Breaking the “Trance of Unworthiness”

Many of us are walking around in a “trance of unworthiness.” It’s a gnawing feeling that we’re deeply flawed. It tells us we’re not worthy of love, happiness, success, or approval. And it follows us around like a shadow.

When I first encountered this provocative term from psychologist and author Tara Brach, it felt like a revelation to me, because I’ve seen it in so many of my colleagues, clients, and students. And because I’ve felt it at times too. Brach describes it as “fear or shame—a feeling of being flawed, unacceptable, not enough. Who I am is not okay.”

“Who I am is not okay.”

Brach tells the story of a dying mother sharing a searing secret with her daughter:

“You know, all my life I thought something was wrong with me. What a waste.” -a dying mother, told to her daughter (from Radical Acceptance)

 

The Sources of Low Self-Worth

Feelings of low self-worth (unworthiness) are surprisingly common—and quite destructive. Where do they come from?

According to the research, the sources of low self-worth include the following:

  • Disapproving or overly critical parents or other authority figures (like teachers or coaches), often accompanied by intense pressure for achievement
  • Uninvolved, distant, or preoccupied parents or other caregivers
  • Frequent comparisons to siblings during childhood, leading to feelings of inferiority
  • Excessive praise by parents for performance or abilities (vs. effort and process)
  • Too much unhealthy conflict in the home (note: many children absorb those negative emotions and attribute the conflicts to their own faults or failures)
  • Childhood experiences with taunting, bullying, or ostracism
  • Overprotective parents, leaving children unprepared for challenges
  • School setbacks or failures, leading children to feel flawed or stupid
  • Societal expectations and pressures, including unrealistic portrayals of life and beauty from social media
  • Trauma and abuse
“Why do we hold on so tightly to our belief in our own deficiency? Why are we so loyal to our suffering, so addicted to our self-judgment?” -Tara Brach
Tara Brach

Clearly, there are many triggers of the trance. Next, we need to know the consequences of the trance of unworthiness. How does it affect our lives, and what can we do about it?

 

The Consequences of Low Self-Worth

The effects of low self-worth can range from mild to devastating, potentially including:

  • Unhappiness
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Emotional distress
  • Lowered resilience in the face of adversity
  • Substance abuse
  • Separation from others—a lack of deep connection with people you care about
  • Lower salaries, in part due to a lower inclination to negotiate for better compensation
  • Stifling your potential for growth
  • Preventing you from pursuing new opportunities, including lower rates of entrepreneurship
  • Suicide

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Signs of the Unworthiness Trance

How can we know if we’re susceptible to the trance of unworthiness? Here are some common signs:

  • Recurring feeling that something’s wrong with you, including what Brach calls “the habit of feeling insufficient”
  • Overly active inner critic and negative self talk
  • Perfectionism
  • Numbing behaviors, including addictions (to food, work, alcohol, drugs, etc.)
  • Perpetual busyness, constant multitasking, and frenzied action
  • Preoccupation with achievement, obsession with success, or status addiction
  • Avoidance of vulnerability and self-disclosure
  • Chronic sense of “shame” (“the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging,” as defined by Brene Brown)
  • A “divided life” (“a life in which our words and actions conceal or even contradict truths we hold dear inwardly,” as described by author and educator Parker Palmer from the Center for Courage and Renewal)
  • Restless and perpetual pursuit of self-improvement, fueled by angst of feeling not good enough
  • Badgering yourself for mistakes you’ve made
  • Excessive fault-finding in others, to distract from your own pain or flaws
  • Excessive sensitivity to criticism, even when it’s constructive
  • Difficulty accepting positive feedback
  • Playing it safe to avoid risk or failure
  • Reluctance to ask for what you want or need, and to accept help
  • People-pleasing
  • Self-hatred

When we’re under this trance, we walk around wondering the following:

What’s wrong with me?

This leads to a related concept: “impostor syndrome.”

 

Impostor Syndrome

In 1978, researchers Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes identified a phenomenon called “impostor syndrome” (also called “perceived fraudulence”). It “involves feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence that persist despite one’s education, experience, and accomplishments.”

Impostor syndrome is a belief that you’re undeserving of your achievements or the esteem you may have. You feel like a fraud who’s about to be revealed. You feel like a phony—and that you don’t belong where you are.

Impostor syndrome is common. Researchers estimate that about 70 percent of adults may experience it at least once during their lives, and they note that it’s more common among women—and specifically women of color—but also relevant to men.

According to Dr. Valerie Young, a researcher who studies impostor syndrome, there are five types of impostors:

  1. The perfectionist: feeling a need to be (or appear) perfect
  2. The natural genius: feeling embarrassed if something doesn’t come easily to you, arising from a belief that competent people can handle anything easily
  3. The rugged individualist or soloist: feeling that you should be able to handle everything on your own and that, if you can’t, it’s a sign of a deep flaw
  4. The expert: feeling like a failure when you don’t know the answer or how to do something
  5. The superhero: feeling that you need to be able to succeed across all domains in your life and work

These feelings are clearly self-defeating. We need to get better at crafting mental narratives that are positive and productive, as opposed to the negative and destructive scripts that have hijacked our brains. Enter the work of Shirzad Chamine on what he calls positive intelligence.”

 

“Positive Intelligence”

 Chamine notes how we’re sabotaging ourselves with our thoughts.

“Most people today live in relatively constant distress and anxiety. This is related to a low-grade but perpetual fight-or-flight response… in reaction to the challenges of life, both personal and professional.” -Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence

Chamine identified nine “saboteurs,” which are “automatic and habitual mind patterns” that limit our ability to function effectively. The “master saboteur,” as he calls it, is the “Judge”: finding fault with self, others, or circumstances. The Judge sabotages us all, he says.

