When it comes down to it, I’ve found there are two key motivational forces at play in my life:
Attractive forces are those energies pulling me towards a desirable future. This often takes the form of inspiration, which I can then use to paint an exciting, hopeful vision for my life.
Repulsion, on the other hand, pushes me away from an undesirable future. It’s that healthy dash of fear around who I could become if I basically stopped trying.
As juicy and powerful as inspiration can be, I’ve found it only carries me so far. What really lights a fire under my ass is when I also tune into repulsive energies within me. I’ve written about the importance of contemplating who you want to become, but recognising who we don’t want to become can be just as insightful.
How will I avoid complacency if I haven’t even figured out what complacency looks like?
Epitomising this idea is a wonderful quote:
“The safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
This quote sends a shiver down my spine. It points to how easy it would be to take that gradual trip to hell – to lapse into the same destructive cycles which befall those who don’t care to watch where they’re treading.
Few of us plan to take that journey, but it happens over and over again. And I know it could happen to me. Maybe one reason is the so-called ‘optimism bias’ – the human tendency to underestimate the likelihood of experiencing negative events. It explains, for example, why smokers believe they are less likely to contract lung cancer.
Every day, I face seemingly tiny, insignificant decisions. But in aggregate, those small decisions are shaping my trajectory over the next 5, 10 and 50 years. It’s so easy to take for granted.
I have plenty of hopes and fears for the future. I hope my marriage will be stronger than ever and not buckling at the seams. I hope I’ll be aligned with my purpose and not stuck in a job I hate. I hope my life will be flowing with joy and laughter rather than ennui and despair.
Inside each hope is a fear. Inside each fear is a hope. A dual potentiality is constantly at play in me – attraction and repulsion.
I can either take responsibility for manifesting my own personal heaven, or I can take the road of apathy and slide gently into my own private hell.
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Have you met your shadow?
I recently got hooked by the hit series Succession, which depicts a nepotistic family of billionaires and their unravelling at the hands of a megalomaniac father figure.
I was caught off-guard by my sheer loathing of the eldest son, Connor Roy, who triggered a sense of revulsion in me. I had just met a splinter of my personal ‘shadow’.
Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung described the shadow as the unknown, dark sides of our personality.
From a young, tender age, we begin partitioning off parts of us that are deemed unacceptable by our caregivers. Those parts are relegated to the hidden depths of our psyche.
Later in life, it can be difficult and upsetting to look at those parts square on. To avoid that pain, we project our shadowy parts onto other people in whom we recognise the same moral deficiencies.
Connor Roy mirrored those parts of me that feel entitled, self-aggrandising and intellectually superior.
The reason I mention this is simple: it often isn’t clear how to avoid unwanted cycles of crisis and misery. Shadow work is a useful tool in that regard. It shines the light of awareness on that gradual, subtle road to hell.
We often harbour so many disowned impulses. They lurk quietly in our subconscious, waiting to sabotage our lives. Think laziness, jealousy, greed, self-obsession and resentment. Without seeing these forces and acknowledging their existence, they’ll eventually hijack our operating system. What we repress always finds an outlet in the long-run.
While shadow work has enriched my life, it can also be gruelling. I’ve found it important to adopt a spirit of gentle curiosity, and to practice self-care afterwards.
If you’d like to get started, try out these three journaling prompts:
- Who in your life do you dislike for no clear reason? Consider how they act as a mirror for your hidden (or not-so-hidden) tendencies.
- Which famous person or fictional character do you despise with irrational intensity? What are they showing you about yourself?
- Who would you be if all these aspects of your shadow were allowed to run rampant? Take time to describe what this version of reality looks like… What kind of relationships do you have? How do you spend your days? Which core values have you neglected?
I came to realise that I can’t rely on anyone else to sound the alarm bells – it’s my responsibility to walk the higher path. I must always remember that the safest road to hell is the one without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.