Why We Don’t Need to Try So Hard to Be Better


“To heal a wound, you need to stop touching it.” ~Unknown

I’ve always been an overachiever. In sixth grade, I spent weeks memorizing over five pages of the poem “Horatius at the Bridge” for extra credit, even though I already had an A in the class.

When I started therapy in my mid-twenties to deal with depression and panic attacks, I turned my overachieving tactics to self-improvement. I spent hours journaling, going to meetings, talking to mentors, reading books, and beating myself up when I fell into old habits.

I always worried: Was I doing it right? Was I making enough progress? Would I feel better, find enlightenment, or be a better person in the end?

That’s when I began to notice a pattern that surprised me.

I found that when I first had an insight, discovered a tool, or began a new practice, I got very excited. It worked wonders for me and I could feel a sense of growth and expansion.

I’d begin to try harder to generate more insights and discover more tools. But as I redoubled my efforts and worked harder at healing, I’d begin to feel anxious, self-critical, and depleted. The harder I tried, the less enlightened I felt.

At some point I’d give up. I’d let go of trying to become the next Buddha and accept the fact that I was just going to be neurotic and flawed the rest of my life.

And that’s when the insights and growth would start again. That’s when I would suddenly experience the most healing and notice the biggest changes in my life.

Why was this? I wondered.

And then one day it hit me: When we get injured, our body knows what to do and mends itself automatically—we don’t have to try. We’re designed to self-heal physiologically. It occurred to me then that perhaps we’re designed to self-heal mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as well.

Why We Don’t Need to Try So Hard

Once I recognized our capacity to self-heal, I began to see evidence of it everywhere. Here are three common ways I’ve seen it work:

1. The insight, answers, and wisdom we need are always within us and emerge in their own time.

One of the things I’ve learned through years of struggling with depression is that no matter how miserable, confused, and hopeless I feel, clarity always returns at some point and I know exactly what to do.

For instance, a few months ago I was feeling depressed for a few days and couldn’t for the life of me figure out why.

Then suddenly one night I woke up and it was clear: I was trying to do too much. I was overcommitted. I was doing too much to please other people.

What I really needed was space for rest and relaxation. I cut back on a couple of commitments and took some time to rejuvenate. The depression lifted and things started to go a lot better for me.

I get off-track a lot, but the wisdom is in there, and it always comes out when I allow space for it to emerge.

2. When we miss a lesson, we’ll get new opportunities to learn it until we get it.

Growing up, I struggled with my sister because when we fought, she would judge or blame me. I didn’t know how not to internalize that criticism and feel unworthy because of it.

Then, years later, I fell in love with a man who did the same thing. He helped me realize that when he got angry and blamed me, he was actually feeling vulnerable or hurt himself. I learned how to use his judgment to help me connect to compassion and love—for him and myself—rather than guilt and shame.

I didn’t consciously seek someone out who reminded me of my sister, but something within me drew me toward him, allowing me to work out a new way of dealing with blame.

3. Our pain won’t let us stay off course for long.

I was shocked when I learned that a runny nose and fever are more than mere byproducts of having a cold; they’re actually the body’s way of healing itself by flushing or burning out those mischievous germs.

Similarly, our pain and neuroses are often our spirit’s way of getting our attention and guiding us so we can heal.

Case in point: several years ago I began to have trouble sleeping. Falling asleep became more difficult and before long I was sleeping only three to six hours a night, if at all. I was exhausted, cranky, and miserable much of the time.

It took a long time, but eventually I noticed patterns in what kept me from sleeping. Some nights I would lie in bed wide awake until I finally allowed myself to feel an emotional response (i.e.: fear, anger, disappointment, etc.) that I was pushing away or avoiding. Once I felt the feeling, sleep came quite easily.

Other times I couldn’t sleep because I was being particularly hard on myself that day. I struggle with a very active inner critic and high expectations for myself, and on these nights sleep wouldn’t come until I dropped my critic’s attack and directed some compassion and love towards myself.

