The Uncomfortable Emotions That Can Come Up When We Assess Our Lives

Toby Hazlewood

The need to replace feelings of scarcity, envy and despondency, with gratitude and satisfaction.
So far to go… (Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash)

I’ve been trying to understand why I find it easy, instinctive and almost seductive to feel deprived and hard-done-by for the things I don’t have in life, rather than feeling blessed and grateful for all that I do. It’s easier to feel dissatisfied and despondent about the lack of progress rather than to recognise how far I’ve come.

It’s an ugly and futile way to conduct myself and I wish I could avoid it.

I slip into it frequently, in many different aspects of my life when I forget to count my blessings or when I’m focused outwardly on others rather than feeling grateful for my own life.

Given the choice I’d default to recognising my achievements. I’d feel grateful for what I have and would appreciate my progress and accomplishments. I would spend more time recognising the progress I’ve made towards my goals and would acknowledge that I was doing my best and making good ground.

I do feel this way some of the time — just not as often as I’d like. When I slip into the dark place, I’ll default to ‘woe is me’ rather than ‘wow I’m doing great’.

I know first-hand that gratitude is a much more comfortable and positive emotion to live with than bitterness and deprivation are. It concerns me that each time I slip into feelings of despondency, that my resolve to stick with the process and carry on with the work also takes a hit.

Why is that? Why is it so easy to slip into this mindset? What prompts it? What do I hope to achieve by allowing it to consume me?

Unhelpful comparisons

It comes from the unhelpful comparisons I make with my vision for where I should be or where I want to be, with where I think I am. It comes from unhelpful comparisons made with others. Rather than choosing to be contented with who I am, what I have or what I’ve achieved, I set benchmarks that are unrealistic or irrelevant to me.

For example, I’ll compare my achievements in the gym to those of my trainer, resenting that they find it easy to remain super-motivated, committed to the cause and living as examples of the lifestyle that they promote. Instead of recognising my own progress and commending my efforts and consistency and my steadily improving fitness, I’ll seek out those who’re doing better than me, and then beat myself up for not measuring up to them.

It strips me of the belief that I’ve achieved anything worthwhile, even when I know I have.

In my writing, I’ll lament the modest engagement that my articles receive compared to the thousands of likes and numerous comments that more established writers receive. Instead of feeling accomplished for having built a small monthly income from my writing, I’ll feel despondent that I’m not making as much as ‘the others’.

Rather than remembering the warm glow that comes when someone reaches out to thank me for something that I’ve written that helped themout, I fixate upon the number of views and followers that aren’t growing as fast as I’d like.

Should we be satisfied, or constantly striving?

I’m aware of this streak in myself and acknowledge it as a failing, a weakness. It’s the fear of missing out, fear that if I admit that I’m satisfied and contented with my lot, then I might just be settling for too little.

I think that’s what concerns me the most. It’s the selective blurring of different pieces of accepted wisdom and interpreting them to suit my own skewed agenda.

On the one hand I’m told to set myself audacious and stretching goals, and to work towards them relentlessly.

On the other, I’m advised to feel grateful for the micro-steps that represent progress, appreciating what I’ve achieved and committing to work at things for the long-term.

Is there not a danger that if I content myself with the small steps of progress, that I’ll lose my resolve for aiming high?

Start small

The logical answer, is of course not. Being appreciative for the smaller achievements is to embody the spirit of gratitude. It doesn’t mean settling merely for what I’ve got, but it’s a means of grounding myself in the reality that significant progress takes a long time to achieve.

When I’m viewing the world through a lens of deprivation, despondency and difficulty, I see only the gaps and the scarcity in my life rather than all the ways in which my needs are taken care of.

It’s a mindset that’s akin to lamenting the way that things used to be, back in the good old days, rather than recognising that things evolve and that we are constantly moving forwards and changing.

It comes from failing to appreciate that through hedonic adaptation we’re programmed such that over time shiny, new things lose their lustre and fade into insignificance in just the same way that catastrophes and losses fade away so as not to seem so bad when we look back.

The past seems easier when looked upon with rose-tinted glasses. The achievements that seemed important a few weeks ago now look trivial and unimportant.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The minimalist approach to gratitude?

Ryan Holiday wrote an excellent piece entitled The Life Changing Magic of Having ‘Enough’. It captured perfectly the delight that comes from having all that you need in life, and nothing more. It encapsulated the joy that can be taken from being grateful for the smallest things.

He emphasized that while there’s nothing wrong with striving for bigger, better and more, that we are mistaken to automatically assume that achieving these will result in disproportionately greater happiness and fulfilment. If we’re unable to take satisfaction of having just enough, in making the small steps towards bigger progress then we’re constantly going to be feeding the hungry ghost that haunts us and taunts us for not having or being enough.

That hungry ghost is the part of me to which I attribute these harmful and corrosive traits:

  • It’s responsible for me overlooking the many blessings I have in my life when compared to what I think I should have, or to what others have.
  • It’s responsible for me thinking that my accomplishments, achievements and results aren’t good enough.
  • It makes me feel like my progress and my growth aren’t significant enough or happening quickly enough.
  • The hungry ghost is the part of me that seeks to diminish the importance of who I am and what I’m doing.

Being attune to our feelings and knowing what prompts them is half the battle I guess. The next step in making progress comes from responding effectively when they come up.

It’s not easy to put the feelings in a box or to react appropriately when they come up, but I’ll keep on trying. I’m on the lookout for my hungry ghost and am ready to react accordingly.

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