Have you ever wondered, “How often should I do my inner work?” Some kind of daily check-in and processing is essential for HSPs, but what matters even more is your intent.
This year we signed up for a wonderful locally-owned composting service. Every two weeks, they exchange our full bucket of compost material for a clean, empty bucket. Then, in the spring, we get back a bucketful of beautiful compost.
This compost set-up was a long time coming. I’ve always wanted to recycle our food scraps, but the process wasn’t as simple as it looked. In the course of several failed attempts, I sought expert advice from our homesteading friend Eddie. He kindly responded with a complex, nuanced compost philosophy.
Poor Eddie’s thoughtful answer was wasted on me. I wanted exact instructions: “Put this in. Don’t put that in. Turn it this way. Wait this long.” Clearly, my commitment to compost was conditional. The set-up had to be a simple, quick no-brainer, or I wouldn’t do it.
“How often should I do my inner work?”
A similarly conditional stance often underlies the question, “How often should I do my inner work?” The “work” could be Inner Bonding®, or Focusing, or whatever you do. I can tell the asker wants the kind of nuts-and-bolts answer I wanted from Eddie, and I could answer in kind: “Spend 10 or 15 minutes turning inwards, twice a day.”
No doubt, a daily habit of inner work represents a big step forward if we’ve previously been in a reactive stance, checking in when we feel awful. With such a commitment, you recognize the reality that you are constantly challenged by your life to grow and change. You embrace that process, rather than fighting it.
However, once you’ve made this regular commitment, a bigger question arises: how do you make sure the time you spend turning inwards is effective?
This new question requires a more nuanced, Eddie-like answer. In brief, you have to cultivate awareness of your intent—that is, your stance towards the issues you face. Then you can adjust your approach to make sure you are in the intent that will help you move forward.
Inner work can feel like a death
In Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s seminal book, On Death and Dying, she describes five stages people go through as they face imminent death. Not surprisingly, these stages show up when we do deep work: for something new to be born in you, something old has to die.
To put it another way, if you want to open to learn (Inner Bonding), or to go out to the edge of the known and sense the not-yet-formed (Focusing), you face the likely death of your current version of reality.
With inner work, these stages don’t always show up in the order Kübler-Ross describes. However, you’ll cycle through all of them at one time or another. By learning to recognize the stage you are in, you empower yourself to hold your inner process in a more effective way, and to get the support you need.
1—Denial and isolation
Denial, at least partial denial, is used by almost all patients…Who was it who said, “We cannot look at the sun all the time, we cannot face death all the time”? (p. 39)
Denial is like a pre-stage of inner work. When we’re in denial, we may insist we’re fine, even when we aren’t. Or we may acknowledge we have problems, but feel helpless to change them because we believe they are caused by other people or situations.
The great humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers described the therapeutic process “by which the individual changes from fixity to flowingness, from a point near the rigid end of the continuum to a point nearer the ‘in-motion’ end of the continuum.”
Rogers pointed out that a person at the rigid end of this continuum is not likely to come to therapy at all unless he or she is forced. When we are in denial, we are in the most difficult stage of inner work. You can’t share your pain with anyone else if you can’t even acknowledge it yourself.
Highly sensitive people are already vulnerable to self-shaming, which can lead to self-isolation. This isolation may be global, or it may appear as inner isolation—the complete avoidance of certain issues within yourself.
Either way, knowing you may be prone to this pattern can help you see it in yourself. In moving out of shame and self-isolation, the first step is the hardest: daring to find someone you trust and share your feelings with them. In doing so you confront the inherent belief that you must handle this alone.
When the first stage of denial cannot be maintained any longer, it is replaced by feelings of anger, rage, envy, and resentment. The logical next question becomes, “Why me?” (p. 50)
We all need the freedom to shake our fists at the universe. However, sensitive people can get stuck in the “Why me?” stage. This happens when our cry of “Why me?” implies, “What is wrong with me that this is happening to me?”
Instead, think of “Why me?” as an inner protest, that needs a response. Something is indeed wrong, or was in the past—but not with you.