I had tried ignoring the problem, powering through, or finding quick fixes, but they didn’t work. The insomnia forced me to address what was at the heart of the issue. Far from being an unlucky curse, the pain of not sleeping actually helped me to take the next step on my path to healing and wholeness.

The Key to Allowing Self-Healing to Happen

The reason so many of us spend so much time in pain and misery (myself included) lies in the difference between our egos and our true selves.

Our true selves—who we are beneath the fears, the defense mechanisms, and the limiting beliefs—are wise, whole, and deeply connected to the larger world.

Our egos, on the other hand, feel separate and alone and rigidly hold onto a particular set of habits and identities in an effort to feel okay in the world. We all have access to both.

When I’m trying to grow and develop, I’m often caught in ego. I want something—peace, enlightenment, the respect of my peers, or an image of myself as an evolved person. I feel like I need to change something about myself in order to be worthy or good enough.

When I’m coming from ego, I obsess. I strive. I effort. I compare myself to others and become convinced that I’m the least enlightened creature on the planet.

All this striving and comparing is the mud that gums up the works of my self-healing process. That’s why it sometimes takes so long to work: I get in the way.

To allow my self-healing process to unfold with its full power, all I need to do is relax.

When I stop trying so hard, I reconnect with my true self. I have access to the fundamental wisdom and strength we all share. When I trust my inner workings to do their thing and simply observe what’s happening without trying to change it, my ego relaxes and healing happens naturally.

To that end, I’ve found a few questions that help me heal and grow with less interference:

Where am I striving with the intention of fixing myself or becoming more perfect? What would I do if I were to fully accept that I’m good enough as I am and that I’m exactly where I should be?

What would nourish and nurture me right now? What would help me relax and feel safe enough to let go of old patterns?

What is my inner wisdom trying to tell me right now? And if I’m not sure, how could I create enough space in my head and my life to hear what it has to say?

We don’t always receive satisfying answers right away. That’s okay—in my experience, if we keep asking the question long enough, eventually we’ll get more clarity. It just may take a little longer than we expected.

The process of relaxing into the process of change isn’t an easy one; knowing that I’m self-healing doesn’t mean my ego never gets stirred up or I don’t fall back into striving and obsessing. In fact, I believe that getting in our own way is an inevitable and enlightening part of the process, and I like to think that my inner wisdom is strong enough that it can handle whatever my inner foolishness throws at it.

At some point I always become aware that I’m efforting again, and that’s when I can chuckle, pat my ego on the head, and remind it that it doesn’t need to try so hard. I can return to the questions, listen for answers, and then pray for the willingness to let go once again.

Relax image via Shutterstock

About Meredith Walters

Meredith Walters loves to help people who are still unsure what they’re meant to do in the world find their calling, forge their own path, and discover the hero within. Click here to get a free guide with 50 practical ideas, resources, and exercises to help you find your calling without losing your mind (or your shirt).

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  • Stephen Fraser

    An excellent overview of the topic of striving and the pressures we often put on ourselves. Years ago, I read a little book by the psychologist Jess Laird called I don’t Know where I’m going but I sure ain’t it he suggested an 11th commandment “you do so know what to do”.. When we recognize and quiet our ego our higher self that is authentic and whole can guide us…but we can only hear its guidance when we are still and our “mud” begins to settle..I’ve realized that I’ve always had intuitive access to this source but I haven’t always been able to hear it and often even when I did, hadn’t always followed it. Knowing this source is always available to us is very empowering on the one hand but it also demonstrates our need to accept ownership for the choices we make and our lives in general.

  • Nikki

    I loved this, thank you! I totally relate to everything you are saying… using our spirituality as yet another thing topic of attack for our internal critic. I had the exact experience recently that you referred to… I couldn’t fall asleep because I was being so hard on myself, had crazy dreams and woke up feeling like I had a hangover of the psychic sense. And I ask myself why I am circling in these loops of joy and despair. You made great points to this question, ones I will certainly contemplate and use as guidance!

  • Thank you, Nikki! Our internal critics are such wily creatures, learning everything we do and using it for their own irksome purposes!

