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Walking El Camino de Santiago Helped Me Reconnect With My Authentic Self

“Beneath the outward bravado, I battled with self-doubt and kept wondering why genuine connections seemed beyond my ability. Even though I put out valiant efforts to conceal it, my inner turmoil seeped out, leaving me feeling exposed and vulnerable. And, I knew they could tell.”

Hello! Who are you?

I’m Debbie and live in the vibrant and culturally rich area of greater New Orleans, Louisiana. I’ve found my niche as a self-employed Mindset and Self-Discovery Coach. This role allows me to fuse my passions for creativity, personal growth, and helping others find their joy and purpose. My days are filled with guiding women through their journeys of self-discovery, encouraging them to embrace their uniqueness and cultivate lives rich in meaning and fulfillment.

In terms of my personal life, I’m single by choice, cherishing the freedom to explore my own path. However, I’m far from lonely. I share my home with two adorable and affectionate dogs, Lindy and Jemma, who bring boundless joy and companionship into my life. I’m surrounded by friends and am reminded of the simple pleasures and unconditional love that surround me.

debbie pearson interview picture with dogs

Reflecting on my happiness, I can confidently say that I’ve found a sense of contentment and fulfillment that did not exist in my past. It’s definitely taken time, but through my journey of self-discovery and growth, I’ve learned to prioritize my well-being, embrace gratitude, and cultivate joy in everyday moments. While the path to happiness may have been winding and at times challenging, I’m grateful for the lessons learned and the sense of peace that now fills my heart.

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What is your struggle and when did it start?

Living over five decades with a sense of something missing, a longing for belonging, and a persistent feeling of not being good enough can be such a challenging journey. I don’t know if there’s an official name for this struggle, but it exhibits as people-pleasing, disempowering or limiting beliefs, anxiety, stress, and overwhelm.

Its impact on daily life is profound. In my life, it manifested as a perpetual quest for validation from others, stemming from a childhood shaped by emotionally immature parents. Growing up in an environment where my emotional needs were rarely met, I internalized a belief that my worth depended on external approval.

This struggle evolved and got worse over time. I feel it was rooted in early experiences of feeling unseen and unheard. As a result, I developed patterns of seeking validation through conformity, striving to mold myself into what I believed others wanted me to be. This constant striving for acceptance only served to deepen the sense of undeserving and unworthiness which seemed to perpetuate a cycle of emotional pain, upset, and confusion.

Even decades later, the impact of this struggle remained a significant presence in my life. It affected the way I interacted with others (especially partners), the choices I made, and the lens through which I viewed myself and the world around me. While I’ve made strides in my journey of self-discovery and healing, there are moments when old patterns resurface, reminding me of the ongoing work needed to cultivate greater self-love and acceptance.

With each step forward, I’m reminded that my worthiness isn’t contingent upon external validation but rather rooted in the inherent value of being authentically myself.

How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?

The struggle to fit in, to find a sense of belonging, and to mask the inner upset of feeling inadequate took a toll on my happiness in soul-crushing ways. Even though outwardly I appeared confident and somewhat successful, internally, there seemed to be a constant sense of unworthiness.

Each accomplishment, each attempt to emulate others, only served to deepen the non-stop sense of self-doubt. The pain of not measuring up, of feeling like an outsider looking in, was a constant companion, overshadowing any joy or fulfillment I was looking for.

I tried desperately to hide my struggles behind a confident mask, but people could tell I was being inauthentic. I attempted to blend in, mirroring the behavior and appearance of those around me, but they could sense the desperation. Beneath the outward bravado, I battled with self-doubt and kept wondering why genuine connections seemed beyond my ability. Even though I put out valiant efforts to conceal it, my inner turmoil seeped out, leaving me feeling exposed and vulnerable. And, I knew they could tell.

As I tried to find ways to connect, I fell into a cycle of self-deception, working hard to convince myself that mirroring the traits of others would lead to the acceptance I craved. However, the more I tried to conform, the more evident it became that my efforts were pointless. Behind the facade of fitting in, I struggled to reconcile the dissonance between who I tried to be and my true, authentic self who was yearning for validation and connection.

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Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?

I decided it was time to discover what was going on with me. I’d reached a pivotal moment where I knew I had to do something about all the doubts and insecurities affecting my life.

This realization moved me to enroll in a transformative course that ultimately became the catalyst for profound change.

Through this experience, I came across a startling revelation: a significant portion of us have been raised by emotionally immature parents. While this insight didn’t absolve them of responsibility, I could understand (at least intellectually) that they couldn’t give me what they didn’t have. So, I needed to figure out how to do this myself.

