We all know when something just doesn’t feel right.
Whether it’s a situation we find ourselves faced with, or a relationship that doesn’t fit as well as we think it should, or just a general sense of ennui.
You likely know this already, since you’re reading this and trying to figure out why you’re not happy and what you need to do about it.
No matter what it is you’re going through, some solid introspection is likely in order.
Although you’ve probably come across the term “soul searching” before, you might have dismissed it as new age quest speak and not really taken it seriously.
The thing is, soul searching isn’t necessarily an Eat, Pray, Love mission to find your most selfiest self.
Sure, it can be that if you really feel like trekking up a Nepalese mountain to find yourself, but its essence is something far more achievable.
Ultimately, it consists of sitting yourself down and really thinking about how you feel about something.
This might be so you can have greater clarity about a situation or an action you need to take, or even just to understand why you’re behaving a certain way.
The phrase itself might sound a little bit flaky, but it’s actually a really solid way to get the clarity you’re seeking.
Why Is Soul Searching Important?
For a very simple reason: most people are dishonest with themselves about various things because facing difficult truths is painful.
We like to avoid discomfort as much as possible, and generally prefer to maintain the status quo than to dig deep and be honest about why we’re unhappy or unfulfilled.
Sometimes people say that they don’t know why they behave a certain way, or why they feel the way they do.
They might be super anxious and depressed and brush off the “why” with some dismissive remark because they don’t really want to admit to the cause.
Same goes for choices about careers, relationships, etc.
Soul searching encourages us to be honest with ourselves – and others – about what we really feel.
About what we really want to do and who we really want to be.
About our sincere goals, desires, aversions, joys, sorrows, and everything in between.
When we can admit all of those things honestly, to ourselves and others, we can live a more authentic life.
And a life lived with Truth is far more fulfilling than one in which we’re pretending to be something we’re not, in order to make other people happy.
What Does It Really Mean To Soul Search?
Think of it as diagnosing an issue right at its source.
If you’re familiar with programming, this would be akin to troubleshooting an issue to determine the source of a code error.
If something isn’t behaving the way it should, or isn’t giving you the results you anticipated, there’s a reason for it: it’s your job to find it, and then decide how to solve it.
Same goes for a medical approach. When symptoms present themselves, it’s up to us to ask a bazillion questions to determine what’s causing them.
Just like a sore throat could mean anything from allergies to tonsillitis, a “not quite right” feeling about a situation, decision, or behavior could stem from a variety of different sources.
To determine the source of the issue you’re having, you need to turn your gaze inwards.
This can be especially difficult if you’ve numbed out or compartmentalized in order to keep moving forwards when you’ve been depressed.
You may have just resigned yourself to a situation up until now and stopped thinking about how unfulfilling it is for you.
But to paraphrase the divine Anais Nin, the day may have arrived when the risk to remain tight in a bud is more painful than the risk it will take to blossom.
How Does One Soul Search?
I know I constantly encourage people to write in their journals, but it’s for a good reason: doing so is immensely helpful for working our way through puzzles and personal issues.
This is one of those times when putting all your thoughts down on paper will be immensely helpful.
Writing all of this down brings ideas into a more tangible realm so you can sort through them over time, instead of just being lost in thought spirals.
It also gives you a good starting point to refer back to: you can return to these journal pages over and over again to see how much progress you’ve made, or take note of whether you’ve slid backwards.
Got your journal and a pen? Excellent. Let’s get started.
1. Ground Yourself
Take a deep breath, and focus on lowering your shoulders down, away from your ears.
If you’ve been stressing out, chances are they’re about a foot higher than they should be right now.
Same goes for your tongue pressed against the roof of your mouth, and/or clenched teeth.
Take a few more deep breaths. Make yourself a cup of tea (or bone broth, or something else that’s calming and soothing).
If there’s a quiet space you can go to outside, go do that. Spend a few minutes only paying attention to the natural world around you, while slowly savoring your tasty beverage.
2. Turn Off Your Phone/Log Out Of All Social Media
Now isn’t the time for distractions. No fear of missing out, here.
You’re focusing on what’s important to you, so eliminate the possibility of any distraction by logging out of all your social media accounts.
Go put your phone and/or tablet in another room. Lock the door if you have to.
Put away anything that will allow you to fidget or otherwise shift your attention away from the task at hand.
All of these distractions have helped to enable you to avoid doing exactly what you’re doing right now, which is working towards a tangible solution. Don’t self-sabotage.
3. Take An Honest Look At A Situation That’s Troubling You
Whether you’re the type of person who prefers “tough love” or a more gentle hand, now is the time to be honest with yourself.
Come on, love. What’s hurting you?
What is it that’s leaving you unhappy? Unfulfilled? Confused?
If you’re reading this for a step-by-step guide, you probably already have a partial answer to this.
It’s okay to be a bit vague at first if you feel that you can’t put your finger on exactly what it is that’s making you antsy.
After all, that’s part of the soul-searching process. If you knew all the fine details, you wouldn’t be on this inner quest, would you?
Write down a few sentences that encompass how you’re feeling right now. And then a few more to expand upon them.
It’s okay if they’re vague and random: have faith that clarity will emerge even if it seems like utter chaos right now.
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4. Write Down Everything That Makes You Happy/Grateful
Yes, it’s another list!
This is the point where you write down absolutely everything that makes you happy and/or grateful.
Time with friends, sunshine, your animal companions, a favorite meal, lolling like a happy hippo in a bath until you’re pruny… write it all down.
Absolutely everything that fills your heart with light and gratitude. Write it down even if it seems silly, or juvenile, or self-indulgent.
Whatever makes you smile and sparks light in your heart needs to go on this list, even if it takes hours and several pages.
