The Problem with Lacking Clarity in Your Life

Article Summary: 

Many people aren’t clear about what they want and where they’re going. Lacking clarity is one of the most damaging traps we can fall into.

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Do you know who you are?

What you want?

Where you’re going and why?

We may have a vague sense of these things but no real clarity. We lack a clear vision that pulls us forward toward its sweet and compelling destination.

Meanwhile, we keep our heads down and stay busy as a form of avoidance. Sometimes this situation continues for a very long time, placing us in an extended state of drifting.

Lacking clarity is one of the most damaging traps we can fall into. Why? Because lacking clarity affects everything, including our quality of life, relationships, work, leadership, and dreams. And because having clarity is a superpower. Life is so much better and richer when we have a clear vision of a better future, anticipation about what it will feel like when we realize it, and conviction about what’s important and meaningful.

 

What We Should Get Clear About

Okay, so clarity is important, but clarity about what? Here are the ten most important things we should get clear about:

  1. purpose: why we’re here; our reason for being
  2. values: the things that are most important to us; what we believe and stand for
  3. vision: what success looks like—a mental picture of what we want to be, do, and contribute in life and with whom
  4. strengths: what we’re good at, including our knowledge, skills, and talents
  5. passions: what we get lost in, consuming us with palpable emotion
  6. goals: what we want to accomplish
  7. priorities: the relative importance of our top aims
  8. strategies: how we’ll achieve our vision and goals and what we’ll focus on given our available time and resources
  9. capabilities: what knowledge and skills we need to develop to realize our vision
  10. service: who we seek to impact and how

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.

 

 

Signs We’re Lacking Clarity

There’s a big price to pay when we don’t have enough clarity about these things. When we lack clarity, we tend to:

  • suffer from anxiety, stress, self-doubt, indecision, and frustration
  • struggle with knowing where to begin
  • question ourselves and our actions
  • procrastinate
  • begin projects without finishing them
  • struggle with minor decision-making
  • feel like we need advice from others before making most decisions
  • feel overwhelmed and burned out
  • agree to too many things
  • feel confused and uncertain about what to do next
  • be more prone to distraction and disorganization
  • keep comparing ourselves with others
  • put in inconsistent effort
  • remain too busy and frazzled to think about and work toward a better future
  • see a decline in motivation and performance
“Lack of clarity is the primary reason for failure in business and personal life.” -Brian Tracy

 

Benefits of Clarity

On the flip side, there are many powerful benefits that flow from having clarity in our lives. For example, having greater clarity:

  • eliminates distractions and helps us focus
  • helps us establish a definitive direction
  • makes it easier to identify actions to take and prioritize them
  • helps us overcome fear and doubt
  • makes it easier for others to help and support us because they have better insights into what we want
  • allows us to put our energy into what we want
  • helps us get things done
  • makes it easier to say no to things that don’t matter to us
  • helps us manage challenges more effectively
  • reduces feelings of overwhelm and helps us manage stress more effectively
  • helps us make better decisions and reduces decision fatigue
  • allows us to set and enforce boundaries
  • helps us save money since we avoid spending it on things that don’t matter
  • helps us feel contentment and happiness
  • provides the serenity that comes from knowing what matters most
  • leads to healthier relationships
  • boosts our confidence
  • facilitates better performance
“…compared with their peers, high performers have more clarity on who they are, what they want, how to get it, and what they find meaningful and fulfilling.” -Brendon Burchard

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

 

How to Get More Clarity

Given all the compelling benefits of achieving greater clarity, the question then becomes how to go about it. What can we do to bring more clarity to our lives? Here are 16 actions we can take:

  1. Eliminate distractions, clear out clutter, and create more white space in our lives. This makes room for self-awareness, pattern-mapping, and new insights.
  2. Do one thing at a time.
  3. Take more action more often. Many people assume they need clarity before acting, but sometimes clarity comes from taking action. Act, assess, learn, and adjust. Then repeat.
  4. Reflect after acting. Step back periodically to see how things are going. What’s emerging and what’s getting in the way?
  5. Talk to others. Share what we’re unclear about and ask for their input. They may be able to see things we can’t from their vantage point. (Consider doing this in small groups.)
  6. Develop a clear vision of what life will be like when we’re living the life we want. Start by defining what success looks like in different areas, including family, relationships, health, work, education, community, and more.
  7. Spend more time thinking about our desired future. Also, engage in planning and actions that move us toward that future. Best to schedule time for it on our calendar.
  8. Journal about what’s going on and what isn’t clear yet. Write freely and let thoughts appear uninhibited.
  9. Start acting like the person we want to become. Bring our desired future into our present.
  10. Turn our purpose, values, and vision into a daily mantra or affirmation.* This will help embed them into our consciousness and build them into the fabric of our days.
  11. Ask what we would do if we had less time. By doing so, we force tough choices about what to focus on.
  12. Reduce exposure to negative influences. They extract a tax on our energy and attention. And they pull us away from our own priorities.
  13. Engage in regular centering activities. Take breaks and go for walks. Try deep breathing or meditation.
  14. Follow a regular, daily routine. Be sure that it includes time for quiet reflection.
  15. Make time for systematic self-care. Don’t neglect good habits of nutrition, hydration, movement, and sleep.
  16. Work with a coach or mentor. Focus on getting more clarity on purpose, values, vision, strengths, passions, goals, priorities, strategies, capabilities, and service opportunities.

 

Related Traps

Lack of clarity is common, and it can be pernicious, affecting so much of how we think and what we do. It’s also accompanied by several associated traps:

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.

 

Achieving clarity about who we are, what we want, and where we’re going can be very challenging. But lacking clarity leads to drifting and settling. And having clarity is a superpower that adds energy and richness to all we do.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent are you clear about who you are, what you want, and where you’re going?
  2. What more will you do, starting today, to achieve greater clarity in your life and work?

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Clarity

  • “Clarity precedes success.” -Robin Sharma
  • “Clarity is essential. Knowing exactly what you want builds your self-confidence immeasurably.” -Brian Tracy
  • “Clarity is the child of careful thought and mindful experimentation.” -Brendon Burchard
  • “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” -Paolo Coelho
  • “As you become more clear about who you really are, you’ll be better able to decide what is best for you—the first time around.” -Oprah Winfrey
  • “It is essential to know yourself before you decide what work you want to do.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “People often complain about lack of time when lack of direction is the real problem.” -Zig Ziglar
  • “Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.” -Cal Newport
  • “It’s a lack of clarity that creates chaos and frustration. Those emotions are poison to any living goal.” -Steve Maraboli
  • “Unhappiness is not knowing what we want and killing ourselves to get it.” -Don Herold
  • “…as your inner world becomes more orderly and clear, your actions in the outer world should follow suit.” -Deepak Chopra
  • “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” -Carl Jung
  • “Clarity is the most important thing. I can compare clarity to pruning in gardening…. If you are not clear, nothing is going to happen.” -Diane von Furstenberg
  • “The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.” -Niccolo Machiavelli
  • “…the world’s wisdom traditions offer a valuable secret. They teach that the unsettled mind comes about through one thing only: losing sight of who we really are…. The answer lies in finding out who you really are—a conscious agent who can choose, at any time, to live from the level of the true self.” -Deepak Chopra
  • “We want luminosity—the sense of possibility and promise we feel when we absolutely know that all is well and that we’re doing what we’re meant to be doing, right here, right now. We reach luminosity through a different quality of action—clarity, focus, ease, and grace in action.” -Maria Nemeth
  • “Everyone sees the unseen in proportion to the clarity of his heart, and that depends upon how much he has polished it. Whoever has polished it more sees more—more unseen forms become manifest to him.” -Rumi

* Brendon Burchard recommends choosing three aspirational words that describe our desired future self (e.g., “kind, loving, joyful”) and making them a daily smartphone alarm to keep them top-of-mind.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx 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, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Are You Taking Shortcuts?

Article Summary:

These days, we’re under a lot of pressure to move quickly, so it can be tempting to take shortcuts. But that can be a big mistake.

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These days, we’re under a lot of pressure to move quickly. Things are changing rapidly, so it’s tempting to jump on the fast track. Or try for a quick fix.

Facebook’s motto from a few years ago captured it well:

Move fast and break things.”
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In today’s culture, people expect quick results. We live in an age of instant gratification. We’re used to swiping, and our attention span is shrinking rapidly to the duration of a TikTok reel.

It can be tempting to seek the easy way, the path of least resistance. People are looking for life hacks, time hacks, relationship hacks, and more.

Actually, it’s been going on for a while, but the time horizon keeps shrinking. The shortcuts are getting shorter.

I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now.”
-Queen lyrics from their song, “I Want It All”

 

Types of Shortcuts

There are different kinds of shortcuts that are prevalent these days. For example, there are:

 

Health Shortcuts

It can be tempting to rely too much on pills and medications and neglect focusing on a healthy lifestyle with good and regular sleep, nutrition, movement, and self-care.

Ethical Shortcuts

We see people taking ethical shortcuts in many domains, including business, government, and sports. Think Bernie Madoff, Nixon, and Lance Armstrong. It doesn’t help that our brains are so good at rationalizing questionable behavior. I recall being the co-captain of a school soccer team and catching a player cutting corners on the team’s “Cooper test,” which required that all players run two miles through the campus in 12 minutes to be eligible to play on the varsity squad. It led to painful consequences for the player and the team.

It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”
-Warren Buffett

Financial Shortcuts

Financial shortcuts are tempting, especially given all the financial pressures many of us face. We see these temptations at the individual level with “get rich quick” schemes and speculative “opportunities.” We also see it at the organizational level (think Enron) and even the industry level (think subprime mortgages) and country level (think about the Russian laundering and Malaysian embezzlement schemes).

Quality Shortcuts

It’s often a bad idea to take quality shortcuts, especially when it comes to things like health and safety, hiring, risk assessment, and customer service, as these shortcuts can come back to bite us. Just think of all the airplane and automobile disasters and recalls.

Educational Shortcuts

The temptations are great in schools too, from relying on Cliffs Notes summaries instead of the actual book to outright cheating. We also see it at the institutional level, with universities trying to game the rankings systems with tricks and techniques instead of the actual hard work of improving the educational experience for students.