Other relevant saboteurs include the “Pleaser” (flattering, rescuing, or pleasing others to gain acceptance) and the “Hyper-achiever” (depending on achievement for self-acceptance).

 

What To Do About It

Given how common and destructive these phenomena (including the trance of unworthiness, impostor syndrome, and our mental saboteurs) are, what can we do to flip the script and fill our heads with more forgiving and productive narratives?

Much, it turns out. Here are nine techniques for changing our mental narrative:

  1. The “audacity of authenticity” (described by Brown as “letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are” and “cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable”).
  2. Avoiding the comparison trap, our destructive tendency to compare ourselves to others and judge our worth by how we stack up on superficial metrics
  3. Radical acceptance” (described by Brach as “clearly recognizing what we are feeling in the present moment and regarding that experience with compassion”). Brach notes that it’s “the gateway to healing wounds and spiritual transformation. When we can meet our experience with Radical Acceptance, we discover the wholeness, wisdom, and love that are our deepest nature.”
  4. Viewing imperfections as gifts, because they connect us more deeply, as Brene Brown notes. People don’t feel deep connections with robots and superheroes. Rather, they form bonds with people when they discover shared humanity and risk vulnerability together.
  5. Challenging our self-doubts and examining the sources of our feelings of unworthiness, recognizing that they’re common and often induced by childhood or other life experiences. We’re not alone in having such thoughts but we must learn to interrogate them.
  6. Forgiving ourselves and healing our wounds. (“We have to face the pain we have been running from. In fact, we need to learn to rest in it and let its searing power transform us.” -Charlotte Joko Beck)
  7. Cultivating contentment, gratitude, and joy. Having a gratitude practice can increase our sense of wellbeing. We can savor what we have, enjoy the little things in life (which often turn out to be the big things, as the saying goes), and find pockets of joy both in the everyday and not just the sublime.
  8. Meditation and mindfulness, including the practice of observing and labeling negative self-judgments when they arise—and then letting them go.
  9. Giving ourselves grace, acknowledging that nobody’s perfect and that the point of life is not to try to appear perfect or successful to others. Sometimes it’s good enough to know that we’re still here and willing to try another day.

The trance of unworthiness is insidious. Its presence in our lives can go unnoticed for years, or even decades, because it operates subconsciously. Its negative effects, while gradual, can accumulate mightily over time, compounding into a mental black hole. It’s time to break the trance.

 

Reflection Questions

  • To what extent have you and your loved ones fallen into the trance of unworthiness?
  • What do you think are the root causes?
  • Which of the techniques above will you try (or have you tried)?
  • Are you doing enough to stop self-sabotaging and start a more productive mental script?

 

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 Postscript: Quotations

  • “Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years, and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” -Louise L. Hay
  • “Low self-esteem is like driving through life with your hand-brake on.” -Maxwell Maltz
  • “Most bad behavior comes from insecurity.” -Debra Winger
  • “Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.” -Parker Palmer
  • “Love yourself first and everything else falls into line. You really have to love yourself to get anything done in this world.” -Lucille Ball
  • “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.” -William Shakespeare, “Measure for Measure”
  • “Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.” -Suzy Kassem
  • “You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.” -Amy Bloom
  • “The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.” -Mark Twain
  • “I am not what has happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” -Carl Jung
  • “All you need is already within you, only you must approach your self with reverence and love. Self-condemnation and self-distrust are grievous errors.” -Nisargadatta Maharaj
  • “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” -Anna Quindlen
  • “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.” -Madeleine L’Engle
  • “Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” -Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

 

Recommended Books and Videos

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), take his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Beware the Disease of More

More isn’t always better.

Let that sink in.

More ≠ better.

Yet our brains fool us into thinking that it is. It’s an unconscious assumption, deep in our brains, that’s nearly impossible to shake.

It’s the idea that if we get more of the things we think we want, we’ll be happier.

But it’s a lie.

More what? More of pretty much everything: Success. Money. Status. Skills. Achievements. Victories. Conquests. Beauty. Followers. Honors. Devices. Shoes. Goals. Projects. More whatever. You name it. The disease or more.

We’re seduced by the possibility of the next thing. Seduced by the chase.

Here’s the thing: We accumulate them as we go, and then what?

We want more.

It’s like a black hole pulling ever-more things into its vortex. The ambition is never-ending. It can’t be sated—at least not the way we’re trying to sate it.

Yes, we get a temporary hit when we get something we want. The dopamine rush is real. But it’s fleeting. It’s never enough.

 

What’s Really Happening?

What’s going on here? How is it possible to want something, get it, and then not be happy?

One key driver is “hedonic adaptation”: we become rapidly accustomed to changes in our circumstances and then settle into that new baseline as if nothing had occurred.

What causes hedonic adaptation? According to researchers, it’s driven by a couple of things:

  • Social comparison (if our neighbors get a nicer car, we feel inferior and feel a pang of envy and desire)
  • Rising aspirations (if we get a big house, it’s not long before we want a bigger house)*

These dynamics lead to a “hedonic treadmill” in which, like a hamster, we run faster and faster to acquire more things but get nowhere in terms of increasing our happiness. It’s an absurd situation when viewed from a distance.

Wait, there’s more. What often happens is a clever redirect: our desire for more is a distraction, a way of avoiding emotional emptiness or relational distance or pain. Why sit and feel bad about these core foundations of true happiness when we can busy ourselves with yet another chase?

Also, we tend to focus on what’s missing, instead of appreciating what we have. Our evolutionary biology has caused us to focus much more on the negative than the positive. It’s called “negativity bias.”

 

Our Consumer Culture

Our consumer culture, which is excessively material and comparative, also drives our itch for more. It’s about acquiring and consuming things. It may generate corporate and advertising profits, but it doesn’t fill us up.

