“Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom.” ~George S. Patton
Much of the difficulty and struggle that we go through in life comes from our resistance to change. At some point, we get stuck in painful circumstances, yet we fear facing our reality and doing the work required to ignite a positive change. After all, the enemy we know is better than the enemy we don’t know. It’s not that bad, we tell ourselves.
So we settle, give up on our desires, try to make the best of what we got—and that works for a while. Until staying stuck becomes unbearable. Until we acknowledge that not dealing with our realities is making us sick. Until we realize that resisting change is self-betrayal. Until we say, enough!
In retrospect, I heard the call for change my whole life, only I didn’t realize it because of my weak sense of self.
I was a sensitive child who experienced everything on a deeper level. Growing up in a difficult environment, experiencing trauma at a young age, and feeling unloved and uncared for all contributed to my issues around self-worth.
Standing up for myself only brought more pain and rejection, so I turned inward and buried myself deep within. I became invisible, quiet, and a good girl on the outside, but inside I felt broken and alone.
As the years went on, I learned to mask my pain and shame with denial, arrogance, and control. As Brené Brown coins it, please-perfect-perform became my unconscious state of being—and it led me to success by conventional standards. Yet, internally I felt restless and disconnected from myself and the world.
Eventually, this conflict between my inner turmoil and outer persona started to take a toll. Anxiety, depression, and symptoms of C-PTSD came crashing down on me, and I began to unravel.
They say that transformation starts when the desire to change overpowers our fears of it. Here I was on the bottom, admitting defeat, sick of living life in pain, ready to finally take responsibility to change it, however difficult the road to recovery might be.
In my thirties, it became clear that running from the pain wasn’t serving me. Sweeping things under the rug and pretending everything was alright allowed me to stay in control in the moment, but the problems only grew stronger. Eventually, running from, neglecting, and betraying myself was no longer an option. I had to choose myself, show up—I had to find my way back home.
1. Committing to heal—shifting from self-abandonment to self-ownership
The pain that built up over the years was starting to come out in all the wrong places. There was a lot of conflict all around me, and I felt enormous shame for failing as a mom, wife, and friend. I blamed myself for everything that was wrong in my life, thinking I should know better, do better—be better.
This only ramped up my efforts to control everything and everyone around me, which of course led to more conflict. I was stuck in a vicious cycle of trying to fix things but going about it all wrong—until I surrendered control and pulled all the energy back into myself.
Most of us will seek change in our external circumstances first if we are not happy with our lives. This works well to a degree, but at some point, we hit a wall and realize we must look within and change ourselves too.
Making an appointment with a therapist was scary, but in retrospect, it was the best decision I’ve ever made for myself. I had to tell my story, and having someone listen empathically—and without judgment—was something I’ve never had growing up. I worked with an EMDR specialist to integrate past trauma. I wrote about my pain. I walked it off. I screamed and I cried.
It was painful to face my demons. To allow myself to touch the rage I kept bottled up for decades, afraid of what it might do to me if I let it all out. To face the fact that I have been abandoning myself all these years, just like others had abandoned me when I needed them the most. To touch the rawness of my pain. To say things out loud. To hold space for myself as I dared to feel what needed feeling.
Healing is not for the faint-hearted. That’s why so many choose to never do this work. It is taxing, confronting, and there are no guarantees. You have to be willing to do difficult work, to take action, and move out of your comfort zone in order to face fears you may have been running from your whole life. You have to be willing to take a punch and risk emotional pain while you move through your fears. Often, you will be tested and tempted to give up.
Keep going! Show up for yourself and do the work—your future self will thank you!
2. Radical self-care—shifting from self-neglect to self-worth
Only after I started putting myself first did I realize how neglectful I had been of my own health—physical, mental, and emotional.
Being everything for everyone might make us feel productive and valued, but it’s also draining. And it’s unsustainable. This is a recipe for burnout and feeling powerless and neglected.
Shifting from self-neglect requires that you invest in yourself first and foremost. This starts with establishing healthy boundaries, listening to your body, and owning your mental health. You recognize that, like plants, you too need to be nourished and tended to in order to thrive.
