This is your ultimate psychodynamic guide to self-actualization when the self-help grind failed you. It will help you move away from toxic hustle culture and reconnect to your real self. The reason that self-improvement didn’t make you happy, is that you tried to actualize an idealised version of yourself. And with this guide you’ll understand why ⤵️
So, Self-Improvement Didn’t Make You Happy?
Many people start the new year with the intention to become better, more productive, efficient, calm, focused, happy. You might aim for more clarity. Who has not asked themselves at some point: “What am I supposed to do with my life?”
Wanting to move forward, to grow, as we will see is a very normal healthy part of being human. So then you try a bunch of things. Let that be minimalism, bullet proof coffee, journaling, all sorts of meditation, cold showers, and every possible variation of a 4am morning routine. I can imagine that there are actually some positive outcomes of that self-improvement grind. Maybe you will finally improve your health, get better grades, or the promotion you wanted to.
What all the recent videos about “toxic self-help”, “why self-improvement will ruin your life” or “quit hustle culture” attest to is that the self-improvement grind doesn’t always deliver on the promise of the optimised life. Or even if it does, people still end up asking themselves: “I do everything I should do. Why do I not feel happier?”
The first time this thought comes sneaking in, you might assume that you just haven’t found the right thing yet. It then becomes more and more painful. Next up people rave about infra-red saunas, then it’s ayhuasca, or other psychedelics. There is just no real end to the next thing that could finally bring the reassurance, calm, relief, or feeling authentic and alive you’re craving. But what if you just don’t want to travel to the Peruvian rainforest?
1. Human Motivation & Needs
The question that has been keeping psychologist busy is: “Why do we do what we do? What drives and motivates us?” That is also a question of understanding human motivation and human needs. There is an interesting mix of three thinkers that met and influenced each other who concerned themselves with exactly those questions. And those three are: Abraham Maslow, Karen Horney, and Alfred Adler.
Alfred Adler was an Austrian psychiatrist and for a long time the prodigy of Sigmund Freud. Freud hoped that Adler would follow in his footsteps and continue his work on psychoanalysis long after Freud’s death. However the two split over a number of disagreements and Adler founded his own approach which he called “Individual Psychology”.
Adler’s basic premise was that we all strive to go from a natural state of inferiority to superiority. He stated that our behaviour is more driven by the goals that we set for ourselves than by what happened to us in childhood. One way or another you have a self-created narrative around your inferiority. That can of course be influenced by biological factors. To give a personal example: I was born with a hearing deficiency on one of my ears. When I was 8, I taught myself how to play the piano because I was so fascinated by music. And now my work as a psychologist is also all about listening. Adler would argue I’m trying to turn my inferiority into a superiority.
So the perception of your inferiority then shapes your goals and the ways in which you strive to become superior. The natural state is that feelings of inferiority are very normal and even helpful if they prompt healthy growth. Likewise superiority is not a bad goal because it means that you try to reach your full potential and become helpful to society. This is the concept of social interest in Adler’s psychology. However, both inferiority and superiority can become harmful if you use your inferiority to control others. Or your superiority consists of being the best at all costs and you need to have power over others and cannot engage in healthy relationships on eye-level.
Next up, I’m sure you are familiar with Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. He focused much of his work exactly on the question “What motivates people?” And he stated that everything we do is either an expression of a certain need or satisfies a certain need. Maslow actually never proposed the idea of a pyramid that is so popular these days – but, surprise surprise, we find self-actualization as the last need.
But let’s briefly go through the needs Maslow identified.
Physiological needs are also called basic needs and centre around maintaining homeostasis in the body. Breathing, salt, water content in the blood, etc. and also include the need for sex or sleep.
Safety and security needs those needs focus on physical survival. We need shelter, a secure job, stable relationships for protection, routines. Some of us fulfil that need with a savings account, all kinds of insurances, clinging to that which is familiar, and also partly religion or science to help make sense of the world. Someone who actively tries to fulfil their safety needs is not the wild adventurer.
