3 Reasons to Stop Trying So Hard to Be Positive and Peaceful

“Freedom is instantaneous the moment we accept things as they are.” ~Karen Maezen Miller

The world is filled with people who work hard at being positive, peaceful, and more spiritual and who then feel bad when they don’t measure up. I know because I used to be one of them. And I still am from time to time.

That was before I realized something:

1 It doesn’t work.

2. Spirituality isn’t something you do; it’s something you are, and you are this right now. Just as beneath the chatter of your mind you are already positive and peaceful too.

3. You are already as spiritual as you’ll ever be.

There, article done: My views on trying to be more spiritual.

Well, okay, there’s more to it than this. Let’s back up—starting with a confession or two.

Confession 1: It’s after midday, I’m still in bed, and all I’ve eaten today is cheese.

(That was more like a warm-up confession; I mean, who doesn’t stay in bed with half a block of cheese from time to time? And in all fairness to myself, it was a small block.)

Confession 2: I try hard, at everything—or at least most things.

(My husband made me add the last bit because he said I don’t always try hard when we play backgammon.)

But seriously, or at least half seriously, if there were a lecture on How to Relax More and Not Try So Hard, I’d be in the front row, my hand in the air, with half a dozen questions. I might even take notes and record the lecture so I could listen at home.

For me, “trying hard” has been a badge.

We believe that if we’re successful, whatever success looks like in our sphere of influence, we’ll he happy and loved.

We’re all ‘’try hards”—we all do it; it’s a universal condition. Your trying will look different to my trying, but it’s all the same. 

You might not be focused on getting good grades or running the best little bookstore in New Zealand, like I once was, but you’re trying hard at something: being the model member of a motorcycle club, a good father, or someone who posts the funniest Facebook posts. You’re trying hard.

Question: My propensity for trying hard annoys the crap out of me at times, but still I do it. Arrghhh, but why?!

Answer: My mind.

I try hard because I have a mind, and this is what all minds do.

Your mind is constantly calculating what you should be doing now so that you’ll feel better in the future. Get a college degree and then you will feel happy, your mind tells you. Do more yoga and then you’ll feel more peaceful, your mind says.

One of the things that can happen on the road to self-awareness is that we begin to understand, intellectually anyway, that inner peace isn’t found in material possessions, and so we divert our attention to trying to be more spiritual.

I know I did. I read books about spirituality. I signed up to newsletters.

My mind started to tell me, inner peace isn’t getting a new car, silly; it’s in being more present, in meditating, being more environmentally friendly—these are the things you should be focusing on!

And it’s true; happiness and contentment are only found in the present, and meditation and mindfulness are great ways to do this. So is actively “doing nothing,” but I digress. My point is this:

You can make spirituality as materialistic a goal as a groovy new yoga mat.

That little voice in your head that used to say you weren’t good enough because of the crappy old car you drove will turn it’s attention to what a failure you are because you catch yourself being judgmental, or because you haven’t meditated today.

“How hard can it be!?” our mind screams at us. “You just read a book about feeling grateful, and here you are two weeks later being ungrateful.”

“When will you ever learn?” your mind says. “Look at how calm Marianne Williamson is, and you’re not even half as calm!”

A few years ago, I spent a year being silent. Every day I turned my attention to “doing nothing”—and by that I mean I removed all distractions, like television, reading, and so on, and just sat. I let my mind wander and noticed it from time to time.

My friend had told me that “in silence and doing nothing the bits of you that needed fixing, fix themselves.”

I wanted to fix my propensity to overwork because it was causing me problems. So there I was, “doing nothing.” And guess what?

I tried so hard at “doing nothing” that I became phobic and more anxious than I’d ever felt before! I was trying hard at not trying hard. When I realized this, I had to laugh.

It wasn’t until a few months later that I realized I was as critical of my attempts at spirituality as I had been in the other areas of my life I was trying to change.

