Join now for the weekly e-letter in courage.
In my 20s I had the habit of “making changes.” I’d decide on some self-improvement kind of a project: organize the closet, eat nothing but macronutrients, yoga and meditation every day, 30 days of XYZ Online Course, hitting up the self-help aisle at the bookstore to see what was new.
I’d get my groove on with any of those, and then within a few days or maybe two weeks at most, it would fizzle out.
Those projects would fizzle out because of my “why.”
There’s plenty of great advice for how to make a change and stick with it, but here’s where my money is:
When you’re trying to make a change, know why you’re doing it.
Like, really know why you’re doing it.
Know why you’re doing it, down to your bones.
Personal Growth Project
Back then, my efforts to change failed because my “why” was perfectionism, or weight loss and my hopes for living a better life because I had smaller thighs, or wanting to emulate someone I thought had it all together, or feeling a low-grade, underlying anxiety, and wanting something to change.
Mostly, though, personal growth projects were a great distraction from actually dealing with my stuff.
Before I go further, I should clarify: Particularly if you’re walking through one of life’s valleys, it’s great to get your priest, intuitive healer, naturopath, chiropractor, therapist or life coach on speed dial. Go ahead: spend your evenings grabbing an aloe vera juice with your yoga friends and your weekends Kondo’ing your closets.
When the kale chips are down, you need all of your resources. Bring on the fucking chlorella tablets and beet juice; there ain’t no shame.
But then, there’s making your life into a Personal Growth Project. The signs :
- Most of the work is pushing yourself to be more positive and uplifting, to the exclusion of dealing with the shadowy stuff.
- You’re not following all the way through; you bounce around. First you’re into meditation, then you’re into active consciousness, a month later you’re convinced that heading to Bali is your dharma. Your life could be described annually as “that year I was really into…the Law of Attraction, or colonics, or cross-fit and Paleo…”
- Or, instead of bouncing around, you try to do All The Stuff—-meditation and active consciousness and cross-fit and paleo and Bali and colonics and the Law of Attraction and meditation and yoga and green smoothies and…
- You can’t go out to eat anywhere, because food has become such a land mine; you could find a problem with the options available at a salad bar.
- Shit has gotten complicated—and we’re not talking about trying to find a reasonable existential response to “Why are we here?” When your life has become one big Personal Growth Project, it’s literally like managing a project—-there’s a schedule, there’s a lot to buy, and you’re trying to shut down your responses (“I will not think negative thoughts. I will not think negative thoughts. Wait. If I’m thinking about not thinking negative thoughts, is that a negative thought?”).
- If you get honest with yourself—really and truly—you’d admit that you feel like you’re playing a role.
- You’re spending more time/money/resources, year after year after year, on yourself than you are on helping anyone else. The good kind of self-help starts with you healing you, and the good feelings start motivating you to help others. Personal Growth Projects, by contrast, are self-involved.
- You’re spending too much money on classes/remedies/stuff/healers that has no real track record of bringing you benefits. While I know it’s not popular in self-help to “should” on yourself, I’m going to do it, here: Y’all, it’s common sense that you should stick to a budget, eliminate credit card debt, and sock away a little for retirement or emergencies. C’mon, now.
Okay, Here’s The Truth
The biggest sign that you’ve made your life into a Personal Growth Project?
Deep deep down, none of it’s working, even though it’s all a lot of work.
Deep deep down, if you really-truly-really told the truth, you’d admit that while eating vegetables and meditation helps, something is seriously still not right in your soul.
Know Your Why
I’m a fan of Simon Sinek and his theory that the best businesses “Start with why.” I’ve seen his TED talk, and while I’ll admit to being slightly distracted by his super-hot accent, I’d wager this: he’d say that the best people also “start with why.”
Knowing your why means that you get super-clear:
I’m not going to green juice it up this week because I think I’ll lose weight, or because I want to be like that yogini I follow on Instagram. I’m going to do it because it feels fucking amazing.
I’m going to start exercising weekly because it feels fucking amazing. (So in service to feeling fucking amazing, I’m going to figure out what kind of moving my body feels great, what’s fun, what makes me laugh, what I don’t resist).
I’m going to give more money/time/resources to those in need, because it feels fucking amazing. (So in service to that, I’ll get off of Facebook and stop telling myself that bullshit about not having enough time.)
I’m going to have more sex because it feels fucking amazing. (So in service to that, I’m going to get vulnerable and talk with my partner about why we’ve hit this lull. Or I’m going to buy a vibrator. Or I’m going to check out polyamory. See? Options for everyone).
I’m going to train for triathlon because it feels fucking amazing. (So in service to that, I’m going to devote some of my limited available free time to sweating and I’m going to confront my resistance to the pool, because the bad-assery I’ll feel as my body gets stronger is so worth it).
I’m going to start painting on large canvasses with paint on my fingers instead of on the brush. Why? Because it feels fucking amazing. (So in service to that, I’m going to buy some canvasses and paints, and not care what it looks like. Anyone can finger paint).
