Last Tuesday, I went with a group of friends to see Dr. Robert Holden, who was in San Francisco. In the past, I’ve written about what I learned from his books, including Shift Happens, Be Happy and Loveability. His work has had profound impact on my life, with the following being a particularly significant life-changing thought:
No amount of self improvement can ever make up for any lack of self acceptance. ~Robert Holden
Unconditioned Self vs. learned self
Up until being introduced to Dr. Holden’s teachings, like so many devoted to self-improvement, I felt fundamentally flawed and unworthy. To reach my dreams and live the kind of life I desired, I subconsciously believed that I had to earn my right to have them. I had to better myself in order to deserve them. That was why so much of my life was devoted to working hard and achieving, to prove that I was good enough—except that I never felt good enough, no matter how much I slaved and achieved. No amount of hard-earned accolades could fill the inner void of unworthiness.
Then, along came Dr. Holden, who talks about the difference between our Unconditioned Self and learned self. The drive for self-improvement often stems from a false belief in not being good enough in some way. That’s the domain of our learned self, the ego-based part of our identity that has accumulated rejections, disappointments and abandonment, and believes we’re always at risk of experiencing more. The fear of not being good enough forever fuels the endless need to improve and fix ourselves so as to avoid more rejections, disappointments and abandonment. However, coming from a place of fear, we’ll never be good enough. The self-improvement trap is a bottomless pit, as the fear of not good enough is insatiable and doesn’t go away until we recognize it for what it is—an illusionary belief, a learned defense against being hurt further.
The only way to get out of the bottomless trap is to stop judging ourselves and to learn to accept ourselves. In Dr. Holden’s teachings, it’s returning to the recognition of our Unconditioned Self, who knows we’re inherently whole, complete and deserving, vs. our learned self that fears, judges and indicts—and never feels good enough.
With all that said, to practice acceptance and not judge is easier said than done. How can we truly begin laying off trying too hard to improve and fix ourselves? Here are a few things I’ve learned:
Is fear my motivation?
Before pushing for that extra mile or trying too hard, it’s good to check in with our inner wisdom for our true motivation. Am I afraid of being rejected? Am I trying extra hard because I can’t appear weak/vulnerable? Do I feel I must constantly be doing more and being more, because I fear stagnation and becoming insignificant/irrelevant? If fear and worries are in the driver seat, we’re in a contracted state and in no condition to accept ourselves. We’re letting our learned, defensive self scare us into trying for more and/or better, even if it ultimately doesn’t fill that void we feel inside that’s left by judgment and non-acceptance.
Notice the donut, not just the hole
“Why do you only see the hole in the donut?” That was something my first husband used to ask me many years ago. I couldn’t appreciate why I’d only notice what wasn’t there instead of what was and why my natural tendency was to be critical. Now, many years later, I’ve learned that the tendency to only see the hole in the donut stems from lack of self-acceptance. In the absence of self-acceptance, judgment abounded. Anyone who hasn’t accepted him-/herself cannot accept others. The lens of self-judgment gets projected onto others as well. Therefore, to learn acceptance is to cultivate the ability to see what’s there, instead of judging what isn’t—i.e., see the donut, not the hole. This is basically a twist on being in gratitude. Because in gratitude, we’re less likely to take the donut for granted and only see the hole.
Mind my “shoulds”
One surefire sign of trying too hard is if we’re driven by a “should,” instead of a desire. “Should” makes us contract, while desires are expansive. If we love learning, the associated activities would feed and fill us. If we feel we should learn—because we fear the negative consequences of not doing it—learning would be drudgery. If something is truly good for us and we want it, there’s no need for “should.” This is not to be confused with the stretch we may feel in trying to adopt a new habit that’s good for us.
What’s written on my back?
Have you ever participated in an exercise that involved others writing on a sheet of paper on your back how they perceive you? I’ve had that experience twice in my life, and each blew me away. Others’ perception of me was much more generous, kinder and nicer than my own. My self-image wasn’t very pretty. To cease judgment and cultivate self-acceptance, it’s helpful to step into others’ shoes and see what they see. Feeling not good enough? Just ask a loved one what they think of you.
Is it really necessary?
Perhaps the easiest litmus test for whether you’re trying too hard is to ask whether that effort is truly necessary. Are you sure you must be thinner, more educated, more [fill in the blank] before you can deserve what you want? Can you find evidence to the contrary? Really challenge that assumptive belief. It’s all too easy to go unconscious with limiting beliefs that feed our learned self’s fear of not good enough. By asking questions like “Is it really necessary?” “What purpose does trying so hard really serve?” we bring consciousness to automatic limited thinking.
Now, over to you: Do you find yourself trying too hard and feeling the constant need to improve yourself? Is that drive to improve expansive or does it feel more like you have to or else? What would you do to avoid trying too hard for the wrong reasons?
Photo credit: http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/
If you’re new here, welcome! I invite you to subscribe to my blog via email or RSS feed. Simply look for the “Subscribe & Connect” box below.