Do you feel guilty because you don’t eat organic veggies? Or have a regular exercise routine? Or write every day? Or some other ideal that you carry around that you have never quite gotten yourself to do?
On the outside, these would be positive changes. They would make you feel better, look better…be better? Well, that’s the rub.
You cannot be a better person.
When a “positive change in your life” is motivated by inspiration and being in touch with yourself, and you do it, then the end result is that you feel happier.
But you never become a better person. Because you are already good, and there is no measure to that.
And if that same “positive change in your life” is motivated by guilt or “shoulds”, then in a subtle way you are betraying yourself.
It’s pretty hard to make yourself do something you aren’t intrinsically motivated to do. So you heap on more self-criticism and forcing, trying to become what you think you should be. You end up in struggle and striving. In pain.
I have a whole list of things in my head of things I could be / should be / would be doing better, if I were a better person. But that list? It’s fading more and more as I learn to find the things that genuinely make me happy and feel good.
There is never a shortage of opportunities to compare yourself to others.
Sometimes when we see someone doing something awesome, we feel inspired. We want to do something awesome too. And that inspiration can indeed carry us forward.
The tricky part is when we start to compare and measure our own awesomeness against theirs.
Or think that we could somehow become a better, more likable, more lovable person by doing what they did.
Or just collapse in a fit of “I could never do something so awesome, what’s wrong with me anyway”.
The same goes for ideals. Even 5000-year old ideals, like the Eightfold-path in Buddhism. It represents a lot of wisdom. But you still need to field test it for you. You cannot take anyone else’s list (even a 5000 year old list) and substitute it for self-knowledge.
The difference between feeling inspired and feeling bad about ourselves? Boundaries.
With healthy boundaries, we can see others accomplishments and still maintain our connection with our own goodness, our own desires, our own aliveness.
There is no one size fits all set of rules to live by that work for everyone. There is no awesome thing that would be awesome for everyone. Boundaries keep you in touch with this truth, and give you space to feel what’s right for you.
Boundaries solidify when we have a sense of ourselves as separate people who are good in our own right. A boundary is an awareness of your separateness from others, and your right to have that separateness and uniqueness.
Internally, you can develop this awareness with questions:
- Wow, he is so happy doing that. What would make me happy?
- Wow, that looks so awesome for her. What would be awesome for me?
- Wow, a lot of people are joining _____. Is it right for me?
- I’m going to sit with myself before taking on new commitments or practices, to see if they feel right for me.
- I’ll know something is a good direction for me because it will feel fulfilling and clear, and not forced.
- I affirm that I’m already OK, whether I “improve” myself or not.
The truth is you’ll know something is right for you based on how you feel, because your feelings give you feedback on whether your needs are met.
Happiness comes from meeting ourselves moment-to-moment, not from matching an ideal.
In NVC there is a concept of “standards and ideals”. These are never life-serving, because trying to meet an ideal takes you out of the present moment-to-moment awareness of your own personal feelings and needs (and the feelings and needs of those around you). As you disconnect from the flow of needs, you disconnect from aliveness and enter the realm of ideas about happiness and goodness, rather than happiness and goodness itself.
In reality, goodness is inherent.
You cannot get more of it, and you cannot destroy what you have. There is a fundamental goodness to you, to me, to the Universe, to all of everything.
Happiness comes and goes, but ultimately it arises from being in touch with yourself and meeting yourself day to day. And when you are in touch with yourself, you will be naturally motivated to seek life-affirming choices. No forcing is required.
And that’s the big myth. Forcing will not get you somewhere good. The ends do not justify the means. And there is an alternative that does work: love yourself first.
When we start with acceptance, positive change flows naturally from the healing and growth process.
Sometimes it’s hard to trust this process. Self-improvement seems like a shortcut. “If I do this thing I will be a better person, and then I won’t feel bad about myself”. What we are trying to escape is the very thing we have to face: the internalized pain and shame and decisions we made about who we are. These don’t change by getting on a rat wheel of trying to be better. They just get reinforced, because we are acting as if they are true. The only reason we would think we need to improve ourselves is if we think we are not good enough to begin with.
Instead, we have to face them and feel the pain of them. And let them be replaced by something new and truly life-serving. You are good. You are already good enough. There was never any doubt. You have nothing to prove. You already belong, and you are already OK.
As you connect to your essential goodness, you will naturally be inspired to do those actions that support your aliveness and help you thrive. You’ll want to do what makes you feel happy and good and healthy. And that kind of positive action does not feel like striving. It feels expansive, powerful, and clear.
It’s not the action. It’s where it comes from that matters. When it comes from striving, it won’t last and it will reinforce a feeling of unworthiness. When it starts with a process of self-love, and comes from true alignment with yourself, it will be just another part of being happy and alive.
I like to remind myself that you don’t have to force a flower to grow, you just give it the right nutrients and sunshine and it becomes beautiful. Do you have an image or metaphor that helps you remember that you are OK the way you are?
What comes up reading about comparisons and ideals? Do you have an internal list of things you “should” be doing?
Inspiration can be a powerful thing. What is your favorite source of true inspiration?
You know, I’ve read this message that “we are all good deep down inside” many times before, and I always had a hard time grasping the full meaning (although I knew the statement to be true). Somehow, the words you chose finally made me click; when we “try to be a better person”, all we are doing is aligning our actions with our true self. That’s why we feel happier – and feel like a better person. Because we are a better person. Thanks.
Glad I could help things click!
Claire P says
**Instead, we have to face them and feel the pain of them…**
Yes, I get this. But you see, I’m still terrified of doing that. Like the pain will wash me away. My pain, the pain I might cause people I love, pain pain pain godawful pain…
When I was giving birth I sucked on some nitrous oxide once in a while which just gave enough separateness between me and my pain that I didn’t completely freak out and could stick with the process…
Suggestions for emotional equivalents?
Yes! There are many ways to approach emotional pain to make it less overwhelming to feel and process.
When it’s really overwhelming that can be an indicator of trauma, which “lodges” emotions in the limbic system. Various physiological techniques can help move the emotional material out of the limbic system into your long-term memory where they are not as emotionally charged.
My friend Larisa teaches a technique called Owl Eyes which is a simple technique you can do on your own. I’ve used it and it definitely helps.
There are also lots of types of therapy that work on trauma. EMDR is one of the best know. It doesn’t have to involve eye-movements, they also can play a sound in each year. The key is bilateral stimulation, it somehow shifts the brain. You can do this also on your own by tapping alternately on either leg while experiencing the emotion. I know it sounds weird, but for some reason it works. Other trauma approaches that I’ve had recommended but haven’t tried are Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and Somatic Experiencing.
On a more everyday note, I think it helps to have a physical place to go that feels safe and cozy and nurturing. For example, I do most of my crying/feeling stuff in my bed under the covers with a stuffed animal. It’s my safe place. I do lots of affirmative self-talk when I’m there. And since I use it that way often, it builds up a kind of supportive structure so I feel more able to go to scary places and know that I’ll be OK.
My other thought is just to do a little at a time, like building up a muscle. Don’t tackle really hard things right away. Build a habit of being in touch with yourself in a casual way. Check in with your feelings and needs. Affirm that you are a good person. Then, when you are feeling strong and able, let yourself go to the darker places.
Essentially, if you’re going to dive into deep waters, bring scuba gear and a guide. =)