In a recent post I explained that you can’t balance work and life because both are part of your outer life, while “balance” comes from guidance by a strong inner life. Since then, many have asked me to describe more about the inner life — where your true self lies — and explain why that’s the core of redefining success –away from fixation with money, power and position, and towards more balanced, healthy and integrated lives.
In the present post I explain more about the inner life and why it’s so crucial for success and well-being in our society during these times of rapid change and turmoil. Previously, I’ve emphasized the parallel need for supportive, positive leadership within companies; and that we can already see examples of workplace and career trends that are redefining success for our “post-careerist” culture. All these shifts — underway and needed — reflect the rising awareness of the inner self and the need to respond to it.
Moreover, these shifts of consciousness, which propel what I’ve called the “4.0” career orientation, are visible among men and women across the generational spectrum: older baby boomers seeking “encore” careers of more meaning and service, and Millennials, who embrace transparency, collaboration and constant change in their careers. All seek career success within the economic climate and historical moment they live within but also feel the pull towards fulfilling something missing from the soul, the psyche, from relationships and life, itself — missing when only outer life criteria are the measures of success.
Arousing Your Inner Life
To review briefly the distinction between your outer and inner life: Your outer life is the realm of the external, material world. Dealing with the logistics and daily stresses of life, emails, schedules and commitments, errands, family obligations, financial issues, career challenges, raising children, and so on. Immersion in your outer life tends to shape and define your self-definition, your personality. It colors what you assume is possible or acceptable in your life. That can generate a largely false self, because it’s socially conditioned by your adaptation to the conditions and rewards of your external world.
And that’s the narrowest part of your full self, of who you’re capable of being. When you over-identify with it, you’re left with only dim awareness of the broader range of your capacities and qualities — your full personality and true self. An underdeveloped inner life makes it hard to know what’s worth aiming for in your outer life. So you may just go with what’s in front of you, like on automatic pilot.
Your inner life is where you can realize your more authentic self and its possibilities for “flowering.” There you find the truth about your conscious motives and desires, including those you rationalize from unconscious fear or desire for control. An awakened inner life brings forth your true values, your human capacities for love, empathy, generosity, creativity and your deeper sense of purpose — all with the particular twist your unique personality gives to them.
Moreover, an awakened inner life strengthens your capacity for calm, focused action; for resiliency in the face of today’s frenetic, outer life; the constant change and impermanence that are part of reality. It builds greater well-lbeing in the midst of the ups and downs that will always occur in your outer life.
A Wheel With No Hub
But when your external, false self is in the driver’s seat, you’re likely to cling to external criteria of success to define yourself, including your actions and values. You can become depleted and stretched by them. That is, mistaking your “self” with who you are in the outer world weighs you down when you face problems or setbacks in the outer realm. You can become emotionally damaged and suffer from anxiety or depression. You’re more vulnerable to a wide range of physical illness, as well.
In short, your life can become all spokes and no hub.
Your daily functioning becomes fragmented. For example, at work or when relating to your spouse or partner, you may experience insecurities, betrayal or fear. Or you’re at the mercy of anger or selfish actions whose source you don’t understand. And you can’t tell if your feelings and actions are justified or not. You may be plagued with indecisiveness or revert to emotional default positions forged during childhood, such as submissiveness, rebellion or self-undermining behavior.
Even when you maintain success in parts of your outer life, neglecting your inner self limits your capacity to regulate, channel and focus your energies with full awareness and judgment. You might become vulnerable to looking for new stimulation from the outer-world sources you know best — maybe a new “win,” a new lover, drugs or alcohol dependencies. You might feel a sense of imprisonment, but not know what “freedom” for your true self really means.
Extreme examples abound of the consequences of a closed off inner life: Corporate executives led away in handcuffs for their crimes, self-destructive sports stars overcome by the trappings of their outer-life success, political leaders whose personal behavior destroys their credibility and careers, clerics who are staunch moralists publicly but sexual predators or adulterers behind closed doors.
Zhuangzi, the 4th Century BCE Chinese philosopher, expressed it well:
When he tries to extend his power over objects,
Those objects gain control over him.
He who is controlled by objects
Loses possession of his inner self.
Awakening your inner life is a splash of cold water. It reveals the consequences and meaning of your outer life choices and behavior. Knowing those is especially important in today’s world, when political and social upheaval steadily bombards your outer life. Your inner life is the source of greater health, internal well-being and psychological resilience. It’s the source of healthy, positive control — mastery and self-directed action, not suppression or rationalization.
It provides calm and centeredness, essential for knowing what demands or allures of the outer world are worth going after or letting pass, and how to deal with the consequences of either. That includes clarifying which personal commitments, career goals and relationships you want or don’t want. For example, is this job or career what you really desire, despite the money it pays or what people tell you? Do you believe that your relationship gives you and your partner the kind of positive, energized connection you want and need?
It’s crucial to recognize that the older, outer-life-conditioned view of success — and of your self-definition — serves a narrow range of your capacities and life possibilities, one confined largely to self-interest and material possessions. But it’s transforming: The shifting orientation to work, relationships and personal meaning within the younger generations as well as among older baby boomers is leading people across generations to feel disconnected from the values and behavior of the narrow, “careerist” culture.
Your inner life is the foundation for moving that transformation forward, for knowing how and why you’re living and using your capacities in the ways that you do. With a strong inner life you feel grounded and anchored. You know who you are, what you’re truly living for and how to keep evolving towards it.
In future posts I may offer some suggested practices for building your inner life and your true self at work and at home. Meanwhile, please offer your own experiences and thoughts about the inner-outer life imbalance in our culture.
A version of this essay was previously published on The Huffington Post