The more I talk to people about their struggles, the more I realize that we all have some sense of dissatisfaction with ourselves.
I have it, and I’d be willing to bet everyone reading this does too. Consider some of the ways we’re dissatisfied with ourselves:
- We constantly have a feeling that we should be better, doing more, more productive, more mindful, and so on.
- We doubt ourselves when we have to speak in a group or in public, and feel that we’re not good enough to contribute.
- We are unhappy with certain aspects of ourselves, like our bodies, the way our faces look, the way we procrastinate or get angry or lose patience as a partner or parent.
- We think we need to improve.
This is a constant condition, and even if we get a compliment from someone, we find a way to undercut it in our minds because we think we’re not good enough for that compliment.
It affects our lives in so many ways: we might not be good at making friends, speaking in public or in a group, finding a partner, doing the work we’re passionate about, finding contentment with ourselves and our lives.
And we don’t like feeling this way, so we run. We find distraction, comfort in food or alcohol or drugs or shopping, lash out at other people when we’re feeling defensive about ourselves. It’s at the heart of nearly all of our problems.
So how do we deal with this underlying problem? The answer is profoundly simple, yet not easy.
Before I go into dealing with the problem, we should discuss something first — the idea that we need to be dissatisfied with ourselves to make life improvements.
Unhappiness with Self as a Motivator
I used to think, as many people do, that if we’re unhappy with ourselves, we’ll be driven to get better. And if we were all of a sudden content with ourselves, we’d stop doing anything.
I no longer believe this. I do think we’re often driven to make improvements because we’re dissatisfied with ourselves, and that’s not a bad thing. We have hope for something better.
- When we are unhappy with ourselves, it’s hard to be happy when we do something good. We’re still dissatisfied. So doing something good, then, isn’t the reward it could be.
- We have habits of running from this bad feeling about ourselves, so procrastination and distraction become the default mode, and this gets in the way of our efforts. In fact, we’ll never solve the problems of distraction and procrastination until we can learn to deal with this problem of unhappiness with self.
- Unhappiness with self can get in the way of connecting with others (because we think we’re not good enough, and so can feel anxiety about meeting others). We can’t solve this, no matter how much we want to improve, until we address the underlying issue.
- Even when we make an improvement, the feeling of dissatisfaction with self doesn’t go away. So we try to improve some more, and it still doesn’t go away. In my experience, it never does, until you’re ready to face it head on.
- During this awesome period of self improvement driven by dissatisfaction, we don’t love ourselves. Which is a sad thing.
So is it possible to get things done and make improvements without dissatisfaction with self? I’ve discovered that the answer is a definite “yes.”
You can exercise and eat healthy not because you dislike your body and want to make it better … but because you love yourself and want to inspire your family. You can do work out of love for the people it will help. You can declutter, get out of debt, read more, and meditate not because you’re dissatisfied with yourself … but because you love yourself and others.
In fact, I would argue that you’re more likely to do all of those things if you love yourself, and less likely if you dislike yourself.
Dealing with Dissatisfaction
What can we do about our continual dissatisfaction with ourselves? How do we deal with self-doubt, feeling like we’re not good enough, unhappiness with certain parts of ourselves?
It turns out that these feelings are perfect opportunities — to learn about ourselves and how to be friends with ourselves.
- Each time we have these feelings, we can pause and just notice.
- Turn towards the feeling, seeing how it feels in your body. Be curious about how it feels, physically.
- Instead of running from this feeling, stay with it. Instead of rejecting it, try opening up to it and accepting it.
- Open yourself up to the pain of this feeling, and see it as a path to opening up your heart. In this way, getting in touch with the pain is a liberating act.
- See this difficult feeling as a sign of a good heart, soft and tender and loving. You wouldn’t care about being a good person, or a “good enough” person, if you didn’t have a good heart. There is a basic goodness beneath all of our difficulties, and we just need to stay and notice this goodness.
- Smile at yourself, and cultivate an unconditional friendliness to all that you see.
Now, I’m not claiming that this is an easy method, nor that it will cure our difficulties in one fell swoop. But it can start to form a trusting relationship with yourself, which can make an amazing difference.
I recommend that you practice this each time you notice self-criticism, self-doubt, unhappiness with yourself, harshness towards what you see in yourself. It only has to take a minute, as you face what you feel and stay with it, with unconditional friendliness.
If you really want to focus on this powerful change, reflect on it once a day by journaling at the end of the day, reviewing how you did and what you can do to remember to practice.
In the end, I think you’ll find that love is a more powerful motivator than unhappiness with yourself. And I hope you’ll find a friendship with yourself that will radiate out into your relationships with everyone else you know and meet.
A Guide to Dealing with Dissatisfaction with Ourselves was first published on Zen Habits on 11/8/16.