Relationship Shortcuts

It can even be tempting to take shortcuts in relationships, especially given how uncomfortable many people are with being alone. When we first meet someone, we can hit the “fast forward” button and leap to overly optimistic assumptions about compatibility and fit based on things like chemistry, looks, attraction, status, and common interests. We can fool ourselves into believing this person is “the one.” By skipping the discovery phase of learning about each other’s story, core values, needs, issues, and aspirations we can invite real trouble down the road.

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.

 

Spiritual Shortcuts

There are even spiritual shortcuts we can struggle with. A common case in point: cheating on our time in prayer or contemplation as we get busy with the affairs of the world and preoccupied with our own status in it.

Jack Kornfield, a renowned Buddhist meditation teacher and author, warns about what he calls a “spiritual bypass.” He explains that if we have a solid spiritual practice (like meditation or prayer), or if we’ve had deep spiritual or transcendental experiences, we can falsely believe that we’re essentially done with our spiritual journey and its inner work. But then life tends to intervene with a challenge with our spouse, partner, children, or work, sometimes aggravating old wounds. In such cases, it’s easy to fall back into destructive behavior patterns and have to face the realization that we’re not fully whole or healed or okay, that we still have work to do. (See this short video with Jack Kornfield talking about the “spiritual bypass” problem.)

Certain meditation can bring tremendous benefits to us.
But it’s also possible to use meditation as a spiritual bypass,
so that we can escape our difficulties by finding some peace and calm.
But later on—at work, with family, or in relationships—
old patterns and ways that we get caught up in begin to show themselves.”
-Jack Kornfield

Entrepreneurship Shortcuts

Given the speed that many startups need to operate with, with their search for a viable business model before they run out of cash, there are many temptations to take shortcuts in Startup Land. For example, entrepreneur and author Steve Blank warns about “organizational debt”: “all the people/culture compromises made to ‘just get it done’ in the early stages of a startup,” because things are so frenzied and chaotic.

He explains it by comparing it to “technical debt,” which is the accumulation of programming shortcuts made in haste by coders when time is short. Their shoddy code must eventually be refactored and cleaned up before it causes too many problems for customers or even brings the whole tech platform down. Blank notes that organizational debt is just like that but on the people side, when the startup skimps on things like onboarding, training, job descriptions, compensation, pay scales, HR budgets, communications, and more. Entrepreneurs may get away with it for a while, but such organizational debt, he says, “can turn a growing company into a chaotic nightmare” or even kill it.

In startups, given their unique context of extreme time pressure, resource constrains, uncertainty, and chaos, there’s also a temptation to take ethical shortcuts.

Within entrepreneurial cultures, there’s often a feeling that
it’s OK to ignore or bend some regulation.
Sometimes regulations are legitimately outdated
or potentially too restrictive to let innovation flourish.
But the challenge for entrepreneurs is that
the line between appropriate and illicit is often quite murky.”
-Eugene Soltes, Harvard Business School Professor

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Clearly, there are many types of shortcuts—and many situations in which we’re tempted to take them.

So why do we take shortcuts, given their risks and downsides? We’ve already noted the cultural and organizational influences above, but we also take shortcuts when we’re in the grips of our ego or pride, or greed or ambition, or a desire for fame or glory.

Sometimes it works out. We can get lucky and get rich quick. Or succeed anyway despite skipping steps.

But many times, it doesn’t work out at all.

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 Consequences of Shortcuts

Short cuts make long delays.”
(Pippin warning Frodo in J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Fellowship of the Ring)

Taking shortcuts can have grievous consequences: things like reputational damage, financial ruin, injury, or even death.

Plus, when we take shortcuts, we miss the learning and growth associated with the toil of the normal route. We miss the wisdom and character-building that can come from experience and setbacks, from having to re-evaluate or push through. And we can feel a deep sense of regret for the poor choices we made.

Entrepreneur and author Rajesh Setty notes that it’s “easy to miss that the ’real cost’ of taking a shortcut is way higher than the ’perceived cost’ of taking one,” and that the “real cost” of a shortcut is “the loss of an opportunity to become better for the future. If it is too good to be true, it probably is.”

Writer Thomas Oppong recommends avoiding shortcuts and taking “long cuts” instead, which he describes as “long-term and consistent routines, habits, behaviors, principles, and rules that help us become better versions of ourselves.” Such long cuts are things like longstanding habits of saving, investing, and healthy living.

 

Conclusion

Of course, avoiding shortcuts doesn’t mean being a slowpoke. It doesn’t mean being stubborn or foolish.

If there are genuine ways to save time and be more efficient, great. For example, we can often accelerate our move up the learning curve with a task or challenge by working with a mentor or coach and being open to learning from others, including small groups, so that we don’t waste time “reinventing the wheel.”

That’s all well and good. But we should be wary of the too-good-to-be-true shortcuts that can harm us, our relationships, and our future. In our age of speed and pressure, we should be thoughtful about which road to take.

Slow and steady wins the race.” (proverb)

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you taking any shortcuts?
  2. In what areas?
  3. When you step back and reflect on it, is there a better way you might consider instead?

 

Related Article

Are You Playing the Long Game?

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding Shortcuts

    • “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” -Beverly Sills
    • “In life, most short cuts end up taking longer than taking the longer route.” -Suzy Kassem
    • “Every shortcut has a price usually greater than the reward.” -Bryant McGill
    • “There is more to life than increasing its speed.” -Mahatma Gandhi
    • “There are no shortcuts. The lazy will accomplish nothing in life. The human path of least resistance is the path to total failure and oblivion. You must always walk the hard path. The fewer the people on the path, the greater the glory. A genius is alone on his path.” -Thomas Stark
    • “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” -Benjamin Franklin
    • “The riskiest thing you can do is get greedy.” -Lance Armstrong
    • “If there were shortcuts, people smarter than you and me would have found them already. There aren’t. Sorry.” -Seth Godin
    • “Wisdom denotes the pursuing of the best ends by the best means.” -Frances Hutcheson
    • “Those that spend the most effort in search of shortcuts are often the most disappointed and the least successful.” -Seth Godin

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Gregg Vanourek helps people with leadership and personal development. He’s a TEDx speaker and co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) 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), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Do You Have Limiting Beliefs About Yourself?

Article Summary: Many of us have limiting beliefs that detract from our success and happiness. Here we address where they come from and how to change them.

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Do you have limiting beliefs about yourself that are holding you back? Chances are that you do, even if you’re highly capable and successful. Most people do, even if they’re not aware of it, and it’s a bigger problem than most people think.

Limiting beliefs are judgments about ourselves that restrict us in some way. They prevent us from achieving our aims and from becoming what we want. In essence, they’re stories we tell ourselves, and they ain’t pretty because they’re a form of negative self-talk and self-sabotage.

Beliefs are the hidden scripts that run our lives.” -Marie Forleo

 

Examples of Limiting Beliefs

Our limiting beliefs generally tell us what we’re bad at or what we can’t do (or can’t do well). Beneath them are assumptions that there’s something wrong with us or that things are too difficult for us.

When we’re under their spell, we may believe that we are:

  • not worthy of love (perhaps the most debilitating limited belief of all)
  • damaged goods (because, for example, we’re out of a job or in a rut, or because our parents may be gone or divorced)
  • a failure
  • too busy or too old to do the thing we want (such as try a new career path, start dating again, learn a new skill, go back to school, start a venture, or pursue our dreams)
  • not smart, attractive, strong, or talented enough
  • not as good as our siblings, classmates, or colleagues (note the comparison trap)
  • not cut out to be a leader or entrepreneur
  • not creative, artistic, confident, our outgoing enough
  • bad at certain things (e.g., public speaking, writing, math, money, etc.)
  • too tall or too short
  • never going to be successful (or as successful as we hope)
  • not ready for what we need or want to do
  • stuck because things are beyond our control
  • lacking what it takes (e.g., knowledge, skills, experience, degree, credential)
  • too young to have influence
  • so far behind others that we’ll never catch up (as if life were a race)
  • fixed in our intelligence, abilities, and talents (what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”)

Most of us have more than one limiting belief at work and, in some cases, several. These beliefs affect our choices and actions.

We may have a limiting belief that we can’t leave a bad job or bad marriage because we’ve put too much time into it already and we won’t be able to get a better situation in the future. Or a limiting belief that we can’t quit law school or medical school because our parents won’t approve. Or that we can’t leave a prestigious or well-paying career to pursue something more meaningful, because we’ll lose respect. (See my article, “The Trap of Caring Too Much about What Other People Think.”)

Often, there are logical leaps we take with these limiting beliefs. If we embarrassed ourselves once in a high school assembly, we adopt the premature belief that we’re terrible at public speaking. If we got a bad grade in a tenth-grade writing class, we conclude that we’re a bad writer.

“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.” -Richard Bach

These leaps may be understandable emotionally, but they fall short logically. There are all sorts of possibilities at work in such situations. First, nobody starts out being good at anything. Maybe we were having a bad day when the assembly took place. Or the writing teacher was off base. Plus, we can all learn, develop, and grow into new skills and abilities if we apply ourselves diligently and systematically.

 

Where Limiting Beliefs Come From

Where do our limiting beliefs come from? Many sources, it turns out, including our:

  • parents and our childhood (including well-meaning but ultimately harmful praise only for things like our intelligence, looks, talent, or performance and not our effort, focus, resilience, and improvement)
  • peers and their comments and judgments about us (which we often blow out of proportion)
  • past experiences (and the false lessons we can extract from them)
  • teachers
  • coaches
  • mentors
  • society and its common assumptions about what constitutes success
  • the media, movies, celebrities, influencers, and social media (with their incomplete and misleading portrayals of what life is like for people)

Together, these can mix into a toxic cocktail of harmful notions about ourselves.

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.

 

The Effects of Limiting Beliefs

How do our limiting beliefs affect us? They can have profound and lasting effects on our life, work, relationships, and leadership.

Here are ten of the most common effects of limiting beliefs:

  1. lead us to doubt ourselves
  2. lower our confidence
  3. keep us from doing important things (such as going for a dream job or asking someone out)
  4. inhibit our creativity
  5. cause us to reject good options or lose opportunities because we feel we’re unworthy or incapable
  6. keep us in a state of fear, stress, anxiety, or shame
  7. prevent us from approaching or reaching our potential
  8. keep us from achieving success 
  9. reduce our happiness and wellbeing
  10. prevent us from crafting the life we want

When we’re at the mercy of our limiting beliefs, we feel mostly weak, undeserving, unworthy, or incompetent, or just not good enough. And we fail to access our strengths, gifts, resilience, and better angels. Those effects can compound over time into a black hole of negativity that won’t let any of our light escape.

