The Trap of Blaming Others

When things aren’t going your way, it may be tempting to deflect attention from your own role in things and blame others. Perhaps you’re blaming your spouse. Or boss. Perhaps you’re blaming a friend or colleague. Or the economy or inflation—or politicians, the media, or a rival political party. Your parents, or your circumstances.

Blaming may give you a feeling of satisfaction as you look outside for responsibility and wallow in the unfairness of it all. But that feeling is fleeting. In the meantime, you haven’t moved forward at all. In fact, you’ve moved backward.

No good comes from blame.”
– Kate Summers

 

Signs of Blaming

How to tell if you’re blaming others? When blaming, you’re likely:

  • holding others responsible for your own frustrations and problems
  • expecting others to change to suit your needs
  • showing defensiveness
  • causing emotional escalation with the person and issue at hand

It is far more useful to be aware of a single shortcoming in ourselves
than it is to be aware of a thousand in somebody else.
– Dalai Lama

 

The Problem with Blaming Others

kids blaming each other

Wherever you find a problem, you will usually find the finger-pointing of blame.
Society is addicted to playing the victim.”
– Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Though it may feel good in the moment, blaming comes with many problems:

  • Most importantly, it doesn’t work. You don’t move forward in any way, shape, or form when you’re blaming. (“The blame game is a waste of time. Any time you’re busy fixing blame, you’re wasting energy and not fixing the problem.” -Rick Warren)
  • It often backfires, making things worse.
  • Blaming robs you of your own agency.
  • It makes people defensive.
  • Blaming damages relationships. (People don’t like it at all when they’re the target of blaming.)
  • It reduces your productivity and effectiveness.
  • Blaming often entails lying—bending the truth to minimize or eliminate your own responsibility while exaggerating the fault of others. As such, it harms your credibility.
  • You suffer the most, not the person you’re blaming.
  • Blaming leads to escalation into bigger issues—especially when it’s unfair blame or blame that misses important contextual factors because you don’t have all the information you need.
  • You don’t learn from mistakes since you’re focused on the fault of others.
  • Blaming can lead to other negative emotions—such as anger, resentment, or even hatred or rage—which are even worse.
  • It can rob you of your potential influence on others.
  • Apparently, blaming can be contagious, leading others to fall into this trap as well in a downward spiral.

Blame is fascinating—it shapes our lives. It can be a benign way of positioning ourselves,
a gentle joust or banter, or it can be poisonous, hurtful, or devastating for its victims.
It can tear apart marriages and fracture work relationships;
it can disable major social programs; it can inflict damage on powerful corporations;
it can bring down governments; it can start wars and justify genocides
.”
– Stephen Fineman, The Blame Business

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.

 

Why You Blame

It’s natural and common to play the blame game. But that doesn’t mean it will serve you well. Your brain my subconsciously leap to blaming by default. What’s going on here?

Blaming is an odd combination of defense mechanism and attack strategy. You’re defending your precious ego by attacking another person with the assignment of fault. It’s a way to avoid or release negative emotions.

Blaming preserves your self-esteem by helping you avoid responsibility for mistakes. You want to be right and win the argument to protect your fragile ego. By blaming others, you feel like you can escape guilt and responsibility.

Blaming is also a form of social comparison, allowing you to feel superior and gifted with greater social status, at least in the situation at hand.

Also, blaming can come with perfectionism, giving us a way to maintain our illusion of perfection as we find fault in others instead of ourselves.

 

How to Avoid the Blame Game

So far in this article, you’ve seen what blaming is, the signs of blaming in action, the many problems with it, and why we do it so much.

But you can’t stop there. You need to know what to do about it—and what to do instead. Here are six top tips for avoiding the blame game:

  1. Stop ruminating on the problems at hand and turn your attention instead toward something more positive.
  2. Practice empathy and try to understand the context, motivations, and feelings of the other person. Work to account for the other person’s perspective. Ask questions and explore their perspective.
  3. Focus on finding a solution, not a scapegoat. In the end, that’s most important.
  4. Instead of assigning all the blame to another person, try a “50-50” split instead: assume equal responsibility for the problem, or at least joint responsibility. Ultimately, the allocation of blame matter much less than resolving the issues well.
  5. Focus on collaboration, not blame. Consider ways in which teaming up to address the issues may benefit you both and avoid unnecessary emotional potholes.
  6. Take full responsibility for your life, choices, behaviors, and outcomes, even if there are outside factors present (as there always are). It’s a powerful practice that will serve you well.

Final Thoughts

Though blaming is common and natural, don’t trade in it. It’s a trap. Blaming gets you nowhere fast and will even take you backward and cause damage. By avoiding the tram of blaming, you can improve your mental state, quality of life, relationships, leadership, and effectiveness.

It’s always easy to blame others. You can spend your entire life blaming the world,
but your successes or failures are entirely your own responsibility
.”
– Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist

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Reflection Questions

  1. Are you playing the blame game?
  2. Is it serve you well—or harming you?
  3. Which of the top tips for avoiding blame will you try, starting today?

Wishing you well with it.

 

 

 

Gregg Vanourek

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Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding the Blame Trap

  • “When we blame, we give away our power.” – Greg Anderson
  • “To grow up is to stop putting blame on parents.” – Maya Angelou
  • “One of the most important ways to manifest integrity is to be loyal to those who are not present. In doing so, we build the trust of those who are present.” – Stephen R. Covey
  • “You become a victim when you blame yourself or others for some problem or error.” – Jay Fiset, Reframe Your Blame, How to Be Personally Accountable
  • “A loss is not a failure until you make an excuse.” – Michael Jordan
  • “Blame is the demonstrated lack of self-respect choosing to deposit one’s negative actions onto others to reinforce one’s view of being of good, fair, and approved.” – Byron R. Pulsifer
  • “Stop the blame game. Stop! Stop looking out the window and look in the mirror!” – Eric Thomas
  • “Blame means shifting the responsibility for where you are onto someone or something else, rather than accepting responsibility for your role in the experience.” – Iyanla Vanzant

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

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What Are You Avoiding?

Avoidance. We all do it, whether it’s keeping away from someone or not doing something. What are you avoiding?

Sometimes we change the subject when it drifts into awkward territory. Other times we talk around hard topics. Or we put off that tough task.

Avoidance is a coping mechanism. Sometimes it’s helpful. Like when we see a downed power line or a snake.

It’s an inheritance from our evolutionary biology. Our nervous system gives us powerful signals to avoid danger, thus increasing our chances of survival. Avoidance is natural.

Truly, there is nothing more common, routine, and human than
avoiding discomfort, uncertainty, or the potential of ‘bad news.‘”
– Dave Ursillo, author

But this coping mechanism can be overused and become maladaptive. We avoid too many things, too often. Things end up getting worse, not better.

We avoid too many things, too often.
Things end up getting worse, not better.

There are two types: cognitive avoidance (when we divert our thoughts away from something, as when we’re in denial) and behavioral avoidance (when we move to keep away from something, or when we avoid acting, as with procrastination).

We often deploy both types of avoidance in difficult situations, and we’re not fully conscious that we’re doing so. It can become programmed behavior.

