be a better person

For far too long, I was mostly consumed with how to “be a better person.” It was what I would have said to you if you sat with me for a long time over steaming cups of tea and we peeled back the layers, one after another: I just want to be a better person.

Better than what? someone was finally brave enough to ask me, and I said: Better than this.

What’s better than this? this brave person asked me, and that’s when I saw what they saw, and how I was feeding the hungry ghosts of “not enough.”

I thought I needed to be a better person because at my core, who I was, wasn’t enough.

It was through someone helping me dismantle my own faulty logic around “enoughness” that I learned how to do it, with coaching clients and coach training program participants.

* * *

“But wait,” many a client and workshop participant has asked. “If the point of this work is to accept myself, how can I accept myself, if I’m…trying to be a better person?”

I delight in this question, as I always delight in questions where embedded within the question, is the answer. “That’s right,” I say. “How can you accept yourself, if you’re trying to be a better person?”

“Well, I want to accept myself,” they say. “But, I also want to be a better person.”

“Interesting. Why?” I ask.

“Because…I’d be really sad, if this was, you know…it,” they say.

* * *

Lately I have been partial to describing my work as being about “the and.” I help people to be with both, with whatever is on both sides of “the and.”

Courage and fear.
Commitment and waffling.
Creation and destruction.
Resting and hustling.

I believe that being with “the and” is the only way that we ever arrive at wholeness. We do it through dismantling the logic that would prop up one way of being as the road to being a better person and dismissing the rest. We do it through practicing being with both, even when it’s uncomfortable.

* * *

The desire to be a better person is fundamentally predicated on the belief that something is wrong with you. That’s why it always fails. It’s not just semantics. The choice of “better” is at the heart of the disconnect.

Instead of asking ourselves how to be better people, I think this is a more helpful question: “How can I change the things in my life that I know aren’t working, while also accepting my imperfections?”

Here’s what I know about change: the paradox is that when we start to be fully with the things that we don’t like, the things that we don’t like start to change.

Let’s say that I have a habit of getting sarcastic and critical with someone. The “be a better person” approach might entail remembering the 1-2-3 rules for how to be at conflict resolution or trying to talk myself out of being annoyed by the person’s behavior. Chances are that with that approach, I’ll be successful half the time, and the other half of the time, I’ll end up biting my tongue long enough that I eventually can’t hold myself back anymore—and then I end up snapping at someone.

The approach of shifting while being with yourself, as you are, is about attention. When I am being fully with my sarcasm or the times when I offer someone biting criticism—and I do mean fully, truly, wholly with that experience—I’ll notice that it’s actually painful, for me, to be this way with another human being. It’s painful to be listening to someone and judging them. It’s painful to be thinking of angry comebacks.

If you’re always trying to be better, you put yourself in the position of striving for the courage while stamping out the fear, striving for the creation, stamping out the destruction. It’s exhausting. That’s where all your energy goes.

It becomes impossible to shift something from a place of genuine respect for the self when you’ve already set up the condition that only the “better” option is really acceptable.

Instead, we need to start being okay with “the and.” Yes, courage and fear live within you. Yes, commitment and waffling live within you.

In fact, it’s possible that they always will. This life, in all its imperfection, might be “it.” So then what?

Here’s where I arrived, and where you might arrive, as well: Well, if the things that are hard to be with might always be around, I might as well figure out how to live a good life, alongside them. Hopefully I can do that with some grace, because I have been the first person to meet my soul without conditions.