Self-care starts with creating healthy habits that promote relaxation, grounding, and growth in order to discharge stress. It’s also about eliminating stressors by setting clear boundaries of what you will allow—by saying “no” when you have to and “yes” only when you want to. It’s taking time to recharge before you get overwhelmed, and filling yourself up—body, mind, and soul.
Radical self-care goes one step beyond that. It is recognizing your addictions and the habitual behaviors that are keeping you stuck and shifting to new ways of being and behaving. It’s not chasing people or giving energy to relationships that are toxic to your well-being. It’s dropping the compulsive need to control the outcome. It’s realizing your worth and putting yourself first, recognizing that only then you can be truly present for others.
If self-care was not modeled for you as a child, this might feel selfish initially. Don’t fall back into neglecting yourself. Do the work of reparenting yourself and give yourself the love and care you need and deserve. You have the power to take control over your well-being and meet your own needs—this is how you shift from chronic overwhelm, anxiety, and depression to a more balanced way of living. It’s how you take your inner power back!
3. Mindfulness—shifting from autopilot to awareness and compassion
One of the ways in which I was neglecting myself and blocking change was by keeping myself busy. Work, kids, home, relationships—there was always so much to take care of. This prevented me from addressing the bigger issues—feeling disconnected from myself, overwhelmed by my circumstance, and alone in my struggles.
Searching for anything to help with my crippling anxiety, I started practicing mindfulness. I learned to breathe through my reactive impulses instead of acting on them, to observe what was happening in my body in times of stress, and to notice the habitual thought patterns and beliefs running through my head when things didn’t go my way.
I began observing how my thoughts contributed to my stress. I noticed, for example, that when something went wrong, I would judge and criticize myself for every misstep and question my character in shame (self-rejection). If my husband was late from work, I worried he had an accident (catastrophizing). If my friend didn’t check in for a few days, I assumed she didn’t care about me anymore (assuming). I would not let myself rest unless the house was clean and the kids were happy (perfectionism).
I chronically worried about our future. Stressed and anxious, I’d revert to working overtime, emotionally overeating, snapping at the kids, complaining and worrying, all while neglecting my well-being.
Bringing these automatic reactions and feeling and thinking patterns to light allowed me to break the cycle. I realized how I’d been sabotaging my healing by allowing my subconscious to control my life. Discovering that to a large extent I was standing in my own way and causing my own suffering was a sobering but liberating experience—it meant I could change it!
Instead of criticism, I shifted to compassion and positive self-talk. I began taking breaks when I was getting tired instead of frantically pushing through. I learned to let go of worrying thoughts when they showed up, and instead took action to soothe my uneasiness—by going out for a walk, watching a comedy, gardening, or calling my mom to distract myself.
I processed my frustrations by writing instead of taking them out on others. I learned to ask for what I needed and say “no” to what I didn’t want. I tuned into my body and learned to breathe through hard emotions. Instead of resisting and running from them, I let them run through me knowing everything eventually passes.
Shifting out of autopilot and habitual thinking patterns was not easy. Sitting in meditation was initially very hard. I could only muster a few minutes of awareness before my mind wandered off and I’d get lost in painful feelings again.
Little by little, however, I learned to notice getting entangled and bring myself back to the breath. This created a space between thinking and reacting—a space in which I realized I had choices. Taking the practice to real life, I gradually learned to slow down my reactions by breathing through them, and then responding consciously instead of habitually.
Learning to be mindful of your thoughts and feelings and staying in the moment despite the storm you may be feeling inside is very difficult, especially for those of us who experienced trauma. When things get hard—and they will—remember that no one is perfect, and everyone struggles in one way or another.
Don’t abandon yourself. Do your best to meet your internal experiences with presence and compassion. Remember to love yourself through whatever shows up—all parts of you need to be witnessed, accepted, and integrated.
4. Healing trauma—shifting from self-betrayal to acceptance
Healing is an exploration of who we are at a deeper level. As we go through discovering ourselves again, we find what was lost, reconnect with our wounded parts, and remember what we wish to honor, support, and strengthen in ourselves going forward.
