Symptoms & Causes

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”
~ Henry David Thoreau

In a recent study* of how people approach personal growth, it was found that 90% of effort was spent tackling symptoms, rather than deal with the problems that cause them.

Excuses aren’t the root cause of abandoned goals, because excuses themselves are a symptom of a deeper problem.

Fear of failure isn’t a root cause, either, even though fear is a favored culprit in personal growth literature.

So what is the root cause of excuses and fears?

What Are You Defending?

There’s something wonderful you need to acknowledge and embrace about being human.

Everything in you is there to help you enhance your life and advance your well-being, including the most “negative” of emotions.

Fear is a healthy defense mechanism that helps to protect you from harm. If you had zero fear of heights, then you might have made a very silly (and life-threatening) move a long time ago.

Even your pain sensors exist to ensure that you don’t cause your body any damage, and that you give your injuries the attention they need for recovery.

There are no natural self-destruct  buttons in human beings.

Everything within us has a life-affirming purpose.

And you don’t gravitate towards excuses because you love making them, but because they help to protect your self-image.

And that’s where most problems spring from.

You’re not directing your human faculties to the protection and advancement of your self, but your self-image, that impression you and others have of yourself.

Excuses overlook facts in order to create positive perceptions.

Fear of failure arises as your means of protecting your self-image from being tainted by the reputation of “failure”, even when the failures aren’t truly life-threatening.

It’s highly unlikely that you’ll get shot down if you make a mistake giving a public speech, but we’re too afraid of having our self-image and reputation tarnished that we’re willing to limit our life experiences so that we’re never caught making a mistake or putting ourselves in a situation where others might laugh at us.

We seek to blame others for our shortcomings, even when we know that doesn’t bring us any closer to our goals. But it does reassure us that our self-image is protected from criticism, and so we settle for broken dreams rather than a wounded self-image.

The cause of many, many problems in our lives isn’t the fear of failure or the fear of success. These are symptoms.

And they arise because we care more about how others see us and how we see ourselves more than we care about growing as individuals, and making mistakes along the way.

What would happen if you stop caring about what others think of you when you make mistakes?

What would happen if you stop identifying with the mistakes you make and the failures you experience?

What would happen if you stop deriving your self-worth from what you possess, what results you get and how others see you?

You’ll realize that you’ve been investing a great deal of mental and emotional energy in protecting your self-image, which could’ve been invested in moving your life forward.

If “hacking at the branches” is a strategy that hasn’t been serving you well in life, then “striking at the root” might be a better alternative.

It’s time you let go of the self-image that’s holding you back and embrace yourself – with all the weaknesses you possess – so that you can get to experience genuine growth in life.

* This study was conducted by me, in a dark room with 3 knives, a dartboard, and 2 bananas (a researcher’s gotta eat!).


A Guide to Being Yourself

punk_girl_with_mohawkTake as much time as you need to laugh at how ridiculous the title of this post is.

Once you’re done, come back to discover why it’s not so ridiculous.

I’m sure you’ve never come across a book that taught glass cups what to do when falling to the ground, or instructional videos that taught cats how to “meow”, but why do human beings need a guide to teach them how to be themselves?

Aren’t we all being ourselves already? After all, who else can we be?

The advice to “be yourself” isn’t as simple as many writers make it out to be. I included it in the 7 ideas that are probably ruining your life list for a reason: when a complex idea is dished out in a simplistic way, misunderstandings are likely to ensue.

If you are being yourself, is there any need for personal growth and character development? What are you developing towards?

I have come across many individuals who are disrespectful to others, and the only apology they can offer is to shrug and say: “I’m just being myself.”

But who are you?

What do you identify yourself with?

Are you the way you acted as a child? Or the hobbies you enjoyed as a teen? Or the subject you studied in college? Or the career you pursued as an adult?

Are you defined by what you eat? Or how you look? Or who you spend time with? Or how much money you have in your account? Or how many cars decorate your driveway?

Is it your sense of humor? Or the way you speak? Or the movies you enjoy watching? Or the way you handle stress?

Is it how you see yourself? Or how others see you?

Is it how you feel? Or what you think? Or what you do?

Is it the culture you belong to? The religion you believe in? The society you live in? The family name you carry?