When you decide to deeply examine your motivations, getting ruthlessly honest about your “why,” you’ll quickly see what doesn’t work and what would. The hard stuff doesn’t feel as hard (instead, it starts feeling worth it).
Know your “why,” and you’ll get a lifeline to far more clarity and joy than all of the world’s self-help books and courses could possibly give you. Ditch the Personal Growth Projects in favor of knowing why you do what you do, want what you want, and choose to live how you live.
I was sitting down to have lunch with Andrea Scher at a cafe in Berkeley, California. “So what’s new with you?” she asked.
I leaned forward, a little giddy, feeling like I was about to tell a secret. “Well,” I began, “I’ve been really fucking happy, because I figured out this thing.”
“Oooooh, what’s that?” she asked.
“Pleasure, first!” I said, and then it all came out in a rush.
I Told Her
I told her about how I’d been starting my days with those most pleasurable activities, first, before I began to work.
I told her…
- How I’d never been happier in my entrepreneurial life, because pleasure first in the morning made every single aspect of my business, better.
- How I’d stopped checking email first thing, because it was a distraction from prioritizing my creative (pleasurable) work. Email is the linchpin!
- How I’d become wildly more productive in the afternoons, even though I was technically working fewer total hours.
- How I felt less resistance around taking care of those business and admin tasks that I’d always procrastinated on.
- How I looked forward to the start of each new day in a revitalized way.
- How I felt sexier and more sensual and feminine ever since I started writing fiction, again.
- How I felt more present as a wife and mother, less inclined to irritability when I had a lot going on.
- How I began to move forward on an idea that I’ve been turning over for a non-profit, after years of feeling tight and constricted around time, unable to bring any more to the table than I was already bringing. Pleasure was the doorway to feeling like I had ROOM to integrate more.
As I told her, I noticed myself trying to read her face, to see if she was happy for me or if she was feeling triggered by my happiness.
Being Andrea, she was happy for me. But the fact that I was trying to figure out her reaction and whether or not she was triggered by my declaration of sovereignty over my work, my art, my life, clued me in to the fear that I was holding under the surface.
What will people think if you are sovereign over your time?
What will people think if you aren’t seduced by the cult of busy?
What will people think if you’re not feeling run ragged by motherhood and you are finding time for your creative pursuits and you’re daring to make money doing work that you love?
Why People Don’t Prioritize Pleasure
We don’t prioritize our pleasure because we’re afraid of rejection when other people are triggered by our happiness–because your happiness is your power.
We don’t prioritize our pleasure because we don’t think pleasure is serious. If we did, we’d prioritize it.
Women in particular have trouble prioritizing pleasure, because the culture tells us that it’s trivial; because the culture is threatened by women who are fully in their power.
We, ourselves–not “the critics” that we like to blame for our hesitation to create pleasure in our lives–are the first people who demean pleasure, by not creating space for it.
We ask ourselves who we are to spend time on pleasure when there are so many “better” things to spend time on, so many people out there suffering. We forget that our happiness doesn’t cause others to suffer, but our personal suffering makes us tight and constricted and less open to help others.
We feel selfish for carving out time and space of our own. See above.
We immediately think of ten other competing priorities and then it’s hard to focus, so we give up and say, “What’s the point? I can’t even concentrate.”
We’re struggling to make ends meet or we’re navigating our way through a personal crisis–divorce, illness, death.
These are all reasons why people don’t prioritize their pleasure.
Some of them are hell. Being a being is hard. In particular, being a being who’s struggling to make ends meet or navigating a personal crisis, is really (really) tough. There will be times when you’re less able to reach for pleasure. Nonetheless, I think it’s what we need to do–for ourselves, for others, for our children, for a world that suffers.
You Are Sovereign Over Your Time
As I understand it, for most of human history, most women have not had as much power over their lives as they do, today (I say “most women” with full recognition that there are women who don’t have the kind of access that you and I do, reading this).
You are sovereign over your time. Your time is made up of your choices.
Make more of them.
Make more of them that bend your life gently in the direction of your pleasure.
These are not easy choices to make. They are threatening choices, to some. But I believe ardently that there is power in deciding to make any choice that steps in the direction of your power, your agency, your wholeness.
Pleasure is that unexpected choice that leads you to a happier life, and in turn gives you greater capacity to play a happier role in the lives of others.
Who are you, today? What has your growth and healing taught you? No one gets through life without experiencing painful things. That’s the no-b.s. truth. But the people who are happiest tend to look at their lives and “re-frame,” or, as I say it, “add the gold.” They look for how the tough circumstances that they walked through created a survivor. They ask themselves what they learned after a big disappointment. I’d never suggest that someone rush straight into this process. We need legitimate time to heal from old wounds. But growth and healing work best when we go back and decide that our past does not define what’s possible for us, moving forward.
1. Create more perspective around a life event and discover how you might reframe it
2. Stop stressing about what’s happened in the past, and start asking yourself how it has shaped you into the person you are today.
3. Learn how to claim all parts of your life.