“Dude, relax. You’re okay.”
I find myself wanting to write this at least five times a day in reply to reader emails.
I rarely do — or if I do, I’m sure to add some explanation or a few useful ideas.
But the point remains: what a lot of people now identify as “major life problems” are really the natural ebbs and flows of life. Sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down, and for some reason we seemed to have forgotten that that’s OK.
To improve external aspects of your life, strong desire and external validation help you. To improve internal aspects of your life, strong desire and external validation hurt you.
If you want to lose 12 pounds, then having a strong desire to look great in a swimsuit, to buy clothes a size smaller, to get compliments from friends and family, these are normal and healthy motivation.
If you want a raise at work, then pushing yourself to work extra hours or bring tasks home with you helps you.
If you want to learn a new language, the process of successfully communicating new words and ideas is a great motivator to keep you going. The pleasure comes from the results, not the process.
But if you want to be happier or more confident or have higher self-esteem, then external motivators suck. Actually, they more than suck. They hurt you.
If you want to be more confident and you’re constantly looking for others to affirm that you’re confident, it will actually make you less confident.
If you are depressed and wish you were happy, then constantly wishing to be happy will actually make you more depressed.
If you have a lot of anxiety, then actively wanting to be less anxious will actually increase that anxiety.
I’m sure you have experienced something like this at some point.
Our culture puts a particular emphasis on external measurement and approval. After all, it’s so useful in business and finance, why wouldn’t it work with our emotions and personal lives?
These studies found that when it comes to rote or mechanical tasks (such as assembling chairs) external motivators improve results. But when it comes to creative or purpose-driven tasks (such as inventing a new type of software) external motivators can actually make results worse.
The problem is that the desire to change these internal emotional realities creates the unwanted emotion itself.
For example, you want to be really confident and liked by people and you’re particularly insecure about it. This desire to be liked will cause you to behave awkwardly and over-compensate around others (i.e., be “try-hard”). This will then make you less liked by others and therefore more insecure. Next time you’ll try even harder and get even worse results and the cycle continues.
Or let’s say you have low self-esteem and a general self loathing about yourself. You believe everything you do sucks and that you’re more or less screwed in life. Wanting to stop believing such things only serves as more evidence of how screwed up you are. After all, if you weren’t such a fuck up, you wouldn’t have to spend all day wishing you didn’t feel like a fuck up, would you?
It’s a Catch 22. In external aspects of one’s identity, desire is useful. Want to run faster? Set a goal, then go out and achieve it. Want to start a business? There are measurable benchmarks you can reach; you just have to want it enough.
But want to stop being anxious and stop procrastinating those goals? Well, then wanting to stop being anxious about them is likely to just make you more anxious.
The Challenge of Self-Acceptance
The way out of the conundrum is counter-intuitive. It’s self-acceptance. Paradoxically, accepting that you’re just not a confident person and you’re always going to feel a little off around other people will begin to make you feel more comfortable and less anxious around others. You won’t judge yourself and you’ll then feel less judged by them as well.
Accepting that you have a tendency to get depressed and that some people are just happier than you and that’s fine will ironically make you a happier and more accepting person. After all, some of the most important people in history were depressives.
Our generation is inundated with so much information at all hours of the day, it’s easy to get a skewed vision of society. Everyone else is fit. Everyone else is happy. Everyone else is successful. Everyone else is getting dates and having sex. But for some reason, you’re not.
What sells TV time and what gets passed around the internet are the exceptional situations, the easy solutions, the magic pills for perfection. It’s human nature to always look for perfection or for something greater and better than ourselves. But when you’re presented with something greater and better than yourself over and over and over again, all hours of the day, all days of the week, it’s easy to internalize that there’s something wrong with you. Ironically, the self help industry is a culprit here as well: you can eliminate all sadness and fear; you can be popular and loved by everyone; anyone can get rich and be successful and retire to a beach at age 35!
It’s just not true.
We’re all flawed creatures. And that’s OK.
I’ve come to accept that meeting new people is always going to take conscious effort for me. I’ve improved drastically in conquering my social anxiety over the years, but I’m just never going to be that natural gregarious type who can talk to everyone in a room without thinking about it. That’s just not me.
I’ve accepted that even though my relationship with my family has improved a lot in the past 10 years, it’s never going to be great. And that’s fine.
I’ve learned that commitment — romantic or otherwise — will always make me a little bit uncomfortable. I’ve worked hard and overcome a lot of my irrational fears surrounding it, but I’m just never going to feel completely at ease with it. And that’s OK too.
I get a lot of emails from readers, probably 10-20 a day. And a lot of them, particularly from the younger guys, lament problems that are so completely normal and healthy I sometimes don’t even know what to say to them.
It’s totally normal to get intimidated around an attractive person and say something dumb. We all do it.
Everybody feel uneasy in new social situations. And no, that won’t go away.
Most people get depressed at some point in their lives. Most people get dumped at some point and struggle getting over their ex. Most people feel insecure about their sexuality at some point. Everyone has family problems. Many people grow up in abusive situations. Tons of people have low self-esteem and dependency issues. Almost everybody wishes they were more successful and more motivated.
These things suck but they’re not new. And they’re definitely not unique.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not an excuse to do nothing about your problems. It just means that you should stop trying to be perfect. You never will be. Emotional issues never completely go away. Anxiety never completely goes away. Negative emotions exist for a reason (they kept us alive for hundreds of thousands of years).
There’s an old Buddhist adage: “You are already perfect as you are, yet you can always be better.”
The idea is that perfection is not some end point you achieve, but rather the process of improvement itself. No matter how much you improve yourself and your life, there will always be room for more growth and less suffering. There’s no final endpoint to achieve. There’s no final goal. The perfect self we all envision does not actually exist. As Gertrude Stein said, “There’s no there there.” You can always be more confident. You can always be happier. You can always be more successful. It never ends. What changes is your acceptance of your place in the process.
“I suck at this, but that’s OK. As long as I’m working on it, it’s OK.”
Perfection is the process of improvement itself. Perfection is the innate drive for endless expansion, growth and completion. We’re already there and we’ve always been there. We’re okay. We can be better. But we’re okay.