If you are being yourself, then what happens when you seek to change? Are you compromising who you are?

There’s more to being yourself than… being yourself.

Who You Are

You are not your thoughts, but the one who thinks those thoughts.

You are not your feelings, but the one who experiences those feelings.

You are not your actions, but the one who chooses those actions.

You are not what people think of you or what you think of yourself.

Those are impressions based on past decisions you’ve made.

You are the one who decides what you think, what you feel, and what you do.

The one who chooses is You.

Identifying with your thoughts, feelings and actions strips you from your ability to choose, change and grow.

It makes you defensive and offensive.

It makes you vulnerable and aggressive.

To truly be yourself, you have to develop a healthy relationship with your thoughts, your feelings and your actions, so that you don’t see yourself as being those things, and overlooking the choice you are able to exercise.

What You Think

Authority figures rarely endorse freedom of thought.

Instead, they want others to blindly accept their convictions and values, and to lead their lives accordingly.

Politicians try to dictate what citizens can and can’t do.

Religious figures demand that their congregations not question the message delivered to them.

Teachers expect students to learn the material they are taught, and to keep their questions for their parents.

Parents teach their children to listen to them, because they know better.

We grow up relying on the thinking others have done on our behalf, without question.

That doesn’t mean that we no longer think.

Thinking is a necessary part of our lives. We’re always collecting information and processing it.

It does mean that we think within the worldview we were taught to believe is truth and according to the values we were brought up to accept as moral.

But we can’t make sense of our experiences on our own.

Being yourself means that you take on the responsibility to think for yourself, without feeling obliged to accept the beliefs and values of others.

Sure you can ask people for their opinions and insights, but you respect your own intellect and your own ability to evaluate the ideas that come your way.

What You Feel

Emotions are often perceived as a weakness, but that’s only because they are gravely misunderstood.

We cannot function properly as human beings without our emotions, both negative and positive.

What we feel indicates to us what thoughts are operating (often subconsciously) in our minds, and our feelings are a physical expression of our own values.

To condemn your feelings isn’t healthy. They’re only revealing what you think.

Rather than shun them or suppress them, listen to them.

What are they telling you? What can you learn from them about your thoughts and values?

When you feel angry, you are not the anger. You are the one experiencing the anger.

But why are you feeling angry in the first place?

Do you believe it’s the right emotion to convey, at the right time and to the right degree?

Here “right” doesn’t mean socially acceptable. It means that it supports your life and well-being.

If anger gets in the way of constructive communication, then it’s unhealthy. But if it compels you to confront injustice, then it’s healthy.

What matters is that you give yourself the space to feel and listen to your feelings, without judging or condemning yourself, or identifying with your emotions.

Emotions stem from thoughts and your thoughts are of your choosing. It is up to you what emotions you would like to cultivate, based on the thoughts you choose to have.

What You Do

What makes habits so difficult to change isn’t the habits themselves, but who we think we are, based on what we have done in the past.

If you’ve struggled to wake up early in the past, you may conclude that you’re “not a morning person.”

If you’ve acted violently towards others, then you may conclude that you’re “short-tempered.”

These labels you place on yourself dictate how you lead your life and what decisions you’ll make in the future, based on the decisions you’ve made in the past.

The implicit thought behind your decisions is: “If I was me, what would I do?”

And then you act according to that answer.

But that answer is your self-image. It’s not who you are.

Being yourself isn’t about embracing your self-image.

It’s about abandoning your self-image and realizing the ability you have to choose other behaviors, and develop different habits.

Again, you are the one that chooses. You are not the choice you make.

All the characteristics and labels you’ve placed on yourself, based on your past behaviors, only reveal how you’ve behaved in the past. They do not reveal who you are.

Just because you’ve made poor decisions in the past doesn’t mean you have to remain consistent with those decisions.

Such a commitment is a betrayal of yourself, since you’re abandoning your ability to choose.

How To Be Yourself

The default approach to take to “being yourself” is to go against what society expects you to do and rebel against The System.

But that’s the opposite side of the same coin: using society as a standard of how to live your life.

To be yourself, you need to embrace your own ability to choose your thoughts, your feelings and your actions.

You are willing to listen to others, but ultimately decide for yourself.

