There’s a part of me that knows exactly what I want, what will satisfy my heart’s desire, what will fulfill my most deeply felt purpose in the world. Then there’s the part of me that anticipates all of the risk-taking that that would involve, panics, and shrieks: “Poppycock! Jibberish! Don’t listen to that balderdash!”
Life coach and author Martha Beck calls the part of us that knows what we want the “essential self.” Other people call it true nature, intuition, spirit, or higher power. Regardless of what you call it, in my experience it holds the key to happiness. When I listen to it, I follow my dreams and passion on a wild adventure full of excitement, energy, meaning, and fulfillment. I experience deep satisfaction as I follow my gut, whether it’s taking a nap when I think I should work or moving to a new city because it feels right, even if I’m not entirely sure of all the reasons why. When I don’t follow my essential self, things go wrong, my life seems rote and devoid of purpose and eventually, if I don’t listen long enough, I get terribly, terribly anxious.
Anxiety is a funny thing. It’s easy to focus on the anxiety itself and bemoan a state that arouses our most powerful fight or flight response and makes us feel like we’re on the edge of annihilation. When I’m anxious, it seems like nothing is okay in the world, everything is going to turn out badly, and I’m hopeless and helpless to do anything about it. If I can get past the unpleasant feeling of being anxious, though, it always points to some way that I’m out of line with my essential self. Sometimes I’m feeling vulnerable—hurt, angry, scared, sad, lonely, or embarrassed—and I’m doing everything I can to avoid feeling what’s actually true for me in that moment. Instead of feeling the difficult emotion, I feel anxiety, which distracts me and allows me to put off feeling vulnerable.
Sometimes anxiety points to a deeper misalignment with my essential self. Sometimes when it’s clobbering me hardest and tenaciously sticking around like a particularly unwanted houseguest, if I look into what’s really going on, I find that I’ve been pushing myself too hard, listening to my Inner Perfectionist and overriding the protestations of my essential self. It could be as small as habitually doing chores or being productive when what I really need is to rest or spend time with a friend. Or it could be as big as refusing to end a relationship that’s clearly not working for me.
This method of pointing out that I’m headed in the wrong direction or about to board the wrong train can sometimes seem cruel, an overly painful way to get my attention. But the truth of the matter is, when I look back, I can usually see how my essential self tried to get my attention more gently. Usually it starts with a whisper. I have an idea that I’d like to do something, but it seems too indulgent or impractical, so I ignore it. The whisper turns to a statement, which, falling on deaf ears, then becomes a tap on the shoulder. I brush that off, explain it away as an accident, and it turns into a full-out roar. I promptly ignore that too. Only then, as a last resort, does it turn into a full-fledged kick in the butt, which usually sends me sprawling face first onto the ground.
I’ll give you an example.
I recently decided that it would be a good idea to implement a daily regimen of marketing to try to find more clients. Trouble was, as I tried to start my new marketing to dos, I discovered that I really didn’t want to do them. In fact, I hadn’t even wanted to read the marketing book that led to the regimen in the first place. But I got some pleasure out of imagining how amazing I would feel when I impressed people with how many clients I had, and so I managed to get myself to read the book and make my list and do everything short of actually starting it.
When it comes to will power, I usually have more than enough. As one friend frequently points out to me, I’m the person that ran a marathon on a broken foot (sadly true). And yet when I tried to get myself to find new clients, I felt suddenly ill and could barely summon the energy needed to get started. At the same time, I started to struggle with a bout of generalized anxiety. Everything seemed threatening and scary and impossible to handle and nothing—but nothing—seemed right in the world.
That’s because nothing was right in the world, at least my world. I was tuning my compass to the wrong coordinates, listening to my Inner Perfectionist instead of my essential self. When I stopped and checked into what was behind my anxiety (with the help of a trusted mentor), I realized that I wasn’t wanting to do marketing at all, and with good reason. I’m getting ready to move across the country to a city I haven’t lived in for 14 years. Every new client I made was a new tie to a place I’m trying to find the courage to move away from. In addition, what with everything else going on in my life, I didn’t have the energy to support more clients. My ego hates to admit that I have limitations, but here I was bumping quite ungracefully into a big one: I was at capacity with the number of clients I already had. I just didn’t have the energy needed to show up for more people in a meaningful way.
Looking for new clients made perfect sense to my Inner Perfectionist, which was concerned about money and status and what other people think, but not to my essential self. With the help of an outside perspective, I began to see the legitimacy of not wanting more clients. I saw how I could reassure my Perfectionist by finding other ways to make money while I grow my capacity to work with more clients. And though it may prove endlessly fascinating to anticipate what others will think, the honest truth is that their opinions really don’t affect my happiness. As I’ve discovered from previous experience, the only thing that can make me truly happy is to follow the guidance of my essential self.
So I committed to myself that I wouldn’t take on any more clients until I felt ready. Each time I didn’t pursue a lead or turned down a potential client, my Inner Perfectionist screamed that this meant I would never be a successful coach. It railed that others would judge me as weak and incompetent.
And yet despite the fear, I couldn’t be more pleased. As soon as I made the commitment and backed it up with action, I started to feel free, joyful, alive, and inspired. Suddenly everything seemed right in the world. I felt hopeful and powerful. And as an added bonus, I started having more insights and ideas for my current clients, as well as a greater ability to stay present with them in our conversations.
Could I have listened to my essential self when it was just a whisper in my ear, a desire not to market myself and look for more clients? Sure. Am I sometimes a stubborn donkey who finds it hard to let go of what she thinks makes sense even when it’s painful and no longer works for her? You bet. Sometimes having a high tolerance for pain just means we persist in painful activities longer. But lucky for me, my essential self has developed a fool-proof way to get my attention when I’ve gone donkey on it. I’ve started to think of anxiety not as a horrible state to be avoided at all cost but as a form of tough love from my essential self to the rest of me.
Maybe one of these days I’ll become a certified self-whisperer and won’t have to rely on anxiety now and then to know that I’ve gone off course. Until then, I’m thankful for this fail-safe GPS system that always recalculates a way to get home no matter how many wrong turns I make.