Every belief has a consequence. Long term, your beliefs determine your destiny.” -Marie Forleo

 

Why Limiting Beliefs Are So Hard to Overcome

Limiting beliefs can be tricky because they’re loaded with emotions, fear, and anxiety. They hijack our brains, moving our cognitive activity away from our more prefrontal cortex (where we do our most advanced thinking) and down into our more reactive limbic system.

Limiting beliefs are often subconscious and deeply engrained in our psyche. Although they originate in our minds, we actualize them through our behavior and habits, creating a vicious cycle.

It gets worse. In some cases, our unconscious minds may prefer limiting beliefs over the effort and uncertainty of trying to change them because at least the beliefs familiar, which can provide comfort of sorts. This part of our brain prefers to stick with the “devil we know” versus the stress, pressure, risk, and uncertainty of something new and different (even if the latter may turn out to be much better). If our amygdala values survival above all else, why not stick with what we know and avoid the fear state that comes with change? It craves certainty and familiarity, even when those states lead to complacency and mediocrity.

Our brains are wired to conserve energy and protect us from pain and danger. This can lead to some lazy default behaviors such as staying in our comfort zone and avoiding risk.

Sometimes we’ve had a limiting belief for so long that it feels like it’s beyond questioning or reproach. It feels like it’s an aspect of reality itself, as opposed to the dubious doling of self-sabotage that it is. It can feel like the truth, even though it’s a despicable lie.

 

How to Overcome Limiting Beliefs

When you change a belief, you change everything…. All beliefs are a choice and choices can be changed…. You always have more power than you think. Your mind is the most extraordinary tool you have to shape your reality.” -Marie Forleo

Now that we’ve seen what limiting beliefs are, where they come from, and why they’re so hard to overcome, the next question is: What can we do about them? How can we overcome our limiting beliefs?

Here are the most effective ways to begin overcoming our limiting beliefs:

Understand that all results begin with beliefs, because our beliefs turn into thoughts that drive our actions.

Imagine how much more we could accomplish and how much more happiness and fulfillment we could have if we transformed our limiting beliefs into beliefs that supported us.

Begin noticing the tone of our beliefs—and whether they’re positive or negative, whether they’re supportive or harmful. We need to get better at listening to the negative thoughts in our head, paying attention to our negative self-talk. Notice whether our beliefs are driven by excuses, blaming, or victimhood, versus taking full responsibility and being creative, resourceful, and solution oriented. Be vigilant and keep watching out for cases where we may have unconscious limiting beliefs.

Identify the source of our limiting beliefs, if possible (e.g., comments from a parent, teacher, or boss, or a bad experience).

Recognize that it’s our unconscious brain that’s holding on to the limiting beliefs, not our conscious mind. With that realization, we can change our perception and then our behavior.

Flip our beliefs from unconscious and limiting to conscious and affirming so they don’t continue on autopilot without our awareness, and so they lift us up instead of holding us down.

Reframe the limiting beliefs. A simple way to reframe a limiting belief is to add “yet” to it. For example:

  • The limiting belief, “I can’t do this,” becomes, “I can’t do this yet” (or “I haven’t yet figured out how to make this work”).
  • The limiting belief, “I’ve never led anyone before and I don’t know what I’m doing,” becomes, “I’ve helped lots of people figure things out and I have good people skills and lots of valuable experience to draw upon.”
  • The limiting belief, “I’m not good enough to manage this project well,” becomes, “I’m committed, hard-working, and capable, and I have what it takes to figure this out.”

Choose one limiting belief to begin working on.

Write down our limiting beliefs about that topic area, also noting how they’re holding us back.

Then, interrogate the limiting belief. What if it’s not true?

Assess the accuracy of our limiting belief(s) by gathering data, from ourselves and others.

Challenge our limiting beliefs constantly.

Prove our limiting beliefs wrong by taking courageous actions that refute the phantom belief and its underlying assumptions. Crush our loathsome limiting beliefs with our incredible capabilities and awesomeness.

Create new beliefs that are beneficial, in doing so changing our self-talk so that it’s positive or supportive.

Strengthen our new beliefs via positive actions that reinforce the new beliefs. (Also consider affirmations and/or visualization.)

Develop a mantra that counters each major limiting belief, replacing it with something better. Examples: “Born ready.” “You got this.” “Everything is figureoutable.” (credit to Marie Forleo for this one)

Seek help from a coach, mentor, or small group that’s supportive and committed to our best interests.

 

Summary

Limiting beliefs are judgments about ourselves that restrict us in some way, a nefarious form of self-sabotage. They’re hard to overcome because they’re overloaded with emotions, they hijack our brains, and they’re often subconscious.

We have the power to overcome our limiting beliefs, especially by bringing them into our conscious awareness, interrogating and reframing them, and adopting new beliefs that support instead of sabotaging us.

Sometimes, overcoming our limiting beliefs is a prerequisite for crafting a good life.

“You begin to fly when you let go of self-limiting beliefs and allow your mind and aspirations to rise to greater heights.” -Brian Tracy

 

Questions for Reflection

  1. What limiting beliefs do you have?
  2. How are they holding you back?
  3. What will you do about them, starting today, and which one will you address first?

 

Related Articles

The trap of limiting beliefs doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s related to several of the other common traps of living. Here are several articles addressing related traps:

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.

 

Additional Resources

Apollos Hester talking about motivation

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Beliefs

  • “No matter what you’re facing, you have what it takes to figure anything out and become the person you’re meant to be.” -Marie Forleo
  • “The size of your success is determined by the size of your belief.” -David J. Schwartz
  • “Since a leader cannot rise above his thinking, he must assault his limiting beliefs daily through reading, listening, and associating.” -Orrin Woodward
  • “In order to change ourselves, we must first believe we can.” -Marie Forleo
  • “Don’t limit yourself. Many people limit themselves to what they think they can do. You can go as far as your mind lets you. What you believe, remember, you can achieve.” -Mary Kay Ash
  • “I’m not interested in your limiting beliefs; I’m interested in what makes you limitless.” -Brendon Burchard
  • “Learning too soon our limitations, we never learn our powers.” -Mignon McLaughlin
  • “If you accept a limiting belief, then it will become a truth for you.” -Louise Hay
  • “Beliefs have the power to create and the power to destroy. Human beings have the awesome ability to take any experience of their lives and create a meaning that disempowers them or one that can literally save their lives.” -Tony Robbins
  • “Courage is your natural setting. You do not need to become courageous, but rather peel back the layers of self-protective, limiting beliefs that keep you small.” -Vironika Tugaleva
  • “Do the uncomfortable. Become comfortable with these acts. Prove to yourself that your limiting beliefs die a quick death if you will simply do what you feel uncomfortable doing.” -Darren Rowse
  • “It’s the repetition of affirmation that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” -Muhammad Ali

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx 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, passion, and contribution) 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), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Are You Pretending to Be Something You’re Not?

Article Summary: 

One of the traps we can fall into in life is pretending to be someone or something we’re not. This article addresses why we do it, its consequences, and how to stop doing it so much.

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One of the traps we can fall into in life is pretending to be someone or something we’re not. We may wear a mask for others, adopt a persona, or impersonate someone we think is more appealing.

There are many reasons why we do this. It’s quite common.

But it can lead to big problems down the road.

 

Examples of Pretending in Action

What does it look like in practice? It can mean:

  • pretending to be like those around us so we can fit in
  • conforming to the expectations of others by pretending to be or like something
  • pretending we like our job when we don’t
  • hiding our true selves because we’re afraid of judgment or rejection by others
  • pretending to be someone we think our spouse or partner wants
  • hiding our mistakes or weaknesses and pretending to be perfect
  • faking something and deceiving someone to get what we want
  • wearing a mask as a coping mechanism for dealing with insecurity (including our propensity for negative self-talk and the “trance of unworthiness”)
  • acting like we don’t feel anger, resentment, hostility, sadness, or regret
  • feigning indifference to something that hurts us deeply
  • curating a perfect social media image
  • concealing our sadness or disappointment that we’ve given up on ourselves or our dreams

When we do these things, we have an innate, intuitive sense that we’re treading in dangerous territory. We feel a disconnect or a guilty conscience.

We’re all familiar with the sayings over the ages urging us to be authentic and true:

“To thine own self be true.” -Shakespeare
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” -Oscar Wilde
“March to the beat of your own drummer.”
“Know yourself, be yourself, love yourself.”

Is it as simple as that? Perhaps not. There’s some complexity here. For example, what is our “true self,” exactly? Is it always knowable, coherent, and consistent? Might it change over time?

In their article, “The Enigma of Being Yourself,” Katrina P. Jongman-Sereno and Mark R. Leary write: “the human personality invariably contains myriad personality dispositions, emotional tendencies, values, attitudes, beliefs, and motives that are often contradictory and incompatible even though they are genuine aspects of the person’s psychological make-up…. People are genuinenly multifaceted.”

The poet Walt Whitman, writing long ago, seems to agree: “Very well,” he wrote, “then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Jongman-Sereno and Leary also note that our ability to adapt our behavior to meet the demands of different situations is, within limits, generally positive and important for our psychological wellbeing and social relationships. We’re also asked to play a role sometimes—whether at home, at work, or in a community group—and that’s okay.

But it’s one thing to walk around making small accommodations to smooth things out a bit and another thing altogether to walk around wearing a mask and pretending to be something very different from what we are. When we do that, it has consequences.

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.

 

The Consequences of Pretending

When we hide who we really are behind a mask and adopt a counterfeit persona, there can be a price to pay. It can result in:

  • putting barriers between us and the people who are important to us, including family, friends, and colleagues
  • forgetting who we truly are because we’ve been disguising ourselves to others for so long
  • feeling like we’re a fraud (see also “impostor syndrome”)
  • feeling exhausted from acting, pretending, and pleasing (which can all lead to lack of energy and motivation)
  • creating a sense of aloofness in which people get the sense that we’re inaccessible
  • continuing a nefarious pattern of avoiding deeper issues and kicking the can further down the road

This can become a downward spiral, leading to even more insecurity and anxiety than what provoked us to wear a mask in the first place.

