February 13, 2018

What if Working on Yourself is Bullsh*t?

You’re feeling off-centered and not yourself.

Maybe you woke up feeling wonky. Maybe somebody said something hurtful that sent you head-spinning into an emotional vortex of complexity. Maybe you had a horrible date with another person who is completely wrong for you and you are kicking yourself mentally with critical thoughts.

Suddenly, you’re questioning yourself. Suddenly you wonder if you can trust yourself—if you can hold yourself steady as emotions and thoughts swirl in a storm inside of you—a storm that makes you feel like you’re losing your ground.

Those times that we suddenly question ourselves—sometimes we reach out for self-help books, or podcasts, or uplifting, inspiring music, or even research spiritual retreats. Those groundless times make us open our calendar apps so we can plan our yoga practice or meditation time with the ferocity of someone fearing the world will get sucked into an endless vortex of timelessness if we don’t. 

Why do we do it?

And what are we searching for in those seeking a higher state moments? What will that inner Zen give us that we don’t already have?

A lot of people (including myself) admit they are “working on themselves.” Lately, I’ve been asking the question: what does working on yourself really mean?

Am I—and are you—a “work” in progress, to be chiseled and shaved and refined? Does all the work we seem to be doing somehow shape us into more whole, well-rounded humans? Does the work make us more soulful and in tune? Does it make life flow better? Does it take away our suffering?

The idea of “work” in American culture contains an element of suffering. Of all the developed nations, we crazy workaholic Americans offer the least vacation time and worst healthcare benefits. What does that amount to? Stressed-out, sick, tired, and easily burned-out “workers.”

All throughout my early school years, my mom let my three siblings and I take what she called “mental health days.” When she noticed we were getting stressed, anxious, irritable, or were on the verge of social or academic burnout, she’d say, “Why don’t you stay home tomorrow and call it a mental health day.” The first time she said this, I was floored.

“Really, mom?” My homebody, loving, Cancerian self asked her. “I can stay home and just chill?”

“Yes, I want you to just chill. You need to de-stress. Think of this as a preventative day off—it will keep you from getting sick!”

So, my overly hard-working, straight-A self sat at home on the couch, flipping through daytime talk shows—and feeling guilty. Was this okay? At the young age of nine, I was already feeling burdened by our culture’s emphasis on “work hard, play hard.” The problem for my highly sensitive self was that working hard left me no energy to play. So a question that rattled through my fourth-grader mind was: how can I find balance? Will life always be this difficult? And as a mom today, I hope that my daughter does not have those same thoughts when she turns nine—nor ever.

What it comes down to is how we define “work.” When you say to a friend, “I’m working on myself,” do you mean you are pushing yourself to run five miles a day, drinking green smoothies that you hate in the morning, and reading five self-help books you feel you should be reading to have the kind of relationships you want in your life? Are you doing that work because you want to, or because you feel you have to?

Or does working on yourself mean you aren’t working at all? Instead, you are undoing the “work” society, your dysfunctional childhood, and relationship trauma “did” on you just by listening to your inner voice more? Maybe you’re going to therapy or doing more yoga or journaling more or spending more time in nature? Are you doing things that feed your spirit rather than suck the life out of it?

Or, instead, are you defining work in a new, non-American way, outside of the nine-to-five, exhaust yourself into insomnia norms? Are you taking career work and re-working it in your mind and heart?

Maybe that means you go part-time, or become self-employed, take a pay cut, and re-budget your spending so you have more time for the leisure activities you love. Maybe that means you make less money but have less stress and learn to enjoy the simplicities of life more. Maybe re-defining work means you take the risk you’ve been wanting to by putting yourself out there in new ways—going back to school to pursue that degree you’ve always seen as a pipe-dream, taking a job in a different field just to try something new and different, contacting that friend who’s been asking you to become a business partner, and exploring the possibility of venturing into something risky but with a lot of potential.

What is happiness all about?

I recently—yes this is going to sound totally cheesy, but I’m a sappy romantic at heart—re-watched all six seasons of “Parenthood.” I choose to watch things that feed my spirit and inspire me, which is exactly what this family drama does. I absolutely love the underlying theme of the Braverman family (as I feel it resonates with the theme in which I was also dysfunctionally raised): do what makes you happy.

Happiness is relative. The word happy seems to be a bit illusive in our culture. In the “American dream” world, happiness is the result of working hard; it is the pot of gold at the end of the 40-plus-hour work week rainbow—the pot most can’t enjoy until they are old and gray and (hopefully) still healthy. A friend of mine recently posted this “story” on his Instagram (which is often mis-attributed to John Lennon) and it struck me. It said:

“When I was five years old, my Mom told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment and I told them they didn’t understand life.” 

I love this. I think the heart always knows this. Children know this.

But somewhere along the line, we forget. We are conditioned to be competitive and to excel and to do this and to be that. We ask little children (goddess knows why): “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” I’ve seen parents of kindergartners post their child’s “career choice” in a caption on their first day of school picture. Really? Five-year-olds shouldn’t have career aspirations, they should be immersed in the world of imaginative play.

What are the important questions?