A story I like to tell goes like this:

“You know, don’t you, that you’re a negative person?” a friend said to me one day.

I thought about it for a while, and it occurred to me that he was right—I did expect a bad outcome a fair amount of the time. I didn’t truly believe in myself.

“Oh no, you’re right,” I said, “So what do I do about that?”

“Nothing.“ he said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a negative or a positive person, and you probably won’t always be a negative person; you just are right now.”

“What? You mean I don’t have to try to be more positive??”

Now I was starting to get it. I didn’t have to change who I was; I could just notice and accept how things were. And, as I discovered, this is the quickest way to move on anyway!

Are you making spirituality a materialistic goal? Are you critical of yourself for not being as “spiritual” as you want to be? Or as peaceful? Or as positive? Or as mindful? 

One of the things I took away from my year of silence was an understanding of my mind. The truth is that anytime we think we’re not good enough, this isn’t reality; it’s just our mind talking. You don’t have to believe what your mind tells you.

We are good enough, right now. And this isn’t even a feel good pep talk; it’s the truth. A spiritual truth.

It’s 3pm and I’m still in bed. I still have my sometimes-negative tendencies. I still have a whole host of other habits that books and spiritual teachers tell me I shouldn’t have, and then there’s the situation with all these cheese crumbs.

But now I know—it’s perfect.

(It’s even perfect when I forget how perfect it all is and start judging myself!)

So what does spirituality look like if it’s not getting a new car or mastering the downward facing dog?

It looks like you, right now.

Photo by darren-johnson

About Lisa Esile

Lisa grew up in New Zealand and now lives in Los Angeles. Lisa and her husband Franco are the authors of WHOSE MIND IS IT ANYWAY: GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD AND INTO YOUR LIFE (Penguin Random House, 2016). You can grab a FREE copy of her book, "The Lazy Person's Guide to Feeling Awesome and Ultimate ALL the time," here!

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  • Kathy

    Lisa – I definately get it! We make spirituality a quest or an achievement. Even when I get that judgement isn’t any good, I judge myself as being bad when I find myself being judgemental (usually of myself). What a vicious circle! I think you a right – we are being ‘perfectly’ spiritual just being ourselves, and being aware of who we are – no judgement, no pass or fail, just awareness – pure and simple.

  • Avi

    All I can say after reading your article is – This is Me!! I over-work myself trying to be positive and calm, and then after all that – I’m hyper and mad at myself! Lisa, thanks a lot for bringing positivity to perspective.

  • Zen Buddhism tells us not to judge, but only observe. That’s certainly a more gentle way of dealing with ourselves and with what we consider our imperfections than trying to force ourselves to change, to become someone else than we are. I like your approach.

  • Stephanie Black

    You know we all waste so much energy mentally beating ourselves up. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • friend forever


    I am halfway through reading your book and OMG! it’s amazing! I LOVE IT. You know what I was thinking- or rather my mind was- of this SAME issue today. I was thinking today (would it be okay if I say my mind????) that because I haven’t been very respectful towards it, I haven’t valued it very much and not acknowledged it much in the past few days, I have all the problems I do. I mean, more like the questions that I am thinking of.

    But, Lisa, is it really beneficial to not believe everything your mind says? Isn’t the mind right sometimes? I am asking these just out of curiosity, not that I don’t believe in what you wrote.

    Love and wishes
    P.S. Humor and wisdom mixed in the article and the book 🙂 <3

  • So comforting, simply enriching and also very fun to read! This coming from a pseudo-negative person who “tries” to be more positive (and I really do try…) Thank you for sharing your kind words, Lisa, I hope to read more from you soon (:

  • Thank you, I really needed this, today of all days 🙂

  • Scott Kinsey

    I really enjoy reading Tina Buddha. I wish there was a way to view the whole message on Yahoo and not have the right side of every message left off. I kind of just put words in place where I think they would go and guess what is said. Someone asked me today if I had ever made a comment about Yahoo not showing the right side of the screen, I said no, but I would. Now I have. Smiles.

