When I was at university, I was convinced that I wanted to be an investment banker and work on Wall Street. A year later, it took all of about three hours in the cubicle miasma known as State Street for that dream to evaporate. In hindsight, I didn’t want to be a banker as much as I wanted to feel powerful and important. Fortunately, I found other ways to meet those needs.
There was also a period of time when I was convinced that my ex-girlfriend left me because I wasn’t good enough for her and so I had to prove myself to every woman I ever met. But after a lot of overcompensation around other women, I eventually realized that I was fine and much better off without her.
Then there was the idea that every bad emotion I ever experienced was a result of some underlying trauma and that by “working through it,” I was precipitating some sort of transformation in myself. Boy, was that one delusional (Spoiler alert: Sometimes you feel bad just because you feel bad).
What I’m getting at is that we’re often poor arbiters of our own emotions and desires. We lie to ourselves. And we do it for one obvious reason: to feel better.
We may not know exactly what we’re lying to ourselves about, but it’s safe to assume that some chunk of what we consider “truth” today is likely nothing more than a defense against some deeper meaning which is painful to accept.
By lying to ourselves we mortgage our long-term needs in order to fulfill our short-term desires. Therefore, one could say personal growth is merely the process of learning to lie to oneself less.
When it comes to uncovering our own BS, many of us rely on similar patterns to protect ourselves. Here are some common patterns I’ve come across in myself and people I’ve worked with:
1. “If I could just X, then my life would be amazing.”
Take your pick of what X is: get married, get laid, get a raise, buy a new car, a new house, a new pet rabbit, floss every Sunday, whatever. Obviously, you’re smart enough that I don’t have to tell you that no one single goal will ever solve your happiness problems permanently. After all, that’s the tricky part about the brain: the “If only I had X, then…” mechanism never goes away.
We’re evolutionarily wired to exist in a state of mild dissatisfaction. It makes biological sense. Primates who are never quite satisfied with what they already have and want a little bit more were the ones who survived and pro-created more often.
It’s an excellent evolutionary strategy, but a poor happiness strategy. If we’re always looking for what’s next it becomes quite difficult to appreciate what is now. Sure, we can alter this wiring a bit through conditioning, learned behaviors and changed mindsets, but it’s an immovable piece of the human condition, something we must always lean against.
So what does that mean? Learn to enjoy it. Learn to enjoy the challenge. Learn to enjoy change and pursuit of one’s higher goals. Relish the chase, so to speak. A big misconception in the self-help world is that being satisfied with the present moment and working towards one’s future are somehow contradictory. They’re not. If life is a hamster wheel, then the goal isn’t to actually get anywhere, it’s to find a way to enjoy running.
2. “If I had more time, I would do X.”
I like the idea of being a surfer and surfing in all of the cool places I visit each year. But every time I rent a surfboard, I get frustrated and lose interest after a few hours. I like the idea of being really good at chess, but I don’t really put much time into it. On the other hand, I really do want to learn more languages, so I do take time out of my day to continue studying.
People say they want to start a business, they want six-pack abs, they want to become an expert musician. But they don’t want it. If they did, they would make time and commit themselves. Rather, people are enamored with the idea of their goals rather than the painful living that comes with living one’s goals.
Now, you may say, “Oh Mark, you don’t understand, I’m so busy.”
But choosing to be busy is a choice of investment of time. And you invest your time in things that matter to you. If you are working 80 hours per week, that was something you wanted more than all of the other things you say you want to do. And if that’s true, then you can always choose to stop working so much. You can choose not to work at all. You can choose to value your dream more than money or sleep or eating at your favorite restaurant every week. But you don’t…
3. “If I say or do X, people will think I’m stupid.”
The truth is most people don’t care if you do X or not, and even if they do, they’re going to be far more concerned about what you think of them. The truth is that you’re not afraid because other people will think you’re stupid or lame or obnoxious. The truth is you’re afraid because you will think you are stupid or lame or obnoxious.
This is a worthiness issue. It’s a lie that is borne from an insecurity of not being good enough. It has nothing to do with how mean/nice people around you are. The people around you are too busy worrying about what you think of them to care.
