If you are anything like me, chances are at some point your life was a mess. You may have turned to the self-help-industrial-complex for answers. It certainly makes a lot of promises. Lifestyle gurus tell us to just do “X” and our life will be wonderful. So many promises are made, but like diets and gym memberships they seem to rarely succeed in their stated purpose.
Why is this?
The short answer is, it’s complicated. Untangling from your anxieties, neuroses and negative emotions is harder than it sounds. It will take longer than you think if you are a normal person, which you probably are. I learned this the hard way, and by that I mean I had to figure it out myself. No one told me this little inconvenient truth.
It is frustrating to read a bunch of blogposts like ‘10 Simple Things you can do to Live a Better Life Now!’ that promise to solve all of your problems.
- Just meditate a few minutes a day and deliver you to a Zen-like state of constant bliss!
- Keep a gratitude journal!
- Keep quoting Rumi and Seneca and the new you will be bursting with wisdom by the weekend!
Twitter and Facebook keep vomiting endless supply of these ‘helpful’ posts, memes and inspirational stories that promise to turn your life around. Some of them may have even been mine.
There is nothing inherently wrong with articles like this, in fact they can be helpful (especially mine), but they do not tell the whole story. They can even be counterproductive at times. They are tools to be used properly.
…is more like this:
Let me explain in stream of consciousness mode.
We are a basket of fucked up, uncontrollable emotions with an unbalanced personality. This personality is actually a defense mechanism trying to compensate for our weaknesses. We engage in useless self-talk by an ego that just won’t shut up. We have mostly good but ultimately selfish intentions, and are trying to navigate through a world with a festering pile of distractions like: a job we hate, an occasional health or financial crisis, pain, suffering, heartache and loss. If we are lucky we have a few solid relationships swimming in a sea of dysfunctional ones. Advertisers, business and politicians are conducting psychological warfare on us to extract as much money, time and energy out of us as they can without actually killing us or rendering us useless. We are chronically stressed out about the future and think about the past wondering if we made correct decisions.
Does this sound a little familiar?
True self-improvement is for the well-adjusted one-percenter, right?
OK, maybe it is not quite that bad, but it’s not all rainbows and ponies either.
We go on diets, we half-heartedly try a few things we read in blogs or self-help books but they don’t work right away and we get discouraged. It seems that everything negative in our life happens right away, all at once while all the good things in our life take constant energy and time.
We are battling entropy and losing. It is hopeless. It doesn’t seem like a fair fight, and to be honest it isn’t. But remember, life is not about fairness. The universe doesn’t work this way.
We seldom outrun our hopes and expectations. Better to temper them; there is less disappointment that way. Easier to read about self-improvement and imagine our future self in that new shinny self-improved world. Just hide from the problems. Turn on the TV. Have a few drinks.
Ahhhh. Much better.
Slow and Uneven Path
This line of reasoning is obviously destructive, but I think many of us have been there. Some of us still are. Many of us are on the path to somewhere; we just don’t really know where we are going. Many of us are living a life of quiet desperation and we can’t seem to change course.
One reason we don’t change is that we can’t actually see the change. It’s too slow to perceive. Our culture and cognitive biases have conditioned us to favor immediate results. Enter the era of The Tweet and The Meme. Cause and effect must be obvious to be effective even if it is not true. We give up too quickly.
I can tell you from personal experience that none of the things I write about here are going to magically change you from a dysfunctional psychological mess to a superhero overnight, even the high yield Pareto-approved activities.
It all takes time outside of the lab. The real world is messy. It’s not the shiny polished internet or the sterile operating room.
Progress is not linear. It is more like a sine wave. With improvement there are times of worsening. Everything cycles and everything constantly changes.
There are times when your fitness gets worse in spite of training. Occasionally your meditation will suck and make you feel less enlightened. There will be financial setbacks in spite of saving aggressively for retirement.
Injuries, illness and other unforeseen complications will occur while you follow the perfect script on paper. There will be bumps and bruises and much of the progress will only be seen in retrospect.
When I was going through massive burnout several years ago I just didn’t turn a switch and watch my life get slowly and steadily better until I was a big glowing ball of joyous energy. Life doesn’t work that way.
I had breakthroughs, massive shifts in my thinking, and incredible progress. I also had times of doubt, depression and massive setbacks.
My life was a massive tangle of complicated emotions, obligations and problems that each had to be worked through. It was like untangling a 400 meter long string of Christmas lights someone threw in a giant dumpster. It was a big smelly intertwined mess.
Real Life is Not a Blog-post.
Real life is messy.