  • Just A. Guy

    “You can make spirituality as materialistic a goal as a groovy new yoga mat.”
    Great line- I’ll be quoting this as it’s a phenomenon I see quite frequently.

  • I’m 53 and have been trying to be spiritual all my life. Nothing happened when I tried to force change. It all happened at once when I let it happen and accepted life- and my self as it is. Imperfect, messy, confused.. and that is life itself. From there everything improved and NOW it’s easy to force change to happen- I even have to remember to be gentler with it all the time because it’s so easy.
    And I LIKE Tiny Budda’s posts, keep ’em coming.

  • Susan

    Great post! Words I needed to hear.

  • Lisa Esile

    Thanks FF!

    When it comes to whether to believe your mind, if what your mind is telling you is making you feel bad, for example, guilty, angry, frustrated, worried, fearful etc -then it is helpful not to believe it because it’s really not true!

    An article I wrote last year explains this a bit more, ‘How to Maintain a Healthy Relationship When You’re Depressed’

    Thanks again for your comments – much appreciated! And best wishes to you. X Lisa

  • Lisaesile

    It’s a pleasure! I’m so glad it resonated – thanks so much for your comment:) Lisa

  • Lisaesile

    You’re so welcome. Thank you for saying. Warm wishes to you:)

  • Lisaesile

    Thanks Susan!

  • Staci


  • Lisaesile

    I know, don’t we! Thanks for your comment!

  • Lisaesile

    Hi Kathy, thanks for your comment – and i agree, it can be a vicious circle alright! That’s why I so enjoy the idea of not being judgmental of our judgmental thoughts! It breaks the cycle. 🙂

  • Lisaesile

    Thanks for saying!

  • Lisaesile

    It’s a pleasure – and thanks so much for your generous words:)

  • Renee

    I love it! I’ve been on such a personal growth path (writing, talking, connecting about it) that its become a sort of obsession! Like, there has to be some indicators of Positive change. And I forget that straight up acceptance is what it is actually about.

    Yes to more days in bed with blocks of cheese! 🙂

  • Jason

    You know what’s so funny and ironic about me reading this blog today? Yesterday, I wrote a journal entry about how I’m going to stop trying to be so spiritual. I’m naturally a positive and upbeat person, but it seems that every time I focus too much on being spiritual, I start judging myself and expecting too much from me. It turns me negative when that isn’t even my normal state. Thanks for writing this so I could find it today. 🙂 If nothing else, it speaks to our inherent spiritual and connected nature even when we’re not focusing so hard on being spiritual.

  • Rose

    Enjoyed this! Honest, transparent, refreshing. The Divine loves us just as we are, unconditionally. Not “I’ll love you if …” or “I’ll love you when …” Just “I love you.” Can we do any less about loving ourselves? We’ll be loved as we are now … and as we are as we learn and grow … and as we are when we perceive we’ve made a mistake. How delightful to know we are loved by the Divine and by our selves!

  • Nikk Harmony

    I love the way you write. I love your sense of humor! Thank you!

  • Rose

    To add: this is one of those things that we can learn from young children, too. They don’t beat themselves up over things; they accept that bubbles pop and then they just blow another. If they break something, they just see a broken thing. (Unless they’ve already been conditioned that it’s wrong and have learned “Uh oh …”)

  • Mala

    Lisa I loved this post – it’s so true and so easy to become a victim of our own mind chatter – ps I live in ‘ little ol’ NZ where we seem to spend a lot of time grumbling and forget to look around at what we do have!( there I go judging again) Take care, yay for cheese in bed 🙂

  • I sorely needed this! I’m just like you in this way. Thanks so much for writing this!

  • There was a moment reading this when I thought about a quote on my calendar that goes “whether you think you can or you can’t, you are right”….it can sorta apply to the whole concept of trying and not trying to be positive, peaceful, etc.