A dog will yelp if you protest. You hear the yelp, and you instantly move your foot. But as children, when our tails got stepped on, we may not have had a safe way to protest. As a result, our protests remained incomplete.
If you find yourself asking “Why me,” sense inside to learn whether there is a young part of you who fears something is wrong with him/her. If there is, then ask yourself, “What feels wrong here? Is there a protest in me that needs to be heard?”
In this angry stage, you may need empathetic support to help you sit with intense emotions and memories that come up. Listen to this part of you with an attitude of “There was never anything wrong with you. No kid should ever have to go through what you went through.” Then the protest process can complete itself.
…bargaining is really an attempt to postpone; it has to include a prize offered “for good behavior,” it also sets a self-imposed “deadline” (e.g one more performance…)…and it includes an implicit promise that the patient will not ask for more if this one postponement is granted. (p. 83)
In the bargaining stage, we’ve decided to turn inwards and face our pain. However, like me with composting, our commitment is conditional. Parts of us take over, trying to control the outcome.
We may try to find professional support, then back out if we get too close to our pain. Or we may try to bargain with ourselves or our support practitioners or our spiritual guidance: “If I spend ten minutes a day checking in with myself, will this pain go away?”
It’s not easy to hold your own pain while simultaneously holding a part of you that is terrified the pain will overwhelm you. You can’t push past the scared one, either. If you try, self-protective parts will shut the process down, sending sleepiness, brain fog, overwhelm, or distraction.
For both these reasons, you may need empathic support to work through the anger stage. It helps to have company as you learn to hold both the pain and your defenses against the pain.
4—Depression and grief
Once you learn to “hold both”—to be with the parts of you that are scared to feel the pain, and then to be with the pain itself—you may pass through the stage Kübler-Ross calls “depression.”
She is referring to something quite different from clinical depression:
When the terminally ill patient can no longer deny his illness…he cannot smile it off any more. His numbness or stoicism, his anger and rage, will soon be replaced with a sense of great loss. (p. 85)
When I find a way to hold both sides of a long-held inner conflict, I experience this “sense of great loss.” Why? Because, at long last, I am replacing an experience that had been missing for me all this time. Understandably, I feel both relieved and deeply sad for my younger self.
Kübler-Ross writes that the dying person feeling the grief of loss needs the company of those “who can sit with him during this state of depression without constantly telling him not to be sad.” Inner work is the same. Of course we don’t want to be sad forever. However, the way back to joy through empathy and acceptance.
For a dying person, acceptance is a quiet state that comes when all else has been held and exhausted:
If a patient has had enough time…and has been given some help in working through the previously described stages, he will reach a stage during which he is neither depressed nor angry about his “fate”… He will contemplate his coming end with a certain degree of quiet expectation. (p. 112)
With inner work, acceptance is not so much a stage as a container in which we endeavor to hold all the other stages. Initially, acceptance gives you a safe way into your pain, as you sit with the pain and with any parts of you that are afraid to feel it. Later, acceptance gives you a safe way back to inner peace, helping you hold and acknowledge “what is.”
With acceptance, you create the space in which movement and change can unfold. This is the paradox of inner work. We sense something needs to change. Yet to facilitate change, we must first accept our inner world exactly as it is—including the parts of us that are terrified nothing will ever change.
How do you develop radical acceptance?
Inner Relationship Focusing offers you powerful tools to develop radical acceptance by cultivating Self-in-Presence—the “bigger you” that can hold anything that comes in you. Similarly, Inner Bonding helps you develop your inner Loving Adult by choosing the intent to learn rather than the intent to control, and by listening to your spiritual intuition.
In both cases, the “you” behind the wheel is that expansive “you” that can “hold it all”— with empathy. To put this another way, your intent is the key ingredient of radical acceptance. Only by shifting your intent can you approach and hold your inner pain in this new, accepting way.
Therefore, as soon as you’ve answered the question, “How often should I do my inner work?” ask yourself a second, even more important question: “What do I need to do each day to move into that ‘bigger me’ that can hold it all?” In the process, you can use the stages described above to heighten your awareness of the specific support you need at any given time.