Love and belonging needs are psychological needs. That includes family, friendships, and intimate relationships in which also expressing sexuality plays a role. If you wonder why sex comes up again, we can say that behaviour can be motivated by different needs.
Esteem needs represent the need for strength, achievement, confidence, freedom and independence. In addition to that we might also want prestige, a reputation, we want to be appreciated by other people.
Finally, the need for self-actualization is defined by Maslow as “…to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” This is often what people who start their self-improvement journey aim for.
You can argue that “lower” needs in the hierarchy need to be satisfied before you can move on to the next “higher” need. But it’s not hard to think of for example poets or artists who self-actualised in their art while being poor. Or Viktor Frankl, who reached states of deep meaning while in the Nazi concentration camp. Additionally, we often try to substitute one need with another. We eat comfort food because we feel lonely (not necessarily because we are hungry), or going on a hunger strike for a cause you believe in.
From Maslow and Adler we do get a sense that striving, self-actualisation, growth, becoming competent, reaching your full potential, moving forward is the natural direction of human beings. But we end with the same question: what if it feels like we tried that and it didn’t make us any happier? We’ve been hustling and working and striving but it feels like we lost track of the right direction. So if growth is natural, what can get in the way?
Maslow himself was actually not a psychotherapist, so in order to get a theoretical groundwork that is aimed at actually understanding and making your life better, I prefer the works of the German-American psychoanalyst Karen Horney.
2. Karen Horney
In a world that is so fast-paced with so many decisions to make – anxiety is something we all experience. We all know the feeling of uncertainty. We ask: “What am I supposed to do with my life? What is my passion? What gives my life meaning?”
That also implies that happiness lies in our own hand. Which is empowering but also scary and comes with a huge responsibility. There is the sense that if you are not happy – you are to blame because everything is possible in today’s world.
Karen Horney, who was a German-American psychoanalyst placed a huge emphasis on the effects and causes of anxiety. I introduce you to a hidden gem here because most people never heard of her theories which are so applicable and intuitive. She described that a lack of feeling safe, loved, and competent results in what she calls “BASIC ANXIETY”. Feeling helpless and isolated in a hostile world.
The feeling of anxiety and uncertainty can get overwhelming. Especially when we don’t know how to navigate those intense sensations, we may start looking for ways to lessen the blow of anxiety and uncertainty. There are many ways how people do that.
Some people look for love and belonging to counterbalance the helplessness. “If you love me I’ll feel calm” or “If I give in, I shall not be hurt”. This is also called the moving-toward strategy.
Others strive for power, wealth, or mastery to counterbalance uncertainty: “If I have power, no one can hurt me”. Which Horney called the moving-against strategy.
Others strive for complete independence. They try to take the fear of depending on others out of the game. “If I withdraw no one can hurt me”, “If I only rely on myself, no one can disappoint me”. And this is referred to as the moving-away strategy.
In any case, people fall into the trap of: “If… then…” thinking. For example: “If I make six figures, then I’ll feel free and totally independent”, “If I push through my optimised productivity routine, then I’ll reach every goal and I’ll be happy”, “If I get in perfect shape, then I’ll be able to attract anyone”. But of course because none of these strategies actually addresses anxiety or any other uncomfortable feeling, even if people make six figures, master productivity, get in perfect shape, they will not reach the desired state where all those uncomfortable feelings are gone. Mostly because this state does not exist – but more on that later.
The feeling of anxiety on the one hand elicits defensive strategies and there is another crucial thing that goes along with it. With all the strategies, you can see that they are very one-sided and don’t match with reality that well. They usually emphasise only simple aspects of the totality that is life and your own personality. It might be business, productivity, fitness… But ultimately, these strategies don’t teach you how to navigate the uncertainties of life that will inevitable come up. Rather they provide you with a fake sense of certainty, safety, control, and power that will seemingly allow you to erase anxiety, uncertainty and all other negative sensations from your life. And this drive to eliminate any negative sensation causes a certain rigidity in your needs, personality, inhibitions, and values.