It’s frustrating for people when they notice we’re hiding parts of ourselves. Its puts a barrier between us.

Don’t be fooled by me.
Don’t be fooled by the face I wear for I wear a mask, I wear a thousand masks,
Masks that I’m afraid to take off, and none of them is me.
Pretending is an art that’s second nature with me, but don’t be fooled,
for God’s sake don’t be fooled.
Charles Finn in his poem, “Please Hear What I’m Not Saying”

Let’s note here that it’s not just difficult for the insecure people among us. This can be difficult for everyone, including leaders, entrepreneurs, celebrities, and high achievers. Sometimes, more so, due to all the pressures and expectations imposed on them.

“That age-old advice to ‘be yourself’ is deceptively simple. Being yourself is a lifetime’s work of discovery and courage, stepping out from behind your fear of not being good enough.” -Claire Law

 

How to Stop Pretending So Much

Being authentic and true can be difficult because, when we put down the mask and dare to be ourselves in front of others, we feel raw, exposed, naked, and vulnerable. We feel like we can die from disapproval, rejection, or belittling.

“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, author, entrepreneur, and founder, Modern Elder Academy

But we don’t die. We may suffer some adverse consequences, although usually our fears are way overblown. Overall, we tend to thrive when we lean in to being ourselves more fully, openly, and unapologetically.

How to go about it? Here are some of the things we can do to help us stop pretending so much:

  • know ourselves so well and deeply that we feel a sense of clarity and comfort about our true nature and begin to feel more comfortable in our own skin (a lifelong process)
  • accept our flaws (what about Brene Brown calls the “gifts of imperfection”)
  • engage in systematic personal development to build on our strengths, interests, and aspirations and feel the joy of growth and progress
  • develop the courage to let some people go (e.g., people who are judgmental, controlling, or always worrying or negative)
  • notice that things usually turned out better than we expected when we were afraid of failure, judgment, or rejection
  • develop our confidence and truly believe that we’re enough
  • remove our mask as much as possible in front of those we love the most, deepening connection and building our capacity to be real in front of others
  • dig down into the root causes that led us to want to avoid being ourselves
  • take an occasional break from the heavy responsibilities of being ourselves (“The energy required to maintain your identity is probably greater than you realize, and finding a way to relinquish it regularly can help you recharge.” -David Brooks)

Yes, there are many things we can do, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

“Being true to who you really are can be one of the hardest things to do in life.” -Carlii Lyon, Australian executive

 

The Benefits of Being Ourselves

When we start putting the mask down more often, we’re doing two important things, according to researchers.

First, we’re developing our self-acceptance—our acceptance of all our attributes, whether positive or negative.

Second, we’re developing our authenticity—the degree to which our behavior is congruent with our attitudes, beliefs, and values. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown defines authenticity as “the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” She notes that it requires audacity to be authentic.

What are the results of developing our self-acceptance and authenticity? There are many benefits, according to researchers, including:

  • improving wellbeing
  • feeling free
  • building confidence
  • developing better relationships
  • boosting work performance
  • protecting our mood in the face of setbacks
  • building our mental strength
  • cultivating a sense of peace
  • feeling less compulsive and anxious
  • lowering the barriers we’ve placed between ourselves and others
  • developing our capacity to distance ourselves from outside expectations and extrinsic motivations
  • avoiding one of the most common and difficult regrets—the regret of living our lives by the lights of others instead of by our own guiding lights
“Studies have even shown that feelings of authenticity can go hand in hand with numerous psychological and social benefits: higher self-esteem, greater well-being, better romantic relationships, and enhanced work performance.” -Jennifer Beer, “The Inconvenient Truth about Your ‘Authentic’ Self,” Scientific American, March 2020

 

Related Traps

Of course, the trap of pretending to be someone or something we’re not doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s related to several of the other common traps of living, 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.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you wearing a mask in front of others and pretending to be someone or something you’re not?
  2. What will you do, starting today, to lean in to being yourself more fully, openly, and unapologetically?

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Authenticity

  • “To be nobody-but-yourself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” -e.e. cummings
  • “…psychological suffering always comes from internal splits between what your encultured mind believes and what feels deeply true to you.” -Martha Beck in The Way of Integrity
  • “Live with total integrity. Be transparent, honest, and authentic. Do not ever waiver from this; white lies and false smiles quickly snowball into a life lived out of alignment. It is better to be yourself and risk having people not like you than to suffer the stress and tension that comes from pretending to be someone you’re not, or professing to like something that you don’t. I promise you: Pretending will rob you of joy.” -Dr. Christine Carter, sociologist (advice to her children)
  • “The ultimate goal in life is not to be successful or loved, but to become the truest expression of ourselves, to live into authentic selfhood, to honor our birthright gifts and callings, and be of service to humanity and our world… life is seen as a journey of personal and collective unfolding toward our true nature.” -Frederic Laloux in Reinventing Organizations
  • “We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves.” -Francois de La Rochefoucauld
  • “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” -Anna Quindlen
  • “Being true to the person you were created to be means accepting your faults as well as using your strengths. Accepting your shadow side is an essential part of being authentic. 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…. Many leaders—men in particular—fear having their weaknesses and vulnerabilities exposed. So they create distance from employees and a sense of aloofness. Instead of being authentic, they are creating a persona for themselves.” -Bill George, Authentic Leadership
  • “…the ultimate self-help strategy, the one practice that could end all your suffering and get you all the way to happiness. Stop lying.” -Martha Beck in The Way of Integrity
  • “Now as adults, we realize that to live with courage, purpose, and connection—to be the person who we long to be—we must again be vulnerable. We must take off the armor, put down the weapons, show up, and let ourselves be seen.” -Brene Brown in Daring Greatly
  • “Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the integrity that comes from being what you are.” -Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward and Undivided Life
  • “Our lives only improve when we are willing to take chances and the first and most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves.” -Walter Anderson
  • “I write from my soul. This is the reason that critics don’t hurt me, because it is me. If it was not me, if I was pretending to be someone else, then this could unbalance my world, but I know who I am.” -Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
  • “If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule—Never lie to yourself.” -Paulo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
  • “Why fit in—when you were born to stand out?” -Dr. Seuss

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

Final Note: The Good Forms of Pretending

One final note. As we address the dangers of pretending to be someone or something we’re not, we should be careful not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” as the saying goes. Here are several forms of “pretending” that are quite different from that trap, and that have important benefits:

1. Self-Distancing

When we’re “self-distancing,” we’re viewing our own experience from the perspective of an observer. According to the research, self-distancing can:

  • help us overcome difficult emotions and reduce stress and anxiety
  • help us reduce emotional reactivity
  • reduce our heart rate and blood pressure
  • help us see things more objectively and with greater perspective
  • promote wise reasoning about conflicts and how to approach them
  • foster humility, empathy, and open-mindedness

2. Alter Ego

Many people think about things from the perspective of a hero or mentor, even pretending that they’ve assumed that identity. Most of us can relate to this, starting from childhood. As a child, maybe we pretended to be Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, or Dora the Explorer. If we wanted to be an entrepreneur, maybe we channeled Steve Jobs. If we wanted to be a media maven or overcome trauma, maybe Oprah Winfrey. If we’re Christian, we may ask, “What would Jesus do?” And so on with different religions or influences.

 

3. Visualization

Many people, and most famously athletes, use visualization to boost performance. With visualization, we mentally pretend we’re doing something, simulating it in our mind, forming a mental image of the things we want or the actions we need to take. This helps the brain form neural connections. It can be powerful, especially when it’s followed by action, including extensive, deliberate practice.

 

4. Maskenfreihet

The German word, “maskenfreiheit,” means “mask freedom” or “the freedom that comes from wearing masks.” Many people enjoy going to a masquerade or a costume party, with not only the creativity and fun but also the release from being ourselves.

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on personal growth and leadership 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, passion, and contribution) 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), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Trap of Losing Yourself

These days, will all the pressures and pushes we feel, it can be easy to lose ourselves. We get consumed by events or other people’s priorities, surrendering our agency or initiative.

We can lose ourselves so much that we hardly recognize ourselves. Or let our own values, priorities, and aspirations fall by the wayside.

We can become accustomed to suppressing our needs, desires, or feelings. Or lose sight of who we really are and what we want in life. We can stop investing in our learning and growth, stop pursuing our dreams and passions, or neglect our inner life so much that it fades and withers.

Losing ourselves is a common trap these days, but imperative that we address it, because it robs our lives of meaning and joy.

 

When Warren Lost Himself

When Warren Brown chose the legal profession, he probably thought he had found himself—or at least his place in the world.

He had chosen law school, he says, because “I was driven by the expectation that I needed some type of profession… driven by parental expectations and by looking at my peers.”

Warren was successful in the eyes of many, and he had the opportunity to impact many through his work for a government agency.

Down the road, Warren found himself at a Tibetan Freedom Festival listening to a band. He was struck by the lyrics in the song, “Karma Police,” by Radiohead:

“For a minute there I lost myself, I lost myself.”

For Warren, these words hit deep. Out of the blue, his inner voice started interrogating him with provocative questions:

Are you there? Are you happy? Are you you?

His answers to those questions were illuminating:

Yes. No. No.

 Yes, he was there—finally starting to listen again to his inner voice.

But no, he wasn’t happy.

And no, he wasn’t feeling like himself anymore.

The next question that came up was equally surprising:

Are you ready?

Ready? For what?

For Warren, the answer turned out to be baking, a lifelong passion. He realized that for the preceding year he “had been waiting for something to happen, and it never did. I was tired of waiting.”

Warren was ready. The realization that he wasn’t happy and that he had lost himself set him on a new path in which he became what we call a “life entrepreneur”—someone who intentionally and creatively designs his life by integrating his life and work with purpose and passion.

Warren pursued his passion with gusto, and it led him to all sorts of interesting and unexpected places and roles, including founder of the CakeLove bakeries and Love Café, cable TV host, cookbook creator, and more.

 

How We Lose Ourselves

There are several different ways we can lose ourselves. Here we note seven of the most common ways:

1. We can lose ourselves in work and busyness.

The trap here is subsuming ourselves to the needs of our organization, the demands of our manager, or the expectations of our role (and the way we can obsess over it).

