Why It Takes Courage to Look Inside (And Why It’s Totally Worth It)

Life is a lost-and-found, and we’re all rummaging around for the thing that’s gone missing. But what is it and where is it? The good news is, you don’t have to look far. You only have to look deep

emotions

Photo Credit: Jeff_Werner via Compfight cc

“Are your new shoes in your closet?”

My wife is trying to make my youngest son look presentable for a Christmas concert. He usually refuses to wear anything except athletic pants but she has somehow, miraculously, talked him into a pair of corduroys. The finishing touch will be a pair of shoes that don’t look like they have been through a semester of playground wars.

He looks up from the book he’s reading. His face is deadly serious as he responds, “Yeah, but I’m not going to look for them. It’s a jungle in there.”

It’s a jungle inside my son’s closet.

And it’s a jungle inside our hearts.

Which is why we don’t go looking for the one thing we all need to find.

The Final Frontier

Jon Kabat-Zinn is a world-renowned physician and mindfulness guru. Stephen King is a world-renowned novelist and horror guru. What do they have in common? In recent interviews, they both said essentially the same thing about our feelings: humanity’s technological progress is exceeding its emotional progress, and it’s turning this world into a powder keg.

They’re right.

We understand our mobile devices better than we understand our hearts. We are more aware of the way we defend our countries and our religions than we are aware of the ways we defend our souls. We are closer to getting to Mars than we are to getting to the center of ourselves. We only know how to act on our feelings; we have no idea how to observe them.

We have no idea, because we don’t want to have any idea.

It’s a jungle in there. It can be scary to venture into our inner world. It’s way easier to blow up and destroy the world around us. Facing our feelings is the most courageous thing we’ll ever do.

That is not an exaggeration.

In the first season of the HBO drama, In Treatment, an uber-confident Air Force pilot, played by Blair Underwood, finally allows himself to feel the guilt and sorrow of the children he killed in a bombing run. As the pain surfaces—as his body is wracked by sobs and his strong façade crumbles in an instant—the viewer is left with no doubt about the utter bravery of such a moment.

Our feelings are the last place we want to go, and the only place we must go.

The Jungle

“It’s a jungle in there.”

My wife stands still. I can see the wheels turning. Is this an exaggeration that needs to be corrected? An insurrection that needs to be put down? Or is it the truth? She settles on: “I’ll sort it out with you. If we work together, I’m sure we’ll find what we’re looking for.”

They disappear into his room and, for the next hour, I can hear thumping and bumping and the chatter of conversation and the moaning and groaning of intermittent conflict. Eventually, my son walks out of his room and he’s a little bit taller, because he’s wearing a new pair of shoes. And because he’s standing a little bit taller.

He entered his jungle and sorted it out.

The Discovery

My son waded into the mess with a companion, they sorted it out together, and he found what he was looking for. When we enter the jungle of our hearts, we too must have a guide who joins us. Someone who understands closets and the daunting things they harbor. Someone who can stand strong with us, as we patiently sort through the chaos. You might know who that person is. You may not.

If not, there is a therapist, somewhere, waiting to join you.

When we do finally enter the jungle of our hearts, we will find something far more valuable than a pair of shoes. We will find out who we really are. We will find our true self. In the middle of our digging, we will discover our true self is not some inner object we’re digging for. Our true self is even better than that. Our true self is the part of us doing the digging.

Our true self is the courage to face our fears.

Our true self is the growing confidence we can handle them.

Our true self is the awareness that observes our anger rather than acting on it.

Our true self is the freedom to move toward our fear, rather than away from it.

Our true self is the patience to wait out our sadness and sorrow.

Our true self is the love that’s left when our jungle finally withers away.

Our true self is the part of us that walks away from the digging and sorting, standing a little taller. Because it knows it’s not alone. It knows it can handle the darkness within. It knows there is light within. It knows there is light in the world. Indeed, it knows it is part of the light in the world.

And all that’s left to do is shine.

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • MK

    You have such insight Dr. Flanagan-I truly appreciate your perception of self awareness and your very relatable analogies. Thank you for your thoughts.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, MK, and you’re welcome.

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    What a user-friendly, motivating way to invite all of us to do the hard work of finding and becoming our best and truest selves. It is difficult, wrenching, awful, wonderful, amazing, and endless — and worth every moment.

    And your wife is a brave and wise Closet Slayer to be able to not only tame the closet but to show your son how this terrifying opponent is laid low.

