No matter the age, many of my clients report that after achieving career and personal goals, they feel more empty than proud. They are told they should be pleased with themselves, that they are role models, but they feel out of balance and uncertain.
They come to me either looking at their past and wondering what they lost along the way, or they are anxious about the future and wondering what’s next. What they hope for rarely involves money; they want to feel whole and complete when they wake up. They wonder if their sense of imbalance has a spiritual or physical cure as they try to sort out their state with logic.
Parker Palmer, author of On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old,1 says our sense of imbalance comes from living a life where our personal values cannot be expressed in the public world.
Living a Divided Life
I read Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Irving Goffman over 40 years ago. Dr. Goffman used the metaphor of a theatrical performance to explain how we show up in work and social situations, separating our backstage and onstage lives.2 All of our lives, we received messages about who we should be and what we should do. We don’t want to be judged, shunned, or belittled so we don’t express the parts of ourselves and desires that don’t align with these messages. We deny our values—what is most important to us—to fit in.
In moments of our lives when we aren’t busy with work or family, the gap creates either a feeling of emptiness or anxiety. We feel, “Something is wrong with my life” or, “Something is wrong with me.” The years of self-denial have separated us from our purpose. Some people tell me they feel they don’t have a soul.
How do you regain a sense of purpose in your life? How can you feel a connection with others that allows you to be spontaneous and real?
“So a key spiritual practice for me is trying to pay close attention to my choices,” says Parker Palmer, “… at key points, asking the questions about what I’m putting into the world and how I’m taking the world in … we must understand that no reward the world can give us could possibly be greater than the reward that comes from living by our own best lights.” Palmer says we should live, “divided no more,” so we can show up as our true selves.
Realigning Your Inner and Outer Self
Start with compassion and generosity for yourself. Then uncovering what you most value, giving voice to what is most important to you, is a good place to start. Here are five things you can do to help you feel you are living your inner and outer life in alignment:
Discover what gives you a sense of purpose. Notice during the day when you do something that opens your heart. You might feel fulfilled. You might feel gratitude for the life that has brought you to this moment. You might feel motivated to re-create this moment often before you talk yourself out of it. Write down what occurred so you can keep it as a reminder of what fulfills you, especially when life feels exhausting, lonely, or stressful.
List what you most value. Values are tangible things/relationships and circumstances that fill us with a sense of security, fulfillment, and happiness. Examples include health, loving relationships, adventure, play/movement that brings you joy, an environment that feeds your aesthetic sensations, freedom, achievement, learning, contribution, advocacy, or success. Choose your top five values from this list to help you compose your future, fulfilling life.
Acknowledge what can move you toward living in full alignment with your values. Your values may conflict with those you live and work with. You may need to delay living in alignment with your values based on circumstances right now. Can you envision a future where you more fully live a life that honors your highest values? Write or draw this vision, or print pictures you can paste into a collage, that represent the life you can create. This vision will help you maintain hope over helplessness, and gratitude over resentment.
Make a “redirect” list. At least twice a year, find a quiet place to reflect on your life’s journey. When you look at your current life compared to what you want to create, what gets in the way that you can address or resolve? The “redirect” list might include draining people you need to let go of or decrease time with; habits you want to replace; or tedious tasks that can be automated or delegated so you have more time to spend on moving forward with your life.
Remember who you are. Michael Bungay Stanier in his book, How to Begin,3 says you don’t have to be perfect to be good enough to begin living a life that matters. On your journey, when you doubt yourself, stand up and say, “I am…” and declare out loud your five best qualities. Recall a peak moment in your life when you felt in flow or proud of what you did. What gave you energy—your courage, love, patience, determination, faith, humor, grit, passion, creativity, strength? Claim your top five powers. Remind yourself daily you have enough of what you need to take even small steps toward creating the life you know is worth living.
Remember that others may judge your choices, using the dreaded word “should” as they try to convince you to hide your dreams. Their judgments are not in your control. What is in your control is to nourish your desires because you feel worthy of creating a life that matters. That’s how you wake up feeling whole and content.
1 Parker Palmer, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, June 26, 2018.
2 Erving Goffman, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor (June 1, 1959)
3 Michael Bungay Stanier, How to Begin. Page Two (January 11, 2022)
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