In some cases, we end up worshipping our work (and all its trappings, such as wealth, status, and prestige), subsuming our lives to our work. Without enough white space in our lives, we can lose ourselves. And we can lose ourselves in work, busyness, and workaholism.

2. We can lose ourselves in addiction to success or admiration.

The desperate pursuit of success—often fueled by our fragile or wounded ego or by our desire to please demanding parents—can take us away from ourselves. As we get caught up in our desired image, or in the prestige we seek, we can drift away from our core, from who we really are and what we value.

We can get so caught up in the chase that we compromise our authenticity or values on the way to the top. And we can get so driven that we lose sight of the people we love or the things that capture our hearts. We can lose our artistry and uniqueness. Or we can become success robots, dutifully following social programming instead of pursuing our calling.

“As we become more obsessed with succeeding… we lose touch with our souls and disappear into our roles. The child with a harmless after-school secret becomes the masked and armored adult—at considerable cost to self, to others, and to the world at large.” -Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness

3. We can lose ourselves in trying to please others and be liked

We all want others to like us (except for sociopaths). It’s part of our hardwiring, because there’s safety and comfort in groups, in belonging. But when taken too far, it becomes “people pleasing.”

We get stretched thin and lose track of our own needs, aspirations, and health. It’s exhausting to be in perpetual pursuit of the favorable opinions of others, especially when the reality is that most of those people are likely caught up in their own challenges and concerns.

“Don’t lose yourself trying to be everything to everyone.” -Tony Gaskins

4. We can lose ourselves in trying to be perfect.

The perfectionism trap is a common one. When caught up in it, we’re overly critical of ourselves and preoccupied with looking good to others. We assume that flawlessness is the only route to peace, but we’re actually waging war on ourselves because that standard is impossible to reach.

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.

 

5. We can lose ourselves by accepting the cultural programming we received as children.

Mindlessly accepting the worldview of our parents or the paradigm of our peers can also lead to losing ourselves. It’s easy to lead our lives around notions engrained in us early on, such as:

  • Life is a competition.
  • Life is a zero-sum game.
  • Everything in the world is winner-take-all.
  • We can’t trust anyone.
  • Life is struggle, and we must fight and grind constantly.
  • We must keep pushing and never stop to rest.
  • We’re worthless.
  • We are not worthy of love and respect.
  • We’re only as good as our achievements.
  • We deserve the bad things that happen to us.
  • Money is everything.
  • Success is everything.

There may be kernels of truth in some of these notions, but we’re all different and on different paths in different times and places. We’re wise to question those ideas and develop our own worldview based on our own experience and intuition.

6. We can lose ourselves when we follow the default option in front of us.

We should ask ourselves a question before jumping into a new project or assignment:

Do we really want it?

We should be wary of the call of the conventional path, the pull of the prestige magnet, the inclination toward conformity, the trap of caring too much what others think, and the Siren call of contorting ourselves to meet the expectations of others.

For example, must passionate and gifted teachers accept a promotion to school administration because others think they’d be crazy not to? Should we all go for the next standard career advancement, regardless of its fit with who we are and what we want or its suitability for the season of life we’re in?

7. We can lose ourselves in a relationship.

We’re so afraid of loneliness—with its longing and its stigma—that we can subsume ourselves to the needs or whims of another.

When we do so, we effectively become a passenger on someone else’s ship.

 

When Losing Ourselves Is a Good Thing

It’s important to be clear and precise here. While losing ourselves can be a painful trap to fall into, there are certain versions of losing ourselves that are good.

When talking about the trap of losing ourselves, we’re not talking about losing ourselves in:

  • a larger cause or in service to others
  • our passions and the things we love
  • a grand adventure
  • an experience of awe 
  • a state of flow in which we experience complete absorption in what we’re doing and lose track of time

And we’re not talking about the normal adjustments and compromises we can and should make in a healthy relationship, with its natural give-and-take.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you losing yourself—in work and busyness, addiction to success, pleasing others, trying to be or appear perfect, accepting your cultural programming, following default options, or a relationship?
  2. What will you do, starting today, to bring more of yourself back into your life—to be you unapologetically?

 

Related Traps

The trap of losing ourselves is related to several of the other common traps of living, 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.

 

Postscript: Inspirations

  • “…the longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve lost what’s inside me—and ended up empty.” -Haruki Murakami
  • “When you lose touch with yourself, you lose yourself in the world.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “There is vitality, a life force, energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.” -Jonathan Fields, How to Live a Good Life
  • “Once you don’t have freedom and you’re obliged to do many things you don’t want, and it becomes a routine, then your identity is at stake because you can feel that you are not anymore yourself, that you are what they want you to be—and you can lose yourself.” -Ingrid Betancourt
  • “It’s great if you can help others, but seriously don’t lose yourself in the process!” -Karen Gibbs
  • “Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time. They say I’m active. But being active is still wasting one’s time, if in doing one loses oneself. Today is a resting time, and my heart goes off in search of itself.” -Albert Camus
  • “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

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx 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, passion, and contribution) 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), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or subscribe to his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Problem with Neglecting Our Inner Life

These days with our full schedules and device addictions, it can be easy to neglect our inner life. We can get caught up in activities and busyness while losing touch with ourselves.

That’s a big mistake—and likely to lead to major problems down the road.

There are many different ways we can think about and experience an inner life. It can be a sense of inner guidance, an inner voice, inner wisdom, or having a rich inner world. For some, it can involve feeling a sense of our innermost being—or the feeling that “This is the real me.” It can mean being in touch with our intuition or our spirit or soul.

Different people will have different experiences with it. The question, though, is whether we experience it at all.

For many people these days, the answer is no.

 

Indications We’re Neglecting Our Inner Life

When we’re neglecting our inner life, we may:

  • feel a disconnect between our mind, body, and soul, or an odd sense of distance from our own feelings and body
  • experience frequent fatigue, anxiety, or stress, sometimes without an apparent reason
  • find ourselves avoiding difficult emotional issues through coping behaviors such as overwork and chronic busyness
  • feel obsessed with producing and performing while feeling divided, empty, or unworthy inside
  • have trouble accessing our intuition and inner voice or gut feelings
  • feel out of tune with ourselves
  • sense that we’re betraying our nature or values

Often, we experience several of these downsides simultaneously. It can be disconcerting—and even debilitating. Meanwhile, we’re also missing out on the many benefits of having a rich inner life.

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 Benefits of Having an Inner Life

When we have a robust inner life, it comes with many benefits. It can help us feel:

Calm
Clear
Peaceful
Patient
Still
Accepting
Nonjudgmental
Connected
Forgiving
Compassionate
Fully aware
Generous
Whole
Brave
Joyful
Reverent
Loving

With a rich inner life, we can also experience self-compassion and self-trust, feel more comfortable making tough decisions, and be more open to powerful experiences of flow. Having a full inner life can give us experiences of joy and awe.

The magic of the inner world has no equal. It can be like a musical symphony
of indescribable beauty where you become immersed in every chord and feel every note.
You begin to realize your inner world is with you all the time—
a core of indescribable Sacred Silence, surrounding you, interpenetrating you and others.
We waste our time with small things that are at best a distraction,
while the inner world waits for us to enter, waits to impart
understanding and embody wisdom in action.
-Barry Bowden

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.

 

How to Cultivate an Inner Life

Since it’s hard to maintain an inner life these days, we’re wise to develop practices that make it conducive for us to cultivate it.

Here are some of the top cultivation practices:

  • Praying
  • Meditating (including observing our thoughts and feelings without judgment and accepting them as they are, or centering our awareness in our heart or elsewhere in our body)
  • Experiencing nature—even just walking and being present to the sights and sounds around us—and savoring it
  • Reading that engages our heart and soul
  • Listening deeply to music and experiencing it in our heart and body
  • Creating things (via writing, music, art, film, dance, etc.)
  • Being in community with others where we feel each other’s presence, engage in deep dialogue with trust and vulnerability, and avoid judging or trying to fix each other. (Parker Palmer makes an important point: “inner work, though it’s a deeply personal matter, is not necessarily a private matter: inner work can be helped along by community.”)
  • Serving others without expecting anything in return—and feeling more whole as we do so
  • Being fully present with someone in their suffering (being there with and for them) without trying to fix or save them
  • Stop trying to force an inner life, and instead let it emerge, by listening to our inner voice more (as the old Quaker saying goes, “Let your life speak”) and having “a conversation with our own soul,” as Parker Palmer advises

It can help a lot to develop routines and rituals around such centering practices (e.g., a morning routine of meditation and reading, or an evening ritual of reflection and prayer).

 

Leaders and Their Inner Life

Cultivating an inner life isn’t just for monks and sages. It’s also for leaders, entrepreneurs, parents, and working professionals. According to James Kouzes and Barry Posner in A Leader’s Legacy, “Leadership development is first and foremost self-development. Becoming a leader begins with an exploration of the inner territory as we search to find our own authentic voice. Leaders must decide on what matters in life, before they can live a life that matters.”

Warren Bennis quote

Listening to the inner voice—trusting the inner voice—is one of the
most important lessons of leadership.”
-Warren Bennis

Also, an inner life isn’t just for adults: it’s also for children and teens. Having an inner life is part of the human experience, if only we learn how to tap into it.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. What’s the state of your inner life?
  2. What are the practices that work best for you in cultivating an inner life? Can you design more of them into your days?
  3. Which new centering practices will you try?

Wishing you well with it, and please let me know if I can help.