 

What We Avoid

There are many things that we tend to avoid, including:

  • uncomfortable thoughts or feelings
  • pain
  • discomfort
  • conflict
  • uncertainty
  • difficult people
  • hard realities (e.g., problematic health diagnosis, unwanted breakup, not meeting performance expectations)
  • challenging tasks
  • difficult conversations (e.g., about money, problems, a poor performance review, death)

Our avoidance may make things easier now, but over time things can fester, making them much worse over time.

 

Why We Avoid

We avoid certain people or things for many reasons, from biological to psychological and social. Here are some of the main reasons:

  • It feels easier to avoid certain things than to deal with them.
  • Sometimes avoiding something hard feels like a better choice than acting and possibly failing.
  • We feel afraid of certain things (like inadequacy, looking bad, imperfection, disappointment, shame, embarrassment, failure), so we avoid them.
  • When we avoid someone troubling or something difficult, we sometimes believe we can avoid the stress and anxiety associated with it.

Most of these reasons and beliefs don’t hold up under scrutiny.

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 Problem with Avoidance

Avoidance is the best short-term strategy to escape conflict,
and the best long-term strategy to ensure suffering.”
-Brendon Burchard, best-selling author

Here are some of the main problems with avoidance. It:

  • leaves the core problem(s) unaddressed
  • can aggravate anxiety because we’ve allowed things to deteriorate further
  • can be very frustrating to others (e.g., spouse or partner), and make things worse for them too
  • leads to new conflicts
  • becomes a vicious circle, leading to more avoidance and attendant problems
  • can become a way of life, a bad habit pattern
  • undermines us by taking away our power and agency
  • can feed and validate the fears that we were trying to avoid, making it self-defeating
  • may lead to numbing behaviors like drinking, overeating, over-exercising, binge-watching, overwork, and more
What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.”
– Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist

 

How to Stop Avoiding

So what to do about it?

First, note that, in some situations (like the end of an important relationship or work project), we do in fact need time and space to heal. It’s not avoidance to give ourselves room for that.

Here are 14 strategies for how we can reduce or stop maladaptive avoidance:

  • Recognize our avoidance behaviors—but without beating ourselves up over them
  • Seek their root causes (continue asking why until there’s no deeper why)
  • Engage in relaxation and self-care activities such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, gardening, art, or journaling
  • Get support from a friend, mentor, therapist, and/or coach
  • Process emotions by talking them through with someone or journaling
  • Divide the problem into smaller, more manageable chunks
  • Start with an easy task to get momentum and small wins
  • Give ourselves motivations, such as rewards for accomplishing tasks
  • Reframe a situation to note the positives and avoid focusing only on the negatives
  • Change our inner monologue, quieting the negative self-talk
  • Practice communication skills, including assertive self-advocacy and what author Susan Scott calls “fierce conversations
  • Set deadlines and goals to commit to action by a certain time
  • Build action and proactivity habits, training our brain and helping us become a “doer” (see my article on “The Incredible Benefits of Being Action-Oriented and books like The Power of Habit and Atomic Habits)
  • Recognize that doing something we’ve been avoiding can feel amazing, giving us a sense of agency, accomplishment, momentum, and confidence

 

Final Thoughts

We’ve seen here that avoidance, while natural, can make things much worse. It can lead to frustration, anxiety, new conflicts, bad habits, numbing behaviors, and a loss of confidence and agency.

Much better, then, to work at recognizing our avoidance tendencies and systematically eliminating them. The problems won’t go away on their own, so why not deal with them directly?

 

Reflection Questions

  • What have you been avoiding lately?
  • Are there deeper issues underlying your avoidance?
  • Which of the 14 strategies for reducing or stopping avoidance will you try?

Wishing you well with it!

 

 

 

Gregg Vanourek

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Postscript: Inspirations on Avoidance and Action

  • “Avoidance coping causes anxiety to snowball because when people use avoidance coping they typically end up experiencing more of the very thing they were trying to escape.” – Alice Boyes, PhD, author, The Anxiety Toolkit
  • “It is not fear that stops you from doing the brave and true thing in your daily life. Rather, the problem is avoidance. You want to feel comfortable so you avoid doing or saying the thing that will evoke fear and other difficult emotions. Avoidance will make you feel less vulnerable in the short run but, it will never make you less afraid.” – Dr. Harriet Lerner
  • “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
  • “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” – Amelia Earhart
  • “The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” – Meister Eckhart
  • “Do not wait; the time will never be ‘just right.’ Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.” – Napolean Hill

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Common Traps of Living: Which Are You In?

face and hands being buried

We all want a good life. To be healthy and happy. We want to love and be loved. To have experiences, enjoy comforts, and do certain things before we die.

All well and good. But too often we focus on what to do to get the things we want in life—and not enough on what not to do.

That’s where the common traps of living come in—the things that inhibit us from leading the life we want.

We all fall into traps in life. All of us. Moms. Dads. Leaders. Professionals. Interns. Students. Retirees. Geniuses. Dopes.

We all fall into traps in life.

Photo by Christopher Windus on Unsplash
photo by Christopher Windus on Unsplash

The point is not to beat ourselves up for not living perfectly. Nobody does.

Rather, the point is to recognize the traps we’re in—and get busy climbing out. Too often, we go through long stretches of our lives caught in several of these traps, yet pretending like all is well when it’s not. The sooner we address them, the better.

Common Traps of Living

Below are 22 common traps of living, based on my research and work with people in the U.S. and many different countries. As you read through them, note which ones have affected you.

  1. Clarity (lacking): being uncertain about your purpose, values, vision, aspirations, goals, or priorities.
  2. Climbing Mode: focusing so much on moving up the success ladder that you lose touch with other important things (like health or relationships).
  3. Comparing: measuring yourself against others and judging your worth by how you stack up.
  4. Conforming: following the crowd and fitting in with social conventions instead of blazing your own path.
  5. Disease of More: focusing on accumulating ever-more things, money, or accomplishments to try to be happy.
  6. Drifting: getting carried along by the current of outside influences instead of steering to where you want to go.
  7. Fear: holding back or not trying important things due to fears about failure or threats to image.
  8. Feeling Behind: feeling that others are racing ahead of you with more clarity or success.
  9. Golden Handcuffs: feeling chained to a job you don’t like due to the money, security, or prestige.
  10. Identity: having your sense of self wrapped up too much in work or how you’re perceived by others.
  11. Limiting Beliefs: mindsets about yourself that hold you back (e.g., that you’re not smart or good enough).
  12. Losing Yourself: feeling consumed by events or others’ priorities, surrendering your agency, initiative, or sense of self.
  13. Margin: always being “on” and running from task to task without downtime.
  14. Negative Self-Talk: inner dialogue that makes you feel flawed, unacceptable, or not enough.
  15. Perfectionism: setting unrealistic expectations for yourself or others or needing things to be flawless.
  16. Postponing: deferring plans or dreams because it’s not practical or “the right time.”
  17. Pretending: wearing a mask for others and impersonating someone you think is more appealing.
  18. Responsibility: not being fully accountable for your choices, behaviors, and results.
  19. Self-Deception: hiding the truth from yourself about your true feelings, motives, or circumstances.
  20. Self-Doubt: lacking confidence or questioning your capabilities and potential.
  21. Settling: accepting significantly less than what you want or deserve.
  22. Short Game: failing to invest in the future and deciding important things without considering the long term.

