We are so often prone to blaming ourselves when our lives aren’t working out as we hoped. The cultural touchstones which help to define much of our society have been internalized by all of us, and deeply affect our self-perception. The Protestant work ethic, the American Dream, even divine punishment; these concepts inform our thoughts and opinions, and can make us feel that if only we can change ourselves, then everything will fall into place.
Add to this the complete domination of aspirational advertising, with constant images of how our life could be if we just do, say and (most importantly) buy the right things, and the idea that we should exert full control over our destiny is set. We begin to feel that we are solely responsible for absolutely everything, and this feeling pervades every aspect of our lives, from our work to our relationships. Career not on track? Put in more hours. Heading for a relationship breakdown? Push your feelings down and try harder
The Importance of Personal Growth
I know, both from my own personal experience and my years teaching, that people can change themselves and their lives on a profound level through personal action, and by taking conscious steps towards self development. In this, I believe we have a responsibility to give ourselves the best tools possible to deal with life, if we can. This might be meditation, therapy, or any number of self-help options.
But sometimes, what we gain through these tools is actually the clarity to see that it’s our external situation that’s untenable, not any one personal flaw. Life isn’t as simple as “iron out that personality quirk, get up earlier, tick off your to-do list, lose 10 pounds and your goals will be achieved”. While hard work and self-growth do often lead to progression, it’s equally important to know when to let go.
When It’s Not You, It’s Them
It can be really difficult to work out when we need to change, and when our situation does. So what can we do to help ourselves recognize the situations where we’re fighting a losing battle? Here are a couple of questions we can all ask ourselves to illuminate the issue.
1. Am I unwilling to change my circumstances simply because I’ve already invested so much time, money and emotional energy in them, and don’t want it to go to waste?
For example, it may always have been your dream to start your own music business. Everything you’ve done over the last ten years has been in aid of this goal; it might be even going well financially. Yet you are working 15 hours a day, are completely disillusioned by the industry, and no longer enjoy any of the work. In this situation, it can be easy to think that the fault lies with you – perhaps through ingratitude, a failure to see the best of things, or laziness in a desire for an easier life.
What we all need to accept in moments like this is that what we wanted ten years ago may not be what we want right now. It doesn’t matter how many personal sacrifices we’ve made to keep something going; we can’t continue to drain all our resources into one of life’s ventures, for no better reason than we feel that we’re too far in to do anything else. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that something is negatively impacting our wellbeing, and choosing to act accordingly.
We will have gained experiences, memories, and maybe even a unique skill set over this time. Every action we take is a learning experience, and “giving up” is neither a failure or a waste.
2. Do I still gain any happiness or satisfaction from my current circumstances?
Life is rarely, if ever, a perfect picture. Whether it’s a relationship, career or project, there are going to be moments when we aren’t happy. There will even be moments when we contemplate throwing in the towel and heading for the hills.
It’s healthy and necessary to check in with ourselves in these moments. Ask yourself if you’re being unreasonable, and if you need to dig a bit deeper to make things work. Even if we have experienced some weeks or months of discontentment, this might have nothing to do with our partners, job, family or any other factor, and may instead be something we can address through self care and personal change.
This being said, we still need to ensure that we are (on the whole) still happy and satisfied with our circumstances. Take relationships: they can endure all kinds of annoyances, miscommunications and even betrayals if we can honestly say that for the majority of the time, that person makes us happy. If we can still draw support and comfort from our partner, then it doesn’t matter how consistently they fail to do the housework — they are still good for us.
On the other hand, if you are generally miserable within a relationship and have been for a long time, then it might be time to to stop looking inwards for the answer, and to face up to your situation. It might be that rare flashes of love and happiness keep you hanging on, or that you have become trapped by habit and security. The same can easily apply to other areas of life; aspects of our routine that we persist with, only because it seems harder to break free.
Ultimately, we are all responsible for our own happiness, and introspection and self-development is a key part of this. But there are times when we can’t self-help our way to a contented life, and the answer doesn’t always lie within. It isn’t our job to embark on a complete emotional overhaul to make ourselves more hard working and agreeable. We shouldn’t have to remodel for the sake of a job, person or goal, especially if this is completely at odds with our wellbeing. Instead, we can recognize when we need to let go, in order to move forward through life in a positive way.