Inner work: Strange and lovely journeys

My theme word for the year 2024 is adventure. That doesn’t mean travel, or exotic sports: it means doing inner work.

I’ve taken four journeys since the start of 2024.

One was a lightning trip up the coast to Great Brak River to spend time with family visiting from Australia; and another was a weekend away in Langebaan, about an hour out of Cape Town.

 So far, so ordinary.

The other two journeys were not quite so ordinary. In the hope that some of what I have learned is helpful to others, here’s my tale.

I’ve been digging deep

Those two journeys were strange and lovely, as memorably described by songwriter Mark Cohn in a song called Dig Down Deep (he sings: “… a feeling in your heart / And a lump in the throat / It’s a strange and lovely ride.”)

They came about as part of a burnout coaching process I began in December 2023. The programme has included something called Positive Intelligence (PQ). It’s a six-week, app-based intensive training programme, aimed at developing mental fitness.

The fundamental principle, as stated on the PQ website, is this:

Your mind is constantly sabotaging your potential for both performance and happiness. All your negative emotions, including stress, are the result of self-sabotage. Our breakthrough, research-based tools strengthen the part of your brain that serves you and quiet the part that sabotages you. You handle life’s challenges with a more positive mindset, and less stress.

At the start of the programme, you identify your mental “saboteurs” (defensive coping mechanisms) – and then work to understand and calm the top offenders. (The programme is expensive but you can take a free quiz to identify your saboteurs here.)

A basic premise is that everyone has a master saboteur called the Judge who “beats you up repeatedly over mistakes or shortcomings, warns you obsessively about future risks, wakes you up in the middle of the night worrying, gets you fixated on what is wrong with others or your life, etc.” This Judge will activate your other saboteurs, and causes much of your stress and unhappiness.

It will come as no surprise to those who know me that my top saboteur is the Controller (described as “anxiety-based need to take charge and control situations… high anxiety and impatience when that is not possible.”) It was no surprise to me either – but I was surprised and dismayed by the sheer viciousness of my Judge.

The guru who devised the programme, Shirzad Chamine, encourages participants to name their Judges. My Judge’s name leapt out at me: Lilith (aka Lily Weatherwax) , a Terry Pratchett witch and a character of spectacular nastiness, who tries to turn an entire country into a fairy tale, manipulating people through the power of stories. Her goal is to give people happy endings, whether they want them or not. In fact, her world is a terrifying dictatorship where people are ‘chopped off’ if they don’t fit her narrative plans. My Lilith feeds me the story that I am not good enough for other people unless I am useful, among other lies.

These were unpleasant encounters, it must be said. But there was more.

In the second half of the programme, you meet your “sage”, the wise inner self who can help you defeat these saboteurs. As part of this, you are guided through a visualisation in which you visit your inner child, and one in which you visit your older (and wiser) self. I found these two experiences transformative, however woo-woo they sound.

Both my inner child and my wiser elder self urged me to focus on the present. My inner child, an ebullient six-year-old, said: “The world is full of wonder. Keep looking up” and give me a stone to remind me of mountains.

“Everything is important; be in the flower,” said the sage, gnomically, while handing me yet another stone, to remind me of the world.

Where those two journeys left me

The initial six weeks of the programme is now over, and those encounters are still with me. I am trying (still and always) to live in the present even though my mind has a very strong will of its own. I am no less anxious than I was, and still prone to bouts of doubting myself. You can’t undo the habits of decades in a few weeks.

And yet.

In burned-out early December 2023 I described what I was feeling as:

deep irritation with things that I previously would have found amusing, or not even noticed; an inability to feel that I care about any of the work that I do (and which I love, and find meaningful); and a feeling of exhaustion and what I can only describe as loose-endedness, of not being able to settle to anything, even the hobbies and pastimes that usually sustain me.

Paradoxically, even though I am now not burned out, I still feel a lot of those things some of the time: irritation, exhaustion, loose-endedness.

I know now that they aren’t a function of the work I do, or the people I work with.  They are a function of the demons within – memorably described like this by Ursula le Guin:

“People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.” (The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader and the Imagination.)

Months on from my December doldrums, I can see those dragons, and deal with them, over and over again, by (trying to be) present, by knowing when my inner voices are causing anxiety and irritation, by being kind to myself.

In the PQ world, being kind to yourself doesn’t mean what it usually means (a walk, a good night’s sleep – see a blog post on self-care anywhere you hit a bush on the internet).

It means loving yourself as you would that long-ago child, the small being who is and was you and who needed only to be adored. That’s where empathy starts, and that’s where burnout ends.


The small business year ahead: Adventure – and fear | Safe Hands

End-of-year burnout and what to do about it | Safe Hands

Life’s compasses: What I learned from Terry Pratchett

Main picture: Iva Rajović, Unsplash

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I also help small businesses and organisations with project and operational management. I write a post every week, some about my professional life and work, and some about broader issues. You can get either of those, or both, in your email, by subscribing here

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