Which traps have you fallen into? Are there any which are particularly pressing now?

Photo by Tom Chrostek on Unsplash
Photo by Tom Chrostek on Unsplash

While this is a long list of common traps, there are many more. I’ve identified about sixty traps that inhibit us from leading the life we want.

See my new Traps Test to find out your top traps—and then get to work on climbing out of them.

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

  • What are your top traps?
  • And what will you do about them, starting today?

P.S. – This always works best when you talk it through openly with others. We all fall into traps in life. We all have work to do. So get busy with the important work of intentional personal development. Reach out if you think I may be able to help.

 

 

 

 

Gregg

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Postscript: Inspirations on Traps of Living

  • “We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.” -Ernest Hemingway
  • “In school we learn that mistakes are bad, and we are punished for making them. Yet, if you look at the way humans are designed to learn, we learn by making mistakes. We learn to walk by falling down. If we never fell down, we would never walk.” –Robert T. Kiyosaki, Rich Dad, Poor Dad
  • “There is more to learn from mistakes than from successes.” –Richard Branson, entrepreneur
  • “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “It was one thing to make a mistake; it was another thing to keep making it.” –Jodi Picoult, Handle with Care
  • “Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.” –Brandon Mull, Fablehaven
  • “Being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.” –Bryan Stevenson, social justice activist

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Perfectionism Trap—And How to Escape It

Perfectionism is a big problem today among ambitious professionals—and increasingly among young people in general. It’s also widely misunderstood, and even misappropriated as a badge of honor by some.

Let’s break it down. First, what is it?

Perfectionism entails striving to be flawless. It typically includes overly critical self-evaluations and excessive concerns about negative evaluations from others.

Perfectionism entails striving for unrealistic or even unattainable goals, followed by disappointment when we fail to achieve them. That’s followed by cognitive dissonance from misalignment between perfect self-identity and imperfect performance. For a perfectionist, low performance automatically means low self-worth.

Fundamentally, the assumption behind perfectionism is that the only route to self-acceptance and peace is flawlessness. It’s less about a desire for self-improvement and much more about seeking acceptance and approval. It entails conflating our identity and worth with our performance and accomplishments.

 

Signs of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is common. There are many signs of it that we can see all around us if we look:

  • Having unrealistic standards or expectations
  • Striving to be flawless
  • Fixating on mistakes
  • Being overly critical of yourself and not feeling good enough
  • Judging others excessively
  • Having low self-esteem and self-identifying as a loser
  • Being overly cautious and feeling afraid to fail
  • Wanting to control situations to avoid negative judgment
  • Feeling defensive about feedback
  • Being prone to blame ourselves, even when we’re not at fault
  • Feeling pushed toward goals by a fear of missing them, versus being pulled toward the prospect of reaching them
  • Focusing exclusively on results, while not being able to enjoy the process of trying, learning, and growing

Perfectionists can be consumed with self-monitoring and carefully managing their impressions—and sometimes with rumination and self-recrimination. They’re especially sensitive even to the potential for negative (or even not positive enough) judgment by others and for rejection.

Perfectionism is a problem because perfection is an impossible standard for those of us who don’t wear a cape.

Perfectionists are under a regular barrage of self-imposed pressure. They put up a front of flawlessness and purity in part to hide their flaws. In some cases, they’re prone to all-or-nothing thinking, in which only perfection is acceptable. Otherwise, they remove themselves entirely from the situation.

We should be clear about the downsides of perfectionism while also being understanding of its causes and compassionate about the suffering that comes with it. According to the research, many perfectionists learned this mindset in their formative years, with conditional acceptance from parents or other guardians: I love you when you behave as I expect, and I don’t when you don’t.

This conditional giving and taking of love and acceptance can be quite painful, and even traumatic, for children. Some parents withhold affection or abandon their children (emotionally or physically). Others control their children. These behaviors can instill perfectionist beliefs and tendencies.

 

Perfectionism on the Rise

According to recent research, perfectionism is increasing among young people, and an estimated 25 to 30 percent of children and adolescents are prone to perfectionism. It’s not surprising in our age of social media and influencers—and the impossible comparisons they tee up.

In a meta-analysis of perfectionism rates among more than 40,000 college students from 1989 to 2016 (the first such study of its kind), researchers found significant increases among recent undergraduates in the United States, Canada, and United Kingdom. The rates doubled, from 9 to 18 percent, over that period.

“On average,” said Andrew Hill (one of the researchers), “young people are more perfectionistic than they used to be,” and “the belief that other people expect you to be perfect has increased the most.”

Researcher Brene Brown suggests that perfectionism isn’t a binary matter in which we either have it or we don’t. Rather, she suggests that we all fall on a continuum of perfectionistic tendencies, ranging from occasional and situational bouts of it to “compulsive, chronic, and debilitating” versions of it. Ouch.

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 Perfectionism

“Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.” -Anne Wilson Schaef

How does it affect us? Turns out, it can be quite debilitating.

In a nutshell, perfectionism leads to lower achievement along with more stress. A double whammy.

Perfectionism inhibits our work.

It harms our relationships.

Perfectionism causes needless suffering.

Even worse, there’s a negative spiral at work. Perfectionists will face a new or challenging situation and hear all sorts of psychological alarm bells. There will be a fear of failing and looking bad. In trying something new, they’ll see that they’re not good at it from the start (which is true for nearly all of us), leading them to quit. So they rarely stick with new things. They prefer their comfort zone. This “life paralysis” entails missing an array of opportunities due to their fear of falling short.

“To be a learner, you’ve got to be willing to be a fool.” -George Leonard, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment

Given their tendency to fall short of their impossible standards, they can also start to develop an impression of themselves as failures, spinning a negative tale about their past that comes to haunt them going forward.

Perfectionism can reduce not only productivity but also creativity, inspiration, and joy. Insidiously, it can lead to procrastination, with people postponing tasks due to the potential negative judgment that can come from falling short. This “perfectionism-procrastination loop” as it’s called can lead to reduced productivity and missed deadlines, as perfectionists focus too much on unimportant details and lose sight of the big picture.

 

Perfectionism can have perverse unintended consequences. Though perfectionists are aiming to avoid social rejection by appearing flawless, sometimes they come across as aloof and inauthentic, thereby leading to social disconnection, the very thing they wanted to avoid in the first place. It can lead to estrangement or alienation from others as well as from our authentic self.

It gets worse. According to a meta-analysis of 284 studies and other research, perfectionism is correlated with anxiety, substance abuse, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, clinical depression, self-harm, and suicide. In the research, it’s linked with psychological distress and low self-esteem, as well as with fear of failure (see my article on “Getting Good at Overcoming Fear”) and workaholism.

 

Badge of Honor?

These days, perfectionism is widely misunderstood. Unfortunately, some people wear the perfectionist label as a badge of honor, perhaps to diminish the downsides while highlighting the benefits, such as attention to quality and detail. But it’s not a badge of honor.