In addition to that, most people try to ally anxiety not just in one of these ways but in several. And because if they are based in rigidity that aims at eliminating anxiety and uncertainty, they are incompatible with one another. Striving to be dominating in the business world and being loved by everyone, or not depending on anyone but still craving affection – you can see how those sets of seeking reassurance in themselves produce more anxiety because inevitably they create an inner conflict. And voila, the circle is complete. The means we tried to use to ally anxiety, started producing more anxiety themselves.
And now the next issue becomes how do you navigate that inner conflict?
You can double down on one of the strategies of moving towards, against, or away from people. We all need to have a sense of being loved and belong, we all need a certain sense of mastery and control, and we also need to focus on becoming our selves which requires moving away from others to a certain extent.
However, if you overdevelop a certain part of your self, you will neglect another part of you. You might lose flexibility and spontaneity of your feelings and wishes. Let me explain. If certain feelings or wishes don’t comply with the way you combat uncertainty in your life, they will be repressed. And consequently if you have put your whole self in service of reaching a certain level of mastery, power, and control or being completely independent from everybody – it’s very hard to experience a true sense of belonging or fully love and be loved – because a certain sense of softness and letting down your guard that is needed for affection runs contrary to power and independence.
Another strategy to “solve” this inner conflict is to externalise it. It’s no longer a conflict of opposing needs and feelings inside of you. It’s a conflict between yourself and the world. Other strategies can be arbitrary rightness, rigid self-control, or cynicism (=if nothing is important to you, you can’t be hurt).
You might say that it’s normal to want to reach some sort of mastery, to feel loved by others, and be independent. And that is absolutely true, we all need to be able to navigate those different needs and strivings with flexibility because they are all important. So how do you decide whether working on yourself is still healthy and will bring you forward in the right direction – or not?”.
2.2 The Idealised Self and the Search for Glory
We already established that it is natural for humans to want to grow and strive to become better. So how can taking on the journey of self-improvement then not lead to a better life? Or how can we distinguish between striving that will create a more authentic and meaningful life – and the productivity hustle, self-improvement grind that will only burn you out?
|Real Self||Idealised Self|
|What you expect of yourself||Morals & ideals||Tyrannical Shoulds|
|What you expect from others||Needs & wishes||Neurotic needs & claims|
|How you feel about yourself||Self-confidence & humility||Neurotic pride & self-hate|
|Healthy Striving Real Self||Search for Glory Idealised Self|
|Recognising limitations||Denying limitations|
Karen Horney actually differentiated between health striving and the SEARCH FOR GLORY.
If you start out by experiencing your self as lacking, not able to cope with life the way you wish you could, or not achieving what you wish you could achieve, you lack a sense of significance, self-confidence, coherence – i.e. you feel inferior as Adler would put it.
Ideally, this would be a motivator for healthy striving. What can also happen is that people start creating an idealised version of themselves and their lives. This is what Adler would have called the superiority complex and Horney called the IDEALIZED SELF. Then the things you do don’t happen out of a spontaneous feeling or need. It feels like a necessity in order to reach the desired state where all would be well.
In order to remodel the real self into the idealised self, you need what Horney called TYRANNICAL SHOULDS. You start “shoulding” all over yourself. [Do you recognise the should in even the question: “I do everything I should do. Why do I not feel happier?”]
What is the difference between healthy self-discipline and tyrannical shoulds? It’s the disregard for oneself and one’s best interests.
You are sick and still have to grind through your workout routine. You become agitated when your best friend stays over longer than expected and now your perfect going-to-bed time has passed. You’re annoyed and thrown off guard when your mum calls you in the middle of your morning routine and just the thought of not finishing your 30-min mediation will likely ruin your day. You’re so upset when you forget to bring your mushroom coffee to work, because now clearly nothing will get done efficiently.
You can see what is undervalued in those examples: recognising your own limitations, spontaneity, flexibility, and the normal human need to feel a connection with others.
