I’ve had, what some people might consider, a series of professionally successful years, with my fair share of setbacks along the way. Generally though, I’ve been good at anything I tried, and even when I failed, it usually wasn’t for lack of trying.
A little over six months ago, running a million miles an hour, I realized that I was really unhappy. I mean really really unhappy. On paper, everything looked amazing, but in the pit of my stomach I knew something was wrong.
First, I blamed everything around me: the hours I was working, the type of work I was doing, the difficult clients, or uncooperative economy. Then my beloved dog died, and I wrote off my unhappiness to grief. Then when I got over that, I threw myself into one hobby after another – looking for something that would make me happy. I learned to cook, to code, to sew. I watched everything I could find on Netflix. I read one book after another and still … nothing.
I threw myself into the self-help arena. I practiced daily affirmations and learned about the laws of attraction. I read article after article about happiness and passion and what it means and how to find it… nothing worked. Hypnosis? Tried it. Didn’t work. I let a friend drag me to some kind of seminar which turned out to be a cult. I tried returning to my religious upbringing, and when that didn’t work, I investigated other religions. I even went to see a shaman who chanted, waved feathers at me, and then and spit-sprayed me with fire and rum. (I promise this is all true).
I watched every TED Talk available and still nothing resonated. I read Godin and Gladwell and Daniel Pink… still nothing.
I guess you could say that I was depressed, although this feeling wasn’t debilitating. I did feel a little anti-social, but I was still functioning normally. I’ve also been through a few bouts of depression in the past, and this just felt different somehow. Not to sound pretentious, but the only words that made sense were “existential crisis.” I knew there was something else I wasn’t getting… some elusive joy for life that I wasn’t feeling.
I finally threw my hands up and cried. Happiness was just not in the cards for me. I didn’t get it and I wasn’t ever going to find it. I just felt like I was going through the motions. Numb. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t specifically sad either. I was just unfulfilled. I saw people talk about life and work with such passion and enthusiasm that it made me green with envy. (These weren’t lawyer friends, obviously).
I thought to myself “what’s wrong with you? You left the law, you are your own boss, what else do you want?” Then I felt guilty for being unhappy.
I didn’t get why I couldn’t feel this thing that I kept reading about. And then I found something that literally changed my life. CHANGED MY LIFE.
This is going to sound really corny; because I was not this hippy, new-agey person; but (drum roll please…) I found peace. You know where I found it? Inside my head. Crazy right?
Can you believe there was a vicious, brutal, fight-to-the-death, war going on inside me? I had no idea. I was just me; living life, doing things, striving to succeed, working hard, and all the while, it turns out, I was living in a war zone. One I created all inside my mind.***
You know who was to blame for my unhappiness? Me. No one else. Not the work, not the clients, not the economy. It was all in my head. And when I figured out how to call a cease-fire, the wave of joy and happiness and relief that came over me can only be described as a spiritual enlightment.
Now I know you hear me say “voices in my head” and you immediately jump to schizophrenia. No no no. Not actual voices. I assure you that, aside from some anxiety, a few panic attacks, and the occasional dip into depression, I’ve never had any kind of dissociative disorder.
So here’s what was really going on – for whatever reason, trauma, bad parenting, etc., we grow up with a feeling that we’re not good enough.
This feels bad on an emotional level, even if we aren’t aware of the thoughts that create that emotion. So to cope with those bad feelings, we create a perfect version of ourselves: an ideal image in our mind, and we think that if only we achieved this level of perfection, then we’d be happy. Then we’d get the love/respect/praise/admiration that we so desperately want.
Insert your own type of perfection into this sentence and you’ll recognize this process in yourself. “if only I were ____________________ (successful enough, rich enough, thin enough) then I’ll be happy.”
Then one of two things happens. Either;
- we fail to achieve that goal and feel even worse about ourselves,
- or we achieve it, feel good for 30 seconds, and then go back to feeling bad.
Why does that happen?
Because the negative I’m-not-good-enough voice inside, the one that created the perfect __________ for you to achieve, the one that sets goals for you, and drives you to achieve them, is a nasty insatiable demon. As soon you achieve the goal he set out for you, he just moves the goal posts further away.
So what happens next? Unhappiness. Discontent. And many other things, depending on the type of person you are.
If you failed to achieve the goals, the demon keeps reminding you that you are a failure, that you should be ashamed of yourself, that you’re not good enough, and that everyone around is laughing at you. You feel this in the pit of your stomach. It’s not pretty.
Alternatively, you make your goals; you celebrate them for a while, basking in the praise and respect you get from others, and then the elation wears off and the same feelings come back. You start to worry about things like “well now I have this really fancy job I wanted, what if I can’t handle the work load.
What if I get fired?
What if someone realizes I don’t belong here?
What if those new clients leave….”
It’s exactly the same voice. He never really goes away, no matter what you do.
Again, these “voices” or demons are thoughts in your head. And unless you know to “listen for them” closely, you don’t even know they’re there. They are a part of your belief structure. They are what Toltecs call hidden assumptions. They are what therapists call self-loathing and low self esteem.
People cope with these feelings differently. Some become workaholics (“I’ll just work till I drop so I don’t have to deal with these feelings and anxieties”). Some drink more than they should. Some turn to pills or pain killers. This is called “numbing.” You go to external substances to try to escape from the bad feelings.
So… now that we can all admit that we have low self-esteem and we are secretly terrified inside, and using a variety of coping mechanisms to cover it up – let’s talk about what low self-esteem does to you.
- It makes you sensitive to judgment and criticism.