Here we must distinguish between perfection (which is impossible in human pursuits) and perfectionism, and between the pursuit of excellence (which is positive) and perfectionism (which can be quite harmful).

Perfectionism ≠ the pursuit of excellence. That’s a myth.

Perfectionism ≠ striving to be your best. A rationalization. 

Perfectionism is maladaptive and self-destructive. There’s much research on that.

“Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards.” -Professor Andrew Hill, York St. John University

It’s even a standard answer to the dreaded job interview question of “What are your weaknesses?” or “What are your worst traits?” Many people answer that they’re perfectionists, hoping that the interviewer will take it as a positive since it shows they’re so committed to high standards and to details.

“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” -Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

 

What to Do About It

We know it’s common and that it operates on a spectrum. So what to do about it? Here are nine research-based tips:

  1. Practice “self-compassion”: extending kindness and understanding to ourselves when encountering setbacks or failures, recognizing these are universal.
  2. Engage in positive self-talk: an inner voice that focuses more on potential and growth and less on critique and deficit.
  3. Learn to value the importance of process more, versus an exclusive focus on results (many of which are not fully in our control).
  4. Adopt a growth mindset (belief that our intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed), instead of a fixed mindset (belief that our intelligence, abilities, and talents are static and cannot be changed).
  5. Develop what Brene Brown calls “shame resilience”: an “ability to recognize shame when we experience it, and move through it in a constructive way that allows us to maintain authenticity and grow from our experiences.”
  6. Practice mindfulness: a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and environment, ideally through a gentle, nurturing, and nonjudgmental lens.
  7. Use a checklist for discrete tasks, instead of focusing on an amorphous (and impossible) standard of perfection, allowing you to see the progress you’re making along the way. Enjoy the feeling of progress, and ideally see it visually on a progress board.
  8. Monitor progress by using a regular review (weekly or another interval) to show steps forward and give you some psychological distance from the current distress associated with feeling unworthy.
  9. Unpack your past successes and revisit the processes you used to make progress and overcome obstacles, while also remembering that there were no guarantees of success along the way. This should help you get good at overcoming fear.

 

The “Gifts of Imperfection”

No doubt perfectionism is a formidable foe, and a powerful inhibitor of our wellbeing. I like how Brene Brown flips the script and talks about the “gifts of imperfection.” That’s right: the gifts.

She notes that our imperfections make us human. And they can bring us unexpected benefits, such as courage (to be who we truly are even when we fear judgment or disappointment), compassion (to see that everyone has their own struggles), and connection (to recognize our shared humanity and see ourselves in the real stories of others, with their messy ups and downs).

 

Reflection Questions

  • Are you falling into some of the traps of perfectionism? (Or your friends and colleagues?)
  • How is it showing up in your life and work?
  • Which of the nine perfectionism trap busters noted above are you game to try?

Let me know how it goes. I wish you well with it.

 


Postscript: Quotations on Perfectionism

  • “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” -Anna Quindlen
  • “There is no perfection, only beautiful versions of brokenness.” -Shannon L. Alder
  • “At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.” -Michael Law
  • “Perfectionism doesn’t believe in practice shots. It doesn’t believe in improvement. Perfectionism has never heard that anything worth doing is worth doing badly—and that if we allow ourselves to do something badly we might in time become quite good at it. Perfectionism measures our beginner’s work against the finished work of masters. Perfectionism thrives on comparison and competition. It doesn’t know how to say, ‘Good try,’ or ‘Job well done.’” -Julia Cameron, Finding Water: The Art of Perseverance

 

Recommended Books on Perfectionism and Related Topics:

Note: Shirzad Chamine, best-selling author of Positive Intelligence, has identified nine mental “saboteurs,” which are “automatic and habitual mind patterns” that harm our ability to function effectively. Several of them relate to perfectionism:

  • Judge: constantly finding fault with self, others, or circumstances. (This is the “master saboteur,” according to Chamine.)
  • Avoider: putting off or avoiding difficult tasks or conflicts.
  • Stickler: excessively needing perfection, order, and organization.
  • Pleaser: trying to gain acceptance by helping, pleasing, or saving others.
  • Controller: anxiously needing to control situations or others.
  • Hyper-achiever: depending on constant achievement for self-acceptance.

 

Related Articles:

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Are You Living a Divided Life?

The young woman in a corporate job whose true love is animals. Unless she makes a change, she’s looking at a long slog in her career.

A young college graduate on the business track who discovers he has no real interest in any of the business functions. He’s fascinated by medicine but feels trapped because of the costs of switching over.

The frustrated executive in a family business, itching to get out and be creative, entrepreneurial, impactful, and generous. What will he do?

Many of us are leading what author and educator Parker Palmer calls a “divided life”—a life in which we’re separated from our whole, true self.

Divided lives are common, for many reasons. Many of us were so busy doing things in our formative years that we never took much time to stop and think about who we are and what we really want to do in the world. A costly mistake, but one that we can rectify.

We’re under subtle but powerful pressure from family, friends, and mentors, feeling the heavy weight of outside expectations on our shoulders. Our school systems give us siloed education in disparate fields, making it hard for us to do the necessary sensemaking and wayfinding for choosing a career path wisely.

And so we end up leading a divided life.

 

The Problem of a Divided Life

Palmer lists the signs that we may be living a divided life:

  • “We refuse to invest ourselves in our work…
  • We make our living at jobs that violate our basic values…
  • We remain in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirit.
  • We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked….
  • We sense that something is missing in our lives and search the world for it, not understanding that what is missing is us.
  • We feel fraudulent, even invisible, because we are not in the world as who we really are.”

With a divided life, we sense incongruity between our inner world and our outer one. We feel inauthentic. We miss out on “the life-giving energies of true self.” Palmer notes from experience (including bouts with deep, debilitating depression) that when we violate our true self, it resists us and holds our life in check… “until we honor its truth.”

It’s painful and shameful, because it feels like living a lie, since we’re not honoring our nature.

There is another way.

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 Alternative: Wholeness

Wholeness means staying faithful to ourselves. It means growing into what Palmer calls our “authentic selfhood,” regardless of whether it conforms to the expectations of others or pattern-maps to the conventional model of success.

Wholeness means choosing our own definition of success and blazing our own path in life. Not easy, surely, but bound to bring adventure and satisfaction, even for trying.

Wholeness means showing up in the world as we truly are, not as some hologram designed to please others.

“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 and entrepreneur, from our LIFE Entrepreneurs interview

 

Wholeness by Other Names

Palmer isn’t the only one to see the power of wholeness.

Brene Brown writes about a close cousin to it, about being “wholehearted”:

“Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” -Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

For Brown, a key aspect of wholeheartedness is authenticity, which she defines as “the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.”

It sounds much easier than it is. That’s why she talks about the “audacity of authenticity.”

In our book, LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives, Christopher Gergen and I noted the importance of “authentic integrity”: integration of all aspects of our lives in a way that coheres with our true nature. It means living in alignment with our core identity, including our purpose, values, strengths, and aspirations.

