Don't Go to War with Yourself
A different story about ourselves and the softer side of hard work.
Hey everyone, I hope you’re all well. This week has been a very fun set of ideas for me to explore. In some ways, we could call it an alternate view of ourselves. I am always eager for your feedback and but this week I want to especially invite your thoughts. Let me know what you think of this lens of self-development. Is it helpful? Does it apply to you? Have I missed the mark and simply created a feel-good story? Looking forward to hearing from you! Let’s get into it.
FROM THE AGES
“If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“True discipline is really just self-remembering; no forcing or fighting is necessary.”
― Charles Eisenstein
We all want to improve. But we can approach our personal development with very different strategies. Often our efforts need to be forceful. We identify an aspect of ourselves that we would like to change and then create a structure or plan to enact that change. We need to impose this discipline on ourselves until the new behavior becomes a habit—that is until we can feel the long-term rewards and instinctually come to prefer them over the short-term comfort of our old ways. After years of practice, I actually come to crave the energetic focus that follows a cold shower. The momentary discomfort is inconsequential.
While this interpretation of behavior change obviously works, it has the potential to create a destructive view of ourselves. Once we have felt the power that we have to alter our behavior, it becomes easy to fall into judgment for not doing more and not being even better. With great power comes great responsibility...or something like that.
Many people need hard truths and a healthy dose of discipline to become who they want to be. But those of us who understand and apply the principles of habit formation and positive behavior change can take things too far. I have found this in myself at times. Many of our members have shared a similar finding in a recent group discussion. And I imagine that you, dear reader, my fellow self-development nerd, might have a similar tendency as well.
Underneath our motivation and self-development goals, we can hold a subconscious narrative of conquest. We feel, whether we have consciously named it or not, that there is some part of ourselves that doesn’t have our best interest at heart and we must defeat it to be our best. Fitness mantras like “conquer your inner weakness” come to mind, but the same mindset permeates every other area of self-development as well. Even when beginning something as soft and nurturing as a gratitude practice, we tend to apply the strategy of imposing a practice on ourselves until we have molded ourselves into a more grateful person. This strategy is often effective and it might be necessary to see our more extreme negative qualities as enemies to be conquered—trends like angry outbursts or acts of violence against your loved ones. But positive self-development, and perhaps even a few of those more extreme “battles,” are best approached from a different perspective.
The tactic of imposed structure or of rooting out and conquering a negative quality creates an internal conflict. Author Charles Eisenstein calls this “war-thinking.” Whether to build a new habit or enact some large-scale political change, the idea that one thing must be defeated in favor of another, presumably better thing, is the story of war. As with all stories of conflict, there must always be a loser. On a societal level, war-thinking pits different political or cultural factions against one another, but lasting social change and a harmonious republic will never come from the defeated group following the dictates of the victors. We need to work together. When applied internally, war-thinking can be a toxic story to hold about ourselves. We cast aspects of our current state as bad, harmful, or weak and feel that we must find them and fix them to become our best. By this view, the path to individual growth looks more like a conquesting army rolling from enemy to enemy rather than a cohesive system working to improve the whole.
It is far more productive and accurate to see the states that we are trying to achieve—calm, focus, gratitude, strength, and connection—not as goals but as our default modes of being. This is more than a mental trick for positive thinking. It is true from either a spiritual or evolutionary perspective. In most religious traditions, humans are tasked with and presumed capable of returning to a divine state. By evolutionary understanding, we are simply animals. For most of history, humans lived in perfect harmony with their environment as all animals do. This was not a perfect life or an easy one, but an existence where our instinctual and learned behaviors were perfectly suited to serve both our survival and our fulfillment. Our modern environment no longer sets a positive default mode but I believe that a deep part of our biology still remembers how to live in connection, gratitude, and strength. We can tap back into these places without bursting through the gates by force.
This is not a justification to skip hard work. Nor is it some flaccid assertion that you are perfect just the way you are—just love yourself and all will be great. We all want to be better and we know that we can be. We all want to do great work and make a positive impact on the world. Growth requires deliberate action and intentional discomfort. Great works require that we try to make things happen. But how to see that work. We can learn to see ourselves as divine beings that already possess everything that we need while maintaining our hard-driving, almost ruthless pursuit of better.
I could choose any self-development practice to examine this shift in perspective, but perhaps the best example is gratitude. Gratitude is good, no argument there. But why do we adopt a gratitude practice? Because it will make us a better person? Do we want it because other people seem to think it’s good? Do we want to brag about all of our self-development practices in our weekly newsletter? All of these reasons and most of the other justifications that we use to begin any new positive habit share the thinking that we must impose a practice on ourselves to add or improve something that is lacking. But we need to ask, what is real gratitude and why is it good for us?
Real gratitude is the recognition that all that who you are, all that you have, and all that you will become depend on countless gifts that you neither earned nor deserve. Real gratitude is to fully glimpse how interconnected all things are and to understand how much this immense web of human and environmental factors benefits you. This isn’t a state that we need to learn. It is a latent feature of the human condition. We have all been completely taken in by a sunset or a mountain vista or a loving partner or an act of random generosity. In these moments, all other interpersonal and worldly problems evaporate as we lose attachment to ourselves and merge with the experience. In these moments, when we are living in complete connection to this web of relationships and glimpsing our tiny but profound place in the whole, we feel true gratitude.
A gratitude practice is not to improve a being who is lacking, but to bring our natural sense of connectedness to the forefront of our perception more frequently, if not constantly. The “goal” of a fitness practice is to develop the capacity and confidence to meet any physical challenge that we might meet. You can see each training session, then, not as work but as a celebration of your body and a beckoning to state that it might become. Meditation is not meant to achieve a specific outcome during any individual sitting but to tap into our latent ability to be present so that we can live in that state more often.
Above, Goethe asserts that the way we see people is the way that we treat them, and the way that we treat them is what they become. This is also true in how we see ourselves. If we are to attain any deep improvements, we must look for them. And if we are to commit to that search, we must first assume that they can be found.
We can view any self-development practice with the understanding that we are lacking and flawed. While this perspective is obviously true in its simplest form and often a necessary view to inspire hard work and dedication, we must also hold a much more uplifting story of ourselves. We can also believe that we already contain the seeds of who we want to become, but that they are laying dormant waiting for the right conditions and nourishment to sprout. Our work and structures are how we feed these possibilities. Like the artist who must show up daily to summon the muse, our daily efforts are prayers. Each training session, each meditation sitting, and each cold plunge are invitations that call forth a part of ourselves that already exists but has not yet bloomed.
Thank you for reading this week. Please share your perceptive on this below. And remember, life is too short to be at war with yourself.