The amplitude of my sine wave was large (I’m sure there is an inappropriate but funny joke in there somewhere) so there were times it seemed like I was going in the wrong direction, and in the short term I was. But I always knew the vector of the wave was positive. I always had a vision of where I wanted to go, and knew areas I wanted to improve upon. I made sure I was vaguely pointed in the right direction.
OK, I’m not sure if this was 100% true, but sometimes we have to believe something even if we are not sure it’s true or not, because believing the opposite will hinder us. If this seems like a contradiction – it’s because it is one.
Perfect is Not Possible
Stop trying to be perfect because that does not exist. There is only good and better, and sometimes they are enemies.
None of my actions guaranteed my success. Some setbacks are just too much to overcome, but I kept trying. I had to try. Life is an infinite cascade of probabilities. There is only one certainty and that is death. All else is chance. We can influence it, but it is still chance.
People that give up don’t believe they have influence. They have no agency. They believe in fate.
There is no fate.
Fate is our flawed brain trying to make sense of the world using the only problem solving and heuristic tools it has.
Life is a Mess, Like This Blog Post
You may have noticed this post is a messy, disjointed jumble. This is intentional. It was the way it came out of my brain. It is a reminder of the fact that life is, well, messy and disjointed. If you think this writing is bad, you should see the truly unedited crap that comes out of my keyboard.
Remember, everything you read is a carefully edited finished product. Your thoughts and your life are raw and unedited. This is not a fair comparison.
Comparison with self-help literature will make you feel inadequate at some level. Recognize this and power through it. I wish this wasn’t true. I wish you could just read a couple of my articles and make your life better by 42.7% in a few days or your money back, but it is impossible.* There is no escaping the natural cycles of your life. The sine wave is here to stay. Embrace it.
The problem with these well-meaning self-help/improvement articles is they are the finished product. They are so alluring and seductive, like a shiny new car coming off the assembly line. Like a delicious dinner delivered to you by a waiter who is just a little too good looking and a little too nice to be a normal human being.
You are comparing this to the imperfect messy assembly line or back kitchen that is your life. The brain likes the finished product but can’t figure out how to get from point A to point B.
You have to fight through this stuff just like I did. There are no unicorns, leprechauns or magic shortcuts. Your life is not a Disney movie. When you read a cute little 1500 word article on having more gratitude what you don’t see is the 10 years of self-pity that lead to the realization that gratitude was necessary in the first place. You don’t see the 1,000 pages the author read to get there.
You may get a story or anecdote of the lightbulb moment, but likely the author doesn’t even really know why he changed. Why that moment and not some other?
Often we attach meaning to things that have no meaning. We are very good at this. It is how we make sense of the world. Often it is the unseen and unfelt events that lead to the ‘aha’ moment that made it ‘aha’ in the first place.
You Don’t Often See the Failures.
I’m not talking about the cute failures that lend a teachable moment or some kind of tear jerking inspiration (the ones that make good blog posts). I’m talking about the real failures that had no point: The dead ends. The skinned knees, malunited fractures and ugly scars. The broken relationships and broken lives.
There is survivorship bias in what you consume.
After people emerge from their personal darkness and personality disorders, they tend to forget the struggle. Intellectually they know, but emotionally they have already started disengaging. You can’t heal and simultaneously stay in the painful place you are healing from.
Someone can stay stuck living the same trauma over and over (PTSD), but then this person can’t really know what it’s like to emerge. It is rare writing that successfully captures both sides equally. Usually you get one or the other.
Reading again and again about the pain others are experiencing is not a long-tern solution; it is a trap. Often we need this to understand ourselves in the short term, but it is not the path to redemption and healing. It provides comfort and it can sooth us, but is this what we want?
To emerge and grow we actually need someone who made it to the other side. Comfort sooths the acute injuries, but for true healing we need a guide.
Why Does This Matter?
Articles, blogs and self-help books are a tool, and you need to know how to use them. Even when you don’t see the struggle, know it is there. Know that the advice will be 10x or 100x more difficult to implement than to just read it and understand.
I don’t write this stuff to discourage and depress you, but rather to give you hope. Change is slow and unpredictable in the short term. It may not work. You may die of cancer while eating the perfect diet. You may have a complete nervous breakdown while meditating daily. But if you are not satisfied with something in your life you need to take action and change it, because no one else will.
Go read one of my older posts and find a small thing to change in your life. Find a pain point of yours and lean into it a bit. Know that messiness and frustration will result, but do it anyways.
It doesn’t matter if you fail, because you tried. Get into the ring and take a few punches rather than watching from the sideline. Eventually you will find your unique path and emerge stronger than ever before.
*I guess this is not entirely accurate. Since this blog is free I could offer a money back guarantee with impunity.