4. “If I just say or do X, then that person will finally change.”
You can’t change people. You can only help them to change themselves. The rationalization that if you could only do that one more thing to get someone to see your way, to see the enlightened path, to see how to stop being such a raging asshole, is usually a product of an unhealthy attachment to someone and/or a boundary issue.
All advice and support must be offered up unconditionally, without expectation of any miraculous turnarounds. Love people for the messed up ways that they already are, not how you’d wish them to be.
5. “Everything is great/Everything sucks.”
Everything is how you choose to see it. Choose wisely.
6. “There’s something inherently wrong or different about me.”
This lie is the cornerstone of personal shame, the belief that something about us is inherently wrong or insufficient. An unfortunate side effect of having robust societies with hundreds of millions of people is that we are inevitably encouraged to compare ourselves with arbitrary social standards. As we grow up, we notice (and are reminded by others) whether we’re taller/shorter, prettier/uglier, smarter/stupider, stronger/weaker, cooler/lamer than the average bear.
This is called “socialization” and it actually serves a useful purpose. The idea is to get people in line with culturally-defined ideals so that we can all coexist with one another without everyone stabbing each other in the throats and eating dead babies for breakfast. It worked (mostly).
But the price of that social stability and cohesion is the internalization of beliefs that we aren’t good enough as we are, that we’re fundamentally flawed and unlovable. Some of us internalize greater amounts of these beliefs than others, especially if we were abused or traumatized at some point in our past.
And this clinging belief that we’re somehow deficient undermines everything we think and do and generates misery throughout our lives.
But here’s the truly messed up part: We’re afraid to let go of the beliefs that we’re inherently deficient.
Why? Why would we hold onto beliefs that we’re somehow sub-human, not worthy of the same love and success as those all around us, and not give them up in the face of evidence to the contrary?
The answer is the same reason we hold on to any belief: it makes us feel special. If we’re inherently inferior in some way, then we get to permanently play victim, to play martyr, and it imbues our life with a sick noble purpose. If we were to let go of that and accept that we are inherently worthy of life, worthy of all others, then we would lose our right to victimhood, our right to being special, and instead turn into an anonymous nobody, just another face in the crowd.
And so we hold on to our misery and wear it like a badge of honor. Because it’s the only identity we know…
7. “I would change, but I can’t because of X.”
Unless X is “I don’t really want to,” then this statement is bullshit. You’re making excuses. And it’s OK, we all do, but you might as well own up to it. You don’t want to change, because if you truly wanted it, you would do it. And if you don’t do it, then that means that what’s causing you misery is also benefiting you in some unconscious way.
I talked to a client recently who is ambitious, but he’s been blaming the injustice of the present economy and social system for his inability to work on his business idea. Throughout the conversations, he began to look at some of his beliefs and see that many of them were merely excuses to justify his already being unhappy.
But still, his inability to act persisted. That’s because the root of the issue was deeper. His anger at the injustice of the current system not only justifies his inability to act, but it also feeds his sense of self-importance, his belief that if he were allowed to try, he’d be amazing but because he’s not allowed, he’ll forever be angry and miserable instead.
The need for importance is one of the most fundamental psychological needs. And in this case, a bright young man would rather hold on to his misery than risk anonymity and failure.
8. “I can’t live without X.”
In most cases, you can. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling the world and staying in some particularly unsavory places for a period of time, it’s that humans adapt incredibly quickly. I (and many others) have documented the arduous process of selling and giving away most of our possessions and the spectacular realization that after a brief period of nostalgia, we don’t miss any of them at all.
So caught up in modern society’s cycle of consumerism, many of us have forgotten that, psychologically speaking, we already have everything we need. Our psyches possess an incredible ability to adapt to what’s available in our environments to get all of our needs met and keep ourselves happy. And beyond a certain level of comfort and subsistence, what matters is not so much what we do or what we own, but rather how much meaning each activity or relationship gives us.
Optimize your life to enhance meaning. That’s the metric of success.
9. “I know what I’m doing.”
Sure you do, buddy. Sure you do.
Our lives are defined by nothing but glorified best guesses, a constant process of trial-and-error. And right now, my best guess is that this article is over.