We can stay mindful of our process by staying connected to what we’re feeling in any given moment. As we stay present with ourselves, we can begin to ask:

1. What do I need right now—in this moment? If we stay in touch with our needs, it’s a lot harder to get so off-center we want to binge on self-help tactics. Tap into what you need in the moment by taking a deep breath and asking from that heart-centered space. When we are feeling down or depressed, that breath might lighten that inner load a bit. And when the emotional storm is swirling, that deep breath can be our saving grace and what is needed to nourish us in the here and now.

2. What makes me feel alive? Another word for happy in my book is alive. When we feel truly alive, we are full with self. When we feel alive, our soul is singing. When we are alive, suddenly our senses seem more fine-tuned.

I often think of the movie “Pleasantville” and the scene where they go from black and white to technicolor—because they have stepped out of one-dimensional, cardboard living to embracing life to its fullest. You know you’re alive by the feeling of it. I personally love those moments where suddenly everything seems a bit more real—the colors brighter, the smells stronger, the tastes richer, and the feelings deeper. And the only way to discover what wakes your soul up is to live and experience.

3. What makes me feel genuinely grateful? You know this because you smile. You smile and you say to life: thank you! There are so many gratitude “practices” out there. It can be helpful, when one is depressed, to begin to pay attention to what makes your heart open a bit more—it can be helpful, but it can also be hindering. The best way to be grateful without working at being grateful is to just let the moments arise on their own.

You may notice when you pour your morning coffee that you smile to yourself and your nose says thank you as it breathes in the roasty aroma. You may notice as you sit at your desk and the sun shines on your arms that you smile and say thank you as the light dances on your skin. So just observe. Don’t try to be grateful, because I guarantee that you already are—perhaps more than you think. Just pay attention as you go through your day—breathing and living and taking in life.

Work is bullsh*t.

Life is not work, my friend, unless you see it as so. You define your life. And as you define it, it becomes your lived experience.

If I could talk to my nine-year-old self today, I’d tell her: life is not hard work; life is a playground. Life is trial and error. Life is breathing in and breathing out. Life is not at all serious—in fact, it’s quite comical.

So if your life feels like hard work, you have the choice of making the switch to redefine how you see it. It’s but a switch of perception. And after making it, ask yourself: do you feel the same way? Do you think there is anything we truly have to attain? What if we gave up working on ourselves. What if we just stopped. What then?

I have—and I am still here, breathing, typing, and contemplating. And honestly, I am much more content. I don’t have to be kinder or happier or more peaceful or assertive. I’ve let go of the ideas of how to be. And guess what, I just f*cking am! And, so are you!

You see, I have been all along. We all just are.

The problem lies in the fear of being—the trepidation that comes with saying: I. Just. Am. 

Tonight, I taught a class called yoga and mindfulness, where mindfulness philosophy is woven into a yoga practice. The irony in this class title is that yoga (a breath-guided presence) is mindfulness (here and now awareness) and mindfulness is yoga. However, it has taken me almost two decades of practice to understand this.

When I started my yoga practice, I took it seriously. I was the straight-faced, studious college girl who had to schedule study breaks, unlike a majority of my fellow students, who had to schedule study time. I treated yoga like a college course—something to master that would somehow make me smarter and boost the GPA of my life. My goal: get a 4.0 in my yoga classes. I soon realized that the only one grading me in yoga was me.

The more I practiced, the less I focused outward, which somehow began to loosen the grip my inner perfectionist held over me—softening my need to be something. 

Over time, I became less concerned with what others thought about me on my yoga mat. As I became less concerned about others, I judged myself less. Did yoga change me? Absolutely not. If yoga did anything to me, it peeled away the layers of the false self—I’ll call them lies. Yoga reminded me that I was there—alive and breathing and being—all along. And I somehow felt more myself than I ever had before without doing anything other than noticing my breath and body more. 

What yoga and mindfulness do are hook you in to that higher self—let’s call her the soul. There are still times where I get caught up in that idea of work—of being better, of changing something. When I do, she calls me forth, and when she’s quiet, I call to her and she speaks these words:

The soul speaks—can you listen?

My dear, I will end where I began: the place where no work is needed. Breathe deep. 

There is nothing wrong with you.
Yes, you!
You are perfect.
You are enough.
You are actually a pretty cool and fascinating human being and I’m kind of in awe of you. 

Does it feel like I’m talking to you?
Go ahead and blush, because, I am.
I’m in love with you.
You are the sun to my moon;
the stars littering my dark night sky.
You make me, me.
I actually couldn’t exist without you.
Each thought that you have,
each breath that you take—
inspires me to take another breath of this thing called life. 

That sense of perfection that you seek is really contentment.
Contentment is my Mother—and yours too.
Divine Mother Contentment,
she reminds us—you and me—that breathing and being
here and now, in the skin we’re in,
is enough.
And the less we do,
the more we see—
We are whole.
We are complete,
as we are.

Right here,
right now.
You, my friend,
are enough. 


Author: Sarah Theresa
Image: Rick&Brenda Beerhorst/Flickr 
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Travis May
Social Editor: Travis May

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