There are no easy answers; nor is there an easy street.
Despite this, we all still want a spectacular life and our commercial culture has left us with no shortage of people willing to sell it to us. There has been a massive emphasis on the importance of building questionable constructs like self-esteem, bolstering confidence and assertion to enable us to ‘smash’ our goals and ‘hustle n grind’. The solutions offered to the mental health epidemic, which have admirable foundations in self-awareness and acceptance, have spilled over into an over prioritisation of the self. Although well intentioned and unquestionably beneficial in the proper context, their message, like so many others, have been mutilated by capitalist concepts. Ego-centrism co-habiting with crippling insecurity is a common phenomenon. Concepts that have applicability in mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing are incorporated in everyday discourse, however often to the detriment of humanity. We take concepts such as self-care, frequently referenced as not being selfish, and flaunt it as justification for suiting ourselves. Anyone who crosses us is irrefutably a narcissist. We construct boundaries to keep people in their place as opposed to negotiating a compromise of mutual respect. We quote invalidation if anyone dares disagree with our version of events.
Now not for one second am I refuting the merit or efficacy of these concepts. Nonetheless, their popularity, particularly on social media platforms, has resulted in them becoming tools of self-righteousness, self-importance and at times manipulation. The culture we live in demands a self-sufficiency and independence that we are not wired for. High stress levels, unresolved emotional issues and social pressures coupled with a lack of the essential connection experiences that are requisite for robust resiliency have our nervous system in upheaval. One-up-man-ship is the order of the day and naturally, the self-promotion that is a requirement in the pool of comparison requires us to rate ourselves in high esteem. Success, beauty, strength, power, wealth and prestige require a level of confidence and sometimes arrogance that differ greatly from a more humanitarian paradigm. Paradoxically, many of those who practice a more philanthropic way of life do so for the adulation they receive when they hashtag about it. Kindness should be celebrated and is heart-warming to hear about. Yet we forget that the true meaning of charitable thoughts and actions is not for vacuously validating our esteem, but to keep us connected with our own humility and integrity.
We are living in a viscous world where if it’s not recorded on the internet and posted for approval, it never happened. This extreme focus on the self, coupled with the intense pressure of creating a perfect cyber persona have diminished some key skills required in the negotiation of relationships and our interpretation of life in general. I refer to them as skills because I believe it is simply a case that our culture and lifestyles having beaten them out of us. It is, I believe entirely possible to re-introduce what I believe is our natural inclination towards being whole-hearted people. As always, there is a thin line between honouring who we truly are and how we feel; and wallowing in self-pity and self-righteousness. It is always worth noting that we have a propensity to interpret things the way we are, as opposed to what the reality is. If we are already experiencing feelings of inadequacy or low levels of worth, if we have created a schema that assumes a malevolence in others, if misfortunate past experiences have created a distrust in others and compelled us to create an impenetrable defence system, then hyper vigilance is inevitable. It goes without saying that our default setting will be suspicion and self-sufficiency.
Unfortunately, despite the value placed on this mindset, it is incongruent to connection and kindness. It also pre-disposes us to poor decision making and closed mindedness. Yet, our defence systems including our self-preserving strategies deserve our compassion. We hear the infamous inner critic referred to all the time so much emphasis has been placed on silencing its voice. We forget that the inner critic is well intentioned, with an objective of keeping us safe, albeit in a self-defeating manner. We also tend to ignore how automated our application of criticism to others can be. Thoughts of resentment, comparison, superiority and envy are an everyday part of the human experience however without regulation, they quickly become bitterness. Creating an awareness of the voice and gently reasoning with it, has been far more helpful to me. My critic isn’t going anywhere and this mentality of replacing all negative thoughts with flowery affirmations is unhelpful. Hearing the voice and understanding the pain behind it, whilst questioning the rationality of the sentiment with compassion lifts me out of the tail-spin I can find myself in, particularly if done on paper. This has been an essential practice in constructing a more compassionate way of thinking about the self.
However, we often forget to extrapolate this kindness to others. Our cynical and critical mindset thinks in repetitive black or white terms. Training ourselves to be more open-minded is a discipline that extends its influence to every tenet of our life. Too often our reactivity and defensiveness get in the way of applying perspective or context. We think of empathy as specific to when someone is bearing their soul and yet an empathetic mindset is applicable in almost every interaction if we choose to administer it. Practicing putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes, particularly when that someone has offended, hurt or annoy you in some way; doesn’t equate to being a doormat for bad behaviour. It does, nonetheless, generate a space to step back from reactivity and making everything personal.
Applying the assumption that when others hurt us, they do so from a place of suffering is not about letting them off the hook. It’s about releasing ourselves from a place of anger. When we distance ourselves from the intense emotions of a situation, we can also contemplate the role we have to play in circumstance. We have a massive tendency to give ourselves the starring role of victim and yet, all relational issues are co-created, even if the distribution of responsibility is very unbalanced. Practicing humility; taking accountability for our reactions, our insecurities and our interpretations is an imperative part of self-awareness and building a more rounded, forgiving approach to life.
Something I find of particular benefit, when emotions are running riot, as mine are inclined to do, is to write potential perspectives on paper. Interrupting the frantic flow of self-justification and righteousness whilst also taking the focus off the self, when we force ourselves to view others in the best possible light, we deescalate the negative feelings and reactions inside. This reduces the flow of stress hormones which is essentially a gift to ourselves. The consequential behaviours and decisions are more likely to reflect integrity, which ultimately leaves everyone involved feeling more harmonious and peaceful.