“I just felt like I’ve lived a life that was true to itself…. Anybody who’s ever hung out in an ‘old man bar’—you know what I’m talking about—sees what happens when you don’t let that part of yourself do its thing.”Mary Cutrufello, musician and songwriter, in our LIFE Entrepreneurs interview

Author and former CEO Bill George calls it “true north”: the internal compass that guides us successfully through life.

 

A Shadow Side

Being whole isn’t the same as being perfect. Sometimes we’re broken—or feel broken. We have flaws and hang-ups that can get us into trouble.

Being whole means embracing our whole selves, even the parts we don’t like. We’re all a work in progress.

“Accepting your shadow side is an essential part of being authentic.” -Bill George, best-selling author and former CEO

 

The Gifts of Imperfection

In a world awash in perfectionism, Brene Brown flips the script and talks about the “gifts of imperfection.” She notes that our imperfections are part of what makes us human, and they can bring us unexpected gifts, including courage, compassion, and connection:

  • Courage to be who we truly are even when we fear judgment or disappointment from others.
  • Compassion to see that everyone has their own struggles, leading us first to suffer with them in spirit and then to want to help them.
  • Connection when we recognize our shared humanity and see ourselves in the true stories of others, including their heartaches and foibles.

Notably, these three gifts are important components of wholeheartedness.

“Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together.” -Brené Brown

Living in the modern world in many ways pulls us away from wholeness. In some ways, it’s easier to live a divided life, and to avoid the vulnerability and struggle that can accompany authenticity and imperfection.

But at what cost in the end? What life will our future self be glad we crafted?

 

Reflection Questions

  • Are you honoring your nature, or holding back?
  • Have you been upholding your values?
  • Are you investing yourself in your work, or phoning it in?
  • Do you let yourself be fully seen, including your flaws?
  • Are you clear about your purpose, values, and aspirations for your life?
  • Do you feel whole?

 

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Postscript: Quotations on Divided Lives and Whole Lives

  • “…there can be no greater suffering than living a lifelong lie…. in the end what will matter most is knowing that we stayed true to ourselves.” -Parker Palmer
  • “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” -Anna Quindlen
  • “Bring your whole self to work. I don’t believe we have a professional self Monday through Friday and a real self the rest of the time. It is all professional and it is all personal.” -Sheryl Sandberg
  • “I can’t think of a sadder way to die than with the knowledge that I never showed up in this world as who I really am. I can’t think of a more graced way to die than with the knowledge that I showed up here as my true self, the best I knew how, able to engage life freely and lovingly because I had become fierce with reality.” -Parker Palmer, On the Brink of Everything

 

Recommended Books and Videos

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Why Happiness Is the Wrong Goal

Let’s face it. We’re obsessed with happiness:

Am I happy?

I just want to be happy.

I want my kids to be happy.

Why doesn’t my job make me happy?

Why doesn’t my relationship make me happy?

We tend to view happiness as the point of life.

Sounds reasonable. But it turns out to be counterproductive.

Happiness is the wrong goal.

To understand why and how, let’s back up and examine what we’re talking about.

There are many ways to think about happiness. We often think of it as feeling contentment or pleasure. But there’s more to it.

An excellent definition comes from happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky (also a psychology professor):

Happiness: “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky

Here we see that happiness can include two important elements:

  • the current experience of positive emotions like pleasure and joy
  • an overall sense of life satisfaction, with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose

In the U.S., we have a long tradition of reverence for happiness. Even the Declaration of Independence noted our unalienable right not only to life and liberty but also to “the pursuit of happiness.”

This isn’t only an American phenomenon. The World Happiness Report has been published for a decade now. The United Kingdom began measuring national wellbeing ten years ago, following the Kingdom of Bhutan in Asia, which had already been measuring not only gross domestic product but also “gross national happiness.”

 

The Larger Context of Happiness

One of the challenges with achieving happiness is that there’s a lot to it. It comes with many associated feelings and related notions, including: circumstances (positive or negative), contentment, flourishing, fulfillment, joy, life satisfaction, meaning, mood, quality of life, self-actualization, self-evaluation, success, and wellbeing. Phew!

To understand happiness, we also need to think about unpleasant feelings like sadness, disappointment, anxiety, depression, neuroticism, rumination, and more. That brings up the related issues of adversity, adaptation, and resilience. Clearly, happiness isn’t just about beaches, butterflies, and rainbows.

What’s more, how we think about happiness has changed dramatically over time. Nowadays, we seem to have lost important ideas from ancient times. Enter “eudaimonia.”

 

Eudaimonia—A Deeper Form of Happiness

Many ancient Greek philosophers focused on what they called “eudaimonia.” It’s commonly translated as “happiness” (and sometimes as “wellbeing” or “human flourishing”), but the roots of the word literally mean the condition of “good spirit.”

What they meant by eudaimonia goes well beyond our modern notion of happiness. They meant happiness through virtuous action, habits of moral excellence, and a full flourishing of self in the world. For Aristotle, eudaimonia was the term for the highest human good. It included fulfillment of human nature in an excellent way. He wrote that eudaimonia entails “doing and living well.” In other words, living a good life.

Here we encounter an important difference: eudaimonia is about habits and actions, whereas the way we think about happiness today is about feelings and mental states. This is actually a long-running debate between the hedonistic tradition (seeking pleasant experiences and avoiding unpleasant ones) and the eudaimonic tradition (living life in a full and deeply satisfying way, in accordance with virtue and excellence).

To the ancients in the eudaimonic tradition, a good life is the quest of a lifetime. It’s something you work toward every day, through your actions, mindsets, and relationships. Today, must of that seems lost.

 

Stoicism and Happiness

In Stoic philosophy, achieving eudaimonia requires the practice of virtue (rightful action in the world).

The idea is that we can only flourish by living an ethical life, practicing certain virtues (like courage, wisdom, justice, and moderation), and living in accordance with nature. Through right thinking and virtuous action, we can become emotionally resilient to negative events and misfortune.

We can develop self-control and mental strength to overcome harmful emotions that result from errors of judgment. This can help us be free from unproductive emotions like anger and envy.

 

Buddhism and Happiness

Buddhism focuses on liberation from suffering, including overcoming craving and helping us accept life’s irrefutable truths. It encourages compassion, loving kindness, and a desire for the welfare of all beings.

Buddhist practice includes cultivation of attention and fostering a state of awareness, nonstriving, and detachment (or nonattachment).

A higher aspiration is nirvana, a state of everlasting peace through the release of worldly suffering.

Clearly, there are many paths and practices, old and new, related to happiness.

 

Happiness in Difficult Circumstances

While some view happiness as a pleasant state free from suffering, pain, or negative circumstances, a closer look reveals that happiness can sometimes depend on such things.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche urged us to recognize the value of difficulties in life, including suffering and unhappiness, since things of great worth can sometimes only be earned through difficulty and struggle.

A 2012 study by Jonathan Adler and Hal Hershfield found that mixed emotional experience (that is, concurrent positive and negative emotional experience, like happiness and sadness) is associated with and precedes improvements in psychological wellbeing.

