Listen to Yourself

Sep 26, 2021

Signals are everywhere. We notice the most subtle cues from the world around us. If we see a red light while driving, we instinctively hit the brakes. If we notice a cat’s hind legs shimmying, we know a pounce is coming. If a trusted friend gives us that look with their eyes, we know something’s up.

We process most signals immediately, effortlessly, and often subconsciously.

And yet, we fail to notice even the strongest signals that come from within. Despite the efforts of our inner beacons — whether you call them our intuition or gut, our spirit or soul — we pay them little attention.

We notice external signs, but ignore internal signals.

Comic: We notice external signs, but ignore internal signals.

We pay a heavy cost by missing out on these invaluable cues. Our intuition can guide us to better understand how we experience the world, and more importantly, how we want to experience it in the future.

Without this wisdom from within, we live our lives like zombies. We wander from place to place, mindlessly passing the time, playing the part in a script we never read.

We don’t pause, so we can’t reflect.

We don’t learn, so we can’t grow.

We don’t look, so we can’t see.

But it’s never too late to start paying attention. One of our greatest strengths as humans is our capacity for change. A new version of ourselves awaits us, but we must follow the guidance of our inner North Star to find it.

With a little courage and a lot of practice, we can learn to listen to the signals that come from within.

Power of Practice

The world is a noisy place, and our minds are even noisier. It is no wonder that whispers are inaudible in the cacophony of our lives.

“Your instincts, your human personal intuition — always whispers; it never shouts. So you have to, every day of your lives, be ready to hear what whispers in your ear.” —Steven Spielberg

If we want to be able to hear our signals, we have to work for it. Like most things in life worth attaining, there are no shortcuts in this journey. We must make a habit out of listening to ourselves. Only then can we begin to see reality with clarity.

It all comes down to practice. It’s simple, but not easy.

The good news is that there is no single practice or approach that is required to achieve self-awareness. You can choose from a plethora of practices, whichever one jives with you most. After all, this is a practice of understanding you. The practice will be as unique as you are.

Meditation & Mindfulness — Meditation is one of the most transformative practices I’ve added to my life. More than anything, I find its value is in the training it provides you. With each sit, you learn to observe your thoughts without judgement. This can be an invaluable technique to utilize throughout the day, not just while you’re meditating (this “noticing” of your experience as you live it is what is often referred to as mindfulness). These techniques will help ensure that the next time you get a signal, you’ll be more likely to notice it. (P.S. You might enjoy my YouTube playlist on getting started with meditation.)

Journaling — I’ve been journaling for many years now, and I never cease to be amazed at the volume of thoughts that come through in each session. We often underestimate how “intimate” a private journaling session can be, and how much we reveal about ourselves when we create a safe practice to do so. We can also extend journaling practices to include other healthy habits, such as positive affirmations or gratitude exercises.

Talk Therapy — There are many proven benefits to psychotherapy, and not just for serious mental health issues. Even if you put aside their proven effectiveness, think of the value of having a person that prompts you on a regular basis to share what’s on your mind. Could you do this for yourself? Sure. Will you? Probably not. Regardless of the particular mode or direction of the questioning, just giving yourself a chance to talk out loud about what’s on your mind. You’ll discover much more than you think.

Long Walks — I’ve had many of my most important realizations while taking a walk. The openness of the outdoors seems to transcend into the mind, making room for thoughts to come out. It’s worth noting that we often sabotage these benefits by listening to a podcast or taking a phone call. It’s fine to do those every so often, but I’d strongly recommend taking a walk with no agenda other than taking a walk.

The goal is not to perfect all of these habits, but to pick one or two that you can really stick with for a while. When you pursue any of these habits for long enough, you’ll gain a new perspective on yourself.

Regardless of what channel you use to find signals, it’s important to go deeper to understand why they appear before you. What is hiding inside them? Is there something from the past that might be trying to make its way back into view?

Take a closer look. You’ll never see yourself the same way again.

Look, Then Leap

Listening to our signals is only the first step toward transformation. The real challenge is not seeing, but acting. It is at this crucial stage that many of us falter:

Deep down, we know what to do. Yet we fail to do it. We stand, frozen in fear, staring at the entrance of our cave of darkness. It is haunted by our own fears, filled with terrors unknown. Instead of stepping forward, we close our eyes. We cover our ears. We run, hoping to escape it, instead of facing it. Eventually, we realize there is no escaping it — the signal lives within us, and goes wherever we go. But we keep avoiding it anyway, because we can’t find the will to act.