  • Great points, Stephen. One of the biggest lies I tell myself is, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” You bring up a great point that knowing we have access to wisdom is different than hearing it, which is also different from acting on it. It’s not always easy to trust our true selves, so there’s lots of room for compassion in that too: Despite our best intentions, sometimes we just won’t be able to let the mud settle, and that’s just part of being human.

  • Kristen

    Felt like I was reading part of my own story! Such good reminders and practical tips that I will truly cherish. Thank you muchly! From: a former insomniac !

  • Thanks, Kristen!

  • Stephen Fraser

    Agreed….being human will mean that we will not always do this perfectly…it’s important though that this be seen accurately…..that our human frailty become an accepted neutral observation rather than a rationalization for keeping us from moving forward….Anthony de Mello, (Awakening, How to Love) has actually suggested that the most potent thing we can do to facilitate our growth toward awakening is to see ourselves, our stories and our patterns accurately…he goes so far as to suggest that this is the only effort we need to make.

  • Beautiful. Yes. I also believe that if we observe accurately without judging or making up stories about it,we naturally move in the direction of healing and wholeness. Thanks for shining a light on this.

  • Meredith, this was beautifully written and your transparency helped all of us find ourselves in your story. A much needed message. I will be sharing it on my page today. Blessings for the rest of your path. Love, Banu

  • Thanks so much, Banu! Blessings for you as well!

  • Thank you! 🙂

  • Megha M

    Hi Meredith – Thank you for writing this. I relate to it so much. I’ve spent much of my adult life focused on personal growth – working through the impact of my childhood and formative experiences and understanding myself better through years of therapy, constantly learning and trying to deal with things better, be better, be stronger, be wiser. Finding clarity is one of the most rewarding experiences for me. And yet, I too push too hard, expect too much of myself and sometimes even expend too much energy on finding that clarity instead of letting it all be and just allowing that clarity to come to me. I’m beginning to realize that all this hard work and effort is partly driven by my being unable or unwilling to let myself just feel, just be. I’m learning to practice compassion and be in touch with my inner wisdom and my inner compass which doesn’t require me to constantly think and journal and work through things cognitively. It just requires me to be, to not search for answers, to give in to the feeling lost with the faith that I’ll find myself in due time. Reading this post reminded me of this at a time when I’m struggling with heartache and impatient to move past it. Thank you. This website has been a gem of a find as well.

  • CelineBean

    This is one of the most insightful, and helpful, articles I’ve read here. Thank you!

  • Perilous

    Very helpful article but it feels like you stopped writing when you were only half done. Where’s the rest of it?

  • may

    Thank you Meredith! This is so true, yet (or: that’s why) I have to be remembered often. The ego has a tendency to forget, but this is the core of life. The law of abundance. We don’t need to strive, only to reconnect.

  • raychil

    Wow! This article really spoke to me thanks. Especially making me realise our bodies are not only self healing phsiologically but also our mind and spirit too, so there is no need to try and fix yourself but more that you need to get out the way and let it happen naturally. Thanks def made me think 🙂

  • The first point you make about depression – that’s exactly how I got to heal from my last depressive episode a year ago.

    When pushing harder and harder didn’t work, I decided to relax instead. Do what’s comforting and easy, even if that meant not working for a week and just reading a book on my couch. My mind was going crazy and making statements like “You cannot possibly relax and rest right now, there’s so much to do!” and it was a challenge to keep it up. It was such a huge lesson on learning how to trust myself.

  • Amanda Gepner

    Thank you for this post. I was recently writing about something similar and I would love to quote you in my next blog post. I appreciate your insightful mind and there are definitely an array of things here I agree with. Thank you, I especially like the part about letting go

  • Yes! Just yes. I couldn’t have said it any better myself. Thanks for sharing this, Megha.

  • Thanks, Celine!

  • 🙂 It is true I could talk for hours about this. Was there anything in particular you were hoping to hear more about or have addressed?