In this potent environment, we’re inundated with countless messages from others (e.g., family, friends, influencers, social media, ads) about what will make us happy.

The hard truth: there’s a big difference between what we think will make us happy and what actually makes us happy.

We tend to believe that we must pursue and find happiness, as if it’s “out there.” The logic is that happiness lies in changing our circumstances: I’ll be happy when… (…when I’m successful, when I get that promotion, etc.).

 

The Problem

The problem with this way of thinking and living–with the disease of more–is that it doesn’t work.

Getting more doesn’t fix the underlying problems. The pursuit of more, more, more—while it keeps us occupied and driven, like a rat sniffing cheese—will leave us less happy and fulfilled.

It can make us transactional, mercenary, and cynical. Our hearts harden. We feel accumulation anxiety, and we fill our days with need and busyness instead of love and grace.

“No matter how much value we produce today—whether it’s measured in dollars or sales or goods or widgets—it’s never enough. We run faster, stretch out our arms further, and stay at work longer and later. We’re so busy trying to keep up that we stop noticing we’re in a Sisyphean race we can never win.”Tony Schwartz, from The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working 

That’s not to say that our pursuit of more is always bad. Sometimes we do need more. Sometimes getting more is good for us.

Far too many people on this planet and in this country live in poverty, or with economic uncertainty. They live in food deserts, or actual deserts. They lack access to clean water or basic health care, or stable employment or income-generating opportunities. Or they face violence or repression. In the face of such hardships, more security is a godsend.

The problem comes when people are financially secure and comfortable, but caught in a hollow cycle of need, greed, and speed. Caught in the disease of more.

 

Related Traps

This “disease of more” doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It operates alongside a number of related traps, including:

  • Climbing mode: focusing so much on climbing the ladder of success, and on achievement and advancement, that we never take time for discovering who we are and what brings us joy and fulfillment
  • Ego: being self-absorbed and caught up in our own stuff, without focusing on something larger than ourselves
  • Emptiness: feeling empty about what we’re doing
  • Outer-driven: being driven by the expectations of others
  • Prestige: hunger for status, prestige, or approval
  • The comparison game: constantly comparing ourselves to others and judging our worth by how we stack up on superficial metrics
  • False metrics of success: measuring success in cold and calculating ways, such as income, net worth, position, or number of followers

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

Determinants of Happiness

Happiness is a slippery fish. It’s hard to pin down, but researchers believe there are a few major determinants of happiness.

First, we have a genetic set point of happiness. Researchers estimate that it comprises about 50% of our overall happiness.

Second, they estimate that about 40% of our happiness comes from intentional activity and our mindset.

Finally, they estimate that only about 10% of our happiness comes from our circumstances.

“Thus the key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities.”Sonja Lyubomirsky, happiness researcher, author, and professor

 

What to Do

The mental tricks are deceptive, and the cultural conditioning powerful. What to do about it?

Here are several recommended practices based on research and experience:

First, stop the madness. Resolve to abandon the futile and endless pursuit of more, more, more. We can want happiness (who doesn’t?), but our obsessive chasing of it can backfire because it can lead to an epic ego trip—a narcissistic pursuit that leaves us wanting. Instead, connect with and contribute to others. Get over yourself.

Second, change the default viewpoint from comparison to contribution. Stop falling into the comparison trap and start asking how you can add value to those around you or to causes you care about.

Third, clarify your purpose and values—and live by them as best you can. Not perfectly, as that lies beyond our reach, but in a disciplined pursuit. This will help ensure that you don’t get waylaid, reaching the top of an ambition ladder only to find that it leaves you hollow or has taken you nowhere good, or at too great a cost (and quickly scouting for a new ladder).

Fourth, use your sword and shield. Once you know your purpose and values, use your metaphoric sword (your courage and will) to fight for them. And use your shield to defend against the bombardment of other people’s priorities and societal notions of success that don’t resonate with you besides the tingling of your “lizard brain.”

Fifth, live by your own lights and develop genuine self-worth, separate from your title, role, and possessions. Are you at risk of falling apart if you lose your current role?

Sixth, start simplifying your life by sloughing off the extraneous things that take up time, money, or space (e.g., clothes you never wear, the trinkets in your closet or garage that go untouched for years). Flip the equation from “more is better” to “less is more,” because less is light and free. “Less” has margin. “Less” frees you up to focus on what matters. See the “minimalism and “essentialism movements for great insights about how this works and how to start.

Finally, bring back a sense of gratitude for all you have, instead of resenting all the things you don’t have, or all you want or need. Having a gratitude practice can be powerful and effective in increasing our sense of wellbeing.

Note: You can’t do any of this without the presence of mind to lead yourself—to craft your life and work intentionally.

“Accomplishment. Money. Fame. Respect. Piles and piles of them will never make a person feel content.
If you believe there is ever some point where you will feel like you’ve ‘made it,’ when you’ll finally be good, you are in for an unpleasant surprise. Or worse, a sort of Sisyphean torture where just as that feeling appears to be within reach, the goal is moved just a little bit farther up the mountain and out of reach.
You will never feel okay by way of external accomplishments. Enough comes from the inside. It comes from stepping off the train. From seeing what you already have, what you’ve always had.
If a person can do that, they are richer than any billionaire, more powerful than any sovereign.”Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key

 

Reflection Questions

  • Do you have the “disease of more” in some parts of your life? How so?
  • Which of the above practices resonate with you?
  • What will you do, starting now?

 

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

+++++++++++++++++++++++

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

* On the flipside, sometimes there are benefits of hedonic adaptation, such as when our circumstances change for the worse, since we can also adapt to a new baseline after illness or tragedy.

The Mental Prisons We Build for Ourselves

“Our life is what our thoughts make it.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Though we like to think of ourselves as free, many of us are confined to a mental prison we’ve built for ourselves.

