I want to share a powerful exercise that’s been a key part of my personal growth journey. The exercise is very simple—just sit in front of a mirror and look into your own eyes for ten minutes. No matter what thoughts and sensations come up for you, see if you can hold your gaze on your reflection. See if you can breathe, keep in mind that just looking into a mirror can’t really hurt or destroy you, and ride out any intensity that arises.
I’ve had many different experiences doing this exercise. On some days, I feel a warmth in my heart and a desire to appreciate myself, and this exercise gives me a chance to show myself gratitude. At other times, I feel anger or sadness welling up inside, and I get the opportunity to become aware of and release those emotions. But no matter what I experience, it ultimately leads me to more peace and self-understanding, and I’ve seen the same effects in others I’ve recommended this to.
Here are some wonderful benefits of doing this exercise regularly:
1. Dispel Your Negative Body Image. Many of us carry around an unconscious (and often unflattering) picture of what our bodies look like as we walk through the world, and that picture affects how we behave and relate to others. If we have a mental picture of ourselves as ugly and frightening, for example, we’ll probably shy away from people, assume it would be useless to approach someone we’re attracted to, and so on.
Looking in a mirror for a while gives us a chance to see our bodies as they actually are, and let go of our often exaggerated and unrealistic mental images of ourselves. I’ve seen people break into tears while doing this exercise, as they saw how revolting they’d been making their bodies out to be, and how radically incorrect their image of themselves was.
2. Acknowledge Yourself. This exercise is a great setting for appreciating yourself and acknowledging the wonderful contributions you’re making to the world. As I think you’ll find, there’s something particularly powerful about staring yourself in the face and expressing gratitude for who you are and what you do.
Of course, for many of us, there’s also something painful about acknowledging ourselves like this, because it forces us to confront how uncomfortable we are with praising ourselves. Many of us are accustomed to belittling ourselves, making sure we don’t hog the spotlight, trying not to brag, and so on. So naturally, we often judge ourselves as “rude,” “selfish,” and so on while doing this exercise.
But if you keep doing this over time, I think you’ll find, the discomfort fades away. Jack Canfield puts it well in writing about this exercise in The Success Principles: “as you begin to act more positive and nurturing toward yourself, it is natural to have physical and emotional reactions as you release the old negative parental wounds, unrealistic expectations, and self-judgments,” but “they are only temporary and will pass after a few days of doing the exercise.”
3. Be Honest With Yourself. One thing this exercise takes away from you is the ability to hide from yourself and what you’re feeling. Many of us live our lives in constant self-distraction mode, trying to tune out our thoughts and feelings with our work, relationships, TV-watching, and so on. The last thing we want to do is be with ourselves in silence, because we’re afraid of the intense emotions that may come up.
There’s no escaping what’s going on for you, however, when you’re staring yourself in the face. If you’re feeling dissatisfied with some aspect of your life, this exercise makes you fully experience that dissatisfaction—there’s no TV, Internet or iPod to help you get away. If you’re angry at someone, and you’ve been diverting your attention from the anger most of the time, you have no choice but to be with how you’re feeling.
The upside is that, by forcing you to confront what’s really going on for you, looking in the mirror helps you consider what you can change in your life, and how you can treat yourself more kindly, to create a healthier relationship with yourself.
As you can probably tell from what I’ve written, this isn’t exactly a “Feel Good Now!” exercise that’s guaranteed to immediately perk you up. In the beginning, staring at yourself for ten minutes may be a surprisingly uncomfortable experience. It’s very different from briefly glancing at your reflection in the morning as you comb your hair. But if you stick with it, I think you’ll find it’s a powerful way to get more comfortable with and accepting of yourself.
My Recent Interview on What We Need To Know
I also want to share with you a more in-depth radio interview I did recently on What We Need to Know with Ed Morler. We explore issues like meditation techniques, finding your true calling in your career, how conscious breathing can help you stay grounded in the face of stress, and so on, more thoroughly than I have on the air before. I hope you enjoy it!
A while back, I wrote an article on the oft-revisited issue of how to deal with a negative “self-image.” I suggested we’re actually at our most joyful and empowered in moments when we’re not conscious of any self-image, or mental picture of ourselves, at all. In my experience, self-images, whether negative or positive, are a source of frustration and distraction. I’ll expand on this issue here by discussing ways to transcend our self-images, and allow our full awareness to enrich what we’re doing in each moment.