As I dug deeper into the course materials, I encountered a wealth of knowledge. Some showed me my misperception of the world. Parts explained about automatic behaviors, patterns, and habits. Others explained how humans store information in the recesses of the mind.

It was as if I had stumbled upon a treasure trove of insights, awarenesses, and revelations, each one shedding light on aspects of me that had long been shrouded in darkness. Armed with this newfound information, I began to absorb these invaluable skills—tools that enabled me to extend to myself the same patience, kindness, compassion, empathy, and tenderness that I had always given to others.

For far too long, I had lived with the heavy burden of self-doubt, feeling unworthy, unloveable and inadequate. I had the pervasive sense of something missing, of not belonging, and of never measuring up. All this had cast a shadow over every aspect of my existence. However, all of a sudden a beacon of hope began to emerge as I uncovered this newfound wisdom. It was a revelation that resonated deep within my soul, bringing optimism and possibility where there had once only been despair.

With each discovery, a profound shift occurred—an awakening that showed the path toward self-acceptance, authenticity, and liberation. This course was a turning point, a huge moment of transformation that empowered me to challenge long-held beliefs and embrace a newfound sense of worthiness. Though the road ahead had challenges and uncertainties, I was inspired by the knowledge that I had unearthed something truly remarkable—a guiding light showing the way to what I’d always wanted, a life defined by integrity, joy, connection, and self-love.

What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?

In my search for happiness, I tried many different therapies, from traditional therapy to alternative therapies like equine-assisted therapy, meditation, and journaling. I also tried modalities like reiki, sound healing, breathwork, tarot reading, theta testing, and more. Everything worked a little, and I’ll admit I felt better in the moment, but I wanted to feel whole and complete, not just better.

I’ve been to a few different therapists over the years, and it often seemed like they would offer insight but not really help me find an answer. If I couldn’t figure it out on my own there would be a number of questions they’d ask, but I was looking for answers, not for them to send me on an exhaustive search for the answer. I mean seriously, if I knew the answer, why was I sitting in a therapist’s office?

For example, I asked my therapist if he could help me “fix” my husband who was driving me crazy. We went on weekly for several months about how I might do things differently. I didn’t understand why I had to change when it seemed my husband was the one with the problem. It would have been wonderful for him to at least help me understand that I only have the power to change myself, and maybe give me some skills to do just that. But instead, he just asked more questions.

I continued to search for answers, and eventually, I found that I’m a process girl. I need to know where I am, where I’m headed, and the steps in between. I finally found the right type of process that worked so well for me that I decided the most important thing I could do for myself and for others was to get certified and teach people how to engage in this process so they could connect the dots in their lives.

Let me share just one component that has made a huge difference for me. I went from having critical and harsh thoughts about myself (close to 90% of the time) to rarely ever hearing me speaking negatively to myself (down to about 5%). If I do hear myself speaking negatively to myself, I know exactly what to do to shift it around. It took me about six months of practice, but it has been worth every moment.

I’ve taught this active practice which has helped hundreds if not thousands. It’s more than affirmations. It’s paying attention to how you are speaking to yourself and determining if you would speak to a friend in the same way. It’s actively practicing being compassionate with yourself (because you deserve it), actively practicing patience with yourself (because you can’t know or be great at everything), actively practicing forgiveness of yourself (because all humans mess up), and actively practicing gratitude for yourself (of course for other people or things, but also for yourself).

What this means is if you realize you spoke negatively to yourself (in the moment, or in the past), to take a moment and pause. It’s time to pay attention. Think about what you said and how you said it. Consider if would you speak this way to your good friend or to a loved one. If the answer is “no”, then take the time to determine a better way.

How would you speak to your friend or loved one? What would it sound like? Then shift the words and tone inside your head and speak to yourself in this kinder, more compassionate, forgiving, or patient tone. When we do this, we are treating ourselves with the same dignity and respect we treat others.

Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?

When it comes to sharing mental health challenges, I discovered it’s best to only share with those who have earned my trust. Sometimes, friends, family, or colleagues can unintentionally be hurtful.

Personally, I couldn’t and didn’t share my struggles with my family or colleagues. I pretended everything was fine because I didn’t want to be ridiculed. Fortunately, I’ve had a few close friends with whom I felt I could safely share.

As I’ve healed emotionally, I’ve felt more comfortable sharing my challenges. One major reason is that I no longer seek validation from family or colleagues. With increased confidence and clarity about who I am, being vulnerable has become a strength. Interestingly, when I do choose to share, I wonder if they’re frustrated that they can’t control me through shame or guilt anymore. I’ve found this to be quite liberating.

