“Sometimes what you’re most afraid of doing is the very thing that will set you free.” ~Robert Tew
In 2014, I was drowning in unhappiness. I had moved to Palestine five years earlier, later met my husband, and decided to remain in one of the most conflicted countries in the world.
There I was, living in a different country far from the comforts of home that I had always known. My marriage was rife with conflict and pain, and I had nobody to turn to.
I had no family nearby, and with the high turnover of internationals in the country, many of the friends I’d made had left to go back to their home countries, leaving me behind.
My fear and shame around the difficulties in my marriage kept me from sharing my struggles with the few friends that remained. My friendships felt shallow, and I felt more and more isolated and alone.
In that time, I looked back at myself in college and wondered where that carefree girl who was so sure of herself had gone. Not only did I feel like I had lost everything I held dear, but somewhere along the way, I’d lost myself.
I pretended everything was okay, not only to others, but also to myself.
I distinctly remember the day I woke up to my own reality. I was attending a four-day yoga workshop with my teacher, David Sye. As I moved my body to the music, I felt alive!
It was the best I had felt in years. Maybe even the best I had felt my entire life.
I realized then and there that I was unhappy. Something was keeping me from feeling that energy in the rest of my life.
At first, I was terrified that if I admitted I was unhappy my life would fall apart. Instead, I embarked on a journey into the body-mind-emotional connection that led to true and lasting healing.
This journey led me to discover the root pain that was really behind my unhappiness at this time: I had an addiction to perfectionism and a fear of failure that stemmed from a deep feeling of not being good enough.
As I delved deeper, I found out that this fear stemmed from my early childhood relationship with my parents and the midwest Christian community in which I grew up.
Although there were many wonderful things about this community, there was also a lot of pressure to do what you “should”; to not make mistakes and lead the perfect life.
This attitude found its way into my family. We rarely talked about negative things in our own lives or between us. Instead, we addressed difficult emotions through sarcasm rather than an honest acknowledgement of the needs behind those emotions.
Since certain emotions were labeled as negative and not addressed, I grew up feeling that I was only good enough if I didn’t feel negative emotions such as anger, guilt, and shame. Therefore, I developed a need to be perfect and a constant fear of failure.
I was able to cover this up most of my life. Whatever I was good at, I focused on and excelled. My success gave me confidence. My confidence, however, did not come from being true to myself, but came from doing what I thought would look good to others and make me feel special.
My shaky confidence all fell apart when I was out of my comfort zone in a new country and didn’t have access to all the things I had attached to my identity. To make matters worse, these childhood issues came up in my relationship with my husband and resulted in poor communication and anger. Moreover, I felt great guilt and shame for not having the perfect marriage.
When I finally admitted to being unhappy, this facade of perfectionism lifted and I could open up to seeing these wounds and discover the five practices that would heal them.
I was able to forgive my parents, knowing that they did the best they could and could only teach me what they knew themselves when it came to dealing with emotions—those labeled both negative and positive.
I was finally able to be vulnerable with others and try new things because I was free of the fear of failing.
Two years later, my life had turned around. I had healed many of these wounds and felt freer than I ever felt before.
I thought I had lost myself and who I used to be. I thought I was trying to find the person I was before. I didn’t know that in the end, I wouldn’t find myself. Instead, I would free myself from all that was holding me back.
The five key practices that helped me do this and get my spark for life back were:
Although I had practiced hatha and vinyasa yoga for several years, I mostly focused on the physical practice of asana. At this point, I added kundalini yoga into my practice a couple of times a week, and this helped me learn the connection between the body and emotions.
I discovered that our emotions are simply physical reactions in the body. Without movement, these emotions can get stuck in the body and actually block our innate energy. In fact, emotions from our whole life can get stored in our body’s memory, meaning experiences we had as children can affect our daily lives now.
Eventually, I learned how different poses can not only help me release emotions I am feeling now, but how they can be a map to healing any of my struggles in life and freeing up my energy to live my fullest life.
2. Guided meditation
When I first started meditating, it was difficult to get myself to sit down even for five minutes. I was always afraid of how I would deal with nothingness.
I found that having a guided meditation recording made me feel safe in knowing that someone would be there to help me through. I practiced mindfulness meditation, chakra meditations, and yoga nidra.
Mindfulness meditation was the door into meditation for me. It helped me finally be able to sit and become more aware of what was going on in the present moment.
Chakra meditations and yoga nidra allowed me to connect deep inside myself. They took me on a journey through the past experiences that were blocking my happiness and connected me to my true inner joy that was there no matter what was going on in life.
Years before, I read The Artist’s Way and discovered the practice of morning pages. In the book, Julia Cameron recommends writing three pages of stream of consciousness writing every morning, in order to release thoughts from the mind that are blocking creativity.
I picked up this practice again and wrote three pages each day in my journal. Only this time, I wrote about my experiences in yoga and meditation. I wrote about the emotions that came out after I did certain yoga practices. I wrote about when I had experienced these emotions before. I wrote about the insights I had during my meditations.
Journaling about my discoveries helped me to really process my thoughts and emotions and finally let go of past experiences and heal.
4. Connecting with others
A big part of the reason that I was unhappy was that I wasn’t open to sharing my struggles. I was afraid to show my vulnerabilities and, therefore, I felt like nobody knew the real me. I felt alone and isolated.
I took a baby step when I shared with my friend that something was wrong in life and I needed to turn it around. Then, I finally overcame my fear and shame and opened up to a couple other friends about the problems in my marriage.
These two steps opened up a floodgate of people coming into my life that I could share with openly and honestly. Fortunately, these people were all proponents of taking care of your mental health, and I finally got counseling, both personally and as a couple.
Having the support of others gave me strength to make big changes in my life. It also meant that I stopped pretending everything was okay and finally let people see the real me. They saw all my struggles, but also all my beauty.
5. Bringing creativity and pleasure back into my life
I was always a musical person. During my childhood I’d played piano and sang in the school choir. Finding myself in a new country, suddenly I no longer had easy access to my usual outlets for creativity.
When I realized how unhappy I was, I decided I needed to prioritize creativity and pleasure in order to feel that spark for life I once had felt. So I reached out once again to those friends I had newly opened up to and told them I had always wanted to learn to paint, but was afraid that I wasn’t good enough.
We then came up with the idea to have art nights together. There was only one rule: it didn’t matter how good we were, we would embrace our inner child and just play with colors and materials.
These art nights reconnected me with the joy I had been missing and opened the doors for me to allow pleasure back into all areas of my life.
Through my daily yoga and meditation practice, I discovered more about who I truly was and what was essential for my happiness. I found myself surrounded with deep friendships, people with whom I could explore creativity and share all of my struggles and triumphs. I fulfilled one of my deepest dreams of becoming a yoga teacher.
Most importantly, I learned that a true spark for life comes from a place of deep acceptance of oneself and the ability to find contentment and joy with life as it is now.
These five practices became essential for me to continue to come back to my true self and deepen my self-acceptance. They are practices I come back to each day. Especially when stress and difficulties start to build, I know these practices will help me regain my spark for life—that feeling of deep joy and gratitude for all that life has to offer.