Our most vicious jailer is our unhealthy “self-talk”—our inner critic that savagely sabotages us with haunting doubts and harsh judgments. We’re our own worst enemy.

We’re a prisoner of our “monkey mind”—feeling unsettled or restless and easily distracted by thoughts that bounce around like agitated apes. Often, we’re dwelling on the past or worrying about the future—always neglecting the present moment.

Most of our mental prisons are fictional stories our minds invent to prevent us from potential suffering. The sad secret, though, is that the suffering is wildly unlikely to occur outside our overactive imaginations. Our mental prisons are fear factories.

“My favorite cartoon shows two haggard captives staring through the bars of a prison window. The odd thing is that there are no walls on the prison, the two men are simply standing in the open, holding bars to their own faces with their own hands.”Martha Beck in Steering by Starlight

Sometimes our mental prison is the need we feel, often flowing from childhood, to gain approval and be liked or admired, or it’s the prison of the expectations of others (or, more accurately, what we presume those expectations to be, often wrongly).

Here’s the thing: We think we’re struggling with the outer game but it’s actually the inner game that’s tripping us up.

“Happiness is an inside game, literally and neurochemically.”Shirzad Chamine, author

 

The Toll of Our Mental Prisons

These prisons are harmful in countless ways:

  • Lower confidence, sense of wellbeing, and joy.
  • Decrease in motivation and performance.
  • Distorted perceptions: we’re looking at reality with an overlay of past memories and hurts as well as future hunches and worries, skewing our senses.
  • Loss of our sense of control, agency, and responsibility—sometimes by blaming all our troubles on a single source (such as an ex-spouse, or an addiction), when in reality there are multiple factors contributing to problems (including our own mindset and behavior).
  • Learned helplessness”: a well documented phenomenon in which we give up after a number of futile attempts at something, eventually surrendering our agency even when there may be potential solutions and overlooking opportunities for change.

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

 

The Building Blocks of Our Mental Prisons

Building our own personal confinement is a strange endeavor, yet all too common. What drives it?

It begins with root causes that are exceedingly difficult to overcome because they’re often subconscious. First is depending on circumstances for our happiness: “If and when X happens,” we believe, “then I’ll be happy.” The logic seems sound, but it’s deeply flawed. We’re terrible at knowing what will truly make us happy and fulfilled over time, causing us to spend time on the wrong things. Also, with this logic, we’re placing our happiness in the hands of too many factors outside our control. The key is to learn to be happy and well regardless of our circumstances.

Second is our automatic emotional reactions to events, preceding our rational brain’s ability to interpret the situation from a higher level of consciousness and with a broader perspective and openness to different interpretations and possible responses.

There are also more mundane but also significant contributors:

“Most people today live in relatively constant distress and anxiety. This is related to a low-grade but perpetual fight-or-flight response… in reaction to the challenges of life.” -Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence
Shirzad Chamine

In her book, Mindfulness, psychologist Ellen Langer identifies several causes of mindlessness that also inhibit our mental wellbeing:

  • Having a narrow self-image, such as defining ourselves solely by our work (e.g., as a project manager, bookkeeper, or customer service rep) as opposed to all of our multifaceted identities (for example, son or daughter, mother or father, friend, colleague, artist, gardener, athlete, etc.). Being overly invested in one part of our lives is risky because it’s likely to go up and down over time—and can even disappear entirely.
  • Having false beliefs about common things. Example: conflating old age with poor health. While they’re correlated, they’re very different, and there are many examples of people who thrive mentally, emotionally, and physically in their later years.
  • Preoccupation with expected outcomes that sometimes fail to materialize (based on many factors outside our range of influence), instead of a healthy focus on the process.
  • Making faulty comparisons with others based on the outcomes they have (e.g., wealth, accomplishments) instead of the process they used to get them.

Our Mental Saboteurs

Shirzad Chamine, an executive and best-selling author of Positive Intelligence, has done important work that can help us understand how we’re sabotaging ourselves with our thoughts.

He identifies nine “saboteurs,” which are “automatic and habitual mind patterns” that harm our ability to function effectively. As you read them, note which ones challenge you:

  1. Judge: finding fault with self, others, or circumstances
  2. Victim: focus on painful feelings as a way of earning attention or empathy
  3. Pleaser: flattering, recuing, or pleasing others to gain acceptance
  4. Avoider: putting off or avoiding difficult tasks or conflicts
  5. Stickler: excessive need for perfection, order, and organization
  6. Restless: needing perpetual busyness and never being content with what is
  7. Controller: anxiety-based need to control situations or others
  8. Hyper-achiever: depending on achievement for self-acceptance
  9. Hyper-rational: excessively analytical processing of everything, including relationships
  10. Hyper-vigilant: excessive vigilance that never stops, seeing danger around every corner (Source: Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence)

 

Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

Enter Carol Dweck and her pathbreaking research on mindsets. Dweck is a professor at Stanford University who studies motivation, personality, and development. She distinguishes between two mindsets:

  1. Fixed mindset: Belief that intelligence, abilities, and talents are fixed. People with a fixed mindset tend to:
    • Want to look smart
    • Avoid challenges
    • Ignore useful negative feedback
    • Feel threatened by the success of others
    • Plateau early and achieve less than their full potential
  1. Growth Mindset: Belief that intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed. People with a growth mindset tend to:
    • Want to learn
    • Embrace challenges
    • Learn from criticism
    • Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others
    • Reach ever-higher levels of achievement

It makes an enormous difference whether we approach a situation with a desire to look smart or a desire to learn. Our mindset is especially evident in our reaction to failure:

Do we dread the prospect of failure because we view it as an embarrassing reflection on our competencies? Or are we open to the prospect of failure because we view it as a sign that we’re stretching ourselves in new areas?