Once you create distance between triggers and your patterns of reacting, you allow space for healing. This is where you discover you have the power to transform your pain into strength.
Anchored in mindfulness, you stop glossing over your wounds and—with compassion for your pain—you show up to deal with what hurts and has been hurting perhaps for decades. You’re no longer willing to betray yourself. Instead, you face our fears, breathe through the pain locked in your body, and slowly dismantle your story around your inherent worth and your place in the world.
Journaling was instrumental through this process for me. As I poured my thoughts and feelings onto paper, I was able to step back, recognize patterns, and identify how to shift my responses to be more constructive in the future. Dumping my pain allowed me to distance myself from it and let go of the grip negative emotions had on me. I learned to detach and release.
As I became curious and looked at my experience from a higher perspective, clarity and insight followed. I was able to write about my fears, difficult emotions, and pent-up trauma. I explored my tendencies toward codependence, control, and overfunctioning, shedding a light on what I could change.
Writing about my pain helped me develop compassion for myself as I slowly released the stories that kept me stuck in the past. As painful as this process was, I kept showing up seeing how all these years of masking pain, running from fear, and not taking responsibility to heal what needed healing was a form of self-betrayal. I decided to surround it with love instead.
My pain became the fuel for awakening, my wounds a birthplace of resilience, inner strength, empathy, and wisdom. As I embraced myself—both strengths and weaknesses—I began to show up with the fullest of who I was. I was coming home.
5. Empowerment—shifting from self-rejection to self-love and wholeness
Many of us have negative beliefs about ourselves that we’ve been shamed into believing, and now accept as truths. Deeply hidden, these stories keep us stuck and feeling “less than.” Unexamined, they sabotage our life and stop us from being who we truly are. Challenging and rewriting those beliefs can get us unstuck and moving forward again.
Growing up in a largely invalidating and disconnected environment, I believed that I was different from everybody else and that there was something wrong with me. I didn’t feel loved, seen, or heard. I thought I didn’t matter. I wasn’t important to anyone. I believed that no one would ever love me.
Mindfulness helped me to reconnect with my heart, recognize my true nature, and realize what falsehoods needed to be let go. As I worked through realising past pain and long-held beliefs about who I thought I was, I began to express myself in a more authentic way. I became better at recognizing where my life wasn’t in alignment and started taking conscious steps toward building a life more attuned with my authentic self.
It felt empowering to finally stand up and assert my worth, needs, and boundaries.
As I began to validate my own feelings, fulfill my needs, and give myself the love and care I craved, my confidence and resilience grew as well. I realized that pain was not something I had to overcome. Instead, I integrated it into my self-love equation realizing it was through my painful experiences that I learned how strong I really was. I began to trust myself and follow my inner guidance, learning to flow with what comes, grounded in self-care and self-love.
The opposite of self-betrayal is self-love. The journey of transformation is really a journey of self-love and coming into wholeness. It’s the recognition that we are inherently worthy—not flawed, less than, or damaged in some way, as we were led to believe.
It’s unbecoming—dropping all the programming we’ve accepted as truths about ourselves and our place in the world. It’s showing up even when things aren’t comfortable. No more self-rejection, exile, and making yourself wrong.
My journey changed me in more ways than I can count. I found inner peace where there was only turmoil and anxiety before. I processed a painful past and turned hurt into resilience. I embraced my vulnerabilities and accepted the complexities of who I am without needing to deny or shame parts of myself.
I learned to trust myself, knowing that I can draw on my inner strength to handle whatever comes next. I shifted my energy toward building up and supporting myself instead of focusing on what’s wrong or missing in my life. I became my own ally—I learned to love and support myself, no matter what.
Instead of perpetually abandoning myself, I released the past, awakened to who I truly was, and began living out of that truth, fully, wholeheartedly, and unapologetically.
About Joanna Ciolek
Joanna Ciolek is a self-taught artist, recovering self-critic, and the author of mindfulness-based prompt journals, The Art of Homecoming and The Art of Untangling. To learn mindfulness, reconnect with yourself, and begin your healing journey, join her Free Course at The Mindfulness Journal. Follow Joanna on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
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