Gregg Vanourek
Gregg Vanourek and his dog

 

Postscript: Inspirations on the Inner Life

  • “It is so much easier to deal with the external world, to spend our lives manipulating material and institutions and other people instead of dealing with our own souls. We like to talk about the outer world as if it were infinitely complex and demanding, but it is a cakewalk compared to the labyrinth of our inner lives!” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
  • “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
  • “Every time you don’t follow your inner guidance, you feel a loss of energy, loss of power, a sense of spiritual deadness…. we need to be willing to let our intuition guide us, and then be willing to follow that guidance directly and fearlessly.” -Shakti Gawain
  • “Everyone has a calling, which is the small, unsettling voice from deep within our souls, an inner urge, which hounds us to live out our purpose in a certain way. A calling is a concern of the spirit.” -Dave Wondra
  • “Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about—quite apart from what I would like it to be about…. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity.” -Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
  • “There is only one journey. Going inside yourself.” -Rainer Maria Rilke
  • “Whenever you experience stress of any kind, look into yourself and ask, ‘In what way am I compromising my innermost values in this situation?’” -Brian Tracy
  • “I once thought that I could make any decisions, whether professional or personal, by using decision trees, game theory, and optimization. Over time, I’ve changed my mind. For the big decisions in life, you need to reach a deeper region of consciousness. Making decisions then becomes not so much about ‘deciding’ as about letting an inner wisdom emerge. This approach to decision making requires time, patience, and another key ingredient: courage. It takes courage to listen to your inner wisdom. But once you hear that wisdom, making a decision becomes fairly easy.” -Brian Arthur
  • “What is going on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love.” -Rainer Maria Rilke
  • “There is a basket of fresh bread on your head, and yet you go door to door asking for crusts. Knock on your inner door. No other.” -Rumi
  • “The inner man wants something that the visible man doesn’t want, and we are at war with ourselves.” -Carl Jung
  • “Our bodies are designed to ‘speak’ to us via our physical sensations, symptoms, intuition, cravings, moods, and emotions.” -Kem Egel, licensed therapist
  • “The soul is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.” -Parker Palmer, from Let Your Life Speak
  • “In everyone’s life, at some time, an inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” -Stephen R. Covey

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx 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, passion, and contribution) 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), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!
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The Trap of Dissatisfaction–And Its Surprising Upside

“I can’t get no satisfaction.” -The Rolling Stones

We all go through hard times in life, with setbacks and disappointments. It only becomes a trap if we experience a chronic sense of dissatisfaction—not being content or at peace with what we have.

It’s a trap if we develop an enduring sense of disappointment, of never feeling at peace. Or a chronic craving or dwelling on things we lack. In this state, we’re missing a sense of acceptance, of contentment, of serenity.

Such dissatisfaction can be a sign of maladaptive perfectionism—when our personal performance standards are hopelessly high and we’re extremely self-critical in judging ourselves. (See my article on “The Perfectionism Trap—And How to Escape It.”) It can also lead to a negative spiral when things don’t go as we hoped. In this spiral, discouragement accompanies any imperfection. Not a good place to be.

Some people get addicted to the dramas and disappointments of life. It becomes part of their identity. They use them to rile up their ego with outrage or grievance. It can give them a strange sort of satisfaction in the moment, but overall they’re really just making themselves miserable for large swaths of their life.

“Most people are in love with their particular life drama…. The ego runs their life. They have their whole sense of self invested in it.” -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

 

What Leads to Dissatisfaction

There are many external triggers of dissatisfaction, but what causes people to fall into the trap of chronic dissatisfaction in which they view life through a lens of disappointment or bitterness?

Here are some of the most common sources of such dissatisfaction:

  • Resisting what happened to us in the past and hanging on to it instead of letting it go.
  • Getting so caught up in hoping for a better future that we neglect the present moment or discount it because it hasn’t yet brought us our desired future.
  • Not distinguishing between our needs and wants, and then lamenting that we haven’t yet attained things which turn out to be fanciful or unnecessary. (Note: We should also be mindful of the doom loop that keeps us in jobs we don’t like in order to meet those supposed “needs.” See my article, “Golden Handcuffs: Stuck in a Job You Don’t Like?”)
  • Getting swept up in “negativity bias.” (Researchers have discovered that negative things like troublesome feelings or frustrating social interactions often influence our mental state much more powerfully than positive or neutral things.)
“Constantly scanning the world for the negative comes with a great cost. It undercuts our creativity, raises our stress levels, and lowers our motivation and ability to accomplish goals.” -Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage
  • Having a “scarcity mindset”—a pervasive sense that we don’t have enough (time, money, happiness, etc.), flowing from an often subconscious belief that life is a zero-sum game with a brutal competition for scarce resources.
  • The unrealistic and pernicious expectation that we’re supposed to be happy all the time. In our culture today, we tend to worship at the altar of happiness. Whenever we encounter negative emotions like frustration, sadness, disappointment, or regret, we assume something’s wrong with us, and that it needs to be fixed (often with medication or numbing behaviors). (See my Happiness Series.)
“Happiness is not a mental state that can be permanently won…. By misunderstanding happiness, the modern conception increases the likelihood of disappointment.” -Nat Rutherford, University of London
  • Falling into the “expectations trap”: When there’s a gap between our current versus expected life satisfaction, and when we go beyond aspirations and into the realm of attachment to our expectations, we feel disappointment or judge our lives negatively, even though our life may actually be going quite well. It stems from what Buddhists call “the wanting mind,” a major source of our own suffering.
  • Engaging in unfair and unhelpful comparisons. Many of us fall into the comparison trap fairly often, comparing ourselves to others on things that are fairly superficial. Even worse, we tend to compare ourselves to an unrealistic standard, such as the richest person we know, or the most outwardly successful or beautiful. A recipe for disappointment.

 

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.

 

Signs of Dissatisfaction

How do we know if we’re in such a dissatisfaction spiral? Here are six of the most common signs of it:

  1. Never feeling successful enough.
  2. Constantly feeling behind.
  3. Overwork and burnout in a relentless and grasping pursuit of success, driven by a need for recognition or approval from others.
  4. Resentment at our station in life or at the success of others.
  5. Recurring thinking patterns about being a victim in a world that’s hopelessly unfair.
  6. Habitual patterns of complaining about things, so much that it becomes a routine that defines our relationships with certain people and would leave a gaping hole in that relationship if we didn’t have things to complain about. These neural grooves can be deep in our brains and take time to reprogram.

So far, we’ve seen the signs and causes of negative dissatisfaction spirals. But we should pause here and note an important nuance: while dissatisfaction can make us miserable if taken too far, it also has some surprising and important upsides.

 

Not So Fast—The Important Upsides of Dissatisfaction

What are the potential upsides of dissatisfaction? It can be a source of motivation and urgency for us, helping us move forward and drive progress.

Dissatisfaction can provide needed motivation to change. To overcome.

“Until you get dissatisfied, you won’t do anything to really move your life to another level. Dissatisfaction is a gem. If you’re totally satisfied, you’re going to get comfortable. And then your life begins to deteriorate.” -Tony Robbins

There’s a signaling function at work here. Chronic dissatisfaction can serve as a sign that there’s a deeper problem in our lives that needs attention. It radiates angst so we’ll pay attention.

In some case, it can also serve as a conduit, via painful feelings and disturbance, to great music and art. We’d be crazy to wish that on ourselves, but we humans are resilient, and sometimes our creative powers are enhanced by dark and painful experiences.

So let’s clarify that, while we can use dissatisfaction as motivational fodder when necessary, we want to avoid the dissatisfaction doom loop that has us walking around in a fog.

There’s a beautiful tension here. We can do both. We can love our lives as they are, as Hal Elrod entreats us, even while we’re working on creating the life of our dreams.

 

What to Do

How to avoid or escape the trap of chronic dissatisfaction? Here are 21 of the best dissatisfaction destroyers that we know of:

1. Let go of our reactive, automatic, negative thought patterns that only make things worse for us in already difficult situations (e.g., rumination).

2. Recognize our negative thoughts when they appear, let them go, and rewire them by bringing in newer, better thoughts, over and over again, until new thought patterns appear.

3. Focus on what we have instead of what we lack, and on what’s going well instead of only on what’s not (remembering that we have a negativity bias to compensate for).

4. Cultivate an abundance mindset, recognizing that things like love, happiness, connection, and opportunity can be renewable resources when approached wisely.

5. Engage in centering practices, like deep breathing, meditation, savoring, and raising our gaze to the sky or horizon, helping us regain perspective and calm.

6. Recognize that happiness doesn’t come from our circumstances being perfect or always in line with our expectations but rather from crafting our life and work so that we lead a good life as we define it.

7. Avoid setting unrealistic expectations.

8. Let go of rigid expectations about how things will go and leave more room for the unexpected—and even challenges, recognizing that they can help sharpen and improve us.

9. Recall that outcomes are outside our control and that we can only control our own actions and mindsets.

“You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” -Marcus Aurelius

10. Cultivate a growth mindset (a belief that our intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed, which tends to come with an appreciation for challenges instead of resentment of them).

11. Focus on serving and giving to others instead of whether we’re satisfied or not.

12. Cultivate a gratitude practice in which we regularly return to the things we’re thankful for.

13. Design our work and leisure activities to facilitate more “flow” states in which we’re so absorbed in activities that we lose track of time. In such a state of optimal experience, dissatisfaction is impossible.

14. Build more of our passions into our life and work.

15. Apply our strengths to projects, groups, and causes that feel meaningful.

16. Rewrite the story we tell about ourselves from one of disappointment and lack to one of appreciation and hope.

17. Stop taking things so personally; we all face ups and downs, and it turns out that we’re not actually the center of the universe.

18. Work at being more accepting of things as they are, as opposed to how we predicted or hoped they would be.

19. Develop practices for detaching from heated situations and rising above them without getting engrossed in them, including meditation or mindfulness practices.

20. Recognize that being judgmental—about ourselves as well as others—is a trap that only leads to misery (for us and others).

21. Reduce the call of our ego (which is focused on accumulation, praise, winning, success, and control) by tapping into the call of our soul (which is grateful for the abundance of life and not interested in petty dramas or comparisons with others).

“Fulfillment is not a matter of self-improvement. It involves a shift away from the ego’s agenda, turning from externals to the inner world. The soul holds out a kind of happiness that isn’t dependent on whether conditions outside are good or bad.” -Deepak Chopra

 

Final Thoughts

In the end, we can use dissatisfaction when it suits us to light a motivational fire, but not so much that we walk around in a fog of angst all the time, lamenting the sorry state of our lives or the things we don’t have. Is that really a good way to answer the gift of life?

Here’s the key: use dissatisfaction to fuel us when necessary, and don’t let it vanquish our spirit.

If we can learn to let go of the chronic dissatisfaction that follows many disturbances, or at least reduce its effect and frequency, perhaps we can create our own personal weather system around our overactive minds more conducive to enjoying our days and uplifting others.

 

Related Articles

* Featured image source: Adobe Stock.