  • Yes! I love that you used the word “reconnect”. There’s nothing out there to make happen, only a reconnection to what we already have. (And I also have to be reminded often. One of the side effects of being human, I think.)

  • Thanks, Raychil!

  • What a beautiful example of this. I find my life is one discovery after another about the many ways I can (and need to) trust myself.

  • Thanks, Amanda! I’m glad to hear you’re speaking to this topic as well. I’d love to read your pose when it’s ready.

  • Perilous

    It is most kind of you to respond, and so quickly, too, and to so many people!

    It just was sort of jarring, the way the piece ended, right in the middle of a thought, without any conclusion.

    I suppose, thinking about it on a busy Monday morning with my thoughts a little scattered since I’m somewhat under the weather today, I was perhaps looking for that conclusion – the final gathering of thoughts and a sort of “where to go with all of this now that youve got some new ideas to try out.”

    I feel like the piece just sort of left you off in the middle of a road between two bus stops and no idea which direction to head in to get to one’s destination. Does that make any sense? Kind of like reading a map that stops before the border kind of a deal.

    It’s a little bit of a pet peeve for me lately, because I find that a great many articles on all kinds of topics from all kinds of media outlets are doing this kind of thing these days – sort of dropping off in the middle of a thought, as though the writer remembered that they had a kettle boiling on the stove and simply never came back to write the last couple of paragraphs.

    It’s lazy writing, and as a professional writer myself, I abhor the uncomfortable vacuum it leaves for the reader. But I do want to add that while I feel that this piece also left me with a sense of that missing-end vacuum, it was certainly much better written, contained valuable information, and had far less of the typical “jarring / lazy writer” feel that most of them have.

    That’s probably why it was so surprising to me that when I got to the end of it, it seemed that you had gone searching for that boiling kettle too, lol. The whole rest of the article is so good that the “missing” conclusion was a real surprise to me. I had sincerely expected that after the questions to ask oneself at the end, you’d have a paragraph or two of conclusion as to what to do once you’ve asked those questions and started to come up with responses, how to work those into a daily routine, what to do when the answers just dont come, how to allay the terror that arises from needing to find those answers – in other words, now that I’ve got these tools to help me stop being so hard on myself because I’m not so much better, where do I go from here?

    Not by any means looking for miracles or all the answers to everything, signposts and guideposts, but just … a conclusion. Wrapping up all the thoughts and ideas presented in the article into a final package that points the reader toward the next steps once they have begun the journey.

    So again, the piece was quite helpful and I appreciated it very much. Thanks for the response! Good luck to you in your future writing endeavors. You are one of the rare people to whom I can say I actually enjoyed reading what you had to say. 😀

  • Black Bart

    Funny you write this. EVERYTHING good in my life has come to me with no effort. Everytime I exert my ego on the situation, I fail. When I let go and let the universe/God.the Force/whatever control things, I always get AT LEAST what I need and more often MUCH MORE than I could have imagined. It’s happened to me 10 times at least. It’s wild how it works. Surrender is the only path to meeting your destiny.

  • Thanks for the detailed feedback. I’m sorry to leave you hanging, and I appreciate the ideas you flushed out about what would have made the piece more helpful. I’m going to save this to reference for future posts…and perhaps even a follow up piece. I really appreciate your taking the time to share this!

  • It is wild! And, as you point out, funny how what we think to try to force to happen is often much more limited that what we’re actually given. Thanks for bringing this up and sharing your experience with this.

  • Casandra

    This was EXACTLY what I needed to read this morning. I am constantly beating myself up and this was a great reminder that I can seperate myself from ego. Thank you 🙂

  • Abigail Odiet Wojahn

    Thanks Meredith. This is a great read. Makes total sense and I can really relate to this. I appreciate your writing and sharing your insight. Love and Hugs, Abby

  • Angie

    After 18 months of going through some horrible personal things (and these things finally coming to an end thankfully!) I have come through the other side grasping at anything to try and regain some sort of a normal life- but maybe not trying so hard will help me to achieve that sooner…without experiencing so many disappointments along the way!