I used to be in search of a book, workshop or practice that would, in a matter of hours or days, change me forever. I’d stop doubting myself, my relationships would always go smoothly, I’d become courageous enough to always say how I felt, and so on.
I had this goal in mind, consciously or not, with every self-help book I bought, workshop I attended, and spiritual practice I tried. “This is going to be the one,” I’d say to myself. “This teacher will transform my life and end my suffering, once and for all.”
As my self-development journey wore on, it began to become clear that this wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t going to have some sudden breakthrough that would blast all my neuroses and shortcomings to ashes with white-hot divine light.
Being Okay With Being A Mess
My first reaction, when I realized this, was to blame the personal growth teachers I’d been learning from. “They promised me all this wonderful transformation, but I’m still the same old mess,” I griped. “They must all be frauds.”
But after spending some more time working on my growth, I began noticing something remarkable: I was becoming more okay with “being a mess.” My insecurities, the weird ways my body tensed up in certain situations, and so on started to seem less shameful and more acceptable.
Gradually, what I discovered was that having fears, neuroses, and other “flaws” is actually a built-in part of being human. I recognized that most of my suffering actually came from expecting myself to be more than human — to be a perfect, godlike being, free of limitations. No seminar, book or practice, I came to understand, could turn me into that.
Acceptance Creates Transformation
And here’s the real kicker: the more I began accepting my hangups, the more they started falling away. The more “okay” I became with my humanity, and all its quirks, the less I suffered. Tight spots in my body that I thought would stay clenched forever finally began to relax.
One of the practices I found most valuable was to sit across from someone and just admit, as honestly as I could, what I felt as I sat with them — whether it was a fear that they were bored with me, a concern that they might not find me attractive, an irritation with them, or some other “compromising” fact about my experience.
Simply revealing, to another person, all the thoughts and feelings I was once too ashamed to discuss has been deeply healing. There’s nothing like the experience of showing up as the imperfect human being I am, without being criticized or shunned, and sometimes even being loved.
After being on this path for a while, I’ve come to believe that self-development, at its best, is about learning to embrace being human, with all the gifts, and limitations, that come with being part of our species. It’s great to strive for “neverending improvement” and all, but working to change ourselves can bring great suffering if we do it from a place of disliking who we are right now.
Interestingly enough, I think, when we become able to honestly say “if nothing about me ever changed or improved, that would be okay,” that’s when real transformation takes root. But at that point, transformation is really the icing on the cake — the greatest gift is being able to accept who we are, right now.
You may have heard the old story of Sisyphus — the man condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down and be forced to start over, for all eternity.
I think this story is a wonderful illustration of how human beings often suffer. We’re convinced that, in some way, we need to be better than we are, and we’re constantly struggling to improve. But somehow, we never seem to “get there” — perfection dangles just beyond our reach.
I’ve definitely seen this way of thinking in myself. Sometimes, I notice myself hoping the next project I finish will finally “get me there” — at last, I’ll be “okay,” and I’ll be able to relax. But inevitably, when the project is done, the magical feeling of “okayness” I’m craving doesn’t arrive, or it comes and goes in a flash.
I suspect this is why we often hear of celebrities, or others our society sees as “successful,” acting self-destructively. They fight so hard and so long to “get there,”
but even when they get what they want, that sense that everything’s all right still seems to escape them. Maybe they get into things like drugs to soften the blow of that letdown.
Does Liking Ourselves Equal Laziness?
On the surface, the solution seems obvious: let go of the need to be better than you are, and accept yourself as perfect. But many of us feel nervous when we contemplate that way of thinking.
After all, if we really thought we were perfect, why would we bother doing anything at all? Why wouldn’t we just plop down on the couch, grab the remote in one hand and a beer in the other, and never get up except to buy more beer? Don’t we need to feel dissatisfied with ourselves to keep trying?
In other words, the human condition can look like a Catch-22: we can either feel okay with ourselves, but be lazy, or not feel okay with ourselves, but be perpetually frustrated.
Celebrating Our Perfection
I want to offer a different way of thinking about this issue. As you’ve probably noticed, we tend to feel driven to celebrate our successes. When we accomplish something big in our lives, we don’t just want to lie down and veg out — we want to get together with others and share our excitement.
What if we were to accept that, right now, we’re fundamentally perfect, and spend our lives celebrating that perfection? What if we did all of our activities — our work, service to others, loving relationships, and so on — out of gratitude to God, the universe, or whatever other force is responsible for how perfect we are?
It’s a huge relief for me when I can approach life this way — when I can drop the need to “make myself better,” to fix what’s supposedly wrong, to make others see I have something to offer, and so on, and instead act from a place of giving thanks for who and what I already am.
Yes, it’s hard to think this way all the time, particularly when times get tough and it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot to rejoice about. But when we’re able to see things from this perspective, I think, we’re at our most focused and peaceful.
Much has been said about the positive effects gratitude creates in our lives. Learning to be thankful for what we have today, and the learning experiences we’ve had in the past, empowers us with optimism and joy that help us pursue our goals.
