Do you ever feel a desperate need to start over and create yourself anew?
I feel a frantic desire to free myself. To start all over again and in another way.
~ Milan Kundera
Have you ever felt an anxiety deep inside of you caused by the vague notion that something isn’t the way it’s supposed to be? That something about your life is fundamentally wrong?
I spent the better part of a decade being completely baffled as to why I felt this way.
Eventually, I became really good at ignoring these experiences. Anyway, they tended to come and go, and they never stuck around for long.
I have to admit, it took me years to understand these feelings. I felt desperate. And maybe a little terrified. It was horrible.
I felt like I needed to jump out of my own skin, like I was trapped in a cage made of flesh and bone.
In retrospect, I see that I wasn’t living a life that I wanted. Yet, in a bizarre way the life I wanted seemed impossible to obtain.
The life I wanted seemed incongruous with the person I thought I was.
This made me feel hopeless and anxious, like an animal backed into a corner by an invisible enemy.
What was worse is that I couldn’t even really put my finger on what was wrong. I had only a vague idea of what I wanted from life.
But, there were some things I did know. For example, I felt a lot of fear, especially in social situations, which often paralyzed me.
I also knew that nothing ever felt like enough. No matter how much time I spent with my partner, no matter how much time I spent playing sports,
no matter how much time I spent watching Netflix, playing videogames, or hanging out with friends, it all ended too soon.
Life seemed insufficient. And I had no idea why.
Have you ever felt lost? Do you feel lost now? If you do, know that there is hope.
Marcus Aurelius famously said, “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live is properly.”
For me, the beauty in these words is the wisdom that it is never too late for any of us. It might feel like it is, but it’s not.
Have you ever realized you’ve chosen the wrong path but feel so invested that you can’t turn back?
Maybe you’be been dating the wrong person for too long, and now it’s just too easy to settle.
Maybe you’re three years into a four-year university degree and you know it’s not the right field for you, but you feel pressure to complete it so you can start your career.
Maybe you’re not satisfied with your job, but because it pays a decent wage you feel like you should just accept it.
For many of us, this is how we see our lives.
Perhaps it’s the impending approach of death that causes us to accept the mediocre. Or, perhaps it’s the expectations of our parents, friends, or ourselves.
Whatever it is, this dissatisfaction, this accepting of the mediocre, can cause us to feel torn apart.
The good news is that you’re not helpless in the face of this problem. There are things you can do.
What we can do
For me, going through this process meant questioning some of my deepest held assumptions and biases.
This eventually led to a divorce and a re-examination of what it meant to me to be alive.
Six years on from my ‘aha’ moment I’m still learning. I’ve shed old, unwanted behaviors and picked up some new ones. It’s been a slow and gradual process, but it does get a little easier with time.
The best part? I no longer feel like a caged animal. I no longer feel the need to jump out of my own skin. I feel more at peace with myself and the world than I ever have.
And I’m feeling more and more ready to take on the challenge of living my life to its fullest.
What follows are some ideas and tools that I wish I had had when starting out on this journey.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think anything will make this process easy. But, I do believe there are some tricks to make your journey a little less bumpy.
Here they are:
1. Be mindful. Meditate. Be with your thoughts. Allow them to come and go. Observe your mind and start to understand what it’s like to be you. This doesn’t just help to figure out what you want out of life — it literally makes everything better.
2. Use the 5 Whys. This was a technique popularized by the car-maker Toyota to get to the root cause of problems. Too often, we assume we understand ourselves, so we stop asking questions. This simply technique encourages you to dig deeper.
How does it work? It’s simple. For example, if you’re curious about why you are always afraid to speak in business meetings, ask why? and then respond. Then, ask why? again and respond again. Continue this process until you have arrived at the root cause of the problem.
For me, one of the most important things this tool has taught me is to not automatically trust my gut response, especially when it comes to emotional issues. I’ve found that my assumptions are often wrong.
3. Explore “negative” emotions — they often act like a compass for understanding who we are. We experience negative emotions when something is wrong; as such, they can be powerful clues.
But, while all negative emotional responses to a situation have a root cause, they might not all be relevant to understanding what you really want out of life. For example, understanding why you have road rage might be useful to you but only tangentially relevant to the activity at hand.
Fear, I’ve found, is the most useful emotion to explore. Our fears are often associated with deep-seated issues that are worth investigating. I have made many important discoveries about myself simply by examining my fears.
4. Detach yourself from the person you think you are. We are all naturally anchored to our patterns of thoughts and behaviors, and this anchoring seems to strengthen with time.
The problem is that we wont find the answers we’re seeking by thinking in the same ways we always have. We also won’t change if we’re stubbornly attached to who we have always been.
Try to remind yourself regularly that the things you do and the thoughts you think are simply habits. These are things that have been ingrained in you through time and repetition. They are not You.
In other words, you’re not stuck with what you’ve got. This is really important to remind yourself of because change can only come when you let go of who you think you are.
5. Decide who you want to be. Understanding ourselves is not enough — once we understand, we must then choose. Choosing won’t necessarily be obvious, either. And you might be wrong.
But part of life is taking risks. Making educated guesses. Making mistakes.
We’ve all heard that failing is the surest path to success, yet how many of us actually practice this? In fact, we all tend to do the opposite — we do what’s safe.
So, choose and then go for it. If it doesn’t work out, you haven’t lost anything. You’ve gained knowledge, and more importantly you’ve gained some self-mastery.
Self-mastery is what allows you to pursue the things you love. But this, too, takes practice. You must train your mind to try new things, it won’t automatically change just because you’ve figured out what you want.
Our brains are habit-making machines. And once a habit is ingrained, it’s difficult to break. Similarly, forming new habits is also hard.
Sometimes, it’s just as hard to break old habits as it is to create new ones.
Remember, feeling a disconnect between the person you are and the person you want to be is simply the brain identifying a problem.
And, you’re not alone in feeling this way.
So, embrace it. Feel the emotions, don’t push them away. Talk about them. Think about them. But move beyond dwelling on the pain and start to explore what it means to be you.
Then, experiment and make mistakes. These are the only things we can do when faced with the unknown.
And, at least for me, the exploration of myself has involved much more ‘unknown’ than I ever would have guessed.
So, take it slow and remember that there are no shortcuts, despite what everyone else might be telling you.
And take solace in the fact that this is a battle we all face simply for being human. We are all fighting for our lives to be lived well.
In time, the destination will start to mean far less than the journey itself, and you’ll begin to enjoy the ups and downs that life has to offer far more than you ever have.
Then, you will realize that you’ve started anew to create the life you’ve always imagined, and in a strange and beautiful way you will feel born again.