If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?

If there has been one thing that has made the most difference in my life it was learning how to pay attention in the moment. I found out that our brains are designed to find and store patterns.

So much so that about 90% of our lives are spent in automatic behaviors, patterns, and habits. I don’t really need to think a lot about what I do every day (i.e. brush my teeth, get dressed, read, scroll on my phone, etc) because it’s stored in the memory centers of my brain.

The part about automatic behaviors also has another side. This is when you have strong emotional reactions to someone because of an expectation you had. It might be for something you wanted them to do (text you back in a reasonable amount of time, remember your birthday, etc.) or possibly something you didn’t want them to do (be disrespectful or belittling, challenge your boundary).

Strong emotional reactions feel like other people cause them, but finding out what triggers you is step one (self-awareness). Learning how to recognize your triggers and what to do about them, is definitely on the path to finding liberation and happiness.

The first time I heard of this, it seemed unreachable, but once I started to pay attention to my feelings and needs, my boundaries, and how I was speaking to myself, so much of my emotional pain became apparent. It was then that I was able to start to heal. In many aspects, it feels as if the emotional pain has gone from a gaping wound to a scar.

Is there anything else you think we should have asked you?

I want to share a bit of my journey but also want to emphasize that you don’t need to make drastic changes to find happiness. Small, incremental steps work perfectly fine. But sometimes, life’s unexpected turns can teach us the most profound lessons. 

I used to be a military-civilian working for a 4-star general, feeling unfulfilled and purposeless. Wanting to find some purpose in my life I searched for ‘vacations with purpose’. My search showed I could dig wells, work at animal sanctuaries, build houses for those in need, and more. But eventually, I stumbled upon something that really called out to me, the El Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile backpacking trek across Spain.

Walking this path for 38 days, 5-7 hours a day, I faced many lessons about how I constantly tried to change who I was to fit in. In particular, I tried to keep up with the fast pace of other people because I wanted to belong. But this led to a leg injury that forced me to slow down, which turned out to be a blessing.

Walking slowly, I saw more, rested more, and most importantly, had time to think. This slower pace helped me pay attention to my thoughts, feelings, and needs. I realized how often I tried to get others to like me by altering myself, leading to inauthentic interactions. Although they may not have realized why, most people could sense the inauthenticity and felt my desperation and disingenuousness … and they didn’t like it.

What I experienced was separation—which is the exact opposite of what I desire. I wanted connection. When I started becoming my authentic self, I found that fitting in became more natural and comfortable. People actually seemed to like who I was when I wasn’t trying to be someone else. This incredible lesson taught me the value of being true to myself. You don’t need to walk 500 miles to learn this, but taking time to connect with your true self can make all the difference.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?

The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield: This book helped me to see that what I had been taught at home, school, and business was not all there is. It’s written as an action-adventure in the jungles of Peru looking for manuscripts, or scrolls, that contain insights that powerful people don’t want you to know about. Each insight was eye-opening to other ways to see the world Fascinating!

The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz: This book helped me in gaining greater emotional freedom. It explains the importance of the words you use (speak with integrity – even to yourself), that making assumptions can create great upset for you, to learn to not take anything personal, and to always do your best (and your best can change from moment to moment, situation to situation). Excellent way to expose some of our limiting or disempowering beliefs, and promote a life of integrity, love, and inner peace.

The 5 Love Languages by Dr. Gary Chapman: This book helped me realize that people show their love in the same way they’d like to receive love, and it can be different from your own. The five are quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, physical touch, and acts of service. If it feels as though someone is rejecting your love, it may just be they don’t understand it as love. If they matter, you can love them in their love language and that can change the trajectory of your relationship.

Nonviolent Communication by Marshall B. Rosenberg: This book is masterful in teaching a method of communication that fosters empathy and understanding by focusing on expressing needs and feelings without blame or judgment. It emphasizes compassionate listening and speaking to resolve conflicts and build stronger, more respectful relationships.

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown: This book encourages us to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections as the source of a more authentic and wholehearted life. It offers ten guideposts for cultivating courage, compassion, and connection, promoting a life of self-acceptance and worthiness.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

You can connect with me on LinkedIn, Facebook, and YouTube. My book is available on Amazon.

💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, I’ve condensed the information of 100’s of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇

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Hugo Huijer AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Founder of Tracking Happiness, with over 100 interviews and a focus on practical advice, our content extends beyond happiness tracking. Hailing from the Netherlands, I’m a skateboarding enthusiast, marathon runner, and a dedicated data junkie, tracking my happiness for over a decade.

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