The issue here is whether to express or suppress negative emotions (like sadness or grief) when things are difficult. One model (called a “co-activation model”) recommends “taking the good with the bad”: “when experiencing the loss of a loved one, allowing positive memories to be experienced alongside sadness could potentially lead to a healthier bereavement process.”

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” -Kahlil Gibran

In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about the “adversity hypothesis,” which holds that people need adversity and setbacks to reach the heights of personal development, strength, and fulfillment.

Most people have heard about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but not as many know about “post-traumatic growth”: positive psychological change after struggling with stressful and challenging circumstances. This can occur when we cope well with adversity and turn it into something valuable (such as life lessons, wisdom, or serenity).

Adversity can strengthen relationships by invoking vulnerability and opening our hearts to each other. And it can lead to feelings of love, connection, and gratitude for the help and caring provided. Haidt notes that it can also reorder our priorities (away from the future and toward the present, and away from ourselves and toward others).

It turns out that happiness isn’t about having positive experiences and circumstances and avoiding negative ones (though it’s hard to fault people for striving for that).

Are we really going to cede our happiness to the fickle Fates and precarious fortune, according to whether things happen to be going well in our life?

Some of the things that bring us deeper happiness, wellbeing, and an overall sense of life satisfaction include adversity, pain, and suffering, as long as they include avenues of deeper meaning or connection.

 

The Wrong Goal, The Right Goal

Happiness is the wrong goal. And so is success. And wealth. Beauty. Fame. Power. Prestige. Comfort. Pleasure.

These aren’t bad. They’re just destined to disappoint. They won’t make us happy.

A better goal, I think, is to live a good life. A life of vitality, connection, and contribution, as Jonathan Fields advises in his book, How to Live a Good Life.

A life of purpose, close relationships, and serving others. How about a life in which we learn, grow, and develop integrity, wisdom, and resilience?

A life of joy and savoring. How about a life of caring and action in the world to make things better, with others?

What does a good life mean for you?

 

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Postscript: Quotations on Happiness

  • “You must try to generate happiness within yourself. If you aren’t happy in one place, chances are you won’t be happy anyplace.” -Ernie Banks
  • “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • “Plenty of people miss their share of happiness, not because they never found it, but because they didn’t stop to enjoy it.” -William Feather
  • “Happiness is the indication that man has found the answer to the problem of human existence: the productive realization of his potentialities and thus, simultaneously, being one with the world and preserving the integrity of his self.” -Erich Fromm
  • “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “Many people have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” -Helen Keller
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” -John Milton (from Paradise Lost)
  • “The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance. The wise grows it under his feet.” -James Oppenheim
  • “A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature.” -Lucius Annaeus Seneca
  • “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn, or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace, and gratitude.” -Dennis Waitley

 

Definitions of Key Terms

  • Happiness: “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky
  • Subjective wellbeing: how we experience and evaluate the quality of our lives, including frequent positive affect (the extent to which we experience positive moods), infrequent negative affect, and cognitive evaluations such as life satisfaction. Sometimes distinctions are made between different types (e.g., mental, physical, economic, and emotional wellbeing).
  • Life satisfaction: how we feel about our lives overall and our future. It’s a measure of wellbeing assessed in terms of mood, satisfaction (with relationships and achieved goals), and our perceived ability to cope with the challenges of daily life. Here, researchers note the difference between “affective happiness” (felt in our momentary emotions) and “evaluative happiness” (our sense of our entire life).

 

More Articles in this Happiness Series

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Breaking the “Trance of Unworthiness”

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

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

“Who I am is not okay.”

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

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

 

The Sources of Low Self-Worth

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

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

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

“Why do we hold on so tightly to our belief in our own deficiency? Why are we so loyal to our suffering, so addicted to our self-judgment?” -Tara Brach

Tara Brach

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

 

The Consequences of Low Self-Worth

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

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

 

The Signs of the Unworthiness Trance

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

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

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

What’s wrong with me?

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

 

Impostor Syndrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

“Positive Intelligence”

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

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

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

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

 

What To Do About It

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

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

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

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

 

Reflection Questions

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

 

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 Postscript: Quotations

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

 

Recommended Books and Videos

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Getting Good at Overcoming Fear

Fear. A terrible feeling. Something to avoid.

Right?

Not so fast.

Fear can actually be turned into a powerful asset and opportunity, if understood and addressed properly. Can we get good at overcoming fear?

First, what is it? Fear is a feeling of distress or dread caused by a sense of impending danger or pain. It’s a powerful, primitive emotion. A warning that we need to pay attention.

We need fear to survive, and it has served us well through the ages. But it can also be one of the biggest obstacles in our lives.

We can go through our whole lives trying to avoid the things we’re afraid of, dramatically altering our experience of life.

In that sense, fear is like a force field keeping us in our comfort zone.

How strong is its hold over us?

What lies beyond our fears?

How do we find out?

 

What Are We Afraid Of?

First, let’s understand what we’re afraid of.

Of course, some people have a phobia (an extreme or irrational fear or aversion of something), such as fear of the dark, heights, flying, spiders, and snakes.

But here, we’re focused on the everyday fears in our lives, work, and social settings that hold us back. It turns out, we have many such fears, including a fear of:

  • abandonment or loneliness
  • change
  • commitment
  • conflict
  • losing control
  • death
  • embarrassment (including fear of looking bad, and of public speaking)
  • failing
  • getting hurt
  • inadequacy, or being judged as not being good enough, or being blamed
  • missing out (FOMO)
  • making mistakes
  • pain
  • regret
  • rejection
  • losing status
  • trusting others (and being taken advantage of)
  • uncertainty and unknowns

Entrepreneur and author Ruth Soukup notes that our fears often come not only with negative traits but also positive ones. For example, if we’re afraid of making mistakes, it can lead to procrastination and perfectionism but also high-quality work that’s well organized and error-free. If we fear being judged, it can lead to people-pleasing and failing to set boundaries but also to being a team player who’s thoughtful and fun to be around.

The story is complex. Fear has a ghastly reputation, but it turns out that it isn’t all bad. Far from it. To accept that key insight, first we need to understand what it is, how it works, and why it exists.

 

Fear Is a Physiological Phenomenon

Fear isn’t something only for cowards. It’s part of being human. Fear is universal. We all experience it.

Fear is hardwired into our neurobiology, starting in the part of our brain called the amygdala. The feeling of fear is a state of high arousal designed to protect us from harm. It’s a survival response that has evolved over the ages.

When we’re afraid, we become hyper-alert. Our nervous system sets a cascading fear response into motion: our breathing accelerates, and our heart rate and blood pressure rise. Also, our body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline—sometimes in a flood. Our pupils dilate. Blood flows into our limbs so that we can respond aggressively to a threat by fighting or fleeing.

With all these physical and chemical reactions, we experience impairment of the cerebral cortex, the part of our brain that handles reasoning, judgment, sensation, perception, memory, creative association, and voluntary physical movement. As a result, we don’t think as clearly, and it’s harder to make good decisions. We become preoccupied with the threat.

If left unchecked, fear can become debilitating. It can prevent us from functioning at our best—or even 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.

