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In a previous article I presented some observations and thoughts on personal freedom, along with some questions for consideration. This time I'll begin to show you how to take the first steps toward creating the personal freedom you want in your life. Because people want different things, and because there are so many ways to achieving the freedom you want, much of what I have to say will be fairly general. But that doesn't necessarily mean it won't be helpful--sift through my ideas, consider what appeals to you and try them, and look at the others for ways to gain some value from them. Subscribers can also address specific questions to The Advisor , with anonymity guaranteed.
…But with much nicer intentions than the Babylon 5 character. Or, better yet, you ask yourself his infamous question: What do you want? It's a given that for our readers one answer will be, "More freedom!", but you need to look deeper into yourself to learn what that entails. Do you want to move away from the traditional job and career, and be self-employed or an entrepreneur? Do you want to break out of the social and cultural expectations that keep you in unfulfilling relationships, narrow paths of approved behavior, or a boring life? What do you want?
The question is more important than it may seem at first. Without knowing what things are really important to you, it's damn near impossible to chart a course to get from where you are to where you want to be. You can use hit-or-miss approaches to try to create happiness for yourself, but isn't life too short for such potentially time-wasting tactics? You need to know yourself before you can begin to identify what kind of person you want to be, and how to make positive changes in your life.
That may sound like an easy thing, but think about the culture you live in. For most of us, aspects of our society make being fully aware of and in tune with yourself a challenging thing. With the expectations placed on an individual by virtue of one's sex, race, occupation, or in some parts of the world still, class, we can get caught up in being what others want or expect us to be without even noticing it. It can be very difficult to be aware of all these potentially subtle influences, much less act to reduce or eliminate their hold on you. Another factor to consider is how easy it might be for you to examine yourself in this way. Some people are good at such critical evaluation and self-discovery, while others seem totally befuddled by it.
How do you get to know yourself? By putting yourself under the microscope, so to speak, and examining all aspects of your way of being. Many aspects of ways of your being are pretty easy to identify, such as whether you're shy or outgoing; others take more probing, deeper into yourself to fully understand. Some people can be quite open with themselves and everyone--sort of a "what you see is what you get" way of being--while others present only certain aspects of their way of being to the outer world, or work on presenting a certain image that may or may not be consistent with their deeper values. Those individuals who do the latter can expect to need to do more digging to get in touch with themselves. This process of looking inward is known as introspection--but this isn't your everyday introspection. It's a powerful tool for dealing with many things you experience over your life.
Getting to know yourself can be a tricky thing, though. Aside from the expectations and stereotypes we all operate under to varying degrees, it can be hard to be completely open and honest with yourself. Everyone I've ever met has aspects of their way of being that they aren't satisfied with and therefore aren't eager to explore. Many people have episodes in their past that offer valuable lessons, but those remain undiscovered because of a reluctance to face the emotions that accompany the memories. Even if you're familiar with deep and probing introspection, such things can hinder your growth.
Below are some questions designed to help you begin (or refresh, as the case may be) your journey of self-discovery. These are intended to help you get comfortable or back into the habit of introspecting, as well as for dealing with some of the potential obstacles you may face as you do so. As you look over or introspect on the questions I offer, others may come to your mind; if that happens, please do consider them as well.
If you're new to this kind of serious introspecting, you might be more successful at it if you set aside some time to do it regularly, in a specific place that's conducive to relaxation and self-examination. Suggestions for good places include: a long soak in a warm bath; in a comfortable chair in a private place; while outside gardening or shoveling snow; while walking the dog; in a secluded spot in a neighborhood park; or in a cubbyhole at the library. Anyplace where you can be alone and uninterrupted for about an hour, and can get comfortable and able to relax and focus on yourself, will do. Once you're familiar with how it feels, you'll be able to introspect more efficiently, and without the need for solitude (although that's still best, as it makes interruptions less likely).
At first, as you begin to introspect, the questions should be fairly general, and can become more specific--focused on specific elements in your way of being or events that were or are important. There's no rigid formula or best way to do it, though; whatever works well for you and provides insight should be pursued. Just be vigilant against choosing paths that allow you to avoid examining things! Here are some questions to help you begin:
With those few questions, I hope you can see a cascading series of follow-ups (beyond what I've provided) and opportunities to explore specific events in relation to them. That's the idea--start with a general answer to get a good idea of your basic way of being, and then explore the branchings that lead off of that. There are other good general questions, of course; don't hesitate to explore in the way that feels most comfortable to you.
For some people, actively thinking about such questions seems to lead to a psychological roadblock—they get stuck and seem unable to answer the questions. This can be frustrating, but isn't insurmountable. Don't try to push or otherwise force things; that can alter the results of your introspecting. Instead, plant one single question into your mind, and tell yourself that you'd like an answer to it. Invest about 5 minutes into thinking about this question, repeating it and your goal of getting an answer. Then let it go. Your mind (I don't like to call it 'unconscious' because of the negative connotations that word has for many rational thinkers) will work on the question at levels below your conscious awareness, and eventually, some answers will begin to bubble up. For example, you might get flashes of insight as you're peacefully coming out of sleep, or as you're nodding off to sleep. Some people will find bits of an answer in dreams, or it will come to them in a flash of insight as they're thinking about something else. As this begins happening more and more frequently, your mind is opening up to the introspective process, and you may be able to begin dealing with the questions on a more conscious level.
It is possible to overanalyze things; with some practice and familiarity you'll be able to recognize this when it happens. (It feels very similar to when you're going over things with a partner too many times, and nothing new is being gained from the rehashing.) Similarly, a sense of closure will become familiar to you. Don't let concerns about these possibilities overshadow your primary goal of learning about yourself.
While the primary goal of introspection is to learn about yourself, for our purposes another goal is equally important: identifying the chains that you put on yourself with your way of being. For example, your examination of your hobbies may reveal that you've chosen your interests based more on notions of what's "appropriate" for someone of your sex or age or income level, rather than what you're really interested in. This chain makes what other people might think more important to you than your own happiness. Or, if you have goals that have languished, the chain you've forged may be of fear--fear of risk, fear of failing, or even fear of succeeding.
It might seem disappointing or even embarrassing to realize that you've put shackles on your own freedom, but we all construct chains of some sort. For example, I don't choose to indulge in mind-altering substances because I've invested too much time and money into the things that are in my head to risk them on a temporary high. I accept this self-imposed restriction, and realize there are lots of interesting experiences I'm losing out on as a result. What's important is to know where a chain comes from and why it's there. Chains that were slipped on without conscious thought and because of concerns about fitting in or meeting another's expectations are chains that limit your ability to create freedom in your life. In my example, I've chosen that limitation, and for what I think is a good reason, rather than that choice being driven by outside influences.
An important step toward creating greater freedom is recognizing the unhealthy chains you've placed upon yourself. Once you've done that, it becomes easier to unlock those manacles, and to work toward identifying what you do want, and how best to get it. Introspection is a valuable tool for each of these. Because we grow and change over our lives, it's also a lifelong process of self-discovery. That may sound like a drag, but I--and many others I know--choose to look at it as part of the grand adventure one's life ought to be, and can be, when you're free.
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