When your attention is on your self-image, it’s as if, while you’re doing whatever activity you’re doing, someone is videotaping you and you’re watching the video on a screen. In other words, it’s like you’re watching yourself doing what you’re doing in real time, as you’re doing it. If you’re having a conversation with someone, and your attention is fixated on your self-image, it’s as if you’re simultaneously having the conversation and observing it from a third-person view. Not surprisingly, this diverts your attention from what you’re doing and makes you less effective at accomplishing your goals.
For example, a while back, when I was rock climbing with some more skilled climbers, I’d occasionally worry about falling on relatively easy courses in front of my friends. In other words, I was paying attention to the image I was projecting to my fellow climbers while I was trying to climb the rock. Of course, watching this mental movie distracted me, and had me fall in exactly the embarrassing ways I wanted to avoid.
Sometimes, we get so accustomed to holding our attention on our self-images—to trying to get a sense of how we look from the outside as we go about our lives—that we forget we’re doing it. Recently, a friend told me a story that nicely illustrated this point. She’s been taking a yoga class for a while, and for a long time she was frustrated with her lack of progress at mastering the poses she’s learning. This changed when, one day, her yoga instructor half-jokingly reminded the students to pay attention only to their own movements, and not to how they looked to others.
When her teacher said this, my friend suddenly realized how self-conscious she’d been about the way her yoga poses appeared to others in the class. She’d become so accustomed to worrying about how others saw her that she’d started doing it constantly and unconsciously. Once she gained this awareness, my friend started practicing holding her full attention on nothing but her movements. Ever since, she’s been surprised at how quickly she’s been learning.
My friend’s experience calls to mind psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s theory in his well-known book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. People enter a state of flow, or peak performance and fulfillment, when their attention becomes so focused on what they are doing that they temporarily forget they’re the ones doing it. They lose all concern, in other words, for others’ opinions of them and what they can get for themselves by doing the activity. As Csikszentmihalyi puts it, in a flow state,
One of the most universal and distinctive features of optimal experience takes place: people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.
Similarly, because my friend shifted her focus away from how her yoga poses looked to others, and brought it entirely to her body’s movements, she greatly improved her performance.
How do you become aware of those moments where your fixation on your self-image is harming your joy and fulfillment in life? One meditation technique has helped me develop this awareness, and it’s pretty simple. I sit in silence with my eyes closed, and carefully observe the thoughts that arise. At certain moments, my thoughts become absorbed in my relationships with other people, and I find myself wondering what another person thinks or feels about me. In other words, I wonder what image I’ve projected to the other person in my interactions with them, and thus focus my attention on my “self-image.”
I’ve noticed that, when I place my attention on my self-image, I feel a mild, ugly sensation in my upper back, just under the shoulder blades. It’s not just distracting for me to focus on how I’m appearing to others—it’s actually unpleasant, and has a specific uncomfortable feeling associated with it. When I’m going through my daily routine, I’ve got too much on my mind to notice those moments where I slip into “image-consciousness.” But when I’m sitting alone in silence, those moments stand out very clearly.
As I practiced, during meditation, noticing when my concerns about my self-image came up, I started becoming able to observe when my attention would fixate on that issue during my daily life. I began noticing that the same unpleasant sensation I’d felt in my back while meditating arose in specific situations out in the “real world.”
When I went to the gym, for instance, I started noticing that ugly feeling creeping into my back—probably because, like my friend the yogini, I was unconsciously fretting over how my body looked to others. The good news was that, as with my friend, my image-consciousness quickly began to dissolve when I became fully aware of it. By becoming conscious of the situations where I’d start fixating on my self-image, I’ve brought much peace and focus to my life.
To do this exercise, simply find a quiet place where you can sit undisturbed and close your eyes. As you sit there, your thoughts may drift to what the people in your life think of you, and how your actions and inactions may have affected their opinions. When this happens, notice any sensations you experience in your body. Perhaps you will feel tingling, tightness, pain or something else. These sensations, you’ll find, are signals that your mind is drifting into self-consciousness—that you are putting your attention on your self-image.
As you reenter your daily life, pay attention to how your body feels in the various situations you find yourself in. On occasion, you’ll likely notice the same sensations you felt during meditation coming up. When you feel one of these sensations, gently remind yourself that you are becoming absorbed in your self-image, your appearance to others. This awareness is often enough to loosen your self-image’s grip on your attention, and return you to a state of composure and concentration. As meditation teacher Rohit Mehta says in The Secret of Self-Transformation, “to see the self-image for oneself in the mirror of life is to see its destruction.”
