Sarah May Bates
April 04, 2015 1:15 pm

If you prefer to listen, here’s the podcast version of this post.

If you’re out there battling the various stages of doing self-work, or if you’re aware you SHOULD do some of it and you’re kind of freaked out by the idea of it because it sounds too overwhelming, then this is a blog for you! It’s to describe the actual work in self-work, plus the various stages you will likely go through as you progress.

What is self-work?

It’s acknowledging something in yourself that needs to be addressed for the sake of growing. It’s what you decide to do when you look at your life and realize you’re not so stoked to be where you are. It arrives as a moment of clarity or a moment of fed-up-ness— with the negative conditions of your life or your current inability to break out of them. Maybe you’ve been stuck in a pattern that makes you unhappy. Maybe you just woke up one day and realized time has been flying by and you’re not where you thought you’d be. Maybe you just suffered a traumatic life change and you don’t know who you are anymore but everything has to change. Or, maybe you are choosing to grow and work on yourself based on new found stability in your life – like a good partner or a good job. Whatever the initiator, self-work is a process of learning, consistently applying, and then growing in an intentional direction based on who you want to be in this lifetime. It’s something embarked upon when a person has the awareness and understanding that they have the power to create the self they want to be, in every shape and form. The profound truth is that a simple decision to act on that information – by taking steps in an educated direction, is all that it takes to achieve the result.

What does an educated direction look like?

It usually starts with a thorough Googling of books, podcasts, videos, personalities, and specific terms related to self-help or the particular life-hurdle that you want to solve. If you’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of self-help and also the ickiness of most of it, you would start with the most pressing single factor in your life as a starting point. For example, if you are depressed and a recently divorced woman, you’d plug those words into Google or Amazon and see what had the most stars. Once you reduce the results to two or three that might appeal to you, then you might download the preview versions onto your iPhone. It’s like finding a hotel in a city you’ve never been to – or researching a new dishwasher. You compare and find the one that fits you.

If you’re looking for a more precise process and you’re in a weird limbo of discontent – then I have created a more organized timeline by which you might go about this process. It’s simple and it’s fast if you go all in. If you hesitate and half-ass it, you will likely make it harder for yourself and also make it drag out. With self-work I think it’s important to decide you’re going to go for it like you’ve never gone for anything else in your life. Balls to the wall, (whatever that means). Just decide you want it and jump.

How to begin the process, right now:

1. Take an honest inventory of yourself. Grab your journal or your phone, and take some uninterrupted alone time to reflect. You want to be able to look at yourself and where you are in your life in an objective fashion and write what it is you would like to change, without shying away from anything.

Basically, write a list to yourself of what you are struggling with in your life that is causing you emotional pain or creating a condition that you wish to overcome. This includes things that are negatively affecting your health, bad lifestyle habits, and any personal factors that hurt you, scare you, or cause you to remain stuck in place. Hardest of all, write down what you wish you could change even if part of you hates that idea or has believes that changing it is impossible. Once you brain-dump for a bit, next, put that list into an order of necessity. Meaning, what needs to change first for you to advance to a place to change the next item. That means anything life-threatening, anything that creates emotional stability, or anything required to meet your basic needs (enough sleep, shelter, nutrition, safety).

If you have already done this step – then holy crap, high fives and congratulations! Because THIS is the hardest part of self-work. It requires the most bravery and strength out of any stage you will go through. It can be so overwhelming and terrifying that many people simply can’t do it – instead they retreat into the stability of forced ignorance, choosing denial and unhappiness over the potential of looking at the truth. Why? Because it can be a lot to take in at once and what you don’t realize at the beginning of self-work, is you don’t DO it all at once. You will never have to take on more than you can manage, and you will have help. And help of all different kinds, because before you move to any stage, you build a support system to help you get there.