  • This article made me feel better. I have been making conscious efforts to change my thinking for a number of months and get very discouraged when I have ‘bad’ days where I am negative, sad or not feeling very spiritual. I guess it’s just part of a process rather than a signal that I’ve ‘fallen off the wagon’ – so to speak. I also feel better by confession #1 – cause I ate a container of Haagen-Dazs and was feeling very guilty;-)

  • Wendy

    Can so relate to this and had to laugh out loud! Thanks for the reminder that I don’t have to judge myself too harshly for being up at 1am eating nutella when I should have eaten lettuce and gone to bed at sundown.

  • lv2terp

    This is a really great post! I love your writing style with the added humor! 🙂 The conversation you had with your friend is a great point, Thank you for sharing your wisdom! 🙂

  • Lisaesile

    Ha ha – exactly! I love that. Beautifully put!!

  • Lisaesile

    You’re so welcome. I love that conversation too – was life changing for me! Thanks for your kind words:) L

  • Johanna_Galt

    Normally I would “try hard” to leave the wittiest, most insightful comment, but instead I’ll just say ‘thank you.’ This really spoke to me today and was just what I needed. Bookmarked for future reference 🙂

  • Lisaesile

    Oh yum – that is delicious ice-cream! And I love how it only has about three ingredients and they’re all ‘food’ – as compared with chemicals. Could have been way worse!

    Really pleased to hear the article resonated with you. As for ‘falling off the wagon’- definitely part of the process in my opinion. It’s all good!

  • Lisaesile

    My pleasure! Thanks for saying:)

  • Lisaesile

    Hi Mala from New Zealand! Cool. I think you might be right about the grumbling – I saw a video the other day that had us sighing all the time! Thanks for your comment and happy NZ summer to you:)

  • Lisaesile

    My pleasure! And thank you!

  • Lisaesile

    Hi Renee – that’s so well put! Love that. ‘Straight up acceptance.’ Thank you!

  • Lisaesile

    Thank you:)

  • Lisaesile

    My pleasure! Pleased to hear it landed at such an appropriate time. I love how that happens:)

  • Lisaesile

    Thank you too:)

  • Lisaesile

    Hi Dave, thanks so much for your comment. Have you thought of submitting an article?? Would love to hear more.

  • Lisaesile

    Thank you:)

  • you’re funny:)

    learning to give myself and those closest to me permission to be in whatever state they’re in has been a blessing. so often when i’m down someone near me say’s “you shouldn’t think/feel that way.” i say “fighting it just gives it power… better to let it be till it passes and it will.”

    Tolle opened my eyes to that truth. i sometimes forget it tho.

  • Shari

    It is so true how we beat ourselves up whenever we feel we are not doing what we think we “should” be doing. I’m trying to get myself out of that habit now. Of course, then I beat myself up for beating myself up! My daughter, who just turned 13, seems to be starting to do this already. We’re working together on being happy in the moment and not feeling guilty for everything.

  • Pooja Bhatt

    I just constantly strive to hit the right cord: that should I do so that I can be happy; what should I do so that everyone is happy. I am glad u answered all the if’s and but’s which are the greatest enemies of our lives. Thanks a ton!

  • Roger

    Thanks for this! It describes me well, which is why it’s so helpful! 😉

  • Loved this and needed it. Sounds like I could have written it myself – except the part about backgammon. I really do try at that!

  • Faisal Rajan

    I have to got to say this is one of the funniest posts I’ve read on this website. On a serious note, this is a hard one to internalize. I tend to be the one to want to accept how things are, but at the same time, even that can turn into an obsession. That’s when I feel like its better to just keep searching for something that works. As long as you have the intention to want to be at peace and be happy, you will find something. (Even if that something is the search itself – yes your style of talking is contagious). Really well written piece non-the-less, Cheers 🙂

  • Toria

    Just what I needed to is just exhausting and I just want to exhale,breathe and get on with it.Perfect is outrageously boring.I just want to be.

