives from which we spend the rest of our lives trying to break free. For those of us who feel we are interested and ready, there are some steps we must first consider.
Embrace Your Own Freedom
The first step toward thriving in your own life is to decide that you want to be free.
I define “being free” as the right to live your life in a way that is aligned with your deepest core values, both personally and professionally, and in a way that does no harm to another living being. Wanting to live a free life is a result of realising that you are not free in the first place, and in that state of imprisonment (either physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually) you cannot fulfil your potential as a human being, resulting in high levels of tension, anxiety and even conflict.
Know Your Deepest Values
My first truly serious reflection on values, their significance and how they evolve, began when I interviewed three women in a women’s maximum- security prison. My aim was to find out what drove the choices that landed these women in prison.
The first offender was serving a life sentence for murder. As a drug dealer with an eye on big bucks she had got into a fight with a rival dealer and had ended up drowning him. I asked her what it felt like as she held him down and the life ebbed out of him until it was gone. “I didn’t feel a thing,” she returned evenly, “It was him or me.” This woman appeared to feel very little. For her, life itself was quite meaningless. She lived in a random universe moving indiscriminately from one experience to the next with no thought to the impact she was having on those around her.
The second offender was an effervescent young woman in her late twenties with an amazing business as usual demeanour. This was the third time she had done time for fraud, each sentence lasting eighteen months. As an accountant working in small businesses, she stole on average $10,000 each heist and immediately deposited the amounts onto her mortgage. This made her shine in her husband’s eyes. She was immensely proud of her achievements. “I’m a user, a real winner!” she beamed. “I’ll have that mortgage paid off in half the time!” Her highest value was self-interest. She gave not a moment’s thought to the business owners she stole from. She knew this. Her greatest moments were when she turned someone else into a loser.
The third offender was an older woman serving two years for a different kind of fraud. She was noticeably more measured and thoughtful having used her time in prison to reflect deeply on her plight, on her values and her choices. “It’s terrible being in here,” she divulged. “The lowest point of my life was when they stripped me on the way in and treated me for lice I didn’t have. I paid the price and more for my choices.” A government department had made an error many years ago and sent her disability payment to her twice each month. This mistake had continued for years. Divorced, the extra payment allowed this woman to perpetuate the life she had been used to as an expatriate wife. “In the end”, she said, “it was a relief when I heard the footsteps coming along the path up to the house, I knew they’d come to get me and it was over.”
She knew in her heart that by taking the extra payment she was depriving someone else in need of that financial support. The stint in prison had given this woman time to reflect on the changes she had been unable to embrace when her husband left her for another woman, because at that time she had believed a woman should be supported financially by a loyal man. Once he was gone, she transferred this dependence to the state. Now, she had decided on clear goals driven by new values that supported her independence while helping others as a means of paying back what she had wrongly taken. Taking responsibility for that freedom, she would finally have the strength to move on and create a new and better life that included a sense of self-worth tempered with newfound wisdom.
Altogether, these stories show a progression from an existential vacuum towards self-interest, to eventually the development of a meaningful, integrated, values-driven life.
Acknowledge misalignments in your life
You do not necessarily need to go to prison to feel imprisoned. Imprisonment, the sense of it, is relative, and is the result of a misalignment between who we really are and the kind of life we are leading. This is commonly why people seek out coaching. They are struggling to know how to be strong enough to thrive despite what they might perceive to be insurmountable external pressures.
The women in prison showed me that being free has little do with the external world. Being free is an inside job—it is a matter of freeing yourself of your own conditioned thought patterns and making a conscious choice to live a real, meaningful life. To do that, you must recognise and honour your values, which really are the only rudder you have.
Take action to learn how to grow and thrive
Finding the inner strength to embrace your own freedom starts with you. Here are some places to start:
1.Fully accept your current situation warts and all
Often what keeps us stuck is the belief that it is not as bad as we think that we ‘should’ be grateful and put up with limitations. This creates inner conflict which is increasingly difficult to sustain. Accept your present situation for what it is and go from there.
Turn your attention inwards and face your own shortcomings with courage. Ask yourself the hard questions: for example, is there an aspect of me that is a thief, a bully, a coward, liar, cheat? Or, am I creating these difficulties so that I do not have to face taking responsibility for my own choices; my own behaviour? Or, am I denying my own inner strength so as not to rock the boat? Don't be afraid of asking yourself hard questions. Truth, facing it head on, can be the great liberator. No one is perfect. Until you recognise and accept your own denied shadow aspects both good and bad you will continue to project them onto others and have to face the consequences. By acknowledging them you come into your power and free yourself to grow into your real capabilities.
2.Realise that with self-belief, focus, commitment, and application anything is possible
Know this in your bones. Walk around the house repeating out loud, “I can learn and grow, everything is possible.” Do not allow your circumstances to define you.
3.Reflect and identify your deepest, most cherished values
Ask yourself questions like, what is my purpose? What are my talents? In what way can I contribute? What would real success look like for me? How can I add value for others? Who/how do I want to be going forward in my life now? Create a picture of your ideal self and life. Feel in your body what it is like to be that new self so that your evolution begins right now.
4.Identify the limiting beliefs that you need to let go and create new beliefs, now
For example, I am not good enough to do this now changes to I am more than capable enough. If I can imagine it, I can make it happen. Limiting beliefs cause internal noise and confusion. Clear your mind and make it peaceful, focused in the present and positive.
5.Make your action plan
Starting with a clear picture of your new life in mind, work backwards, mapping out the steps you need to take that will form the path to realising your goal. Take immediate practical, small steps along that pathway and feel yourself growing into the picture of what you genuinely want as you go.
6.Recognise obstacles as helpful tests
The world will test your conviction. Fear will probably come and go. Do not let it stop you. Trust yourself. Standing your ground for who you are regardless of inner and outer pressures will work for you not against you. Inner strength grows as you do what you thought you could not do.
Throughout your transition it is useful to have support from a coach for perspective-taking, for information, for ideas and for skills development. Surround yourself with people who appreciate and support you and move away from those who do not.
Finally, let us reflect on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s values:
and not to yield
And the following universal values:
Be strong and enjoy the journey!
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