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 on Dissatisfaction and Serenity

  • “It’s not what happens to us, but our response to what happens to us that hurts us.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “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…. When you live in complete acceptance of what is, that is the end of all drama in your life.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” -Oprah Winfrey
  • “Satisfied needs do not motivate. It’s only the unsatisfied need that motivates.” -Stephen R. Covey
  • “We are all more blind to what we have than to what we have not.” -Audre Lorde
  • “Chronic dissatisfaction is how you sense that you are living a lie.” -David Deida
  • “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
  • “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” -Lao Tzu
  • “Every breath we take, every step we make, can be filled with peace, joy, and serenity.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
  • “To become mindfully aware of our surroundings is to bring our thinking back to our present moment reality and to the possibility of some semblance of serenity in the face of circumstances outside our ability to control.” -Jeff Kober
  • “We are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel free as birds. We can be serene even in the midst of calamities and, by our serenity, make others more tranquil. Serenity is contagious. If we smile at someone, he or she will smile back. And a smile costs nothing. We should plague everyone with joy.” -Sri S. Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx 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, passion, and contribution) 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), complete his Personal Values Exercise, check out his Best Articles, or get his newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Discover Your Core Values

Our values are what we consider most important in life—what’s most worthy and valuable to us. Values can also be beliefs, moral principles, or standards of behavior (e.g., commitments for how we will treat each other). In other words, what we believe and stand for.

Our values should guide our choices and behavior, helping us determine how to act in various situations. What to pursue and defend. And what not to.

“Values are basic and fundamental beliefs that guide or motivate attitudes or actions. They help us to determine what is important to us. Values describe the personal qualities we choose to embody to guide our actions; the sort of person we want to be; the manner in which we treat ourselves and others, and our interaction with the world around us. They provide the general guidelines for conduct…. Values are the motive behind purposeful action.” -Steven Mintz

 

Where Our Values Come From

Where do our values come from? From many places, it turns out, since we’re complex and multifaceted. Sources of our values can include:

  • parents and upbringing (including things we don’t like and reject from our formative years)
  • teachers and mentors
  • religious leaders, spiritual teachers, or faith traditions
  • intuition and gut instinct
  • our soul

When we’re dealing with values, we’re engaging both our head and our heart. We’re paying attention to our thoughts and ideas about things, but we’re also sensing and feeling—and diving deeper into our experience of being alive.

 

The Benefits of Knowing Our Core Values

It’s helpful to think about our values on different levels of priority, from values at the bottom that are loose and casual (nice to have, if possible) to values at the very top that are core values—non-negotiable, deeply held beliefs and top priorities that serve as a driving force for our lives. Our core values are our most important, central, foundational values.

One of the most powerful personal development practices we can engage in is discovering our core values—and living by them. This can improve all dimensions of our life and work. For example, it can:

  • increase our self-awareness
  • clarify our priorities and purpose
  • help us choose an organization to work for—or a career (or whether to change one)
  • boost our confidence
  • improve decisiveness and decision-making abilities
  • bring more meaning and significance into our lives
  • help us make hard decisions (through a determination of the values fit, or lack of it)
  • guide our behavior like a compass
  • facilitate an action orientation
  • help us avoid mistakes and regrets
  • move us forward in realizing our potential
  • boost our happiness and quality of life
“It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.” -Roy Disney

 

How to Discover Our Core Values

Each of us is different, and there are many things we can do to uncover our core values. Here’s a sequence of steps we can take that I’ve used myself and with many others:

  • mine our life story for values nuggets by recalling significant experiences that revealed what was most important to us—especially moments that were our happiest or proudest, or when we were most fulfilled or at our best, and our toughest struggles and worst moments
  • think of our desired impacts (on people or a place or a cause we care deeply about), or the legacy we aspire to
  • talk to friends, coaches, or mentors about what’s most important to us
  • think of people we admire and determine what it is that we admire about them
  • choose potential core values from a list of values (see our Personal Values Exercise)*

 

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.

 

  • categorize the longer list of potential core values into related groupings
  • look for themes in those groupings and then choose a word that best represents the theme of each grouping
  • winnow the list to three to six core values (and no more than ten) to ensure focus
  • add a phrase or sentence to explain what we mean specifically by each value word to give it more clarity and power (this is a critical step that many people skip or overlook)
  • share this draft list of core values with trusted friends or mentors and ask for their input (but recall that these are our values and ours alone, so don’t accept all the input without checking to see if it truly resonates)
  • keep the final core values list handy and view it regularly, also memorizing the final core values words so they’re top of mind

 

Final Thoughts

The key, of course, is not writing our values down. That’s only the beginning. The key is living them. Using them to inform our decisions and actions. Infusing our lives with them.

It’s essential to revisit our values regularly, checking to see if we’re living and leading by them.

Ultimately, we can use our core values as a guide to crafting a good life with good work. We can live our values, honor them, savor them,—and watch as the astonishing power of values alignment infuses and uplifts every aspect of our life and work.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Have you discovered your core values?
  2. To what extent are you honoring and upholding your core values today?
  3. What more could you do to integrate your core values into your life and work?
  4. What actions will you take today to start this?

 

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.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Values

  • “The more that we choose our goals based on our values and principles, the more we enter into a positive cycle of energy, success, and satisfaction.” -Neil Farber
  • “The ultimate test of integrity is what we’re willing to risk to uphold our core values.” -Adam Grant
  • “Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.” -Dalai Lama
  • “Personal values are those things that are important to you. Think about what you believe and stand for, and your convictions about what is most important in life…. Values matter because what you deem important guides your behavior. Many people run into trouble when they start living and leading in ways that conflict with their values.” -Bob and Gregg Vanourek, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations

 

* Don’t worry about what other people think, or what you think your values should be. Focus on what’s actually most important to you.

Featured image credit: Adobe Stock

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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), complete 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!

How to Build Confidence in Yourself and Your Leadership

confidence leaning back unsplash

Confidence is an enigma for many of us. We know it can help us in many ways. And we hold it in high regard, knowing it can make a big difference.

Yet we tend to view it as something innate–something some people have and others don’t.

The truth is that, while some people have more of a disposition toward confidence than others, it’s something we can all build systematically.

And we should.

Why? When we’re confident, we have conviction that we can succeed.

Contrary to what many people believe, confidence isn’t a fixed trait. We’re not either born with it or missing it. We can acquire confidence and build it over time. As we improve and develop mastery, we build confidence.

Our confidence can go up and down, and we can have high confidence in some areas and low confidence in others.

 

The Good Kind of Confidence

Note that we don’t want confidence for its own sake–confidence without the merits that cause us to earn it. What we really want is a realistic appraisal of our abilities so that we have an appropriate measure of confidence to match our abilities. And we want to build our confidence over time by improving our abilities and performance.

Confidence isn’t the same as arrogance. Arrogance is an attitude of superiority. When we’re arrogant, we exaggerate our importance. And confidence is certainly not narcissism (when we’re so absorbed in our own life that we ignore the needs of others around us).

Many people struggle with low confidence, for many reasons, including tough life experiences, temperament, cultural background, and more.

When we have low confidence, we pay a price, including: missing out on new opportunities, not stepping into our true power, and lowering our chances for success.

 

The Benefits of Confidence

Your success will be determined by your own confidence and fortitude.” – Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama quote

Confidence has all sorts of benefits. For example, confidence can:

  • help improve our health and wellbeing
  • boost happiness, joy, and peace of mind
  • increase our chance of success in work and/or school
  • reduce fear and anxiety
  • boost attractiveness
  • help us remain open to learning and growing
  • increase motivation to continue practicing in pursuit of goals
  • help us gain credibility
  • increase our ability to make a strong first impression, put others at ease, and influence others
  • help us be more open to trying new things
  • lead to healthier relationships
  • help us develop greater resilience and our ability to perform well under pressure
  • increase our leadership capacity and effectiveness as well as executive presence, since followers tend to respond better to confident leaders
  • boost creativity and increase our willingness to take creative chances

Of course, confidence isn’t enough to set us up for success. We also need preparation, skill, effort, experience, resources, creativity, strategy, creativity, persistence, and even good luck sometimes. But without confidence, we may decline to begin or try. In that sense, confidence is essential for success over the long haul.

 

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 Build Confidence

photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

Self-confidence can be learned, practiced, and mastered—just like any other skill.
Once you master it, everything in your life will change for the better.”
– Barrie Davenport, author

Now that we know confidence is pliable, not fixed, and that it comes with so many important benefits, the next question is: How do we build it?

There are many things we can do to build confidence, including:

  • focus more on areas of our capability and achievement, and less on areas of weakness and struggle
  • set and meet goals that lead to personal and professional accomplishments
  • switch off negative self-talk, self-criticism, and limiting beliefs
  • swap in positive thoughts for negative ones
  • face our fears and in the process build a sense of agency and capability
  • stop the unhealthy practice of comparing ourselves to others (and consider taking a break from social media, which tees up unrealistic comparisons)
  • continue learning, growing, developing, and building new capacities—working on areas where skills aren’t yet up to standards
  • engage in consistent self-care practices, since these give us grounding and energy
  • speak up for ourselves (self-advocacy)
  • stop thinking in terms of fixed traits (e.g., “I’ve always been bad at math” or “I’m not a confident person”) and start thinking in terms of different people with different interests, skills, and abilities—along with a growth mindset (noting that we can all develop our intelligence, abilities, and talents)
  • think about a time when we felt high confidence and ask how we’d act if we were feeling that way now

There are certainly other things we can do in addition to those noted above, and some of them vary by person or situation. For example, some people can use good posture and even “power poses” to boost confidence (see Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about this).

For others, it helps to dress in ways that can boost confidence, to visualize success, or to use affirmations about our dreams and capabilities. We’re wise to experiment and find out what works best for us.

Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage.
If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it.
Go out and get busy.”
– Dale Carnegie

 

What Confident People Do

When we feel confident, we act differently, and that novel behavior can lead to dramatically different outcomes. For example, confident people tend to:

  • make decisions more quickly
  • maintain optimism
  • take risks
  • admit mistakes
  • accept responsibility for choices and actions
  • avoid the trap of blaming others
  • celebrate others’ successes
  • experience fewer instances of envy and jealousy
  • laugh at themselves without beating themselves up, which can be endearing
  • accept compliments, instead of awkwardly deflecting them

 

On Leadership and Confidence and Self-Efficacy

Confidence can contribute significantly to leader effectiveness, but especially when we have realistic perceptions of our effectiveness. Self-awareness is essential.