It seems like there’s no idea people will defend more fiercely or passionately than the notion that they aren’t good enough human beings. Many people, when talking about how inferior or inadequate they supposedly are, undergo an amazing transformation. People who usually shy away from conflict or seem apathetic suddenly become champion debaters when arguing that they haven’t achieved enough with their lives. People with generally positive outlooks on life suddenly become incurable cynics and pessimists when they’re convincing you of how badly they screwed something up. And so on.
A recent conversation with a friend reminded me of this quirky aspect of the human personality. My friend is a highly-skilled and well-paid biotech researcher. “On paper,” as they say, he’s got everything going for him—he has a first-rate education, he’s in great shape and he’s got a nice house and car. Unfortunately, however, he and his girlfriend split up six months ago. Since then, he’s been insisting to me that he’s not a successful guy at all—in fact, he says, he’s a “loser.”
This hasn’t been for lack of trying on my part. Every time he’s called himself a loser, I’ve reminded him of all his great qualities and everything he’s accomplished in his life. But for every positive thing I say about him, he’s got a reason why it’s irrelevant, unimportant or exaggerated. If I remind him of how well-liked he is at work, for instance, he’ll tell me people are just pitying him. If I remind him of something he has fun doing, like playing tennis, he’ll insist it doesn’t matter. If I tell him he’s a kind and generous person, he’ll tell me those are weak qualities that he wishes he were rid of.
As flattery was getting me nowhere, I decided to take a different tack. I asked him how he would feel if he didn’t think he was a loser. (This was inspired by Byron Katie‘s process of undermining negative thoughts by asking yourself, among other things, who you’d be if you didn’t believe your thoughts.) Of course, like any good friend, I was hoping he’d experience a life-changing epiphany when he pondered this question, never feel down on himself again, and live the rest of his life in a state of undisturbed inner peace.
However, I didn’t quite get the reaction I’d hoped for. Instead, he became angry, telling me I was missing the point because he obviously did think he was a loser, and lecturing me on how I was being unrealistic and needed to “live in the real world.” But when he calmed down, he acknowledged how fiercely he’d been defending the idea that he was a loser, and how strange, and maybe even amusing, that seemed.
This conversation got me wondering: why do we hold on so tightly to negative thoughts about ourselves? Why do we defend ourselves against giving up those thoughts, despite how painful they are? I’ve come to believe it’s because, consciously or otherwise, we see these ideas about ourselves as part of who we are. We need these ideas, we think, to be complete human beings—losing them would be like losing some part of our bodies, or even being completely annihilated.
In discussing a client who, like my friend, harbored the belief “I’m a loser,” psychologist Betsie Carter-Haar aptly describes this sense of identification with our ideas about ourselves:
A positive experience is simply not acceptable to the ‘Loser’ because its quality is different from, and inconsistent with, that of his self-image. But it goes even further: a positive experience is actually threatening. What if he were not really a Loser? Who would he be then? . . . . [H]is fear of loss of identity, of a deep void of inner emptiness, if not correctly understood is often too overwhelming to be faced. In such a situation it frequently seems less painful to have a negative sense of self than no sense of self at all.
When we persistently have certain thoughts about ourselves, these thoughts eventually become so familiar and constant that we conclude they’re actually part of us. Our beliefs become as comfortable and familiar as our bodies, homes, jobs, and so on. For instance, if we believe—for whatever reason—that we’re bad and inadequate for long enough, we become identified with that belief, and protect the belief by arguing tenaciously with anyone who tries to convince us otherwise.
How do we detach ourselves from, or end our identification with, our ideas about who we are? How do we dispel the need to defend our “loserhood” to the death? One helpful technique, I’ve found, is to regularly experience being in a state in which you aren’t thinking anything about yourself. Try sitting alone, closing your eyes, and focusing your attention entirely on some sound or sensation—either within yourself or the outside world. You might, for instance, focus on the feeling and sound of your breathing, or on the sound of birds outside your window.
When your awareness is entirely fixed on a sensation, rather than your mind’s memories, interpretations and judgments, you are not thinking. Nonetheless, you are the same being you’ve always been. Even when you have no ideas or beliefs about yourself or anything else, you remain you—ceasing to think, or perform any other mental activity, doesn’t destroy you at all. This realization helps weaken your attachment to the ways you think about and perceive yourself.
Recognize, as well, that you existed—you were the person you are today—before you had a single thought. Up until some point in your early development, whether in the womb or after your birth, you hadn’t thought about anything. You didn’t see yourself as a “loser,” “winner,” “doctor,” “mother,” or any of the other labels you’ve since attached to yourself. In fact, you didn’t see yourself at all—you simply were yourself. Regularly reflecting on this is a great way to liberate yourself from negative thinking.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Positive Thinking, located at http://www.widowsquest.com/carnival-of-positive-thinking-57/.)