Instead of feeling a sense of true self-confidence and self-respect that provides real footing for your life, you’ll find yourself alternating between superior pride and self-hate. It’s hard to feel love and belonging when your desire to feel superior is so invasive. And it’s also hard to tolerate that you don’t measure up to what you should be – which results in self-hate. And it’s hard to tolerate that the world doesn’t play by your rules – which results in what Horney calls NEUROTIC CLAIMS. “Others should never inconvenience me. I should never have to feel frustrated. Things should always go my way.” In that way you keep alienating yourself from your self, others, and the world.
Creating and chasing the idealised self is another way to navigate an inner conflict if you remember. Ultimately, it’s a strategy that moves you away from the real self. The idealised self is the fantastic version of the self (because it is based on a fantasy and not reality). It is a substitute for the lacking, and not-enough real self. It’s supposed to provide a sense of significance, confidence and superiority.
That can be the ideal of the ultimate, powerful, successful entrepreneur.
The most handsome man with ripped abs that can get any woman he wants.
The genius that does not need anybody and finally everyone sees just how special he is.
It’s an idealisation of ways to overcome anxiety through seeming powerful, or desirable, or independent.
Why is the idealised self so appealing? Because it answers to your needs. It makes you feel powerful, superior, desired, attractive, or independent.
The moment that someone turns away from actualising their real authentic self, marks the turning point toward the search for glory. That is exactly the path that will ultimately lead to the realisation of “I did everything I’m supposed to do (read this as everything I thought would realise my idealised self), why am I not happy?”
Imagination changes beliefs (about others) and feelings.
The fantasy about being this idealised self can then make your family, friends, partner look like an annoyance toward realising it. Life itself becomes a disturbance to your perfectly crafted system of achieving success, meaning, and happiness.
And don’t get me wrong, finding a fulfilling career and success that give you enough money to feel secure is not a bad goal to strive for. Not everyone needs to be a frugal minimalist. But: what are you giving up and sacrificing (especially long-term!) for this success? And is it worth it?
What aspects of your own personality remain underdeveloped because you need to mould yourself into a tough productivity machine, an ascetic minimalist? What relationships with other people suffer because you focus all your energy on achieving this ideal version of yourself?
The way in which you moved away from an authentic balanced and flexible self will make themselves felt. That is the one thing that is inevitable.
Because ultimately frustration will come up. You’ll realise that
👉 1. Achieving perfection and your idealised self is impossible. You are still a human being with limitations.
👉 2. The search for glory didn’t provide the feeling you thought it would.
And you can see an important thing here: it’s not that your real self experiences true suffering but your pride, your neurotic pride is hurt, your idealised self is suffering if you will. And it’s a kind of fake suffering, a kind of suffering that is not going to move you forward.
This is what Karen Horney remarked about this:
“Only when the pride system is considerably undermined does he begin to feel true suffering. Only then can he feel sympathy for this suffering self of his, a sympathy that can move him to do something constructive for himself. The self-pity he felt before was rather a maudlin writhing of the proud self for feeling abused. He who has not experienced the difference may shrug his shoulders and think that it is irrelevant – that suffering is suffering. But it is true suffering alone that has the power to broaden and deepen our range of feelings and to open our hearts for the suffering of others.”Karen Horney in Neurosis and Human Growth, p. 163
We’ll actually come back to this quote later.
I think by now I’ve shown you the huge role that anxiety plays in all of this but if you remember I told you that there are actually two emotions I’d look for if I were to work with someone who’s stuck in the self-improvement grind.
This is another emotion that Karen Horney examined. From a feeling of helplessness, or not being competent enough, feeling inferior, the world and other people can seem threatening.
Anger is a very difficult emotion to navigate in our society in general. There is a general idea that anger is bad, we should repress anger, and so on. And partly that’s true. But I really want to dig a little deeper here. Most people think of anger and aggression as the verbal or even more physical lashing out of one person against another. But there are more forms of anger, for example stone-walling, nagging, complaining, being passive-aggressive, which in psychotherapy are sometimes referred to as substitutes for anger. That does not mean in any way shape or form that you should unleash your anger.