Unfortunately, many leaders are overconfident about their leadership abilities. According to researchers (Leanne Atwater and Francis Yammarino), this leads to many problems, including: unrealistic optimism, dismissal of criticism, blindness to flaws, lack of effort made to overcome weaknesses, and even narcissism.

By contrast, when leaders have good self-awareness and agree with the ratings of their followers, they’re better candidates for promotion and less likely to struggle with leadership derailers.

According to research by Bandura (1997) and by Luthans and Avolio (2003), confident leaders are more likely to welcome a challenge, to persist when they encounter obstacles, and to succeed.

 

Final Thoughts

We’ve seen that confidence has many important benefits—and that we have much more agency over our confidence levels than most people think. So why not engage in regular practices that will boost our confidence while uplifting our mental state and our ability to succeed and make positive impacts in the world?

With realization of one’s own potential and self-confidence
in one’s ability, one can build a better world.”
– The Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

The Dalai Lama quote

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Reflection Questions

  1. Do you currently feel confident about the areas that matter most to you now?
  2. In what areas would you like to build your confidence?
  3. What will you do, starting today, to build your confidence in certain areas?

Wishing you well with it, and let me know if I can help.

 

 

 

– Gregg Vanourek

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Postscript: Inspirations on Confidence

  • “Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.” – Mahatama Gandhi
  • “Self-confidence is the first requisite to great undertakings.” – Samuel Johnson
  • “Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.” – Norman Vincent Peale
  • “One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation.” – Arthur Ashe
  • “Confidence doesn’t come out of nowhere. It’s a result of something … hours and days and weeks and years of constant work and dedication.” – Roger Staubach
  • “With confidence, you have won before you have started.” – Marcus Garvey
  • “When you have confidence, you can have a lot of fun. And when you have fun, you can do amazing things.” – Joe Namath
  • “As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  • “People who ask confidently get more than those who are hesitant and uncertain. When you’ve figured out what you want to ask for, do it with certainty, boldness, and confidence.” – Jack Canfield
  • “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” – Vincent Van Gogh
  • “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.” – Richard Bach
  • “If I have lost confidence in myself, I have the universe against me.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence, you have won even before you have started.” – Cicero

 

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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 Complacency Trap

One of the most insidious traps we can fall into in life and work is that of complacency—a state of easy contentment, with a lack of concern about or awareness of problems or risks. Complacency can prevent us from recognizing risks, trying harder, and making improvements.

Examples abound. We can be complacent about our health—or the health of our loved ones. Or complacent about our relationships. About our work, team, leadership, or organization. Complacent about our democracy and planet.

How to know when we’ve fallen into the complacency trap?

 

11 Signs of Complacency

When we’re complacent, we:

  1. Take things for granted
  2. Have too much routine, making things feel monotonous
  3. Stick to what we know
  4. Are too comfortable too often
  5. Stay in our comfort zone
  6. Start to “phone it in”
  7. Stop learning and growing
  8. Begin losing our ambition
  9. Resist change
  10. Avoid risk
  11. Start taking the path of least resistance

Author Brendon Burchard warns us about “the comfortable life:

“…over time, in the comfortable life, something stirs within; maybe not a frustration but something in the sense of restlessness. That restlessness is a feeling or sense that maybe there is something more.” -Brendon Burchard

 

The Problem with Complacency

There’s nothing wrong with comfort and satisfaction per se. These are good things, and we want them in our lives. The problem is when we have too much of them and lose our zest for life and our inner fire to go after our dreams.

Complacency can:

  • sap our motivation
  • lead to inaction when action is warranted
  • prevent us from making needed improvements
  • reduce our initiative and sense of hope
  • lead to mediocrity
  • rob us of future opportunities and benefits
  • derail our career
  • lead us to a “default life”

In their excellent new book, Who Do You Want to Be When You Grow Old? The Path of Purposeful Aging, Richard Leider and David Shapiro warn of living what they call a “default life”:

 

“Just floating along from one year to the next, accepting things as they present themselves without question or intention, is a surefire recipe for dissatisfaction and despair in later life. Living the default life is… living a life that isn’t really of our own choosing. It’s living a life that inevitably gives rise to questions like ‘Where did all the time go?’ ‘How did my life pass so quickly?’ and ‘Why did I squander my one precious opportunity for living?’” -Richard Leider and David Shapiro

 

What to Do About It

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to avoid or escape the complacency trap. Here’s a punch list:

Start acting with urgency. Like our time counts. Because it does.

Leverage deliberate agitation. Engage in what Tyler Hakes calls “deliberate agitation” (like shaking a snow globe). He writes:

“You let things settle into place just long enough and then shake them up. Watch to see if they fall into the same patterns or if something new and better emerges…. You deliberately and intentionally question things and change them before they become a problem. You remain vigilant in trying to improve so that way you don’t fall into the trap of complacency that leads to eventual failure.” -Tyler Hakes

Dream big. We should think expansively about all we want to do in our lifetime in different areas—family, relationships, career, education, impact, travel, and more. When we do that, we feel the wondrous and mystical pull of our deepest aspirations.

Step out of our comfort zone. Too often, fear holds us back from venturing forth and risking ourselves. When we push ourselves, take risks, and dare to have adventures, our blood races and we start to feel awake and alive again.

Challenge ourselves to strive for a BHAG—a “big, hairy audacious goal.” This can be a life goal or a work goal, but a true BHAG should take our breath away with its audacity.

“…there is a difference between merely having a goal and becoming committed to a huge, daunting challenge—like a big mountain to climb…. Like the moon mission, a true BHAG is clear and compelling and serves as a unifying focal point of effort—often creating immense team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines. A BHAG engages people—it reaches out and grabs them in the gut.” -Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last

Calendarize time to work on the most important activities that will ensure we make progress on our top goals. That way, we can not only develop good and productive habits but also become the sort of person who consistently gets big stuff done.

Enlist an army of support. Consider recruiting an “accountability partner”—someone who can help keep us on track (such as a training buddy or someone willing to receive regular progress reports).

Identify and remove barriers to change. When we’re stuck, it’s easy to become complacent. We’re good at acclimatizing ourselves to a new situation. So get to work on identifying the major obstacles to progress and how to overcome them.

Notch short-term wins on meaningful work to build momentum. Draw on what researchers call the “progress principle”:

“…of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work; of all the negative events, the single most powerful is the opposite of progress—setbacks in the work. We consider this to be a fundamental management principle: facilitating progress is the most effective way for managers to influence inner work life. Even when progress happens in small steps, a person’s sense of steady forward movement toward an important goal can make all the difference between a great day and a terrible one.” -Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in The Progress Principle

Take full responsibility. Be what my co-author, Christopher Gergen, and I call a “life entrepreneur.” We thrive when we take ownership of our life and recognize our agency—when we take our life back. Life entrepreneurs create opportunities for themselves. They bring their dreams to life. They intentionally craft a good life with good work.

Get clear on our personal purpose, values, and vision:

  • Our purpose is why we’re here. It’s what gives us a sense of meaning and significance—often by connecting with and serving others.
  • Our values are what’s most important to us—our core beliefs and principles that guide our decisions and behavior.
  • And our vision is what we aspire to achieve in the future—and what success looks and feels like for us.

 

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.

 

Build vitality. We feel better and achieve more when we develop physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health and wellness. When we’re intentional about productive and energizing habits, rituals, and routines.

Let go of limiting beliefs. Too often, we’re our own worst enemy. We’ve placed ourselves in a mental prison of judgment, negativity, and rumination. We have the power to upgrade our mental operating system, which will help us break the chains of complacency.

Set and maintain high standards. We tend to rise or fall to the standards we set. We often do better with deadlines, accountability, and high standards of personal and professional excellence.

 

Related Traps

The complacency trap is common, and it can be deeply damaging. It’s also accompanied by several associated traps:

 

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.

Final Thoughts

The complacency trap can rob us of quality time and experiences as well as passion and achievement. It can be tricky because we do want satisfaction and serenity, and not a life of frenetic striving and hair-on-fire busyness and hustle.

Somewhere in between, there’s a healthy place of commitment and urgency to live and work purposefully, achieve worthy things, serve others, and cherish our days, not squandering our time in a cool cloud of complacency.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent has complacency crept into some aspects of your life and work (or that of your friends, colleagues, or organization)?
  2. What will you do to regain the clarity, motivation, resolve, and urgency to get out of this trap?

Wishing you well with it—and let me know if I can help.

 

 

 

 

 

Gregg Vanourek

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Postscript: Quotations on Complacency

  • “Complacency keeps you living a comfortable life… not the life you desire. Challenge yourself to do something different. Then, notice the new charged quality of your life.” -Nina Amir
  • “The life you have left is a gift. Cherish it. Enjoy it now, to the fullest. Do what matters, now.” -Leo Babauta
  • “Never be passive about your life… ever, ever.” -Robert Egger
  • “The tragedy of life is often not in our failure, but rather in our complacency; not in our doing too much, but rather in our doing too little; not in our living above our ability, but rather in our living below our capacities.” -Benjamin E. Mays
  • “I really try to put myself in uncomfortable situations. Complacency is my enemy.” -Trent Reznor
  • “Complacency is a blight that saps energy, dulls attitudes, and causes a drain in the brain. The first symptom is satisfaction with things as they are. The second is rejection of things it as they might be. ’Good enough’ becomes days today’s watchword and tomorrow’s standard.” -Alex and Brett Harris
  • “History and experience tell us that moral progress comes not in comfortable and complacent times, but out of trial and confusion.” -Gerald R. Ford
  • “Without a sense of urgency, desire loses its value.” -Jim Rohn
  • “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
  • “So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” -Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild
  • “Our best enemy is the one who challenges us, and so doing, teaches us to set out to discover our potentials, while our worst friend is the one who is numbing us and lulling us into complacency, always being consenting or acquiescent.” -Erik Pevernagie
  • “Success is not guaranteed, it’s temporary.” -Frank Sonnenberg
  • “As you move outside of your comfort zone, what was once the unknown and frightening becomes your new normal.” -Robin Sharma
  • “By far the biggest mistake people make when trying to change organizations is to plunge ahead without establishing a high enough sense of urgency in fellow managers and employees.” -John Kotter

 

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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

 

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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!