Dweck notes that mindset plays an important role in virtually all aspects of our lives, from school, sports, and business to parenting, relationships, and more. Our mindsets shape our:

  • enjoyment of challenging tasks
  • goals and ideas about what we’ll strive for
  • honesty when confronted with situations where we may not look as good as we’d like
  • performance on tasks

We’re all born with certain predispositions, and our mindsets can vary in different areas in our lives, but here’s the good news:

“Can mindsets be changed? Can they be taught? Yes.” Carol Dweck, psychologist

 

How to Escape Mental Prison

If mental prisons are common to the human condition, what have we learned about ways to break free? Much, it turns out.

For starters, a surprising intervention involves breath work to change our physical and mental state: breathing deeply and intentionally, as with “box breathing.”

“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness

We also want to start noticing our thoughts more—observing the strange things that pop into our heads and spotting the negative patterns that reappear. It helps to label them (e.g., “My ‘controller’ is making me feel anxious, or “I’m being overly judgmental again”).

 

More Actions We Can Take

  • Focusing on what we can control, and not worrying about the rest.
  • Exploring different aspects of the issue with a sense of curiosity and fascination.
  • Remaining open to new possibilities and alternate interpretations.
  • Avoiding the trap of catastrophizing (assuming the worst or exaggerating our flaws).
  • Changing our context to bring a different perspective and renewed energy, especially to a place that provides sanctuary.
  • Replacing our inner critique with a more charitable and helpful narrative.
  • Cognitive reframing: shifting our mindset to look at a situation or relationship from a different and more helpful perspective, such as redefining a problem as a challenge or puzzle that we become curious to solve.
  • Playing: it often changes our physiology by moving us into a state of deep engagement or flow.
  • Taking action: there’s freedom in action, and it reveals fear for the false phantom it is.
  • Choosing what to think and be mindful about. Many people become passive victims of the random thought-stream in their minds instead of engaging their “observer” or deeper perspective and employing their ability to choose which thoughts to keep and which to dismiss as unproductive or unwelcome.
  • Giving ourselves grace, acknowledging that nobody’s perfect and that the point of life is not to try to appear perfect or successful to others.

 

Reflection Questions

  • Is your self-talk too negative?
  • Are you disrupted my “monkey mind”?
  • What will you do to start arranging your escape from mental prison?

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Break Out of Mental Prison

  • “When you fight life you lose but only 100 percent of the time.” -Byron Katie
  • “To me, real success is where I can be at peace in the midst of chaos.” -Peter Crone
  • “I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment.” -Byron Katie
  • “The mind is restless, Krishna, impetuous, self-willed, hard to train: to master the mind seems as difficult as to master the mighty winds.” –The Bhagavad Gita
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “Everyone fails…. There is one other little question: ‘Did you collaborate in your own defeat?’” -John W. Gardner
  • “If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “What a liberation to realize that the ‘voice in my head’ is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.” -Eckhart Tolle

Books that Will Help Free Your Mind and Mindset

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Trap of Caring Too Much about What Other People Think

We humans are social animals. We’re wired to think about our role in the group and about how others think of us. It matters in our families, friendships, and work relationships. We can’t survive and thrive without tending to these relationships.

But there’s also a big trap here. The problem is when we’re so influenced by what others think—or, to be precise, what we think others will think—that it causes us to make choices that won’t serve us well over time. We avoid the short-term pain of a possible loss in status in exchange for the long-term loss of missing out on better things.

This dynamic can cause us to drift away from who we really are and what we really want to do. To drift toward the safety of what others expect. We can lose bits of ourselves as we seek approval from or try to please others.

These are common traps. And painful ones.

“The unhappiest people in this world are those who care the most about what other people think.”C. JoyBell C., writer

To be clear, it’s not that expectations are bad. We need expectations, and they can be helpful in many ways. The problem is becoming addicted to approval or fenced in by others’ expectations.

 

Haunted by Expectations

I see this again and again—and especially among young people early in their career. As they navigate through the dark and disorienting maze of career options, they feel haunted by the expectations of their parents—and of teachers, coaches, and peers: Be a doctor. Or lawyer. Or architect. Join the family business. Choose a profession. Go for salary and status. Climb the ladder. (Regardless of who you are, what you love, and what you long for.)

There’s a deceptive calculus at work here. The benefits of the approval flowing from those safe and respectable options can turn out to be shallow and fleeting. We can find ourselves in a career filled with things we don’t like—or even resent—and we’ve signed up for about 80,000 hours of it (the average amount of work people do today over a lifetime). So how does that bargain look now?

Meanwhile, there may be other costs: Paperwork. Time sheets. Bureaucracy. Boring meetings. Energy-sapping colleagues. Lousy bosses. All for what?

 

Is It a Good Fit for You?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with being a doctor, lawyer, architect, or whatever, or with joining the family business, or pursuing a traditional career path IF—and here’s the rub—IF it’s a good fit for you. The key is that it’s your choice and that you’ve tried it and feel that it’s a good fit for you. That it fills you up with energy more often than it drains you.

Of course, not everyone has a choice. Sometimes we’re buried in debt or mired in financial stress and insecurity, or lacking better options. Many people face structural or institutional barriers or biases. But we usually have more choices than we think. It often comes down to our courage and agency, and to our imagination and hustle, despite the obstacles.

My sense is that we tend to overweight the external factors of approval and status early in life, while the intrinsic motivations quietly and steadily grow in importance as we grow older.

Avoiding this trap of getting pushed off course by the expectations winds is especially hard during transitions. Taking a step back to chart a new course summons potent fears of judgment and disappointment from others. But the reality may be that many are excited or even a bit envious about our new adventure (and most probably won’t even notice or think twice).