To look yourself squarely in the eyes and examine where you are, completely honestly, and CHOOSE to confront what that means demonstrates that you have what it takes. The decision itself is a testament to the will that lives inside of you – so have no fear, you can do this work no matter what it is. I know it’s scary from this stage– all the questions that swirl through your mind can make it seem so painful that it doesn’t seem worth it. “What if I don’t want to go to therapy?” “I don’t want to be exposed – I can’t do this, I don’t want anyone to know, even strangers…” “What if people I know, find out!” “What if they force me to go to a hospital!” “But I can’t change…” “But I can’t leave my husband…can I?” “But I can’t get out of this house,” “But I don’t want to look back into my childhood – there’s nothing positive there and I don’t want to talk about it…” If you’re confronting something overwhelming, looking at the problem forces you to think about it and almost willfully bring something negative into your consciousness. I know that seems counter-intuitive and extremely painful, but it won’t be like that.

The theories and fears you have in your mind right now are not real. And it won’t feel anything like you think it will. From this point, everything will feel impossible. You can’t look at this process like that. Because the truth is you have no idea what it will be like, or how long it will take, or what path you will follow – but it will likely be half as painful as you’re making it out to be. The future and whatever it brings is not for you to worry about or solve from this point. You will find the path that works for you and you will reach the goal you set for your life. All of it takes time to solve and marinate on. You will not know how it will feel until you get there, and when you do reach that stage, the decision-making will come naturally. You will be inspired and move from a stable and educated place, a little bit at a time, so don’t worry about the fiftieth step– just start this inventory, and once you’re done, move to the step two.

Because the truth is all it takes is the DECISION to move forward on this road – and pursue your dreams, your goals as your best self – or even the self that’s just stable and healthy and okay – and once you DECIDE that and say to yourself, “I want that for myself” then it’s as good as yours. Just start with the first step you need to take. Don’t be afraid – whatever it is, there is someone just like you. Who has the problems you have. And if you’re thinking yours are different and you’re broken – that is what everyone thinks.

Personal Inventory Tool: Personal History

If you’re having a hard time finding the beginning or end of your problems- like for example, perhaps your life is just crappy and you are stuck and there’s nowhere to even start, this is a framework tool to help you pinpoint some key “bullet point” kinds of issues.

Basically, you are going to start by looking at your life story from the present day backwards. Begin just by rewriting the milestones that have occurred and any relevant relationships that affected you. I recco creating a journal entry – just a long narration that covers large changes and experiences that affected you – motivations you had. Any traumas, or powerful relationships. If this is too much to do alone, I recco seeing a professional for this process! I don’t want you to do this and get emotionally triggered and overwhelmed! That can be re-traumatizing to say the least. I know lots of us have a habit of wanting to run into the pain because we think it makes it more real – or we think it will get it out – or we think it will help us be more comfortable with it. Well that’s not the case all the time. SO be very careful how you go about this process. If it gets too intense, put the exercise away for another time.

Once you complete your timeline, you can highlight any moments that changed your life in a direction that you feel harmed you. Don’t go past that – just highlight the most relevant factors that created your current condition of self: the details that set up the habits and dynamics you want to change.

Done? These are going to be your bullet points for research – literally you are going to put the highlighted milestones/events in a list in order of severity.

Regardless of how your life has BEEN it’s about to change along with your mind. Why? Because you are going to be proven to that the past is not your condition in life. It’s not who you are. It’s what you will learn from and decide to grow as a result of. Which brings me to…

Stage 2: What do you want for yourself in your life?

After you look at your problems honestly – you get to decide what it is you want for yourself in life. More than anything. Choose the gift you will give to yourself in your life – one that you deserve, that you were meant to have – before this other stuff happened to get in the way. If you’re suffering from an affliction – top of that list should be “health” and “life.” Other stuff might include something simple like, “relief” or “stability.”

Whatever those goals are, you get to choose the result you WILL HAVE for reals, right now. So write that wish list down and get excited about it. Really savor this process and focus on the ideal outcome you would ever get from this process of self-work.

My only caveat is they must be for you and in support of self-love, not for someone else at the cost of you – like it can’t be something like “Skinny, so hot guys will love me” – that’s coming from another blinded place of pain inside and it would mean that you cannot see yourself honestly.

Once you’ve got your list, you are going to use this as your guide for the next step.