Many of us are in the habit of telling ourselves we’re “not good enough.” Whether it’s in our careers, our intimate relationships, our appearances, or some other area of our lives, we’re always convinced we don’t measure up to some standard of how we’re supposed to be. Because it seems we can always find something to criticize about ourselves no matter what we achieve in life, this habit can be hard to break.
I used to say this sort of thing to myself all the time, until I had a realization that transformed my understanding of what being “not good enough” really means. One day, I was beating myself up for not having published a book yet, telling myself that my work would never be good enough and that no one identified with or understood it. (This, by the way, is a testament to the fact that you’ll never run out of ideas if you’re determined to beat yourself up.)
For some reason, it occurred to me that I used to torment myself in similar ways many years ago, when I was nine years old. When I was nine, I entered some sort of essay contest for kids and didn’t win, and I didn’t let myself hear the end of it. Hey, I noticed—I’m criticizing myself for exactly the same stuff, and in exactly the same ways, that I did when I was nine.
This realization prompted me to wonder: when and why did it all start? When was the first time I said “I’m not good enough”? And what prompted me to do that? Interestingly, I couldn’t recall a period of my life when I wasn’t under some sort of mental attack. Beating myself up had been a pretty consistent theme throughout my life. Maybe I’d never been “good enough” in my own eyes.
But somehow, that didn’t seem to make sense. I’d always believed the reason I didn’t feel “good enough” was that I’d done something inappropriate or immoral, or failed to do something I should have done. And this is consistent with the way that, for better or worse, we typically judge ourselves and others. If we judge someone else as “bad,” it’s normally because they did or failed to do something. “This politician is bad because he supports policies I don’t like,” we say. “My ex-boyfriend is bad because he left me.” And so forth.
If I haven’t been good enough all my life, however, it can’t be because I did or failed to do anything. When I was two years old, I’d hardly “done” anything at all in the world—and yet, as far as I could remember, I didn’t feel “good enough” even then. Apparently, I was “bad” before I even had the opportunity to do anything bad. But believing I was bad before I had a chance to act badly was kind of like calling a tree or a rock bad. A tree doesn’t “do” anything but grow and absorb nutrients, and a rock simply sits there. The idea that an object that hasn’t done anything—and can’t really do anything—isn’t “good enough” seems absurd.
This realization gave me a sudden sense of freedom. I didn’t “deserve” my feelings of inadequacy at all. In beating myself up, I wasn’t “serving my sentence” or atoning for some past sin. I wasn’t sure how I acquired the conviction that I wasn’t “good enough”—maybe it was my genetic makeup, an early-life experience, or something else. But the point was that, because I saw there was no good reason why I should suffer, I became able to let go of that suffering.
Further, I understood the mistake I’d been making in addressing my sense of inadequacy. Before, when I’d have a negative thought about myself, I’d assume I could eliminate that thought by improving in a certain area of my life. Thus, I’d pursue more achievements in the world—I’d look for ways to make more money, get invited to more social occasions, publish more articles, and so on. However, nothing I did seemed to shake that core conviction that I wasn’t good enough—my mind would simply come up with more ways my life needed fixing. Now, I recognized that seeing that core conviction for what it was—not adjusting my circumstances in the world—was the path to peace.
If you’re constantly plagued by thoughts that you’re inadequate, I have a mental exercise for you. Forget, for a moment, about the specific ways your mind is criticizing you, and the areas in which it’s saying you need improvement. Instead, ask yourself whether there’s ever been a time in your life when you’ve been free of mental criticism. No matter what you’ve accomplished, has your mind ever given you a break?
If your answer is no, consider the possibility that changing your outer circumstances won’t address your mind’s concerns. For whatever reason, your mind has been convinced for most, or all, of your life that you’re not good enough. You don’t “deserve” the criticisms your mind levels at you, and nothing about you needs to be changed or fixed for you to be a complete human being. This realization may make you feel free to release your sense of inadequacy, and to access the peace and wholeness available to all of us.
My friend, a highly-paid financial professional, often complains about her job. She doesn’t like the long hours, the difficult people, the office politics, and so forth. Usually, I just sit and listen to her concerns, because it feels like she’s more interested in a sympathetic ear than anything else. But one day, I couldn’t help but suggest that, if she really dislikes her job so much, she consider what she really wants in a career and possibly even make a change.
