It’s not a light read, but ”The Evolving Self: Psychology for the Third Millennium” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say it with me: mih-HAY-lee chick-SENT-me-high) has a lot of pretty profound thoughts. This one might seem a little depressing, but bear with me:
A rosy-colored picture of human nature cannot stand up to scrutiny for long. Those who expect priests to be consistently saintly, soldiers brave, mothers always self-sacrificing, and so on, are due for some serious disappointment. To them the entire history of the human race will seem to have been a huge mistake, or as Macbeth said so well, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
While he’s mainly talking about views of others, I see this time and time again in people who take up the challenge of self-work. I’m just no good at this. Why should I bother? The word “fail” creeps up again and again, but in a climactic and ultimate-judgement kind of way instead of simply a part of the process of iteration and progress.
Since it’s notoriously hard to change reality, especially the reality of the selves that we’ve been creating for the last several decades, one of the great tools is to simply change our perception of that reality. I am beautiful. I am perfect! I am successful. But those kinds of affirmation ring hollow pretty quickly, and can even be destructive.
Instead the practice of “reframing” takes a more rational approach. Rather than simply ignoring the negatives it acknowledges them and then includes the positives that may be overlooked. I don’t have a six-pack, but I look great in a suit. I am not a great writer, but I’ve written over 600 articles. I am not wildly successful, but I’ve provided a home and food for myself for almost thirty years. There are even apps for helping this kind of mindset – and if you’re really advanced, change all those “buts” into “and” to really expand your worldview.
Mr. Csikszentmihalyi includes that method as he goes on talking about the view of humanity:
…if one starts from the assumption that humans are basically weak and disoriented creatures thrown by chance into a leading role at the center of the planetary stage, without a script and without rehearsal, then the picture of what we have accomplished is not so bleak. Paraphrasing what the trainer said about his talking dog, the point is not that we sing well, but that we sing at all.
Again, let’s take that from an external view of humanity to the internal view of ourselves. When did you first realize that you wanted to improve something about yourself? How many years had you spent having less-than-optimal habits reinforced by yourself and others, perhaps even people who you entrusted with your development? Teachers. Parents. Society. Culture. I’m not saying they were malicious (though sometimes they are). I’m saying they, also, were “weak and disoriented creatures thrown by chance into a leading role.”
Just like you.
Reaching Beyond the Fence
Basically, before you get hard on yourself for not living up to some arbitrary standard of perfection imposed either by media messages (the ultimate “fake news”) or your own expectations, try remembering that you’re basically a rescue animal, and treat yourself with that measure of compassion. Even when you open the gate of your inner cage, it is hard to trust that there is anything but pain and regret out beyond the fence.
If you’re lucky, you may find someone else to help you do that. A loved one, a friend, a therapist, a coach.
Or maybe you just have to talk to yourself in the mirror, and remind that reflection to “Give me a break, ok? I’m doing the best I can.”Because it’s not going to help if you pile “why don’t you just be better?” on top of everything else. Try a gentle smile, and “I know. I appreciate that.”
That’s not a false affirmation. It’s just gratitude for taking the time to take care of someone who is worth the effort: yourself.