Stage 3: Choosing Your Path

You have your “honest inventory” and you have your “what I want for myself” goals lists and now you put those two together to map out the growth and learning that needs to happen. It will take time and proper education – so yes, you’ll have to do some research on the subject matter. Additionally, your life will have to bend to your self-work. That means, your goals-list is going to be your holy grail from this point forth. Everything else comes after your health and sanity and all of your actions must serve your higher goal and help you maintain your path. So keep your eyes and heart locked on these and treat them as gospel. They are what will guide your decision-making moving forward, in every shape and form. I don’t mean you have to break up with your husband and cut off all your friends: you need your happiness and as much balance as you can get, but sometimes that means you have to skip meeting their needs and instead meet yours. It takes commitment and going all-in for this to really work and go quickly and smoothly.

As you begin the search for the appropriate help based on how you might build a solid foundation – start with the most essential part first. Let’s say it’s something that threatens your health: that needs more immediate attention over new career aspirations. Sometimes you have to do a couple of them at once, and if that’s more your style – go for it, but whatever you do don’t uproot yourself as it can lead to a greater trauma that causes you to regress and hide for a long time. Take measured steps that you know you can handle. Do it with as much support as you can. Let others in your life know what you are going through so that they might be able to help and support you. If they scoff at you or resent your decision, it’s to be expected: it’s because they are afraid of what that means for them. Don’t listen, stay the course – reach out for help you can rely on.

Depending on the severity of your particular challenge, you might need a help-group and/or a therapist. But if that scares the shit out of you, just start with what appeals to you, that feels safe to you. I know it’s overwhelming, so to start, I recco choosing some modern and very focused reading on specific topics that relate to things that hinder your stability. When selecting the right book, it’s important that you choose a modern voice that is palatable and not gross and depressing, which can take quite a few tries. (That’s why “SAMPLE” is the best button ever to grace a smartphone.)

Stage 4: Building the New Muscle

This section of the work will be done at your own pace – and it will be very simply BUILDING NEW HABITS. The real “work” of self-work comes in during this stage – and it’s literally going through the motions when it gets boring and you start to plateau. Personal growth happens because you choose new habits and train them into your behavior via repetition to the point that you wonder if it’s still working. You make it a part of you with sheer repetition.

I think it takes at least a month to feel the true affects translated into your person – before that it’s just going to be the old you looking at the new habit with fear or discomfort. So this part you’ve got to treat like a marathon of sorts. Just keep doing it and don’t stop. New habits are going to be reinforced through constant focus and redirection, because when you hit a stumbling block it can cause you to get scared and retreat and before you know it, you’ve regressed into the old habit again. Don’t let that happen. Keep your eye on the prize, redirect your attention away from worry. Focus on influences that inspire your growth and surround yourself with individuals with qualities you want to inherit as part of yourself. Much like listening to this podcast, you’re going to immerse yourself in supportive content at all times.

At the beginning of creating change, treat this as an absolute process: it needs to be an all-in and relentless for at least 3-6 months, and after that you can get a little bit more comfortable in the way you choose to maintain. Once you have some practice, self-work is more of a honing and evolving your preferred methods so that you have a process that is perfectly dialed to your lifestyle. You are going to see the affects and start to feel which work better for you and which won’t and once you choose a perfect daily routine you get a bit of freedom to add new elements to your focus.

Know that during this stage you will go through many different ups and downs: recognize that ahead of time and don’t let them tip you off balance. You might hit a high of awesomeness: you’ll see the changes in yourself and feel wonderful and want to share it with the world it’s so great! And out of nowhere you might hit a weird feeling of stuck-ness where you can’t seem to un-train a particular habit that pops up. Maybe it’s something like worry – and then you become so focused on the fact that you thought you untrained that old habit and it upsets and angers you to see it back. Then that spirals into another depression and you can’t find any tool to undo it and suddenly it feels insurmountable: suddenly these old habits feel more powerful because you can’t figure out how to help yourself. And it is in these moments – when our work comes into question – that the most unlikely tool would be best applied.