 

The Costs of Caring Too Much about What Others Think

When we’re in this mode of caring too much about what others think, we tend to:

The need for achievement-based approval can become a compulsion. We become approval addicts looking for our next hit, and then the next. When does it end?

Life is too precious and short to let others determine our path.

It gets worse: The expectations of others are a terrible guide for deciding what’s right for us in our own particular context. Those expectations can be unrealistic, or even contradictory. What should we do with that? If we try to please everybody, we’ll fail miserably. No matter how hard we may try, we can never do things just as others might want or expect.

By surrendering to the Siren call of people-pleasing, we violate a silent sacred pact with ourselves, denying our nature and denigrating our integrity, leading to a downward spiral of self-doubt and inner turmoil.

 

Caring Too Much about What Others Think: Why Is This So Hard?

It’s easy to understand this problem conceptually, harder to self-diagnose because it’s emotionally charged and sometimes subconscious, but very difficult to address properly. Why?

For starters, we’ve been doing this for our whole lives—a tough habit to break. It’s been part of our conditioning as children—seeking the attention and approval of our parents and striving again and again to demonstrate our worth. When we did what others expected of us, we basked in soothing acceptance.

Our brains and bodies seek the chemical rewards of this stimulus-response feedback loop from our neurotransmitting hormones. This loop began in early childhood and it’s etched deep into our neural pathways. According to the late leadership expert Edward Morler, the stages of human development include moving from a focus on “Am I good enough?” in childhood to a healthier focus on “I am enough” in mature adulthood.

 

Related Traps to Caring Too Much about What Others Think

This excessive need for approval can also manifest is many related traps, including:

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

How to Stop this Downward Spiral

Okay, so we know it’s a big problem. What to do about it? Here are 8 things we can do to stop this downward spiral:

  1. Acquire more self-awareness (in part by paying attention to our instincts and listening to our inner voice)
  2. Develop a clear and compelling personal purpose, values, and vision so that we’re clear about our deeper why, what’s most important to us, and what we want for our life
  3. Cultivate self-acceptance: Appreciate what we have and do well while shutting down our unrealistic inner critic
  4. Take time before saying yes to a new task or commitment and have clear and high standards for what we’ll spend time on
  5. Gain perspective: How much will what they think matter in a week, a month, a year, a decade? In the final analysis?
  6. Experiment with what it feels like to experience disapproval, sitting with it and getting a sense of how much it matters (if at all?)
  7. Notice how people may respect us for setting boundaries and for being clear and committed to our goals and aspirations
  8. Imagine and pursue the freedom and power on the other side of this mental block—the gift of finally letting ourselves be who we really are and long to become
“The most freeing experience of my life thus far has been to… be unapologetically myself, and to stand in my own light.” -Hannah Rose, therapist and writer

 

Reflection Questions

  • Are you caring too much about what others think in some areas of your life?
  • Which ones?
  • Which action steps above will you start taking?
  • Who can you turn to for help or accountability?

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

 

Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Avoid Caring Too Much about What Others Think

  • “Being dependent on approval—so dependent that we barter away all our time, energy, and personal preferences to get it—ruins lives.” –Martha Beck, author
  • “The first step toward change is to refuse to be deployed by others and to choose to deploy yourself.” –Warren Bennis, leadership author
  • “I was driven by the expectation that I needed some type of profession. [I was also] driven by parental expectations and by looking at my peers.” –Warren Brown, entrepreneur
  • “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” –Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
  • “I was dying inside. I was so possessed by trying to make you love me for my achievements that I was actually creating this identity that was disconnected from myself. I wanted people to love me for the hologram I created of myself.” –Chip Conley, entrepreneur and author
  • “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically—to say ’no’ to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.” –Stephen R. Covey, author
  • “The problem comes when people are so eager to win the approval of others that they try to cover their shortcomings and sacrifice their authenticity to gain the respect and admiration of their associates.” –Bill George, leadership expert and author
  • “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” –Steve Jobs, entrepreneur
  • “Listen to your heart above all other voices.” -Martha Kagan
  • “‘Finding yourself’ is not really how it works. You aren’t a ten-dollar bill in last winter’s coat pocket. You are also not lost. Your true self is right there, buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that became your beliefs about who you are. ‘Finding yourself’ is actually returning to yourself. An unlearning, an excavation, a remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you.” –Emily McDowell, writer and entrepreneur
  • “So long as you’re still worried about what others think of you, you are owned by them. Only when you require no approval from outside yourself can you own yourself.” –Neale Donald Walsch, author
  • “Most people are controlled by fear of what other people think. And fear of what, usually, their parents or their relatives are going to say about what they’re doing. A lot of people go through life like this, and they’re miserable. You want to be able to do what you want to do in life.” –Janet Wojcicki, professor, Univ. of California at San Francisco
I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, And you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped. -Fritz Perls, Gestalt Prayer

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Tired of Settling? How to Light Your Life and Work on Fire

Settling for “good enough” instead of what you really want? Getting comfortable with the ordinary? Letting others treat you poorly? Suffering through a poor work situation? Tired of working with people who don’t want to excel or don’t share your values? Playing small, even though you know there’s something bigger possible for you?

Time out. This is your life. Your one and only life, with an uncertain duration and no guarantees. Time to take it back.

“There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” -Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa

 

Tired of Settling? Why Do We Settle?

If you’re settling, you’re not alone. It’s a common trap. There are many reasons we settle:

 

1. Fear

We’re afraid of looking bad, of not living up to expectations, of failing. We fear what other people will think or say. So we let these fears box our choices, keeping us squarely in the safe and conventional spaces even though we long for something more. The kicker is that we’re often misreading people and conjuring scenarios of their disappointment and rejection when in fact they’re not even thinking of us, or they have a wildly different take. Too often, we’re just listening to phantom voices in our head whispering about unlikely worst cases.

