We live in a materialistic word that places great emphasis on the outer world and equates happiness with what you ‘have’; education, wealth, great job, beautiful clothes, beautiful family etc . It makes sense then that someone who has all of these things and is still unhappy may feel judged by society and may feel great shame for not feeling grateful enough. However, this attitude to happiness discounts a hugely significant part of human experience i.e. the inner world. Perhaps the reason why the inner world is left out of the equation is because it cannot be seen by you or others and as such it is not directly measureable in the same way as the money and the car and the house. However, the inner world plays a deeply significant role in our ability to feel content in the world.
The inner world contains our belief system, it holds our values, it contains our early life experiences including messages we received about ourselves and our world from parents and other caregivers. It houses our self-esteem and our expectations of ourselves, the world and others. It develops our coping mechanisms, both healthy and unhealthy. And that only refers to the parts we can directly access. In it's deepest recesses, it hides away a mass of subconscious material that we are hardly aware of but which still impacts on our day to day function.
Is it any wonder then, with this inner world being so rich, deep and complex, that those who appear to have it all may still suffer? Consider Brian, the stay at home father whose wife has a great job and their family wants for nothing. However, the messages Brian received from his parents as child told him quite firmly that the woman’s place is in the home and that the man must support his family. Even at a subconscious level, defying parental expectations can lead to inner turmoil and conflict. Brian feels unhappy in his role without even knowing why, he feels discontented and restless and struggles with his self-esteem. How about Megan, who has created a massively successful career as a solicitor and who has all the material possessions she ever desired but still finds herself anxious and unable to sleep at night. The truth is Megan never wanted to be a solicitor, she wanted to be a dancer. Megan feared the judgement of society if she embraced the arts and so she chose a ‘respectable’ profession that she felt no passion for. Or Michael. Michael is a social worker. He spends his days helping people and finds great meaning and personal fulfillment in his role. He has a wonderful partner and loads of friends. He has a good relationship with his family. However, Michael has very low self-esteem as he was mercilessly bullied as a child. The messages Michael received from his bullies resonate in his head continuously telling him that he’s worthless. No-one else can see them but they are there, affecting him every day.
Psychotherapy can help us to make sense of and unravel this rich inner world. It can bring aspects of ourselves from the unknown into the known. Knowing ourselves puts us in a position of power where we can make decisions about what we want to hold on to, what we want to learn to accept or what we want to change. Without knowing ourselves better this work cannot be done and we may suffer needlessly. Understanding the difference between your inner and outer worlds, and understanding how people who seem to have it all can still be in pain, also leads to greater compassion and greater self-compassion.