Oddly, in the times when you are struggling with your self-work the most – and getting trapped by the frustration or worry that it’s not working, “Why can’t I change?! Why is this taking so long— when will my tools work?!” Those are the moments when your work is literally to step back and let go. To accept the thoughts, allow them to exist and then pass, but not engage them. To apply all physical soothing tools that can address the chemical state of your body, and nothing more. Because the thought process in itself is a trap: a distraction that you fell for by paying it your attentive respect. We all have powerful and obsessive thought patterns that can arrive wearing the costume of something real that demands attention. And it can be difficult to remember that all thoughts are just thoughts – they are not who you are, and you can choose which ones to value and which ones to pass.

It’s an old obsessive thought habit that needs to be untrained and untangled. But most importantly, let go of. Sometimes in the face of our most frustrating personal habits – we must remember simply to enjoy ourselves. To be alive. To exist and let go of moving in any direction. To remember that we can and should smile – right now, and be okay as we are. That we are in fact wonderful, beautiful humans – without having to change a thing. We are not bad, we are not failing. We are great, and awesome. Don’t let this stupid thought-habit steal your focus and make you so hyped up and serious that you forget that you have the option to let it go. To let all of this thinking go. And just allow yourself to “Be” as you are. The thoughts demand you feel so worried and frustrated – but that’s optional. It’s pretty silly, really – to get so caught up in them. Because they are not real – they are trivial, and in order to be dismantled, sometimes you just have to step back into your being a little bit more. Step back from the analysis.

Just let go. Stop trying to control. Trust that this work you are doing will work – it takes time, and once you see the affects – you will know that forevermore. And those thoughts won’t be able to convince you so well. In the face of strengthening this muscle I recommend you try to meditate using any methodology– you can deliberately get your brain to follow your orders the more you practice doing it on a daily basis. So for example, NOW I can close my eyes and do deep breathing and I can pretty quickly get to a place of mental stillness. Remember that all thoughts are OPTIONAL. And you get to choose the ones you want to validate and listen to – and you can separate from the ones not serving you that you want to just let float on by and evaporate.

Which brings me to a great new announcement – I’m hosting a contest to win a free year of Headspace. I’ve talked about Headspace before, but if you’re unfamiliar it’s an amazing meditation app that helps you train your mind to clear of brain chatter with very simple and doable instruction. This is just available to my listeners/readers so if you’d like to enter (and you can access Headspace) you are invited to enter right here! And good luck lovelies. Regardless of the method, I hope you start a form of meditation for it because the more calm and brain quiet you have, the more capable you will be in your self-work.

And best of all, the final stage of your work is a state similar to euphoria. You will not be looking back at how far you’ve come for quite a while – you’ll just keep running in the same direction. And then one day you’ll get all these new gifts in your life as a result of it and you’ll be forced to stop and acknowledge the changes you’ve made in your life. You will look around and see, “Wow – I really AM this person now! This is so cool!” And those gifts will hit you in waves, again and again – they will overcome and shock you with their gravity. You will be unable to comprehend that life could be this amazing, and you will be so grateful, so overcome with gratitude, that you will weep. And likely, often.

And the best part is once you get through all the work you wanted to do – you will be operating against a whole new bar. Your life and person will be at a whole new level with all the new skills and tools you are great at using, and you’ll realize how far ahead of others you are because of what you had to address and work through. You are now so strong and powerful because of how scary the path you took was, and you did it anyway.

And THAT’S when the real magic happens! You get to become the best self you can imagine and even faster than you would have thought possible – because when you grow yourself, you get good at growing. So momentum builds quickly and carries through to all your growth in the future.

It will all be a blur in your memory one day. And it will absolutely 10000% be worth it, so much so that you will want to tell others how to get there, just like you did. Like for example, in a blog, or in a podcast.

I hope you liked this – and if you did, please share it! And if you have a moment I am asking all my readers to take a survey about how I can better serve you. If you’ve got a moment please check it out here. Thanks for reading – and if you have requests, by all means – please write me. I absolutely LOVE your letters. Sending you all my love and vibes of positivity.

Featured image via Shutterstock