“So many of us choose our paths in life out of fear disguised as practicality.” -Jim Carrey, actor, comedian, writer, producer

 

2. Self-Deception

We’re brilliant at hiding the truth from ourselves. We rationalize: It’s only for a while. What choice do I have? In these excuses, we hide from the distressing realization that we’re settling for something less than desirable.

“The worst of all deceptions is self-deception.” -Plato, classical Greek philosopher

 

3. Conformity

We yield to parental expectations, social norms, and conventional paths instead of blazing our own path. We worry about the harsh judgment we think may come if we stand up or stand out, so we shrink back into the facelessness of the crowd. Sure, there’s safety in the crowd. But also boredom—and regret.

 

4. Inertia

Change is hard. We get stuck in the quicksand of questions: What to do instead? How to decide? How to make it work? Can I really give up the safety of what I have now? The “switching costs” (of changing jobs, careers, degrees, locations, etc.) can be high—especially in the short term, with no way to know the long-term payoff. So we stick with a lesser path because it’s easier to stay the course. But at what cost in terms of lost opportunities and sense of pride and satisfaction for testing our mettle and venturing forth into the terrifying beauty of possibility?

“Never be passive about your life…  ever, ever.”Robert Egger, social entrepreneur, activist, and author

 

5. Not tending to the fire

We’re all born with a zest for life (see how babies and children experience the world) and a capacity for dreaming big (go back and visit your childhood dreams). These aspirations require energy, but too often we’ve let that energy fizzle out over time by burying ourselves in busywork, escaping into mindless distractions, numbing ourselves, and making excuses.

There are indeed big obstacles. Not all are fortunate enough to have choices, or a savings cushion, or the ability to escape poverty, financial insecurity, or other debilitating hardship. But these questions are relevant to all, regardless of circumstances, because even in the hardest circumstances we have agency and possibilities for change, whether by hard work, grit, adjusting our approach, or upgrading our skills and outlook.

Often the real issue is lack of clarity about what we want and how we can move forward in the face of uncertainty. Trepidation about being who we really are. Setting the bar low so we won’t be disappointed if we fail to reach it. We lack a clear and compelling why. We have no audacious aspiration to rekindle the fire.

That’s not all. More things contribute to settling:

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

The Flip Side: Dangers of Not Settling?

Let’s pause here and note that there’s a danger of taking this line of thinking about not settling too far. We can get so focused on striving for something better that we lose our capacity to be grateful for what we have now. Also, we can get caught up in obsessively chasing success due to an unhealthy need for validation and recognition for achievements.

There’s a danger to some of swapping a life of settling for a life of anxiety and workaholism, detached from family, friends, health, and the simple pleasures: nature, hobbies, quiet time. We can risk losing our capacity for quiet reflection, mindfulness, and pausing for renewal. We should be wary of getting too caught up in “climbing mode.”

Ceaseless and obsessive striving can prevent us from living a full life with a healthy array of meaningful aspects, like marriage, family, career, health, friendships, community, and more. In his book, On Settling, social philosopher Robert E. Goodin notes that if we settle on some things, we’re better positioned to concentrate on others that are more important. Otherwise, our efforts may be too diffuse and never gain traction.

We can have bold aspirations for a better future but still be grateful for what we have and not too attached to a future outcome that’s unlikely to solve everything in our life and bring us unending joy. Life doesn’t work that way. Writer Chris Guillebeau creatively flips the script from the “pursuit of happiness” to what he calls the “happiness of pursuit.”

So yes, we mustn’t turn our striving into a compulsive crusade. But for many, the bigger danger is settling.

 

The Icarus Deception

The myth of Icarus is relevant here. You may recall the warning Daedalus gave to his son, Icarus, after constructing wings from feathers and wax to escape Crete: “Don’t fly too close to the sun.”

The big danger is hubris, right? Of having the sun melt your wings of wax if you get too full of yourself and fly too high.

But author Seth Godin points out that Daedalus warned Icarus first of the danger of complacency—the danger of flying too low such that the damp sea affects his wings and causes him to crash into the water. The first danger is about flying too low. We must guard against that too.

So what to do?

 

Tired of Settling? How to Stop

Tired of settling? There are several things we can do to stop settling and reignite the flame in our life and work:

 

1. Take full responsibility.

Be a “LIFE Entrepreneur,” taking ownership of your life, and recognizing your agency. Take your life back. Stop making excuses. No one’s coming to the rescue. LIFE Entrepreneurs don’t just live: they lead a life. They don’t sit around waiting for a lucky break. LIFE Entrepreneurs create opportunities. They go after their dreams and bring them to life, and they develop a vision of the good life, devise a plan for how to attain it, go for it, and check their progress along the way. As with any great effort, their work is never done but ever-evolving and, often, inspiring to those around them.

2. Summon the courage to try.

Act in spite of your fears. That of course sounds easier than it is in practice. How to punch through the fear? It helps to realize that most fears are phantoms, unlikely to play out in real life like the nightmare in our head. Also, be sure to account for the cost of coming to the end of your life and looking back with regret for not trying. It also helps if you do what’s next on the list below, to give you a sense of drive and direction:

 

3. Develop a clear and compelling personal purpose, values, and vision.

This will ensure that you’re clear about where you want to go in your life and work, and how and why:

  • Purpose: why you’re here, and what gives you a sense of meaning and significance—including by serving others
  • Values: what’s most important? What are your core beliefs and principles that guide your decisions and behavior?
  • Vision: what you aspire to achieve in the future, and what success looks like for you

 

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

 

4. Start.

Get momentum by trying things. Learn what works (and what doesn’t) and notch small wins. Use this to build toward taking massive action.