 

Reframing Fear

Clearly, it’s important for us to learn how to manage fear to avoid situations where it debilitates us. This leads us to two key insights:

1. Fear is often a paper tiger.

The fear of what may happen is often worse than the reality of what actually happens, or what may. It’s a bit like a movie playing in our head—coming from a man in the projection room at the back of a theater.

A fierce tiger appears on our mental screen. The animal seems powerful, with menacing fangs and a terrible roar. Our skin crawls. The hair on our arms stands up. But the tiger, in most cases, is only a scared cat with its own fears.

We experience a raging physiological thunderstorm of fear as if it’s the truth and based in reality. In fact, it’s only an anticipatory reaction to a perceived threat designed to get us ready for combat or avoidance. In the swirl of the storm, we have a hard time distinguishing between what’s real and what’s only possible. Fear is the step in between.

Often the alarm system is overly vigilant and too quick to escalate the alert levels. It gets carried away. We become accustomed to fleeing at the first alert. The synapses in our brain lay an escape path of backward movement: Retreat. Withdrawal. Over time, this becomes habitual and unconscious. We just do it. We avoid. Or we run. So we never move forward in the areas holding us back.

2. Fear signals an opportunity for breakthroughs when we’re able to see it clearly.

It’s a protective layer serving as a boundary between stasis and transcendence. Most people approach the layer and then turn and run.

But learning how to sit with it is the master maneuver. We must learn to recognize that the tiger is a paper one. Because then we can go forward instead of turning back. And that’s where the good stuff is: the challenge, the learning, the development.

 

Overcoming Fear: How to Manage Our Fears

So how to do this? How to proceed anyway despite this onslaught of biochemical alerts? Here are 12 steps to help you get good at overcoming fear:

  1. Spend time with your fears. Study them. Write about them. Get comfortable with them.
  2. Get gradual exposures to your fears. (That’s what Navy SEALs and NASA astronauts do.)
  3. Prepare for high-pressure events that tend to trigger your fear alert system. By doing so, you will lower the chance of running into problems and feeling out of control. Practice and role-play in challenging situations. Place yourself in settings that challenge you and see how you can survive, learn, and grow. It helps to have a growth mindset.
  4. Visualize success. Paint a mental picture of overcoming obstacles and achieving your objectives.
  5. Gather information to reduce the fear of the unknown. Fear often shrinks or disappears in the face of facts and scrutiny.
  6. Name the fear and analyze it rationally, including whether there’s a deeper fear behind the immediate fear. (For example, a fear of making a mistake in a presentation can be amplified by an underlying fear of being rejected by the group, or not being valued by others.) Understand it. Embrace it. Use it as fuel for determined action.
  7. Recall that the fear is usually much worse than the things we’re actually afraid of. Get in the habit of comparing actual outcomes to the worst-case scenarios your amygdala is freaking out about. Note that your amygdala only comprises about 0.3% of your brain’s volume. Don’t let the 0.3% wag the 99.7%.
  8. Try not to panic. The goal is not to be fearless, as that’s virtually impossible biologically, but rather to learn how to manage your fear and still function effectively. Deep breathing can help calm your mind and body.
  9. Have a deeper why—a purpose worth wrestling your fear for. (For example, you may face a great challenge at work with a project or initiative that will test your self-worth and resilience but you wisely attach it to your role as a provider in your family and how you can be a role model for your children.)
  10. Gain perspective and look at the fear in the larger context. (For example, although it may hurt your pride and sense of social standing if you fail on a project, you know that you’ve built up a lot of credibility over the years through your competence and diligence—and that there will likely be many more opportunities to try again in the future.)
  11. Face the fear and move through it (not away from it). Give yourself experience with confronting and overcoming your fears. This will help build your fear resilience muscles. You’ll start to become a brave person—through your decisions, habits, intellect, and force of will.
  12. Ask for help. You don’t have to do it alone. We all need help sometimes! (By the way, showing vulnerability by asking for help builds connection.)

In the end, recall that fear is part of being human. It has served us well over the ages, but it also holds us back. If we can learn to “punch fear in the face,” as Jon Acuff put it, we can do so much more of what’s important in life. Be bolder. And get good at overcoming your fears. Your future self will thank you for it.

Reflection Questions on Overcoming Fear

  • Which fears are holding you back?
  • How long have they kept you fenced in?
  • What opportunities lie on the other side of those fears?
  • What will you do about it?

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Burnout and the Great Resignation

Burnout has been a big problem for millions of people for a long time now. And it’s getting worse.

Burnout is also affecting more young people. And the pandemic, with all the extra stressors and pressures it’s brought to so many, is aggravating the burnout problem. These are major ingredients of the “great resignation.”

What is burnout? According to the Mayo Clinic, job burnout is “a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

When we’re burned out, we feel run-down and exhausted or empty. It’s related to overwork (when we work beyond our capacity) and workaholism, a state of addiction to work in which we struggle to switch it off.

 

The Covid Context

The pandemic has added fuel to this fire. Here’s some recent data:

  • 52% of survey respondents reported experiencing burnout in 2021, up from 43% in Indeed’s pre-Covid survey, and 67% say burnout has worsened during the pandemic.
  • According to a 2021 Deloitte survey, 77% of respondents say that’ve experienced burnout at their current job, with more than half noting more than one occurrence.
  • 91% say the quality of their work has been negatively impacted by having an unmanageable amount of stress or frustration.
  • 83% say job burnout can negatively affect their personal relationships.
  • Nearly 70% of professionals feel their employers are not doing enough to prevent or alleviate burnout.

Also, the average share of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder, has increased dramatically, from 11% in January-June 2019 (before the pandemic) to 41% in January 2021 (during the pandemic), according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

 

Effects of Burnout

We know that job burnout can have major negative effects on our health and lives, including:

  • Excessive stress
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Weakened immune system

(Source: Mayo Clinic.)

 

Symptoms of Burnout

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are many symptoms of job burnout, including:

  • Becoming critical or cynical at work
  • Feeling low motivation to go to work and start working
  • Becoming impatient or irritable with others
  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Feeling disillusioned about the work
  • Lacking satisfaction from achievements
  • Using food, alcohol, or other substances to self-medicate or tamp down feelings
  • Experiencing health issues, including poor sleep, headaches, stomach problems, and more

 

Causes of Burnout

According to researchers, there are many causes of job burnout, including:

  • A sense of a lack of control, including an inability to influence relevant decisions
  • Unclear or unrealistic job expectations, including job scope creep
  • Dysfunctional work dynamics, such as micromanagers or office bullies
  • Lack of social support, including isolation at work or home
  • Work demands that impede on important family or social commitments outside of work
  • Lack of communication, feedback, and support at work
  • Frequent time pressures, raising stress levels
  • Limited upward mobility
  • The removal of boundaries between work and home

Note that burnout doesn’t come automatically from long hours. Whether it sets in can depend on many factors, including context, personality, mindset, and worker actions.

 

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 Great Resignation

So where does all this leave us, amidst a pandemic with a burnout epidemic? According to a Microsoft survey of more than 30,000 workers around the world, 41% of workers were considering quitting or changing professions this year. In the U.S., more than four million people quit their jobs in April 2021. That’s the biggest increase on record, according to the Department of Labor.