She looked at me incredulously. “I’m focused on surviving right now,” she said. “I don’t have time to think about what I ‘really want.’”
I’m surprised at how many times I’ve heard professionals with incomes well into the six figures worry about their “survival” in the event of a career change. Generally, I suspect most of them could handle at least a few months of their current expenses even with no income at all. Some, for various reasons, are genuinely living from paycheck to paycheck—they may have student loans they need to repay, or maybe they just racked up large expenses leading the high-powered professional life. But even they, if they had to, could probably reduce their expenses enough to eat and have a place to live if they had to forgo income for a little while.
Why, then, do highly-paid professionals often phrase their concerns about career change in terms of their “survival”? Actually, I think their use of that word is appropriate, because it speaks to deeper truths about the way we see our careers. When we say “but if I change careers, I won’t survive,” we’re not actually concerned about the survival of our physical bodies. We’re not worried that we’re going to starve or have nowhere warm to sleep. Instead, we’re worried about the survival of the identities we’ve created for ourselves in our minds.
It’s no secret that, in our society, we tend to closely identify with our occupations. When someone asks what you “do” or what you “are,” I’ll bet you usually respond with your job description—“I’m a lawyer,” “I’m an engineer,” and so forth. Often, when a person loses their job or retires, you’ll hear them say they feel like they’ve “lost part of themselves,” or that they aren’t sure what they’re “good for” anymore. The way we tend to perceive our careers, it’s as if they’re limbs or organs of our bodies, and removing them would endanger our lives.
We can also get attached to others seeing us in certain ways based on our jobs, and to the prestige and material things those jobs bestow on us. If we have high-paying careers, for instance, we start seeing “wealthy” as part of our identities. If we have demanding jobs, we identify with being “high-powered” and “no-nonsense.” If we have jobs with exposure to the public, we identify with being glamorous or “high-profile.” And so on.
This way of thinking about our careers is common, but it’s also problematic. When we feel like our careers are who we are, we naturally become consumed with fear of losing, or performing badly in, our jobs. We wake up in the early hours of the morning worrying that we made a mistake on a project. We’re afraid of change and innovation in doing our jobs, because change presents a risk we can’t afford to take. If you totally identify with your career, of course, this way of thinking is perfectly logical—if you are your career, losing or changing that career would mean your destruction.
While money isn’t everything, it’s interesting that the people who are most financially successful in our society seem to be those who are least closely identified with their careers. These are the entrepreneurs and business owners, whose incomes are based on the profits and losses of their businesses rather than steady salaries. Owning a business requires you to be willing to take the risk that the business will fail. If you completely identify with the occupation you’re in, you’ll perceive yourself as a failure if your business fails, and thus you’ll probably be afraid to start one in the first place.
What, then, do you do if you want to make a career change, but your current job feels so embedded in your identity that you’re afraid to take the next step? The answer is to understand that you are not your career, and that you don’t need to completely identify with your career to lead a fulfilling life, but I’m not going to simply tell you that. I want you to experience that fact firsthand, on a physical level.
What I’m going to recommend may sound a little metaphysical, but bear with me a moment and see if it gets results. Find a place where you can sit alone in silence with your eyes closed. Once you’ve done this, focus your attention on your hands, and allow yourself to feel the sensations arising in them. Perhaps you feel a warmth, a tingling, a prickly sensation, or something else. When you’ve done this for a little while, gradually bring your attention up your arms, across your torso, up your neck and into your head, and then down into your legs and feet. Notice how each part of your body feels when you place your full attention on it.
After doing this exercise a few times, you’ll likely experience feelings of peace and aliveness in your body, as if your body were suffused with an inner glow. When you’re feeling this sensation, you’re experiencing what you are at the most basic level—what we might call “energy,” “consciousness” or “life.” This is the energy of which you, and all other life forms in the universe, are composed. You’ve been made of this energy for as long as you’ve existed. No matter what happens in your life—no matter what job you do, what you accomplish, who you love, and what you own—you will always be, at the deepest level, this energy.
We start identifying with our circumstances in the world—our jobs, relationships, cars, and so forth—when we lose touch with this energy. Life starts to seem pointless when we forget what we really are, and we grasp for things in the world to give it meaning. Thankfully, the energy that we are is always there for us to reconnect with, and to give us peace when our lives seem busy or stressful. When you’re truly connected with your life energy, you understand at a deep level that no career change can ever threaten your survival, and you find the fear of the unknown that restricted you fading away.