“Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value.” ~Albert Einstein
I am pathetic. I am a walking, talking cliché (well, maybe not walking—I use an electric wheelchair).
I am one of those people who is so desperate to overcome their own sense of lack that they create some giant obstacle to overcome, or some massive achievement to attain, in order to feel that they might just be worth something.
I am an over-compensator; so desperate to feel okay about the fact that I am, in some ways, not as capable as other people that I seek to achieve the impossible—purely to show the whole world, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I am enough.
The great irony, of course, when you do this is that the only one you’re really trying to please is yourself. You’re just afraid that you aren’t worthy, so you seek to prove that you are, through your achievements. It doesn’t work. Everybody can see what you’re trying to do.
Your desire to achieve is fine, but it’s silly and fruitless to pin your self-worth on it.
You might wonder why I’m being so down on myself. And the truth is, I’m just being honest. This is how I operated until recently. It’s part of personal growth, something we have to go through before we begin to realize the deeper truths about life.
No grand achievement will fill any emotional hole in me. It just won’t. The more I hope it will, the less likely I am to achieve it. It makes a man (or woman) weak and pathetic to be reliant on achievement for his sense of self because ultimately, he’s giving over his power to things he can’t control.
Rather than move me toward my goals, all the hoping, struggling, wishing, and trying to improve myself only seemed to make the hamster wheel spin faster.
In actuality, it was just teaching me how to have control over myself. I learned that in order to try and get the things I was so desperate to have, I had to do things that were against my nature and control my emotional state.
I had to fight to turn lethargy into energy, anger into desire, or boredom into enthusiasm instead of embracing my feelings and allowing myself space to explore them. It works, but it’s exhausting. Not quite as exhausting, however, as actually trying to do things.
Forcing yourself to get up for the alarm, to work toward the goal that you desperately ‘need’ to feel worthy or complete, and yet makes you incredibly anxious and miserable, is one of the hardest and most trialling things you’ll ever do. And I’ve experienced a lot of trials. The better you get at it, the more stupid it seems, because you just get more miserable.
You become a slave to your goals and desires. A robot. A cog in a machine of your own making. At least if I was just going to work for somebody else I’d be paid to work in a machine I wasn’t responsible for. Being a slave to the machine of your own dreams and ambitions is like being the owner, repairman, operator, and cog all in one. It’s impossible.
Eventually you start to wonder: “Hang on, I thought this was supposed to make me free. And happy. Not a slave.” You’re right. That’s what it was meant to do. But it never could. You’re asking for the impossible.
Dreams and ambitions are wonderful. They bring fire to your belly, light to the distant future, and meaning to your miserable failings. That’s all it does, though. It doesn’t change your present moment. It doesn’t change the reality. Right. Now.
On my journey in life so far, I’ve experienced three distinct phases, each of which has taught me an important lesson.
The Leaf in the Wind Phase
I am just one little leaf being blown around in the giant storm of life, and my only real power is to observe and absorb the world around me. I have to accept the good with the bad as well as my place in the world. However, this left me feeling like a passive observer.
I discovered the power of self-direction, that I could change my beliefs, habits, and desires through effort. I could teach myself things, and direct my life toward that which caught my eye.
I gained an incredible, if misguided, sense of control over my future and started to believe I could literally control my destiny. Even when this lead to success, I became more and more like an automaton—a slave to the habits and beliefs necessary to achieve the goals that I believed would make me worthy.
I realized using my self-improvement as a measure of my self-worth was a bit obnoxious, not to mention futile. Even if I got what I wanted, there would always be something bigger and better to measure myself by; I'd never be enough.
Waking up involves discovering that you don’t need to change who you are; you are enough, just as you are. That doesn’t mean you can’t pursue change. You just do the things you have to do, step by step, without any attachment to a particular outcome. That's it. You simply act.
You start to like yourself, primarily because you get to know yourself. And you find that actually, you were pretty cool all along.
The irony is, the outcomes we become attached to prevent us from ever getting what we really seek. Nobody wants to be rich or famous; they want to be significant and connected to other people. Those things come as a result of your process, the actions you take every day, not the outcomes we tie our self-worth to.
The biggest part of ‘waking up’ for me was realizing that my obsession with audacious goals was my way of avoiding the real changes I needed to make, which were broadly around learning to like myself.
Now that I've made some of those changes, my goals are less important to me and simultaneously more likely to come to fruition. All because I want to achieve my goals, I don't need them to feel worthy or complete.
I no longer feel that I have to change who I am to get what I want, which means I no longer repress my feelings. If I’m feeling moody, sad, or lazy, I embrace that and give myself a break instead of telling myself I’m wrong to feel how I feel.
I’ve learned that we don’t need to control everything around us. We couldn’t, even if we wanted to. There is only now. This very second is all we have, and will ever have.
You can have goals, that’s fine, you can work toward them, that’s also fine, but to tie yourself up in a tight knot of stress and mental chatter is just a recipe for misery.
Waking up begins when you realize that you don’t need to achieve anything specific to be worthy, happy, or at peace.
Woman looking up to the sky image via Shutterstock