Embrace the contradiction.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, American writer and novelist, wrote:
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
This sounds useful, but as your experience will tell you, it’s also uncomfortable.
Cognitive dissonance is the name given to the state of mind in which a person holds two or more inconsistent beliefs at the same time, or acts in a way that contradicts a belief.
Our brains, it seems, constantly try to resolve these contradictions. One way of doing this is by changing our attitudes. For example, if you have the goal of exercising every day but failed to exercise yesterday, you might make yourself feel better by deciding to work twice as hard at the gym today.
While it’s natural to want to resolve cognitive dissonance, there are situations where it might not be useful to resolve it. In these situations, trying to resolve it might be causing you more discomfort than simply accepting the truth of two opposing beliefs.
The impossibility of change
There have been many moments in my life when I’ve wanted to change. But each time I’ve noticed that changing would benefit me, I’ve also ran head-first into a big problem.
To me, wanting to change meant I wasn’t good enough. It meant that some part of me was broken. It meant that I should be ashamed of who I was.
This series of thoughts became a complete and utter distraction from the purpose of the change, which was simply to improve my life.
Because such negativity arose out of wanting to change, I avoided changing. Because I avoided changing, I avoided improving my life.
Getting the picture?
In short, wanting to change made me feel not good enough. Yet in order to change, I needed to feel good enough.
I felt like I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I felt like I had no options.
So I did nothing.
You are not good enough and yet you also are
For better or worse, we’re constantly comparing ourselves to others. At some point, we’re not going to measure up.
It’s at these moments that we notice there’s room for improvement. We see the gap between our performance and someone else’s and we may be motivated or even inspired to change.
Unfortunately, noticing this gap also tends to make us feel inferior and depressed. It can cause us to look back on the choices we’ve made and kick ourselves because we think we could have made better ones. It can make us ungrateful for what we have and what we’ve achieved.
To sum it up: noticing this gap can make us feel not good enough.
And a part of us thinks that these negative feelings should be motivating, right? As if our dislike of, or anger toward, ourselves should push us to excel.
I have two things to say about that perspective.
First, studies have linked gratitude, not ingratitude, with greater motivation, personal growth, and satisfaction. When we appreciate what we have and what we have achieved, we become more willing to change.
Second, by dwelling on what we lack we are literally training our brains to be dissatisfied and ungrateful. This means that if we excel despite not feeling good enough, we will still not be happy because we will have trained our brains to always look for more and better. There is no endpoint to this type of thinking. We will never feel good enough because feeling good enough will always be just over the horizon.
But, how do we reconcile our desire to improve with our desire to feel good about ourselves?
Or, put another way, how can we be grateful for what we have and who we are, yet want more?
Does this seem like a contradiction to you? Does it seem impossible to hold both of those things in your mind at the same time?
While our brains may despise cognitive dissonance, that doesn’t mean they’re always right to despise it.
What if we can be grateful for what we have and who we are AND want to improve our lives?
What if we’re both good enough AND not good enough?
Balancing the contradiction
If you want to stop seeing personal growth as a threat, you’re going to need to do some work.
This is a puzzle that you must solve in your own mind. I can’t tell you how to do that, and no one else can, either. This is a puzzle unique to you that only you can solve. The best anyone can do is point you in the right direction.
First, you need to do is understand why you don’t feel grateful for what you have and who you are. Is your paycheque not big enough? Is your car not fast enough? Is your house not beautiful enough? Do you regret past choices? If you find yourself constantly envying other people, it’s obvious that you aren’t grateful.
My suggestion to you: explore your mind.
For example, you know that your life could be far worse than it is, and yet this truth probably doesn’t move you. You are much more likely to focus on how much better your life could be. Why is this the case? What are the implications of this perspective? Is this perspective a choice?
Second, you need to think about your motivation to improve. When self-improvement comes out of self-hatred or dislike it feels like you’re demanding change because you’re not good enough. By default, many of us in the West have a certain degree of hatred for ourselves. But, if you hate yourself for what you have or who you are, you probably don’t think you’re worthy of improvement. If you don’t think you’re worthy of improvement, do you think that will make the process easier or harder for you?
On the other hand, when your desire to change comes from a place of self-respect and appreciation, you feel worthy of improvement. Then, the work you do to improve feels like you’re simply helping yourself.
How you think about change is everything. But only you can convince yourself that you’re worthy of improvement.
Again, my suggestion to you is to examine your mind. Do you think you’re undeserving of happiness? Do you think you’re undeserving of success? Are you fearful of your potential? Are you scared about how changing yourself might affect your current situation?
In the end, asking yourself these questions will help you balance the contradiction of being grateful for what you have and who you are with wanting to improve. This balance is possible but it involves mental gymnastics that you may not be used to. If you’ve spent your entire life hating yourself for your perceived flaws, it will take a lot of effort to change that perspective. Don’t expect it to happen in a day.
I hope you think you’re worthy of improvement. Everyone is. The hatred and dissatisfaction we too often feel toward ourselves is unnecessary and detrimental. We all deserve to be happy and we all deserve to experience the joy of improving our circumstances and striving toward our potential.
Thanks for reading!