Whether or not you’ve been paying attention to it, you—like every other human being—move through each day leading on a ceaseless inner conversation. You talk to yourself about what is happening and what it means. You relate today’s events to yesterday’s struggles and tomorrow’s possibilities. You define your character and decide which roles you’ll play with others.
You judge some parts of your experience as favourable and others as unacceptable. You decide what to fix and what to leave alone. You give meaning to each dream, each longing, each discomfort. You formulate ideas about what happens inside other people’s heads.
Your inner conversation is more than the sum total of thoughts that roll around in your head from day to day. It is the relationship you have with yourself and how that relationship connects you to the rest of existence. It is the lens through which you perceive reality. Thus, it defines the world you think you live in—a place that might be radically different from the real world.
How you talk to yourself decides how you feel about yourself and others. It influences the choices you make about big and little things. It determines the actions you consider essential and the ones you consider dangerous, the desires you honour and the ones you repress, the plans you make for days to come and the lessons you learn from days gone. Your inner conversation decides the quality of each moment in your life; and beyond the quality of each moment, what else is there? What else matters?
Despite its value, many of us neglect our inner discourse. We seek the answers to our problems outside ourselves. We buy into the tempting idea that better life circumstances will bring us happiness. How could we not? After all, this message is plastered on our billboards, written into our movie scripts, and woven into our advertisements. Hypnotized by modern-day consumerism, we miss the obvious gaps in such logic. We all know people who seem to have everything but appreciate nothing. And for every imaginable misfortune, we can find examples of people who have blossomed from it. One person loses an arm and falls into alcoholism, shame, and despair. Another person loses an arm and becomes a world-renowned Paralympian. This difference is not inherent within the people or the situation. It is a consequence of how each person translates the meaning of losing an arm. How they respond to life’s events comes down to what they tell themselves happened.
We seek fulfillment in money, accomplishment, approval, status. We seek it in other people. One particularly harmful idea carried by our cultural narrative is that you need to find someone who will love you. Imagine if we believed this about any other basic need: food, water, oxygen. If you needed another person to provide you with those, you’d be considered dependent—if not disabled. Yet we so willingly put ourselves in this state with love.
If someone else notices our qualities and talents, we think those parts of us must be worthwhile. Our potential floats like an island in the sea—uncharted, unexplored. We long for someone to discover us, admire us, colonize us. But why must it be another person? Why can’t you sail that voyage and explore yourself?
We tend to believe that once we get the right attitude, the right habits, the right belief systems, everything will be perfect. We place happiness into the hands of some future event, and we use ourselves to reach it. We think we’re looking within, but we’re still dabbling near the surface: objectifying ourselves and then becoming frustrated when those objects do not bend to our will.
Our ideas about what lies within us keep us from open-minded self-exploration. Our unmasked selves do not look as we think they should, so we try our best to keep them out of sight. We hide from others, and we hide from ourselves. We neglect the gold mines of potential within us because we’re too busy trying to make ourselves perfect. We overlook our deepest possibilities while we search for joy in shallow waters. But no amount of money, accomplishment, or romance will bring you joy until you learn to talk to yourself about joy (or until you stop talking your-self out of it).
To journey into your inner conversation, you must go deeper than you have ever gone before. Any of us can notice negative self-talk patterns or note the stories we make up about other people, but changing these patterns is possible only for those who see the whole picture. The inner conversation is like a forest. You might read a book about gathering tree sap or avoiding poisonous snakes, and that might be helpful. But when you get out there, the wilderness will not contort itself to match your knowledge about it. It will be as it is. Therefore, you must do the contorting.
Here, we meet self-awareness. When I use this term, I am referring to the practice of trying to observe yourself as you are and not just how you imagine yourself to be. If you do not call this self-awareness, that is all right. If this is not how you define self-awareness, that is all right too. You are entitled to your definitions. I am not here to change them. I am here to communicate something to you. You can embrace my definitions without surrendering yours. Words, after all, have no inherent meaning.
Awareness is a process of seeking truth. The inner conversation is the place we’re going to explore. A truth seeker needs both: to know how to look and where to look.
Without self-awareness, you can only go so deep into your inner conversation. You can only hear so much. You can only change so much. A person who doesn’t understand flowers might tug on them to make them grow. A person who doesn’t speak the language of someplace might misread the locals’ sentiments and intentions. Yet you are already such a flower, and your inner locals—your emotions, your body, your thoughts—are already speaking to you. If you don’t learn the language of your experience, then how can you understand yourself? How can you help yourself?
Everything you need for your adventure is already within you. Look. Look within—not with an agenda but with curiosity. Look with love. Think of how you do this to others. When you love people, you are curious about who they are, what they think, and how they feel. You watch them closely, wondering about their experience and what you can do to make it more enjoyable. You feel compassion for their pain and seek to make it more bearable. You are eager to learn the unique language of their existence. You want to understand them, inspire them, heal them. What if you could look at yourself this way?
The curiosity with which you ponder the people you love assumes that they’re worth exploring. Do you presume the same about yourself? Do you know how many undiscovered riches there are in your experience? Throughout your life, you have embraced some things, and you have abandoned others. You have been assertive, and you have been calm. You have listened, and you have spoken. So you already know how to hold on, let go, speak up, shut up, light up, and calm down. You don’t need any- one to tell you what to do. You can figure that out for yourself—if only you can unleash your wild curiosity about the mysteries within you.
Only you can allow yourself to explore the person in the mirror. Only you can coax yourself into a daring adventure to find your untapped potential. After all, who can see inside the deepest recesses of your imagination and manifest those wishes into your daily experience? Who can appreciate the subtle nuances of character you’ve acquired by overcoming your deepest fears? Who can acknowledge the demons that are no longer controlling you because of the work you’ve done to release them? Who can see the strength left behind in the wake of your toughest struggles? Who will see you for who you are—appreciating everything that is there, everything that is not, and everything that can be—if you do not? Who else can?
Your inner conversation is bursting with information. Learning to harness it will help you become an active participant in the creation of your life. You don’t need to wait for someone else to notice your talents before nourishing them. You don’t need others to accept you to feel accepted. You don’t need to wait.
You can begin, at any moment, to work on noticing, nourishing, and accepting yourself. You can work on being a better friend to your reflection. You can start listening to yourself like you wish other people would. You can become curious about who you are. You can begin to learn the language of your mind and body so that you can decode it, understand it, speak it. You can work on understanding yourself instead of always trying to make yourself into someone else.
Self-understanding is a lifetime endeavour. It is not a weekend seminar. It does not come in capsule form. Every moment is ripe with opportunities to understand yourself better. Yet the moment is empty-handed. You are the source. The potential for awareness exists in every moment because it exists, first and foremost, inside you.