What Ignites Your Inner Work?

February 15, 2024 • Article, De Pree Journal, Marketplace Leaders

Confession: I’m not a Swiftie. I’ve never listened to a Taylor Swift album in its entirety. In truth, I know only one of her songs–just the first line of the chorus, actually. 

“It’s me, hi, I’m the problem it’s me.”

What I love about this line from Taylor’s hit song “Anti-Hero” is that it succinctly summarizes a conclusion I often draw when attending to my inner work: “I’m the problem. It’s me.” I’m a finite human being who sins, makes mistakes, and still has a lot to learn. But what leads us to do that sort of inner work in the first place? 

In an Instagram video explaining the song, Taylor Swift said that she wrote “Anti-Hero” because she struggled with her insecurities, and the song was a way for her to wrestle with parts of herself she didn’t like. She added that we have to “come to terms with” the parts of ourselves we like and dislike. To me, it sounds like she was suggesting that our inner work is part of becoming authentic and whole. But the starting point was her perceived shortcomings. 

The Catalysts of Inner Work

I wonder if we’re prone to focus on the negative as the starting point for our inner work. Like Taylor Swift, we may begin with our shortcomings or even an uncomfortable or painful experience that prompts us to look inward. Consider King David, he made some major missteps in his pursuit of Bathsheba, including having her husband sent to the front lines in battle so that he might be killed. Nathan, a prophet who counseled David, confronted him with his sin (2 Samuel 11-12). We get a glimpse of David’s subsequent inner work in Psalm 51.

Jack Mezirow who taught at Teacher’s College at Columbia University, believed that “disorienting dilemmas” triggered the sort of reflection that leads to transformative learning—a change in how we understand the world and ourselves in it. Yet the very word “dilemma” has a negative connotation, suggesting that the events that lead to inner work must be problematic, difficult, or injurious in some way. 

John Dirkx, a retired Michigan State University professor, explored other catalysts for transformative learning. He believed that emotional stirrings and eruptions could indicate our need to look within. Even though Dirkx writes about both positive and negative emotions—excitement, surprise, anger, and disappointment—I gravitated toward only the negative emotions when I studied and applied his insights. 

It seems as though problems draw us, like a moth to a flame. We have some sort of desire to identify what isn’t working, what’s wrong or broken so that we can fix it. It’s a pathological view of the world. Concerned about trends in their field to focus primarily on the negative, psychologists Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote

Psychology has, since World War II, become a science largely about healing. It concentrates on repairing damage within a disease model of human functioning. This almost exclusive attention to pathology neglects the fulfilled individual and the thriving community. The aim of positive psychology is to begin to catalyze a change in the focus of psychology from preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building positive qualities. 

The science of positive psychology suggests that perhaps the positive experiences and emotions we have can also lead us to inner work, which leads us to fruitful outer work.

The chart below depicts both negative and positive work experiences that can prompt inner work. Which ones tend to lead you toward introspection and change?

Beginning the Inner Work

Lately, my sons have been watching Primal Survivor, a television show that follows wilderness guide Hazen Audel as he treks across large distances with a meager supply pack on his back. I love the part of the show when he starts a fire. His method is different depending on the terrain, weather, and available materials. Sometimes the work of getting an ember is easy. Other times it creates sweat and frustration. But merely making an ember isn’t enough. He has to add kindling and coach the ember to a flame. It’s not until that point that Hazen’s face lights up and he says, “Yes, fire!”

In the wilderness, fire is necessary for survival. It’s often the key to warmth, clean water, and safe food. In the workplace, inner work is necessary not only for our flourishing but also for the flourishing of those around us. 

As there are many ways to start a fire, so there are many entry points into our inner work—from the highest highs to the lowest lows—the promotion to the reprimand, the success to the utter failure. All of those can create an ember or a spark. But we have to tend to that inner work. We can’t neglect it. 

Questions to Help Us Do Our Inner Work

Beginning with dilemmas and looking at the world through the lens of brokenness primes us to ask ourselves questions like

  • What’s not working here?
  • What’s broken?
  • How can I fix it?
  • How can I do or be better?

Sometimes these questions are good and right. I wonder if King Saul in the Bible would have been a better leader if he got to the conclusion, “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem it’s me” a time or two.

But what if we also used our delights—the positive moments in our lives—as opportunities for a little introspection? This might prompt questions like

  • Why did that meeting go so well?
  • Why did my boss pick me for that project?
  • How was I able to keep my emotions in check during that heated conversation?

Beginning our inner work from positive moments can lead us to ask What made this good? and How can I experience more of it? 

Banner image by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash.

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