- It makes you judgmental and highly critical of others.
- It makes you either try to please other people for validation
- or it makes you strive for perfection to avoid embarrassment,
- or it makes you angry all the time, so you lash out at people and things for no reason.
- It makes you irritable and anxious.
Protracted self-loathing can lead to an intense feeling of shame. Shame prevents us from connecting with people. We try to hide our true selves from others because we believe that if they saw the real us, they’d be disgusted/disappointed/judgmental/etc.
Shame prevents us from feeling empathy or compassion. It isolates us and creates fear and anxiety around social interactions… Then comes “numbing” – alcohol, drugs, meds, retail therapy binges, overeating, over-exercising… Any of this starting to sound familiar?The solution here is simpler than you think. This doesn’t need years of cognitive or behavioral therapy. There is nothing wrong with you.
In its simplest form – it requires you to admit to yourself that you are imperfect. Get comfortable with that idea. Recognize your fears. Recognize that you are constantly judging yourself against a standard of perfection that isn’t possible. Learn to stop doing that to yourself. Then admit your imperfections to the rest of the world. And set down that mask you carry around. Be the real you. Stop pretending to be perfect, because we all actually see the real you, and accept you just as your are. You don’t need to punish yourself anymore.
Here come the skeptics: “But what if I have unreasonable expectations and they’ve gotten me pretty far in life. I don’t want to set them down, I need them. They drive me to succeed.”
Yep. I know. I thought the same thing. HOWEVER, once you realize that perfection is not the same as striving for your best, AND that by striving for perfection, you aren’t living up to your potential, you’ll see that you don’t need it. There are healthy, appropriate motivations and drivers that can help you achieve success without punishment. And when you achieve success with healthy motivations, you can enjoy that success and actually be happy. Not just for two hours, but forever.
This all means that you have to challenge the status quo – and I get that that’s scary. But it’s possible and it’s free. All you have to do is take a long hard honest look inside.
Once you recognize these things and put them in perspective, a cascade of positive happy emotions fills you with a carefree confidence that is absolutely overwhelming. As soon as the light went off in my head, I suddenly felt like a completely different person. In fact, my friends and family keep asking me if I’m on drugs, because they don’t recognize this new happy, fun, carefree person I’ve become. If you’ve ever truly been in love and know what that feels like – this is the same feeling.
Once you are filled with confidence, and are free of self judgment, you can stop caring about what others think. You can stop looking for approval or validation from others. You can stop the drinking, or the meds, or whatever you use to numb the pain.
Now the question becomes “what does the real you want?” And the answers will come automatically. It won’t be a struggle. You won’t torture yourself with pros and cons. Once you find this peace and happiness – you can do anything. And that’s when you can start figuring out the rest of your life.
I found a quote recently that I thought captured this entire concept perfectly:
“Often people attempt to live their lives backwards, they try to have more things or more money in order to do more of what they want so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are then do what you need to do in order to have what you want. ”
Margaret Young, Author of Hail and Fairwell
I’m also not suggesting that you give up on everything and become a fat lazy slob. I’m saying that you should find inner peace, let go of the impossible expectations you have for yourself. Then let go of everyone else’s expectations, so you can have the mental freedom to figure out what it is you really want. Then go do that thing.
Set goals – achieve them – enjoy them. But do it with the right motivation and for the right reasons. The beauty is that these goals don’t have to be noble. They can be completely selfish and that’s fine too. If you want more money because you really really want a Maserati – go for it. Work like mad until you make enough to afford it. But your days won’t be miserable, even if you’re working hard. You won’t feel scared and vulnerable. Do anything you want, just as long as achieving it actually makes you happy. It’s a question of running to something you want, versus running away from something you don’t want.
So the million dollar question – how?
It took me a few months to recognize and admit how unhappy I was. I kept blaming everything and everyone else around me. Then once I committed myself to finding a solution, it took another few months to find the one that worked for me. (I have no affiliation with Gary’s program and do not receive any kind of compensation for recommending it. I recommend it because it’s the only thing that resonated with me.).
Once I started listening to the audio podcasts, and doing some reflecting, it took about a week. Once I understood intellectually what I was doing, and I “tried it on” by thinking about my life and actions and beliefs and motivations, the cascade came in two or three days.
I don’t have a clean and simple solution for you. This won’t take an hour or a day. It takes some heavy lifting and an adventure into some scary psychological territory. The only thing I can tell you is it’s incredibly beautiful and fun on the other side. So try it… I promise you, you’ll be so very happy you did.
*** Absolutely all the credit for my spiritual awakening goes to Gary van Warmerdam, and his work based on Toltec Wisdom and the teachings of Don Miguel Ruiz. Thank you Gary, for putting together the program and making so much of it available for free. For Gary’s much more thorough explanation of the thoughts and feelings of “not good enough,” listen to the second blue link on his free audio page here.
For the past eight months, I’ve been on an incredible, terrifying, and thrilling journey out of blind fear, ego, and conditioning, and into self-love, forgiveness, acceptance, and surrender.
I’m using this blog to share my journey with you. My intention is to collect and curate the resources and teachings I found interesting or helpful along my path. Perhaps they will be helpful for you as well.
Often times when a person awakens for the first time and starts to see the world in a whole new color, he thinks, “How did I not know this before? How come I didn’t see it? How come no one ever taught me this?” And he begins to judge himself for having been asleep all this time. But as Byron Katie often says, “Yes. We always start here…” And so, the name of the blog is a reminder that we always start here, that it’s never too late; wherever we are, whatever we’ve been through