I’ve been guilty of this in the past. I recall a time when I felt overwhelmed, exhausted, and utterly burned out by my job. I remembering feeling physically in pain — I had embodied my mental and emotional distress. My friends could see it too, as if I carried it around on a giant neon sign, hung around my neck.

I knew I had to leave. But I stayed anyway. I told myself grand stories, convincing myself of the need to persevere until some point in the future. Once so-and-so happens, things will finally be different, I would tell myself. But milestones came and went, and my inner siren kept blaring.

I kept delaying, deflecting, denying. I’d hide under the umbrella of busyness, safe from the terror of my own reflection. Just as we amplify our inner fears, we can silence our inner pain. I had convinced myself that things weren’t really that bad, the pain wasn’t really that severe, things could be much worse…

I was gaslighting myself.

At some point, the pain became too much. I started to expend less energy thinking about work, mostly because I had no energy left to give it. Somehow, this tipping point led to me taking better care of myself. I started meditating, journaling and taking long walks. Soon, I began to see reality more clearly.

I could no longer manipulate the narrative, because reality was staring right back at me. A mountain of evidence piled up in my journals. Staring at my own words made my experience feel more real. It gave me the confidence to finally take the steps I needed to take.

Finally, I moved on. Eventually, I healed.

Half of the battle is finding the signal. The other half is acting on it.

Mourn The Past, Welcome The Future

It’s a wonderful feeling to finally hear yourself with clarity. But that dish is often served with a troubling side of sadness. Once you see what life can be like, guided by your own signals, you begin to question your life up to that point. You look back upon your life, and wonder what could have been.

You think about all the things you’ve done, serving only external signals. And all the things you haven’t, ignoring your internal ones. You imagine all the lives you could have lived, if only you had found this lens sooner.

If you’re feeling this now, or you find yourself sinking in it some day in the future, I want you to know that you’re not alone. This feeling is akin to what is known as Ego death — when you stop pretending and live for yourself, you regret the life you had been living for others. It feels like mourning, because part of you is dying. A former version of you is fading.

But remember that it is also the pain of positive progress. A slipping of the skin, to unveil new beginnings. A one-time charge for a lifelong lens. Our inner signals gift us with sight — to see all the enriching, exciting, exhilarating lives that await us.

I’ve followed so many signals that have completely transformed my life for the better. Any pain of regret is far outweighed by the joys they have granted me.

Earlier this year, I was sitting down to write my introductory post in a new writing program. I had planned to write a book on fostering creativity and living a polymath life. But as I started to write it, I felt a strange sensation, as if I was sitting at the wrong desk. A signal appeared, and it told me I didn’t want to write this book. It was confusing, because for many months leading up to that moment, I really thought I did. But the message was loud and clear: I wanted to write a book of fables (short stories infused with lessons), not a book about creativity. It was a somewhat scary idea, as I had written only a single story at that point. How could I write a whole book of them?

The logic behind it didn’t matter. I had learned to trust those signals, especially ones that appear with such ferocity. The signal had the brilliance of a shooting star, and I couldn’t look away.

I’m so glad I listened. A few days of writing stories turned into many months, and just last week I submitted a draft manuscript for my book of fables to an editor. Writing longer stories for the book gave me a spark to write shorter fables too (I just shared one of them, The Boat of Stillness, in my last newsletter). I’ve discovered that I really love writing stories. Who knew? (I did, of course… It just took me a while to know that I knew.) When I imagine a life spent writing stories, I smile. It’s astonishing that just a year ago, I hadn’t written a single story. Now, they’re the most exciting creative expression in my life.

This is just one story of many I could share, where my life changed in a moment of listening. I believe yours can too. If you follow the path lit by your inner North Star, you might just fall in love with who you become.

Listen closely, just for a moment.

Do you hear the whispers from within?

What do they say?

Additional resources that might help you in your journey:

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Thanks to Florian, Sally and Lyssa for their feedback on an early draft of this essay.