    • drkellyflanagan

      The Closet Beast is a daunting one, indeed, Shel. : )

  • MC in Maine

    Again, a great essay! My personal work with two therapists in Maine very much aligns with your words today. Looking deep within ourselves teaches us so much about ourselves and, though scary, we do, ultimately, stand a bit taller and are braver when reaching out to our partners, family or friends so that they too can know us better. One does have to be brave and encourage others to do the same so we can grow our relationships. My copy of Riding The Passionate Edge by Mary and Tom Cushman has m any dog-eared pages and underlined paragraphs that help to guide me to be brave and to be vulnerable. I highly recommend it!

    • drkellyflanagan

      They reached out to me themselves and suggested the book; it’s on my stack! Thanks for the additional recommendation and these thoughtful words.

  • Tiphaine

    That is the way I feel when arguing with my teenager boy. I feel like I am entering his jungle which I found too difficult for me to stand in. We are both drifting away on each of our side, me at the edge of his jungle in his heart and mind, him, inside his own jungle of feelings centered on his own world. I am so looking for a bridge or a canopy walkway so we can reach each other……so hard….

    • drkellyflanagan

      I think you’re right: for adolescents, the jungle can be particularly intimidating. He’s lucky to have a parent who keeps looking for a bridge.

  • Maureen Morris

    Beautifully written! I really like your thoughts and style of writing. I work with families and adolescents in crisis and this is always my goal. I especially love the ending 🙂 Nice work, thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Maureen, for your kind words and the good work you’re doing!

  • bjeanneb

    Shine on, Kelly, shine on!
    And thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      : )

  • Sara

    I so much enjoy your posts Kelly! I think my favourite thing is how you mine your own life for inspiration to share with others – not everyone does that, you know – it’s a writer thing. Also, the story about your son and your wife? That story plays out regularly at our house 🙂 Thanks for bringing depth to the mundane!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks, Sara, and good luck with those closets and corduroys. : )

  • Christina Haas

    Your post perfectly articulates the reason why I write and speak to women after abortions – the courage to go deep and face the jungle in our hearts. Just like Blair Underwood, when we let down our defenses and bravado and face our choices, it requires courage and heart. As I often do, I will be sharing this post on my facebook pages. Once we move through that darkness, there is little left to be afraid of. Thank you for your eloquent and succinct piece today. Namaste.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, too, Christina, for the important work you do. Namaste.

  • Susan

    I am so grateful for your words. I look forward to every post and even save them. (I’m generally not a ‘saver’, so this is pretty big! 🙂 )

    I wonder how one would present oneself – okay…I wonder how I would present myself to a therapist to attack the jungle to find one’s true self. What would I say I’m there for? It seems pretty vague, doesn’t it, to say I’m searching for myself?

    • drkellyflanagan

      Good question, Susan. I think if you said, “I’m pretty sure my true self is buried in a bunch of confusing emotions,” your therapist will know what you mean. My best to you on your gutsy journey.

  • alto2nn

    I’ve been reading here for a while, but this is the first post that made me want to cry. I’m only figuring out that a) the stuff I thought was just some crap is actually a jungle, b) it’s a really, really big jungle and the vines are all tangled and twisted in ways I never would have guessed before and c) it’s really dark and scary in here.

    Fortunately, I have a really fabulous therapist. She tells me that it’s not infinite, but it sure feels like it is–and like it could be decades before it’s all sorted out. I press on, because it’s not going to get any better if I wander off…but it is daunting as all hell. Your post at least makes me feel less alone. Thank you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      You are definitely not alone. And your therapist couldn’t be more right: it always feels infinite, but it never is. Keep up the good work. You’ll get there.

  • mary BE

    Absolutely EXCELLENT and encouraging article . I agree whole heartedly !!!!!! Thank you

  • KJ

    Yeah, but sometimes you walk into the jungle and just get lost or die. Seriously, pretty much everything in there is poisonous, fanged, or can give you a serious disease. You can prepare for the journey or hire a guide but then again, you can’t prepare for everything and there’s always the chance that your guide doesn’t know what he’s doing either. Stay indoors man. Go to Walmart if you really need some new shoes.

  • Esther

    An excellent article. I entered recently in my own personal jungle and I am trying my best to find my pair of shoes. But I am so thankful to my therapist that is guiding me and is really helping me find them. I didn´t know I had so much pain and fear inside and I realise know how hard it can be.
    Thank you for your inspiring articles from Spain.

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