~Bill Plotkin, PhD
Soul work is the work of your life. I am speaking here of your “inner life.” It is seeking your deepest healing, diving into the depths of your pain to discover its roots, its core, to deal with that pain in a healing way, and to emerge on the other side more whole. Soul work, when done with courage, leads to true and lasting freedom. It invites us to a deeper, fuller understanding of what has really been going on inside of us and of the negative life patterns our original wounding created. To do your soul work is to address the deepest, most central pain of your life, it is to look that pain in the face with courage and to discover a way to utterly vanquish it. This may not mean eliminating it completely, but healing it to a place where it no longer aches and is no longer in control of your emotions or life.
Soul Work and Therapy
Is psychological counseling soul work? The short answer is: sometimes. Not all soul work has to be done in therapy and not all therapy involves soul work.
Sometimes what is needed in therapy is not soul work, but rather more immediate emotional stabilization or development of coping mechanisms. Therapy can also go very deep into a person’s core pain, if they are willing, and certainly has the potential to become soul work.
Often in therapy, the focus is on the problem of the moment. And sometimes that is exactly what needs to be addressed! But soul work goes deeper into the root causes of those problems and of the pain of our lives. Far more than attempts to just survive or cope with one crisis after another, soul work looks at the patterns beneath our crises and problems.
The work of our lives usually takes the aid of a wise guide who understands soul work (though they may not call it that exactly). Because most of us are too consumed by the patterns and pain of our lives, so “in it”, it is almost impossible for us to look at ourselves objectively or guide our own soul work. Most people need strong support and help to do the work of their lives. The most important thing is to find the guides and delivery methods that are the most meaningful for and the best fit with you personally.
The Work of Your Life
So what is the work of your particular life? You may or may not know. All you may know for sure is that you have panic attacks, feel lonely or depressed, cannot seem to control your anger, feel drawn to drugs or alcohol, or always seem to find yourself in a relationship with someone who is mean to you. In soul work, such symptoms are not viewed as the main problem, but as a doorway into the True Problem. The True Problem is always far more difficult and scary to face than symptoms (and symptoms can be pretty scary!). In soul work, symptoms are an invitation to do the work of your life, and serve to highlight where that work might begin.
The Nuts and Bolts of Soul Work
Everyone’s work is different, but there are usually some common themes or issues that most people will need to address as part of their unique healing work. At the most basic level, we have to learn to effectively deal with our anger, fear, and sadness as well as our inner shadows or darkness and the damaging messages that have helped create our wounding.
Self-Anger: The Inner Critic
Some of us develop an internal voice that is critical, negative, judgmental, demeaning, and really quite unforgiving. It has been described as an internal “gremlin,” or as “the perfectionist” inside. The critical thoughts this voice creates can be aimed at others (as in, we constantly criticize those around us), but the real anguish comes from the merciless criticism aimed at ourselves.
It could be said that the Critic exists in everyone, but healthy, resilient people learn to recognize the voice as spewing mostly bologna and are able to develop and hear a more self-compassionate, loving inner voice that mostly offsets the Critic. Well, dandy for those people, but for the rest of us, the Critic is almost all we can hear!
An out-of-control Critic usually begins forming in childhood, often in our relationship with caregivers. If, for example, we feel chronically criticized, never good enough, no matter how actively or passively these messages are delivered, we usually internalize them, now speaking them in our own voice, creating a personalized Inner Critic who never lets us feel good enough and keeps us in chronic anguish.
In soul work, the Critic is viewed with compassion and is seen as a part of us that needs to be healed. It is thought of as a part of us that is trying to be protective, to help us be better (or perfect) so we can finally get the love and approval we have longed for. But the Critic is going about this in a hurtful way. Instead of lovingly inviting us into self-improvement, the Critic tries to use shame and guilt to help us grow. Sometimes the Critic is nothing more than the internalized voice of a critical parent and, once recognized as such, loses much of its power. Other times, it has become our own voice and we must learn to talk to ourselves with more kindness and compassion. Either way, the point is to understand and address the Critic at the root.
Fear: The Risk Manager
We all have a part of us that says “No! Stop! Don’t do it!” It is a part that makes us afraid and uncertain, keeps us from taking risks, tells us that those risks are too dangerous or will be overwhelming, undoable, or humiliating. This Risk Manager is not a foe, he keeps us from doing crazy things that would mess up our lives forever. But the Risk Manager is averse to all risks, which is his job, and he does not understand that some risks are worth taking.
Our deepest healing will only come through taking risks, doing something we have never done before, trying a new way of seeing things, opening our hearts to healthy love, allowing ourselves to experience emotions we have long buried, and so on. The goal is to honor the Risk Manager without letting him be in charge, for his constant fear and disparaging outlook will block our healing. We can appreciate his contribution to our thoughts and his desire to keep us safe, but we must also learn when to silence him, especially when the healing of our life is at stake.
Sadness: The Child Inside
Corny or not, the “inner child” is often talked about in healing work because most hurting people truly do have a child part, a younger self (or several younger selves) inside that still needs love, attention, understanding, and kindness. These younger selves will cry out, causing many of our mental health symptoms (depression, anxiety, panic, physical pain, etc.) until they are seen, loved, and given (by you) at long last the attunement they have always needed. In soul work, these younger selves are accessed, loved, honored, cared for, and healed with great tenderness and compassion.
During the tender years of our childhood and youth, we are constantly absorbing messages about ourselves and the world. These messages come to us through words, to be sure, but some of the most lasting messages we receive come through the actions of our caregivers. For example, a child can be told he is dumb and will never amount to anything, and that is certainly damaging. But he can also feel unseen or completely ignored and receive a similar damaging message that he is worthless.
Childhood messages become adult truth. That is, the messages we internalize as children become our truth about ourselves and the world, and these root messages can be quite wrong, cause us intense anguish, and may be rather difficult to identify. But once we identify the negative messages and where they came from, along with how believing those messages has caused us problems, then the messages can be seen for what they really are (not the truth), replaced with more loving and healthy truths, thus diminishing their power.
Soul work is terrifying. It means facing our most painful memories and emotions and the darkest parts of ourselves. Soul work means diving down into these darkest places, with courage, in firm belief and hope that facing the pain is the first step to healing it. And I can tell you: it is! Avoidance of our emotional problems almost always exacerbates them! Only in facing the pain of our lives can we ever hope to begin healing it. Of course, we never have to face our pain, but consider the alternative: a life of chronic anguish, despair, shame, guilt, regret, fear, depression and anxiety; basically becoming one of the “walking dead.” If life is going to hurt anyway, we may as well put the hurt to work for our healing rather than letting it keep destroying us.
Soul work is the scariest, most wonderful and meaningful, most important and enriching personal work you will ever do. It is truly the work of your life and you will not feel whole until you do it. It may take a short time or many years. You may find, as I have, that your soul work will continue in some way for the rest of your life. But the time, effort, and courage you put into your soul work will be more than worth it. And you will feel an enormous sense of well-being and joy for having released the victim-role and taken personal responsibility for healing the pain of your life.
Your heart, mind, and body want to heal and, once you have had a small taste of wholeness, you will never be able to return to a life of walking death. Only when your soul is healing can you fully live the life you were created to enjoy, only then can you give your beautiful and unique gift to the world. I hope you find the courage to charge forward into the painful places of your soul without looking back, and I hope you are able to see, as have many brave souls, that the area of your greatest weakness and wounding can be transformed into your area of greatest strength and gifting. You can do it!