Some time ago, running a million miles an hour, I realized that I was really unhappy.
I mean, really, really unhappy. While on paper, everything looked fine (work, home, relationships), 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, and uncooperative economy. Then my beloved dog died, and I wrote off my unhappiness to grief. It took some time to recover, but when the grief went away, I was still really unhappy.
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 watched a ton of TED Talks and still nothing resonated. I read Godin, and Gladwell, and Daniel Pink… still nothing.
Then I tried the self-help arena. I practiced daily affirmations and learned about the law 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. It was nice for a few minutes, but no lasting effects.
I let a friend drag me to some kind of seminar, which turned out to be a cult. (I’m not kidding).
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 was determined to find a solution.
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 joie de vivre. 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. I thought to myself “what’s wrong with you? You left the practice of law, you run your own business, you are your own boss, what else do you want?” Then I felt guilty for being unhappy.
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 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 never this person. I was never into yoga, ashrams, or meditation…
But I found peace. You know where I found it? Inside my head.
It turns out that I was looking for happiness in all the wrong places.
When I looked inside myself, it turned out that there was a vicious brutal war going on inside me. I had no idea. I was just me; living life, doing things, working hard, striving to succeed. It never occurred to me to look inside my own mind. And all the while, it turns out, I was living in a war zone. One I created all inside my head. And when I figured out how to call a cease-fire, a wave of joy and happiness and relief came over me can only be described as a spiritual experience.
As I began sharing what I’d found with others, and reading more about it, I found out that I’m not alone. That lots of other people feel this way too.
So here’s what was really going on: many people grow up with a feeling that they’re not good enough. It can come from many different sources: trauma, parenting, bullying, social rejection, media, anywhere really. This feeling lives at the subconscious emotional level, and many are unaware that they believe this about themselves.
So in order to cope with those bad feelings, when we were little, we created a perfect version of ourselves: an ideal image in our minds of who we “should be.” And as we grow, we continue to believe that if only we achieve this level of perfection, then we’d be happy. Then the bad feelings of unworthiness would subside. And 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’d be happy.”
Then one of two things happens.
- we fail to achieve that goal and feel even worse about ourselves, or
- we achieve it, feel good for a short time, 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 standard for you to achieve, sets goals for you, and drives you to achieve them. But he is a nasty insatiable demon. As soon you achieve the goal he set out for you, he just moves the goal posts further away. He creates a new goal that is just out of reach. You end up running around like a hamster in a wheel.
So what happens next? Unhappiness. Discontent. And a variety of 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 achieve 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 a whole new set of things. It’s exactly the same voice. He never really goes away, no matter what you achieve.
Again, these thoughts aren’t really in the forefront of your mind. And unless you know to “listen for them” closely, you don’t even know they’re there. They are a part of your subconscious belief structure. The ancient Toltecs called this cacophony of negative thoughts the mitote. Therapists call it negative self-talk and self-loathing.
People cope with these thoughts, and the feelings they generate, 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, some shop, some work out more than necessary. Some turn to pills, drugs, sex. All of this is called numbing – going to external substances to try to escape from the bad feelings.
The thing is that almost all of us have these feelings. The people who are aware of them talk about them. The people who aren’t aware of them don’t. But the feelings are still there. Here are some of the ways unworthiness manifests itself in behavior:
- 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.
If this unworthiness is intense enough it can lead to chronic feelings of shame.
Shame, in turn, prevents us from connecting with people. When we feel shame, 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. “If you saw the real me, you couldn’t possibly love or accept me.”
Shame prevents us from feeling empathy or compassion. It isolates us and creates fear and anxiety around social interactions… which requires more numbing.
Any of this starting to sound familiar?
The solution here is simpler than you think.
In its most basic form – it requires you to admit to yourself that you are imperfect. And that’s ok.
When you 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 you can admit your imperfections to the rest of the world. And set down that mask of perfection you carry around. You can be the real you. You can stop pretending to be perfect.
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. Having impossible expectations does often lead to success. But success does not mean happiness. There are many many successful unhappy people.
More than that, striving for perfection is not the same as striving for your best.
By striving for perfection, you actually aren’t living up to your potential. You are depleting yourself and hurting yourself, which doesn’t harness your real potential.
There are healthy, appropriate motivations and drivers that can help you achieve success without self-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.
Once I recognized these things and put them in perspective, a cascade of positive happy emotions filled me with such a carefree confidence, that it was absolutely overwhelming. As soon as the light went off in my head, I suddenly felt like a completely different person.
Once you set down these standards of perfection, and all the 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. You can stop looking for happiness outside of you.
Then 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. You won’t need to attend workshops looking for your purpose in life. 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
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. But if you really enjoy what you’re doing, without the self-judgment, your days won’t be miserable; even if you’re working really hard. You won’t feel scared and stressed out. Do anything you want, just as long as doing the work actually makes you happy. If you intrinsically love the thing you’re doing, rather than focusing on the outcome, then your work becomes something you look forward to on Monday morning, not something you dread.
Your happiness isn’t outside of you. It’s not in stuff, or money, or success, or other people. It’s not something you find externally. It’s inside of you. You just have to go in and remove all the stuff that’s blocking you from it.
* I want to say a huge huge thank you to Gary van Warmerdam. It was his work, based on Toltec Tradition and the teachings of Don Miguel Ruiz, that helped me to awaken to all of this. You can visit his website here for lots of incredible resources. For Gary’s much more thorough explanation of the thoughts and feelings of “not good enough,” check out his free mp3 podcast here.