I had a startling encounter with myself recently that came at an unexpected time, with unanticipated intensity. During a heated argument with someone I love, I found myself in dark yet familiar territory: The Shadow Land, as I’ve come to call it. This is a place I’ve known all my life—one that I decided years ago to travel far, far away from but that somehow has a way of calling me back from time to time. In the midst of this particularly painful exchange, I found myself there again and felt all those old emotions that I swore to myself (much more than once) I’d never feel again. I was out of my depth; I felt out of control. As the awful words tumbled out of my mouth and the dark emotions surged through me, I disconnected from the purest parts of myself and went completely into shadow mode. I didn’t like who I was being or where I was going in that moment, but I was compelled to keep spiraling deeper into it. What a painful experience. What an awful, well-worn path to tread. It’s tough to admit this—especially given the pressure placed on people in my position to act as if we’ve got it all together all the time— but if owning up to it makes any sort of contribution to anyone else’s process, it’s well worth it.
As someone doing the kind of work I do, I have the benefit of getting an insider’s view of the painful insecurities and disowned shadowy bits that plague most people. If we’re willing to look closely, all of us can find parts of ourselves we’re unwilling to own; parts of our stories we’re unwilling to forgive; parts of our lives we’re unwilling to accept. Some of us are at war with ourselves, unable to live comfortably in our own skin. Others—perhaps those who have ventured into the territory of healing and made the brave and radical decision to shine love and acceptance where there has been darkness—know the pain and disappointment of realizing that the work isn’t done. This was my experience as I found myself losing touch with my light. This is the experience of owning the unfortunate yet inevitable truth—that self-acceptance and self-love are a lifelong project.
We’re living in interesting times, where self-improvement is in style, and everywhere we look, someone’s offering a quick and easy solution to peace everlasting. But let’s be honest: human nature is more complex than we’ll ever understand, and the road to total self-acceptance is a long and winding one. Books, seminars, coaching, and therapy can give us direction and equip us with the tools we need to find our way; but Life, as always, remains in charge, finding myriad ways to put us in touch with the unacknowledged, unforgiven, disowned parts of ourselves. The dark matter, as it turns out, runs deep—and so does the work of shining our light there.
After spending some time battling my demons and forgetting everything I’ve ever known—or taught—about self-acceptance and self-love, I found my breath and allowed myself to re-align. I called upon my courage and committed to doing some exploring of everything that was unearthed when this person so close to me triggered something I had no idea was lurking beneath the surface. But first, I did some serious ugly crying, jotted some notes in my journal, gave myself a big hug, and got back to the business of living. Because this is what we self-helpers tend to gloss over: sometimes, we can’t just Namaste the pain away and bathe ourselves in blissful self-love. Sometimes, pulling ourselves together and wearily declaring a truce is all we can manage. The process, as I said, is a deep one, and the journey toward boundless self-love might be never-ending. So sometimes, the best we can do is stay with the process and sit with the pain of what hasn’t yet healed, trusting that shining the light of our awareness into the darkness is its own powerful form of progress.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if only we read enough, meditate enough, go to enough yoga classes, or repeat enough mantras, we’ll be healed forever. I mean, how appealing is it to believe that we can free ourselves, once and for all, from the shackles of insecurity, self-doubt, and self-loathing? But the truth is, when we buy into the notion that the self-love project is one we can conquer swiftly and completely, we only add to our own suffering. Maybe instead, we can let ourselves settle into the lifelong journey and appreciate the process of learning as we go. Maybe we can brace ourselves for those dark nights of the soul, trusting that they’ll usually wind up being the greatest contributions to our growth.
Listen, I’ll be the first to tell you: personal development work is not for the faint of heart. It’s gruesome to face down the self-limiting beliefs and unresolved emotional drama living inside us. But despite what any late-night infomercial or well-funded Facebook ad might try to sell you on, it’s the only way transformation can happen. We’ve got to face it and feel it to heal it; and we’ve got to be ready for the lifelong project of self-growth, self-love, self-acceptance, and self-improvement. But though the journey is long and the work deep, I, for one, take great comfort in knowing that we’re in this together. All of us breathing and learning and healing and growing, side by side—all of us contributing to and gaining from one another’s beautiful journeys.