  • Anurag S

    Really that is so true. I overwork in trying to be positive towards life.Meanwhile all I do is exacerbate the problems in the background. I have some problem with my looks.Even though it wasn’t the case a year back I am suddenly conscious of my looks and have lost confidence about that.But I try so hard not to remain like that and motivate myself with Quotes and inspiration that whatever I do to change myself(or the situation), I start expecting a drastic and Immediate effect in changing myself.

    I very well understand this fact that whatever methods I am employing at changing myself aren’t the quick fixes but they do take time and still won’t produce the effect that I have perceived in my mind but yet when I see the outcome I left sapped of energy and down feeling low. I really want to be cool about it but I ain’t been able to…

  • Debby

    Now if only my chef would get this too. I find it difficult to accept who or how I am at the workfloor. At home I can laugh and brush things of with “oh look I’m doing it again” and “no worries it’ll be different tomorrow” . But at work they kinda want you to be like them and at their standards. I had my chef say that I am always so negative and I needed to change that because it influenced the team. I spoke to the team they didn’t seem to mind and they also saw me cheerfully. But it is still a point of progress in my file. I realise its my chefs issue not mine. I have accepted myself and know my little flakes will pass or not. But its hard when you are judged and the outcome is linked to so much you depend on. And then my mind says “told you so, now listen to me”…

  • Munyaradzi Mubwandarikwa

    this leaves me with another conundrum, am i trying too hard to not try too hard about not trying too hard. INCEPTION

  • Lakeview

    Find time each day to think and contemplate. Make it a permanent part of your schedule. On a drive to or from work take a back road, go the long way,
    put on some instrumental music and enjoy the drive. Find a place at home where you can quietly sit and think without disturbance or interruption. Relive the day in your mind, evaluate positive and negatives, realize mistakes and correct them, remove the garbage from your mind that you accumulated during the day and refresh and reset your mind. You can do it while jogging, walking, cycling or working out on a treadmill or stair climber at your local gym. I like to top it off with sitting out on my dock enjoying the day’s sunset…each one unique and different then the last,

  • dhaynes0412

    I try too hard at relationships and set myself up for failure. If setting myself up to fail at relationships is successful..well, I am the most successful person and the most perfect person I know. I have a perfect record!

  • dhaynes0412

    It is so strange how lessons come up and the timing of them, like this article. yesterday on my long drive home from my parents, I decided I was done trying to “fix” myself. I try so hard and push myself and try to be everything to everyone…no wonder I have struggled with fatigue most of my life. There are behaviors that I need to change that are destructive to me, relationships and those close to me and these I can be more aware of, but already I have made great strides in these areas. I can be aware of how stressful relationships effect me and so on..but there are all of these labels out there…codependency and what not. Even just being aware of these behaviors relieve much of the problem. I have been obsessed with “fixing” myself for years both mentally and physically and honestly, am still repeating the same old lessons and it is frustrating as hell! So, I am going to simply continue to meditate. I learned Transcendental Meditation a few weeks back and I find this cuts through the junk quicker than any therapy or processing I’ve done over the last 13 years. I feel I could process myself for the next 13 and never get to the bottom or the root like TM does. A simple technique where “trying” is a no-no! I love not trying at this. It’s really the only thing I can think of in the moment that I have given myself true permission not to try or to resist anything..not thoughts or movement …just sit and follow my mantra and even that I don’t have to be perfect at. It’s good.

  • John

    Thank you for the truth that lies beneath the surface. My mind has days when the off switch just will not work and I see fault in the inability at turning off and shutting the door on the committee in my head.

  • Tim

    By asking Jesus Christ into your life and accepting him as your Lord and Saviour you can experience all the peace you need. Please pray “Dear Jesus, if you are real, please reveal yourself to me”. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and understanding, and the peace of God will transform your life in Christ Jesus!!

