What Soul Searching Really Means—And How to Do It
You’ve probably heard someone announce that they’ve done a lot of “soul searching.” You might have said those words yourself on occasion. But do you know what soul searching really means, and how to do it?
When we deeply believe in, feel or want something, we might refer to it as feeling it in our soul. That’s not necessarily a physical feeling (although it can be), but most people understand when you refer to these feelings. Soul searching is shorthand for the process of figuring out what we really want, believe in, feel—or even what we think our true purpose in life may be.
Souls 101: Signs and signals
Everyone has felt stuck at some point in their lives. Maybe you’re in a relationship where you don’t agree on where you want it to go, or you’re in a job where there’s no room for advancement. Maybe a family member or friend recently died. The town you moved to five years ago is starting to lose its appeal, but you just bought a house. Your college friends are all married with children, and you’re tired of talking about little Freddie’s diaper blowouts. All of these situations and more can make us feel like we’re going nowhere fast.
It’s a deeply uncomfortable feeling. It can feel like something is missing, or that you’ll never achieve your goals. You might feel like Alice, suddenly outgrowing everything in Wonderland, or just question whether there’s any point to life. Think of this feeling as your wake-up call: it’s time to start asking the truly tough questions.
While the triggering feeling is uncomfortable—even traumatic, sometimes—it’s actually a good thing. This is your opportunity to figure out what truly matters to you on the soul level.
Your first assignment: learn to recognize when you need to engage in some soul searching.
Souls 201: Going within
All of us experience frequent demands on our time and attention. Social media scrolling, work, school, family, friends and the news can compose a lot of the chatter in our heads. In order to start soul searching, you need to remove yourself from all that mental clutter. In fact, you might not even know what’s really bothering you until you get some space.
Soul searching requires quiet time, alone with your thoughts. You’re not going to be able to figure out how to solve your problems until you figure out what those problems are—and the ones that require soul searching usually involve more complex solutions than “I think I’ll buy a new candle on Amazon.”
Your second assignment: Turn off your phone and as much external stimuli as you can. Grab a notebook and start writing down what’s bothering you. What physical feelings, memories and emotions does this bring up? Do they remind you of something else? Follow this thread until you feel like you know what’s at the root of your problem. This can be in any form you want: word association, bulleted lists, journal entries and even sketches can help give your distress concrete form.
Souls 301: Advanced soul-searching
It’s important to realize that soul searching isn’t a one-time process. It could take weeks, months or even years to get to the bottom of your uneasiness. The key is to keep going, and find what works for you. Some people find talking to their therapist beneficial; others confide in trusted friends. You might actually want to take that solo weekend away in the mountains.
The point is to really listen to yourself—not what you think you “should” want or need. Ask yourself what you really want. Then ask yourself what would happen if you got it. Is there something stopping you from getting what you want? Are you afraid of getting it? What small step could you take toward this goal?
Once you’ve gotten some practice listening to your soul-deep wants, needs and emotions, it will become easier to heed the call for soul-searching and figure out what it is you want. Sometimes the answer is simple: “I am burned out and I need a break.” Other times, it will require you to think back to your childhood or other formative experiences, and figure out how those are impacting your dreams and goals today.
That brings us to your third and final assignment: think about how nice it would feel to live a truly authentic life, aligned with all your most important values. Then go make it happen, even when it hurts.