As you write, be aware of how each item makes you feel. Put an asterisk (*) or other merry little symbol next to the ones that fill you with the most joy.
When we’re feeling stressed or lost, we often spend far more time focusing on all that’s going wrong or upsetting us than we do on the aspects of our lives that bring us joy.
We end up taking things (and people) for granted, instead of celebrating all the goodness.
Having a tangible list in front of us reminds us of just how much there is to be thankful for; how much brings us immeasurable happiness.
5. Take Note Of What’s Missing On Your “Happy” List
This part is a bit trickier, and is undoubtedly the part of this process you’ve been trying to evade.
Don’t go and reach for your phone or make yourself a snack right now – it’s time to do the heavy lifting without any avoidance.
Grab a piece of paper so you don’t need to flip back and forth in your journal.
Whatever didn’t make it to your “this is awesome and I’m delighted to have it in my life” list is going to be written down on this sheet.
Be honest, even if it’s difficult.
(It will be difficult)
As you write the non-happy-making items/people on this list, you may feel a bit conflicted.
When some people’s names come to mind, you might feel obligated to put them on your “happy” list because they’re family, or you’ve known them forever, or any other *should* that pops into your head.
This isn’t about keeping up appearances or pretending. This is about getting real and honest about what is and isn’t working in your life, so you can make some firm changes for the better.
Keep tissues handy, as there will undoubtedly be some emotional upheaval as you do it and you might need them.
Make similar symbols/stars next to the items on this list as you did in the previous one, only this time you’re going to mark next to the things/people/situations that make you feel the most stressed, unhappy, or otherwise hollow.
These starred items on the “not happy” list need to be examined a bit further, which is also going to be difficult… but so very necessary.
6. Be Honest About Why You’re Not Feeling Happy/Fulfilled
One by one, go through all the items on the “blergh” list and try to determine why these situations/things/people don’t make you happy.
Nobody’s going to see this list except you, so you can skip the tact and be brutally honest.
Feel free to branch out and doodle and write random words – whatever will help you to clarify why, exactly, you’re not terribly happy about this.
If you’re struggling with your relationship and can’t quite put your finger on what it is that’s bothering you about it, try thinking about different scenarios that have upset you.
Has your partner been neglectful? Or taking advantage of you?
Have you been trying to maintain a facade that you think they find more attractive, but isn’t really who you are?
Are you still attracted to this person?
Are you staying together because of comfort and security, or because you truly enjoy being together?
Ask similar questions if the asterisks are next to friends’ names, your career, your hobbies, even your pets.
7. Think About What Steps Are Needed To Amend Your Situation
Once you have a clearer picture of why you’re not happy, think about what you’d need to do to make some real changes.
For example, if you enjoy your job but you’re feeling unfulfilled at work, consider why, and what you’d need to do to fix that.
Are you bored there? Do you feel like you need to be more challenged at work? Okay, that’s a good start.
– What challenges do you feel you’d need or want?
– Are you looking for greater responsibility?
– Do you feel disrespected by colleagues? Would a promotion amend that?
– Are your skills recognized/used to their greatest potential?
– Do you have really great ideas that you know would improve things?
– What would rekindle your passion at this job?
Dive deep, and ask yourself every question that could possibly come to mind. By asking these questions, you gain a clearer picture of potential solutions to whatever’s been gnawing at your heart.
8. Make A Plan For Real Change
Let’s build upon the previous example a bit: that you haven’t been feeling challenged at work, so you’ve been phoning it in and not putting in real effort.
If you have some great ideas that you’d like to implement, write them down and create a really solid critical path that outlines how you’d put them into play.
Be detailed as to how these ideas can benefit the company both immediately, and in the long run.
Next, ask your supervisor/manager if you can book some time with them to discuss all of this.
Some people get nervous or intimidated talking to their bosses, as that’s usually associated with negativity, but there’s no need for that! Approach them with positivity and enthusiasm and they’ll undoubtedly mirror that right back.
Making these kinds of plans works for any aspect of your life that you want to improve, from your relationships to your home, your health/fitness, and even your creative life.
Once you’ve done this deep soul searching and determined why you’re unhappy, the path you create can – and will – lead you out of the swamp of sadness and back into the sunshine.
This won’t happen overnight, so be realistic about time goals.
If you’re aiming to lose 50lbs, remember that those didn’t hop on overnight: work with a nutritionist and a trainer and aim to lose it in the healthiest manner possible.
If your relationship has been going badly for a while, it’s not going to magically turn around within a week. Both partners have to be invested in making real change, so consider couples therapy if you both decide to work through the current issues together.
What Should You Avoid Doing?
Well, first and foremost, it’s best to avoid just plodding along like you have been, since this current path obviously isn’t offering you the fulfillment and happiness you seek.
As you’re journalling and making lists, take note of the subjects that you want to avoid, or that cause you anxiety.
Those are the most important ones to focus on, since they’re the tender spots you’re eager to get away from.
You might feel inclined to pour your energy into a few areas that are kind of uncomfortable and relatively easy to fix. And that’s fine… for now.
They aren’t the real issue (which you may be dancing around because it’s going to be damned hard to sort out), but making small changes can help boost your confidence to get the big stuff done.
The last thing you want to do is give in to your flight response. Doing so will keep you mired exactly where you are, and that’s not where you want to be, right?
Yes, change is scary, and making important changes you know are necessary might hurt the people close to you, especially if they’re comfortable with things exactly as they are.
But you know the old adage by now: “comfort zones are great, but nothing ever grows in them.”
You’re searching your soul for a reason.
Don’t do yourself the gross injustice of doing all this hard work to seek your answers, and then ignoring them because that’s the easier thing to do.