But like any emotion, anger has a functional and a dysfunctional side. It’s dysfunctional if it turns into rage, emotional or physical abuse, and also if it turns into constant nagging, complaining, or passive-aggressiveness. On the other hand, anger can be very functional, if you use it to protect your boundaries if other people cross it for example, or when you have been misunderstood to set things right. Again, the point is not to lash out, but learn to recognise when you feel anger, identify what caused it and then are able to employ an adult strategy to deal with it.
Because if we are conscious that we feel anger, we can access conscious strategies to deal with it, but if anger becomes this unconscious shadow presence, we lose grip on it and it can become a destructive force in our life and the lives of others instead of using anger as a source of energy and motivation to protect your own boundaries.
Anger arises when a frustration is felt as unfair. That can be a rational complaint because life and the world isn’t always fair. But if we go back to the concept of neurotic claims, it can also be that if our life and happiness is based on neurotic claims. Then frustrations that shouldn’t elicit anger do elicit it in the end. So when you experience anger, it makes sense to ask yourself whether it is appropriate.
Also anger and anxiety are quite tightly related to each other. As I’ve said before experiencing anxiety based on helplessness can lead to experiencing the world and others as hostile. This causes anger as a way to defend yourself against a threatening world. If anger is being acted out in a dysfunctional way, it can lead to more isolation and more anxiety. Also if it is repressed in a situation where we should stand up for ourselves, it creates a greater feeling of helplessness and defencelessness and fuels anxiety.
And one last thing: what are you when you’ve been repressing anxiety and anger, constantly striving for a perfect version of yourself, punishing yourself with more shoulds than you can handle? Or expecting the world around you to be a certain way and it doesn’t work that way, so you’re often upset? TIRED. You’re tired. All this takes up a lot of your energy. And I think that especially entrepreneurs or people interested in self-improvement are scared to change anything about their state of anger or anxiety because they’re scared to “lose their edge”. And the one point I want to make regarding that is that you might be able to start imagining how much more energy you’d have in your life if there was less fighting, less escaping, less avoiding, less pushing and pulling.
I hope by now you might have an idea why – even though you did everything you *should* do – you still don’t experience fulfilment, safety, happiness, and meaning. Definitely not all of this has to apply to you but you might find bits and pieces of what I described in your own thinking.
To sum it up: a potential reason the self-improvement grind didn’t work for you is:
👉 1. Because you lost sight of your real self in the process of aiming for perfection.
👉 2. You fell for the illusion that there is something out there that will make a life without anxiety, uncertainty, rejections (or any other negative experience) possible. When really all those difficult sensations are part of life, too.
So, how to you find your way back to your real self? How do you move from feeling helpless and isolated in a hostile world to feeling competent and connected? This can require a very individual approach but I want to give you ideas and tools on how to navigate that next.
3. Understanding Your Own Dynamics
From Horney’s concepts and ideas I wanted to suggest that one of the reasons people suffer in the self-improvement world, is because instead of actualising their real self, they relocated their energies and movement towards an idealised self.
|Healthy Striving||Search for Glory|
|Recognising limitations||Denying limitations|
|Real Self||Idealized Self|
Are you able to be spontaneous with your routines and actions or has everything gotten a compulsive character? Are you recognising your own limitations or can you not accept that there might be any limitation to what you’re capable of? How much can you enjoy the journey? How curious are you still about discovering new things about the world and yourself on the way? Or how much do you focus on the end-product?
|Real Self||Idealised Self|
|What you expect of yourself||Morals & ideals||Tyrannical Shoulds|
|What you expect from others||Needs & wishes||Neurotic needs & claims|
|How you feel about yourself||Humility & self-confidence||Neurotic pride & self-hate|
Our aim is to paint a very clear picture of your idealized self – and what it’s hiding. We want to understand the function of your striving and all its entanglements! Because unless you can understand the function of it, the effects it has on all aspects of your life, and the price you pay for it, you cannot make a decision to modify it or to let it go.
Because letting go of the hope that a state of perfection is attainable difficult.
Do you remember this segment from Karen Horney’s book “Neurosis and Human Growth”?