For a long time, I agreed with this idea generally speaking, but I had trouble finding something to be grateful for about the “difficult” people I’ve dealt with in the past. Whether they were colleagues at work I had disagreements with, intimate partners whose relationships with me ended badly, strangers who made comments I saw as insulting, or someone else, I believed I’d be better off without having had some people in my life.
My attitude changed one day when I resolved to sit down at the computer, run down a list of difficult people from my past, and find something about each person I could be thankful for. The results were quick and profound. Even when I was only a few names down the list, I started recognizing how much resentment I still harbored toward the people I named. Holding on to my anger at the difficult people, I realized, took real effort, and put physical strain on my body. As I found something to be grateful for about each person, I felt the pressure releasing little by little, and energy freeing up to fuel me in pursuing my calling.
I believe this happens because, when we take the view that we’d have been better off without someone in our lives, we engage our minds in a hopeless conflict with reality. Holding onto anger at someone causes our minds to endlessly rehash our interactions with them in the impossible hope that, by ruminating on what happened in the past, we can change it for the better. We constantly relive the moment when we felt the other person disrespected us, with the goal—conscious or otherwise—of “fixing” the past. When we see that the person actually gave us something to be grateful for, and that in some way we’re better off today because they came into our lives, we end our mental war with them and make peace with the past.
Based on the gratitude work I’ve done for myself and with others, I want to offer a few examples of how difficult people contribute to our personal growth in ways that make them worthy of our appreciation. As these examples illustrate, nearly everyone we’ve come across has contributed, in at least a subtle way, to our growth. We don’t have to approve of everything they did and said, but acknowledging at least some gift they gave us with their presence contributes much to our own inner peace.
1. They help us reconcile with parts of ourselves we’ve avoided facing. Coming into conflict with people often forces us to draw on resources we’ve forgotten, and perhaps even refused to acknowledge, that we have. In my old job as an attorney, for instance, I remember a few opposing lawyers whom I couldn’t stand dealing with. I felt they were rude and overly aggressive, but my deeper problem with them was how often I had to say “no” when I interacted with them.
Before I got into law, I wasn’t very comfortable refusing people’s requests, and I felt tension in my body each time I needed to deny someone what they wanted—even if I was doing it as part of my job. As I continued forcing myself to say “no,” however, I became increasingly comfortable with it. I even came to realize there was a part of me that could say “no” without apology or explanation, and getting in touch with that part helped me to set healthy boundaries in my relationships.
2. They remind us how much we’ve grown over time. Recalling a difficult interaction we had with someone a long time ago can remind us how far our development has come today. For example, I used to harbor a grudge against a woman who ended her intimate relationship with me many years ago. I believed she did it in a demeaning way and I felt angry at her.
Today, however, when I think about the conversation where she broke up with me, I actually feel peaceful and empowered. I see how personally I took the things she said, and how painfully afraid I was of living without her, and I know I wouldn’t react in those ways to the breakup if it happened today. I’m a stronger and more self-sufficient person now, and although I enjoy intimate relationships I don’t need them to feel like a complete human being.
The memory of my last conversation with her serves as a progress report showing how much I’ve matured since then. I’m grateful to her because, if she’d never been in my life, I wouldn’t have such a clear indicator today of how far I’ve come.
3. They help us admire ourselves for overcoming obstacles. Difficult people help improve our ability to handle challenges, and when we deal with those challenges effectively we gain self-respect. I had a professor in college, for instance, who was known to be particularly harsh in his grading. I probably spent more nights studying into the early morning for his tests than I did for the other courses I took combined. I defied my own expectations by acing the class.
Today, I fondly look back on this man’s course, and my dealings with him, as examples of how tough and persistent I can be. I’m grateful to him for helping me respect and admire myself.
4. They help us make important life decisions. People who, in our view, “give us a hard time” often help motivate us to change our circumstances in positive and fulfilling ways. For instance, I know a number of people who changed their careers, at least in part, because they got tired of dealing with what they saw as their overly demanding and critical superiors. They might not have the career satisfaction they have today if their old bosses hadn’t been as tough to deal with.
5. They help us see our opportunities to grow. Uncomfortable interactions with people can make us aware of places where we don’t fully love or accept ourselves, and where we could stand to develop more appreciation and compassion for who we are. One example stands out from a job I had when I was just out of college. A woman in the office, who seemed consistently stressed and angry, used to call me “what’s-your-name” when demanding I do things for her. I’d feel very distressed when she called me that, and I’d experience a burning sensation in my chest and upper back.
A few years later, as I reflected on this memory, it occurred to me that I got so upset when she talked to me that way because I had such an aching need to be acknowledged by others. I needed people to constantly tell me I was important and praise my accomplishments, and thus when this woman treated me like I was nobody I felt terribly anxious.
When I had this realization, I started taking up practices to dissolve this need—to develop a sense of wholeness even without constant acknowledgment from others. I wouldn’t have the peace I have today if this woman—whose name I, ironically, don’t remember—hadn’t been there to show me where I didn’t fully accept myself and needed others’ approval to feel complete. And I can genuinely say I’m thankful she came into my life.