Chapter 42: Why we’re unhappy with ourselves

After I quit my job and decided to be a freelance writer in 2005, I would wake up, say goodbye as Eva and the kids headed off to work and school, and tell myself I was definitely going to hustle and do my work today.

That optimism would last for a good 20 minutes … before I would flop down on the couch and watch some TV. “I’ll do my work in a minute,” I’d say, though I don’t think I ever really believed it.

Over and over, I would break promises to myself. I doubted myself, felt horrible about myself, didn’t think I had any self-discipline, felt like a slob. I was overweight, flooded in debt, and I couldn’t make myself do anything I knew I should do.

What was going on?

I was unhappy with myself. This unhappiness — another form of that low-grade suffering we’ve discussed — caused me to not take action, because I didn’t really believe I could do it. I procrastinated, didn’t stick to habit changes, didn’t take care of myself. This only made me feel worse about myself.

More common than we realize

I’ve found this is the hidden obstacle that so many people face. I’ve coached thousands of people in my habit program, and even if I give them a perfectly workable Habit Plan, many people don’t do it. Why not? I couldn’t figure it out for a couple years, until I started to dig deeper. The problem wasn’t that my plan was bad — it was that they didn’t really trust that they were going to do it. Just like I didn’t when I was unhappy with myself.

This unhappiness causes us not only to doubt ourselves, but to seek comfort from our bad feelings in unhealthy ways: junk food, TV and video games and the distractions of the Internet, shopping, smoking, alcohol, drugs, emotional dependency.

Here’s part of an email from a reader, Helena, who describes where she was in life not too long ago:

“I was stuck in my emotions, always feeling bad for myself, always feeling wrong and unhappy. I was unable to realize all the things I have and be grateful for them. I only think about how I am a little overweight. I felt bad in my body, ugly and unloved.”

Helen decided to make small changes, one at a time, and formed healthy habits and began a journey of self-knowledge that has changed her life in so many ways. I’m inspired by her story, because it shows that unhappiness with yourself can be overcome.

Many of us don’t trust ourselves to stick to a new habit change. We have messed up many times in the past and fully expect ourselves to mess up again and again, even if we don’t admit it to ourselves. We don’t trust ourselves. We don’t think we’re disciplined enough or good enough.

This turns out to be more common than I’d realized. In fact, almost everyone seems to have some level of unhappiness with themselves — definitely including me. I spent many years not admitting this problem, but instead blaming it on outside factors, like a job that kept me too busy, or social situations that led to me eating junk food or smoking, or being in debt because I had to pay for the great expense of having kids.

The truth is, none of those things was the problem. The problem was that I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t feel worthy.

We all are down on ourselves from time to time, and sometimes much of the time. This isn’t a judgment. There’s nothing wrong with feeling bad about yourself. It’s not a comment on us as good or bad people, having this unhappiness with ourselves. It’s part of the human condition.

Unhappiness with ourselves

I was coaching a woman, Lizel, who was overweight and couldn’t control her eating habits and couldn’t stick to an exercise regimen. Her case is extremely common, because the underlying problem turns out to be extremely common. As I worked with her, I began to understand that she wasn’t happy with herself.

Think about it for a second: the solution to her weight and health problems are pretty simple. She just needed to start eating healthy food and stop eating junk food, and start a program of walking every day. Maybe eventually add in some bodyweight strength exercises. A few simple steps that she could take and eventually the problems would be solved.

Why couldn’t she take these simple actions? Because she kept sabotaging herself, with negative chatter in her head: “You’re not good enough. You can’t do this. You should just give up.” Or, “This is too hard. You shouldn’t make yourself suffer. You deserve a treat.” She didn’t believe in herself, because she didn’t think she was good enough. She didn’t like who she was, nor did she trust herself.

The solution has to start with learning to be happy with ourselves, learning to trust ourselves.

Why are we unhappy with ourselves, at some level? Because we don’t meet our own ideals for who we should be. The reality of who we are doesn’t match up with our Mind Movie about who we should be.

We all have these ideals playing in our heads, that we should meet some standard of perfection. What kind of perfection? Some of the things we want to be include being productive, mindful, happy and content, disciplined, fit and attractive, generous and charitable, creative, successful in some way. We have lots of ideals for ourselves, actually.

So we have these ideals, but inevitably, we fail to meet them, in lots of ways, all the time. We constantly fail ourselves, constantly fall short of what we hope we’ll be, what we think we should be.

Think about that for a second: we live in constant disappointment with ourselves. We don’t think of it that way, of course, because we want to think of ourselves as good people, as happy and amazing, but if we’re being totally honest, each and every one of us fails to meet some of our ideals, every day, and probably many times during the day.

So, at some level, we’re always unhappy with ourselves. This affects everything we do.

We’re afraid we’re going to fail at things, because we’re afraid we’re not good enough, and so we procrastinate from fear of failure. We’re afraid we’re not disciplined enough or strong enough to make it through discomfort and difficult tasks. We’re sometimes afraid we’re not good enough for other people, and so we are insecure in relationships, sometimes jealous or afraid of being abandoned.

There are many other ways this unhappiness with ourselves causes us problems, but they are all variations on these instances.

So this unhappiness causes us harm, and it stems from ideals. It’s nothing to feel bad about, and in fact becoming aware of this unhappiness is the key to unlocking our freedom.

Being OK in this moment

So what’s the answer, for Lizel, for other people I’ve coached, for all of us? How do we address these ideals we have for ourselves that are causing unhappiness and difficulty in making changes? How do we deal with the Mind Movie that’s causing us to see the reality of ourselves as unworthy and disappointing?

We learn to really see ourselves, without the filter of the Mind Movie, loosening our hold on that ideal. In some ways, all of our fears boil down to the root fear that we are not good enough, that we will not be OK. We fear failure because we don’t think we’re good enough, we fear missing out because we don’t think we’re OK right where we are, we fear losing something because we don’t think we’ll be OK without it.

In truth, we are OK, right now. We can learn to trust this moment, and ourselves, by sitting still and just seeing this OK-ness. In this very moment, you have all you need to be happy, there are miracles all around you, and life is OK. Not ideal, not filled with fantasy wonderland, but good enough.

With practice, you can learn that you are good enough. Perhaps not good enough to achieve some fantasy success, but good enough for yourself, in this moment. Sit for awhile without going to check on anything, without doing anything useful, just sit and notice everything around you. Sit and notice yourself. See that you’re sufficient, right now.

Once you learn this basic truth, a lot of the fears can start to loosen their grip on you, and start to float away. The fears might come back, as they always arise unbidden, but they can float away if you acknowledge them and don’t engage them too much. You don’t fear failure so much because you’re already good enough right now. You don’t worry about uncertainty because you’re already OK, right now. You don’t fear discomfort because you know you’ll be fine.

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