“Only when the pride system is considerably undermined does he begin to feel true suffering. Only then can he feel sympathy for this suffering self of his, a sympathy that can move him to do something constructive for himself. The self-pity he felt before was rather a maudlin writhing of the proud self for feeling abused. He who has not experienced the difference may shrug his shoulders and think that it is irrelevant – that suffering is suffering. But it is true suffering alone that has the power to broaden and deepen our range of feelings and to open our hearts for the suffering of others.”Karen Horney, Neurosis and Human Growth, p. 163
It’s hard to accept that life will always have challenges, that we’ll never become the perfect version of ourselves that will always be happy, that we’ll also never find the perfect partner who will fulfil all our needs – the world has flaws, people have flaws, we ourselves have flaws. And also the world has beautiful sides to it, people have beautiful sides to them, we have beautiful sides. And as long as we strive for the idealized self that is absolutely perfect with no scratches, no negative aspects, no “bad” feelings – and we project all the negative parts on the real self that always seems to fall short or other people or the world – we miss reality.
Reality is that good and bad are combined, we cannot separate them – not in the world, not in others, not in ourselves. And by accepting that, we need to mourn the thought of reaching utopia one day, of finding love that will solve and heal everything, fulfilling a version of ourselves that is perfect and free of suffering forever. But then we also have a shot at becoming ourselves. Reaching the potential we have, developing true self-confidence.
This is broadly speaking the concept of moving from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position which was developed by Melanie Klein.
The paranoid-schizoid position is the state in which people and things are perceived as either all-good or all-bad. This allows the self to retain the illusion that a perfect situation is attainable in which the self is perfect and there is the perfect other. It allows to deny that there is anything bad about the self, which would require humility, guilt, dealing with your own aggression because aggression seems justified if the self is all good and the other out there is all bad. (You see that a lot in current politics by the way.)
In the depressive position – and you might think: “Why would I want to move towards the depressive position?” The idea is that in the depressive position, you integrate the split-off parts. Meaning, you yourself have good and bad parts and others and the world have good and bad parts. The consequence is the emergence of grief about losing this idea of the perfect utopia and the perfect self; potentially the emergence of guilt for how you acted towards other people. That means: perfect love, or a perfect self is not possible – but real love and a real self, that’s possible. Then you go from living in a fantasy to living in the real world, with all the true beauty and true short-comings where good and bad are always within the same person.
How is everything tangled up together? All the different concepts we talked about, your history, current life quality, wishes, feelings, and so on. Let’s start with a bird’s eye view, here are some questions for you:
- When did you start your self-improvement journey?
- Assess the state of your relationships, work, health, and self back then.
- What made you get into it? What was your motivation?
- Moving away: What problems did you experience back then?
- Moving toward: What change did you want to experience?
👉 What did your Idealised Self look like? What did you want to move away from? What did you want to move towards?
- What are your frustrations?
- What problems did self-improvement solve? This workshop is not to bash self-improvement, some of the things you did will probably really have helped you and it’s also about acknowledging that and maybe also seeing which practices, mindsets, and learnings you want to take with you.
- What problems or pattern stayed the same?
- Are there new problems that entered? Because self-improvement doesn’t always mean improvement
- Assess the current state of your relationships, work, health, and self.
Do you have Tyrannical Shoulds in your life? If you have a journal this can be a gold mine, the next time you say “I should…” catch yourself and see what the content of those inner dialogues are. Are those shoulds helpful and realistic?
Do you have Neurotic Claims towards life, the world, and others? What do you expect of life and others? And is it realistic? Following your anger is a good way of spotting those neurotic claims. Because anger will most likely show up if you perceive something to be unfair and then you can trace back: What exactly is unfair? What did you expect from others? Do you think that is a just expectation or is it a neurotic claim because you strive to create the idealised self that doesn’t have any needs that are not met and is always fully satisfied.
How do you feel about yourself: Where do you experience pride & self-hate? You have to realise that neurotic pride and self-hate are different sides to the same coin. And as long as you experience neurotic pride that lifts you above everyone else and shows just how special and talented you are and everyone should admire you – as long as you feel that, you will crash into self-hate at some point.