Nearly half of millennials have left a job due to burnout, compared to 42% for all respondents, according to Deloitte.

The reasons for leaving a job are often multifaceted. Common reasons include not only burnout but also:

  • Substandard pay
  • Lack of meaning at work
  • Work that doesn’t fit with, or even violates, our values
  • Lack of dignity or respect at work
  • Feeling like a cog in a large machine
  • Lack of human connection
  • Lack of good management and proper recognition
  • Poor working conditions

The pandemic has caused a shift in priorities in life for many. In some cases, it’s provided motivation to pursue a dream job or more meaningful work. Or it’s stoked resentment about being treated poorly, or not getting adequate support. The “great resignation” is a tectonic shift that should wake us all up to the need to think and act anew about work.

 

What to Do About It

We’re all responsible for our own condition. Including the need to act when a situation is bad or toxic. Though the context is tough for many, there’s still much we can do not only to reduce or eliminate burnout. And to improve our working and living conditions:

  • Boundaries. Set boundaries and get better at saying “no.” If we try to please everybody, we’ll fail miserably. No matter how hard we may try, we can never do things just as others might want or expect.
  • Breaks. Take regular breaks (e.g., Pomodoro technique) to improve your physical and emotional state, gaining a fresh perspective in the process.
  • Exercise. Move your body more to build strength, endurance, and energy. It causes positive reactions in your body that affect your mood, and it helps you sleep well.
  • Gratitude. Be grateful for what you have. That can have powerful effects on your quality of life, including improved wellbeing, life satisfaction, sense of connectedness, and physical health.
  • Healthy Support Systems. Take time and care to develop relationships based on trust, diversity, reciprocity, commitment, openness, and vulnerability. Build healthy support systems that act like roots that ground us in life. (Source: LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives)
  • Hobbies. Find something you enjoy (e.g., gardening, hiking, photography) and build it into your daily or weekly routine.
  • Job Crafting. Craft your work intentionally. Take actions to shape or redesign what you do at work, especially changing your mindset toward your work to make it more satisfying and meaningful, but also changing tasks and relationships when possible.
  • Meditation and Mindfulness. Mindfulness has been defined as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” (Jon Kabat-Zinn). Researchers have found many benefits from mindfulness practices, including improvements in mental and physical health, as well as performance.
  • Nature. Fresh air and sunlight are essential. Given all our screen time, we need to be sure we’re getting outside enough with walks, hikes, runs, bikes, or trips to the park.
  • Nutrition. Our bodies need good fuel if they are to remain resilient and energized.
  • Reframing. Reframe things from setbacks or defeats to challenges or opportunities (for learning and growth).
  • Sanctuary. Find places or practices of peace (e.g., nature, prayer), allowing you to get beyond your ego and connect with something larger than yourself.
  • Savoring. Fully feel and enjoy positive experiences, magnifying and extending them in the process.
  • Self-Reflection. Engage in self-reflection and seek to identify the root causes of your burnout. Look especially for what may drive a sense of resentment (such as work causing too much missed family time during the precious formative years of children).
  • Sleep. Sleep turns out to be one of the most essential practices for physical and mental health. Poor sleep has tremendous deleterious effects on a wide range of factors: addictive behaviors, anxiety, appetite, attention, concentration, creativity, decision-making, depression, ethical behavior, impulsiveness, irritability, memory, motivation, relationships. Don’t forget about naps.
  • Writing / Journaling. Research has shown that writing about stressful experiences can help people create meaning from them. (The same can be true for talking through feelings with others.)
  • Yoga. Yoga can increase flexibility, strengthen muscles, center thoughts, and relax and calm the mind.

In summary, lead yourself and intentionally craft your life and work, taking full responsibility for your life and refusing to adopt a victim mindset.

 

Reflection Questions

  • Are you at risk of burning out?
  • What are the root causes?
  • What will you do about it?
  • Which of the above practices work best for you?

 

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Postscript: Quotations about Burnout and Renewal

  • “The truth is that stress doesn’t come from your boss, your kids, your spouse, traffic jams, health challenges, or other circumstances. It comes from your thoughts about these circumstances.” -Andrew Bernstein
  • Burnout is “civilization’s disease…. It is not only an individual disorder that affects some who are ill-suited to the system, or too committed, or who don’t know how to put limits to their professional lives. It is also a disorder that, like a mirror, reflects some excessive values of our society.” -Pascal Cabot, Belgian philosopher
  • “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” -Bill Clinton
  • “In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.” -John W. Gardner
  • “What do we want more of in life?… It’s not accomplishments. It’s not popularity. It’s moments when we feel like we are enough. More presence. More clarity. More insight. More truth. More stillness.” -Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key
  • “Creating the culture of burnout is opposite to creating a culture of sustainable creativity.” -Arianna Huffington
  • “We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.” -Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
  • “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy.” -Soren Kierkegaard
  • “Burnout sets in when two conditions prevail: Certainties start to characterize the workday, and demands of the job make workers lose a sense of control.” -Ellen Langer
  • “A rested Andrew can do more in four hours than a tired Andrew can do in eight. It’s not only diminishing returns; [not being rested] is like a scorpion’s tail—it can undo things. That’s true of everyone’s productivity and particularly in an intellectual role like that of a CEO. A lot of boards don’t get that. People need to be fresh.” -Andrew Mackenzie, CEO, BHP
  • “Burnout is about resentment. [Preventing it is] about knowing yourself well enough to know what it is you’re giving up that makes you resentful.” -Marissa Mayer, tech executive
  • “Overwork sucks us into a negative spiral, causing our brains to slow down and compromising our emotional intelligence.” -Annie McKee
  • “Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” -Ovid
  • “Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.” -Parker Palmer
  • “No matter how much value we produce today—whether it’s measured in dollars or sales or goods or widgets—it’s never enough. We run faster, stretch out our arms further, and stay at work longer and later. We’re so busy trying to keep up that we stop noticing we’re in a Sisyphean race we can never win.” -Tony Schwartz
  • “It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” -Henry David Thoreau

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Beware the Disease of More

More isn’t always better.

Let that sink in.

More ≠ better.

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

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

But it’s a lie.

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

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

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

We want more.

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

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

 

What’s Really Happening?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Our Consumer Culture

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

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

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

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

 

The Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Related Traps

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

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

 

Take the Traps Test

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

Determinants of Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

 

What to Do

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

Here are several recommended practices based on research and experience:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Accomplishment. Money. Fame. Respect. Piles and piles of them will never make a person feel content.

If you believe there is ever some point where you will feel like you’ve ‘made it,’ when you’ll finally be good, you are in for an unpleasant surprise. Or worse, a sort of Sisyphean torture where just as that feeling appears to be within reach, the goal is moved just a little bit farther up the mountain and out of reach.

You will never feel okay by way of external accomplishments. Enough comes from the inside. It comes from stepping off the train. From seeing what you already have, what you’ve always had.

If a person can do that, they are richer than any billionaire, more powerful than any sovereign.”Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key

 

Reflection Questions

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

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal 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 and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

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