You can have strong convictions and remain open to accepting new ideas.

You can experience intense emotions and be willing to listen to them, or change them if they don’t serve your life.

You can act with passion and be able to evaluate your own behaviors, without falsely concluding that you are the decisions you’ve made in your past.

To be yourself, you create the space needed for you to consider the alternative options open to you, and to choose for yourself.

That’s what being yourself is about.

Photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt (a.k.a. Pink Sherbet)


The Relative Self

Many of the problems we face stem from our psychological outlook, and how we identify with our Self.

The concept of “Self” is an extremely complicated one, so I won’t seek to unravel it in this post. But I’d like to begin with a simple definition before I address a problem most of us face in how we identify with our Self.

Defining the Self

The Self is the collection of everything that defines you as an individual. Your awareness, thought processes, beliefs, feelings, experiences, roles, interests, behaviors, relations, etc. They all contribute to define what your Self is to the degree you associate or you dissociate your Self from each and every possible facet in your life.

You can see your Self being defined by your cultural roots or your religious affiliation. You can see yourself as a painter, or a reader, or a father, or a compassionate individual. It’s always a combination of characteristics, rather than a single label that defines who we are. While you may see yourself as an artist, this does not mean that it is the only aspect of your Self.

You may undergo many changes in life, but there is always a sense of continuity in your being. Even if you’ve experienced drastic changes in your beliefs (as I have), you can still relate to your former Self, and see it as a state within your life and the evolution of your Self.

To lead a meaningful, joyous and constructive life, you need to have a healthy relationship with your Self and to nurture it with love and care. I won’t go into what a Healthy Self looks like now, because I’d like to first shed some light on several characteristics of the Self that can compromise our well-being.

This is the first of several blog posts on this topic, and I’d like to begin by looking at the problem of the Relative Self.

The Misery of Relativity

I think it’s safe to say that the Relative Self is a pandemic that transcends religion, culture, nationality and ethnicity. The damage it has caused is truly alarming.

I will hazard a guess and say that you have already experienced the destructive nature of the Relative Self, and may continue to do so. I know I have my struggles with it on a daily basis.

Rather than see myself for who I am, I see myself in relation to what others are like.

Rather than value what I can accomplish, I consider what I can accomplish in relation to what others have accomplished.

And when I compare myself to others who are better than me in any given field, I walk away feeling bad about myself for not being better than others. I walk away with low self-esteem and shattered confidence. Not because I completely lack skills, but because my skills don’t match or surpass the skills of others.

Relativity rears its ugly head in every aspect of life where distinctions and comparisons can be made. Whether it’s physical beauty, or inner conviction, or level of productivity, or style of writing, or number of blog subscribers, or size of bank account, or stamina, or dexterity, or IQ level. Whatever it is. If we can qualify or quantify it, then we can define how one relates to the other. How we relate to others.

A Relative Self (or a Self in a state of relativity) is unaware of its own absolute being. It can only make sense of itself in relation to others.

This is why jealousy exists. Instead of enjoying what we have, we condemn ourselves for what we lack in relation to what others possess.

This is why we can rejoice when we see others fail or suffer: we are relatively better off than they are, so we feel good about ourselves.

Relativity is a killer. It’s a Self-destruct button that not only blows us – and our sense of value – into smithereens, but destroys everything and everyone around us. The fear of success grows in the presence of Relative Selves. The fear grows because it senses a threat from those threatened by accomplishment.

The Absolute Self

Close your eyes (after reading the rest of this post!), and spend a moment with yourself, without thinking about others and how you relate to them.

What are the things you value in life? What spiritual principles do you want to live by?

What activities do you enjoy doing? What skills do you feel define who you are and what value you can create?

What can you do to improve your life, in relation to the life you are leading now (and not in relation to the lives others are leading)?

What can you do to increase your income? To improve your productivity? To refine your style?

Let the questions that matter to you surface in your consciousness, but filter out questions that relate you and your skills to other people.

Don’t let images of other people come to mind. Try and focus only on yourself, and how things relate to you and your life alone.

Get a sense of who YOU are as an individual. With absolute being. Not defined by others.

Get comfortable with your Absolute Self. You may not be properly acquainted. 😉