  • Audrey

    I just learned this lesson yesterday! So nice to see it reinforced here. It’s a constant battle to stop trying so hard at everything. But awareness is the key! Thanks for sharing this!

  • Jun

    Googled ‘trying too hard’ and I got here. This article is old but it helped me a lot (by justifying my lying in bed till 2pm on weekends) Thanks!

  • Carolyn

    Great read! You have really nailed it. Thanks so much for putting this out there in a way that is so relatable (for me anyway)! <3

  • armour

    you’re the best Lisa. So very grateful Google search led me to you.

  • Lowie

    We spend sooo much time thinking, we’re not gud enough. Ur rite Lisa. We’re on the rite path, NOW, whether it’s in bed at 3, or beating myself up for being fat yet again…..we’re all doing the best we can n we need to recognise tis!!!!

  • Thankyou

    You are some sort of genius you are. This is exactly what I’ve realized in my own journey but you’ve crystallized beautifully. I have never ever heard this taught or said by anyone on my long, long spiritual journey, but I know it to be true in my heart. Thanks so much for putting this out there. I finally feel like I’m not alone!!! Keep doing what you do!!!!!

  • Clare Bredell

    You are a lovely new discovery for me. You are fresh, to the point, funny,and absolutely right on. New Zealand is the most beautiful country on many levels I have ever visited and the only place I’ve felt spiritual automatically just being. Thank you.

  • Peanut

    Wow, never have I read a post that encapsulates so perfectly how I have been feeling and thinking.

    Over a year and a half ago I started mindfulness to try and get rid of all the bad feelings and thoughts I had. I wanted to be happy and okay all the time. Like you I am someone that always tries hard at everything, this has worked out for me in a lot of areas but tends to flow into controlling territory when it comes to my mind. Once I discovered mindfulness I was trying and what felt like failing to ‘get it.’ Everyone raved about the benefits and their progress and I remained unable to focus on my breath for more than a second, bereft of peace, and overwhelmed by this deep sense that I was doing it all wrong. That I was all wrong.

    I know that those are just thoughts but man do they convince you otherwise. I spent hours arguing with them, trying to convince them, that they were wrong, but of course, what you resist persists and they just came back stronger, more biting, and with the scariest tag line of all – “this is permanent.” I knew that there wasn’t a way to do mindfulness right but I couldn’t shake the feelings of failure, self-doubt and shame.

    It took me a while to discover self-compassion and it is still such a work in progress. After finding a therapist I have been attempting to practice self-compassion the past few weeks but so often I fall back into judgment. Just yesterday I was walking to work, listening to a podcast, when I thought “You are not walking in the present, you are not taking in all the details of the passing world, of the beautiful skyline, you always just walk to work and worry, you did this last time, why can’t you just appreciate the moment!?” I hadn’t had those thoughts in a few days so when they happened, I felt my body respond in panic. Not again, I thought I had got rid of you.

    In those moments, a deep part of me knows that it is not me, but just thoughts, as true as the thought that “the sun is blue”, and yet that same part of me hasn’t yet learned to allow them. So the judgement is doubled, i.e. you can’t appreciate the moment, and now you can’t accept your judgments. Gosh I exhaust myself. Haha.

    I was just wanting to leave a comment of appreciation but I appear to have left an essay instead. I really, really, REALLY appreciate this post, like all of your posts, when I read them I feel like I am not alone in my neurosis, that maybe my ‘wrongness’ is just ‘humanness,’and that peace is available, not when I am ‘fixed,’ but right now, amid all the scrambled negative ramblings of my mind, so thank you SO much for that.

  • JC Williams

    I’m 53 as well and can relate – geez, why did it take so long to figure this stuff out LOL!

  • JC Williams

    Your last line is priceless and precious: “It looks like you, right now.” <3 <3 <3