 

5. Build vitality.

Develop physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health, wellness, energy, and strength. Be intentional about nourishing habits, rituals, and routines, with visual cues to remind you about what to do and where and when. Choose intentionally what you do, with whom, and what you consume. Eventually you become the kind of person who doesn’t settle without having to think about it so much.

 

6. Let go of limiting beliefs.

Change your mindset. Upgrade your mental operating system. How? Spend time with people you admire. Read books that challenge and inspire you. Take courses that help you develop new skills and abilities. Listen to uplifting podcasts. Work with a mentor, coach, or therapist to shed vestiges of the past that no longer serve you.

 

7. Set and maintain high standards for yourself.

As with our children, we tend to rise or fall to the standards we set. Set deadlines. Focus on results. Hold yourself accountable. Be systematic about learning, development, and continuous improvement. Be clear about the kind of life you seek and commit to it. Choose the life you want, and then get to work crafting it with a hopeful and determined heart.

 

Temperature Check: Tired of Settling?

How’s your fire? Is it burning hot, lukewarm, or flaming out? If you’re settling, resolve to do what you can with what you have to start turning up the heat.

 

Reflection Questions

  • Tired of settling? Are you settling in any important aspects of your life (family, health, career, etc.)?
  • If so, what will you do about it? When and how?
  • Who can you ask for help?
  • What works for you when it comes to reigniting the flame?
  • What are you waiting for?

 

Postscript: Quotes on Settling

  • “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten-track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • “Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears.” -Les Brown
  • “If you decide to live in the arena, you will get your ass kicked. You can choose comfort, or you can choose courage, but you can’t have both.” -Brene Brown, researcher and author
  • “The secret of man’s being is not only to live but to have something to live for.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky, Russian novelist and philosopher
  • “There are people who put their dreams in a little box and say, ‘Yes, I’ve got dreams, of course. I’ve got dreams.’ Then they put the box away and bring it out once in a while to look in it, and yep, they’re still there. These are great dreams, but they never even get out of the box.” -Erma Bombeck, American writer
  • “We have been raised to fear the yes within ourselves, our deepest cravings. And the fear of our deepest cravings keeps them suspect, keeps us docile and loyal and obedient, and leads us to settle for… many facets of our own oppression.” -Audre Lorde, American writer, feminist, and civil rights activist
  • “We ask ourselves, ‘How am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us. It is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” -Marianne Williamson

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Comparison Trap

We all fall into traps in life. One of the most common is the comparison trap: constantly comparing ourselves to others and judging our worth by how we stack up—mostly on things that are superficial and unimportant:

Where do I live?

What do I drive?

How much do I make?

Where do I fall in the social hierarchy?

According to researchers, this kind of comparative thinking is common:

“…the urge to make comparisons is strong. Our research has found that more than 10% of daily thoughts involved making a comparison of some kind.” -Dr. Amy Summerville, “Is Comparison Really the Thief of Joy”

I suspect it’s only getting worse in the age of Instagram and TikTok.

As always, there’s some nuance here. This kind of thinking can motivate us to work harder to improve. We can draw energy from a sense of competition and striving.

The problem, though, is that this kind of thinking can significantly detract from our sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction.

 

The Thief of Joy

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” -Theodore Roosevelt
“Social comparison is a big part of how people measure worldly success, but the research is clear that it strips us of life satisfaction.”Arthur C. Brooks, social scientist and writer

One reason is that we tend to use unrealistic comparison points, such as the best person we know in an area, such as wealth or fitness. Naturally, then, we fall short in a side-by-side review.

Of course, we can’t be the best in everything. What’s more, our self-review can be brutal. And that means we’re sabotaging ourselves.

Another issue: the point of life is not to be the best (or the richest, or most famous, powerful, or beautiful), and certainly not to be the best at everything. Talk about unrealistic.

Also, we’re all living our own lives, with our own unique context, challenges, values, and aspirations. Life can be hard enough without us feeling like we have to beat someone at their game.

 

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

A better formula: You be you, and I’ll be me. I’ll play my own game. (And hopefully I’ll choose the long game.)

“…let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.” -Romans 12

If some comparing is inevitable (often generated involuntarily by our mischievous brains), one key may be our mindset: do we view our abilities as fixed (and thereby feel bad if someone is better than us at something), or as malleable if we work hard and smart, thereby motivating to learn, grow, and develop?

 

How to Be Happier

Fortunately, researchers have identified many ways we can train our brain to be happier:

  • We need to move our bodies, and when we do so we can build strength, endurance, and energy. It causes positive reactions in our bodies that affect our mood, and it helps us sleep well (also critical for physical and mental health).
  • According to researchers, being grateful for what we have can have powerful effects on our quality of life, including improved well-being, life satisfaction, sense of connectedness, and physical health. Activities such as gratitude journaling or writing gratitude letters to those who have helped us can have surprisingly strong and lasting effects.
  • Meditation and Mindfulness. Researchers have found many benefits from mindfulness practices, including improvements in mental and physical health as well as performance.
  • A clear sense of why we’re here or what makes our lives feel meaningful or significant.
  • Fully feeling and enjoying positive experiences, and thereby extending them.
  • Contributing to others, in ways large or small, including simple things like acts of kindness.
  • Writing / Journaling. Research has shown that writing about stressful experiences can help people create meaning from them. And it can be a creative outlet for emotional catharsis.
  • Goals and Progress. Having a deep commitment to and progress on lifelong goals, including small wins and a sense of movement and direction, can be invigorating.

Ultimately, a great antidote to the comparative trap is what Father Robert Spitzer, former President of Gonzaga University, has called a contributive ethic, including working toward the greater good.

Instead of walking around comparing ourselves to others, why don’t we walk around wondering how we can help? And why can’t we make this a habit, perhaps becoming our new default and crowding out those vexing comparative distractions?

Why compare when instead we can contribute?

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”Marcus Aurelius

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), do his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!