4. Awareness of Emotions and Needs
I also mentioned how there is a certain psychological rigidity that can develop on the path to realising the idealised self. That also means that your inhibitions to certain needs and emotions grow. It might be more difficult for you to be aware of some of your wishes and feelings.
And because, as I’ve mentioned in the beginning, that growth is the natural human way to evolve, we need to look at what got in the way of that. Then, loosening up rigidity, becoming aware of how what you’re doing might ally anxiety, anger, or any other uncomfortable emotion, and becoming aware of your emotions and wishes should put you back on the right track from where you can start growing toward the direction of your real self, becoming more curious about that.
You might be familiar with Joseph Campbell’s quote “Follow your bliss”. That might mean to you that you move towards a job that you’re really passionate about, designing the lifestyle that feeds your soul, enjoying the pleasure of life. But, later in life Campbell allegedly mentioned that he should’ve said “Follow your blister”. This is about: You need to look at where it hurts the most, you need to feel what you’ve been avoiding the most. The most uncomfortable emotions you don’t want to feel hold the greatest information for you. And I believe that your soul knows – it’s not my intention that this comes across in a woo-woo way but I deeply believe that your inner most being knows where you need to go looking. Because I think the reason that you struggle and feel unsatisfied is because you just don’t get away with not facing a certain truth.
If you’re really unhappy and you have no idea at all how to get unstuck, it might be a good idea to talk to a psychologist or someone similar about it – but I think that you can do a lot of the work yourself unless of course you struggle with your mental health – in that case, this is not the right place and please go and seek help from a mental health professional.
A rather recent, somewhat controversial but very interesting theory is the Theory of Constructed Emotion by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett (if you’re interested to learn more details about that I would recommend her book “How emotions are made” and also her Ted talk). The basic premise is that our brain’s main task is to maintain homeostasis. Meaning, meeting the body’s needs efficiently even before these needs arise as to not venture into deficiency.
In order to do that the brain constantly runs predictive models as to what is happening and going to happen in the environment. Because in order to respond to the body’s needs you need to know what challenges the environment might pose. And then Barrett argues that emotions are not pure reactions to the environment but constructions of and an attempt of dealing with it. Emotions then are concepts we learned and experiencing emotions is an attempt of coping. When you either don’t allow yourself to experience certain emotions or the emotions you experience are very general and not specific and concrete – you lose an opportunity to cope with the situation and solve problems in the best way possible.
For example feeling stressed is a rather broad description and the best way to deal with this can vary greatly. (1) You actually might feel overwhelmed at work, which would require you to maybe find ways to lessen your workload. (2) You might feel envious of colleagues getting a promotion and not you, that might mean you need to talk to your boss about it or reflect on possible reasons for you not getting the promotion and how you can improve. Or (3) you might actually feel lonely after an argument you had with your spouse this morning which left you without a possibility to recharge and you’ll need to have a vulnerable conversation with your spouse once you’re back home to resolve the issue.
A big part of any psychotherapy would centre around finding out what you’re really feeling, so that’s another indication that it’s worthwhile to increase not just the awareness of what is really going on inside of you but also increase your emotional vocabulary to acknowledge and cope appropriately.
When it comes to being aware of our own needs, you can start by exploring Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we’ve covered that in the first part. And in his attempt to study and understand self-actualisation, Maslow summarised values that were needed and embodied in people who he considered to be in peak experiences, which he called Being-values.
The goal is to become more aware of what you’re feeling and what your needs are – and I want to be very clear, the goal is not to portray a way of thinking in which feelings are everything (I think that’s a very dangerous trend on social media – your feelings are not everything) and the goal is also not to navel-gaze for the foreseeable future and become completely self-centred and self-obsessed! Most likely you’ve done that enough in self-improvement and if that would’ve been the holy grail to solve all your problems, you wouldn’t be here right now.
The goal is to get back in touch with yourself, being able to perceive all your emotions and needs as valuable additional information, becoming aware of limitations, unreasonable expectations towards yourself, life, and others, and use all of that information to correct course and start actualising your real self with all its flaws to re-engage in important relationships and values in your life.