I have a question for you, and it might be hard to answer, but please stick with me, because this article may be the first step in finally being able to change your life. Can you honestly and authentically say that you are happy and living a life that feels 100% right for you? If you’re like most people in the world, the answer is no. Most of us are walking through life just trying to get to the end of the day, trying to make it through the week to get to the weekend, trying to make it through each weekend until the next vacation or event that we can look forward to.
This question came up during a therapy call I was on with a client. My client, I’ll call him Jack, was in a very courageous and vulnerable place, sharing how much he is struggling in his life. Jack is a college graduate, he grew up in a good home with parents who worked very hard and were able to provide for him and give him everything he had ever wanted. He just moved to Boston and was living in an apartment with a friend, having recently started a new job. The job, he said, is okay, it pays the bills and gives him enough time and space to do other things he enjoys. Jack’s basic needs are taken care of, he has friends he talks to and has a good relationship with his family. On the surface, it looks like he is fine, with no significant challenges or problems, but the truth he struggles to admit is that he is absolutely miserable.
Jack vulnerably spoke, without pause, for the entire 45-minute session with tears streaming down his face, asking why he was so unhappy, why he felt so alone and could not pull himself away from his phone long enough to take a shower or do any of the hobbies he used to enjoy. He explained how most of his day is spent scrolling through social media, staring at the activities and accomplishments of other people wondering why he was such a failure compared to them. Scrolling was sinking him deeper into a depressive state, but he couldn’t pull away. He couldn’t get himself to stop, because even though it added to his pain, it also took his mind away from the mundanity and meaninglessness of his day-to-day. It gave him just enough pleasure to keep him doing it, and pain that wasn’t bad enough to pull away from.
Jack felt confused, he knew how much his consumption was hurting him, how much better he would be if he just put his phone down and did something else, but he couldn’t. He was trapped in the vicious cycle of escape and pleasure. Jack, like so many of my clients and others in this world, was caught in a rut, feeling like his life had no meaning, and like the things he did did not matter.
Why do we do this? Why do we fall into rabbit holes and cycles that we know aren’t good for us and struggle to do the things that will help us get closer to the people we want to be? Why do we stay in a pattern of consumption that kills our souls and leaves us feeling empty and like life is meaningless? What keeps us feeding our depressions and anxieties? Is it because we’re just crazy, lazy, worthless? That’s what most of my clients believe. They tell me how faulty and flawed they are, how they must want to be miserable because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t keep engaging in the same behaviors over and over again to no avail. Are they crazy, or is there something deeper going on?
I have yet to meet a client who is “just crazy,” worthless, or any other of the fears they possess. Even the clients I see with the most shocking behaviors and symptoms all engage in those behaviors to serve a purpose, to unconsciously get an outcome that they believe is helping them or will help them in the future. Think of someone who struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), to an outside observer it makes no sense why the person MUST wash their hands 72 times, not 73, not 71, but precisely 72 in the same rhythm and routine. But to the person, that number and behavior have a meaning and a purpose that serves to ease their fear that something terrible will happen if they don’t do that behavior. They are giving themselves a sense of certainty and security that everything is going to be okay as long as they continue doing what they are doing.
For those of us who don’t struggle with a serious mental health challenge like OCD, our behaviors may look different, but the purpose is the same, we are seeking a sense of certainty and security that things will be okay, that we can have a sense of pleasure and joy, even just for a brief moment, and that hope of that one moment keeps us engaging in these patterns and habits even though we know in the long-term they are not helping us.
This is exactly what I said to Jack. He wasn’t crazy, he wasn’t worthless or a failure, he had a core belief that he did not matter and that his life had no purpose, and to ease his pain and the dark emotions that arose from that belief, he did what he could to find momentary pleasure and joy. Jack did not believe he was capable of change and did not believe that things would change for the better, so he wasn’t willing to put effort into changing his behavior, because why put effort into something that will yield no result? This is why we stay stuck. This is why it was easier for Jack to scroll through his phone and not do the things he knew would help, because deep down he did not believe it would benefit him or change anything, so it made sense to do whatever he could to feel pleasure for a moment.
Our beliefs are the strongest force in the world. They shape every single aspect of our lives and make the difference between what we do and don’t do, think and don’t think, feel and don’t feel, and become and don’t become. Our beliefs shape our destiny, and when we have strongly held beliefs that our lives have no purpose, that the things we do are meaningless, that people and the world are harmful and won’t ever change, it’s nearly impossible to live a fulfilling, passion-filled life of purpose. These belief patterns are at the core of most major and minor mental health challenges, including depression and anxiety. And even if you aren’t suffering from textbook diagnosable Major Depressive Disorder or Generalized Anxiety Disorder, those patterns of thinking and feeling may be there and may be causing a great impact.
So what do we do, how do we get out of this cycle of searching for momentary pleasures and create real, lasting change? What I said to Jack, and what the literature shows, is that this is a three-step process that will take time and effort. But if you’re willing to try, it will work and finally give you a sense that your life matters and will get better.
Step 1: Define what a meaningful life would look like for you
Most of my clients, and honestly most people, have never thought about the meaning of their lives or what they want their lives to be. Most of us just go with the flow, following the rules and expectations that were set for us by our family and society, but never questioning what a life on our terms would look like. We get sucked into the ideas and beliefs of the world, and wonder why we’re unhappy and unfulfilled, clinging to pleasures to get us through the day. This is one of the first activities I’ll take my clients through. Now here’s another component, be realistic for yourself. You do not need massive, audacious goals and dreams to have a meaningful life. For some, a meaningful life might be a family and kids, for others, it might be doing musical theater, or coaching Little League. Whatever the case may be for you, try to get clear on this question, “If I let myself think about what I wanted from life, without fear of judgment or scarcity, what would that look like?” Another prompt I used frequently is, “Imagine it’s a year from now, we’ve done a lot of work together and you get to a point where you can finally say, ‘I got everything I wanted out of therapy, I made progress on these things, I healed from these experiences, and now I have and have become these other things,” what would that be for you? It doesn’t have to be strictly defined, but even pondering the idea of what a meaningful life on your terms would look like is a step in the right direction.
Step 2: Identify the beliefs, objections, and barriers that are getting in the way.
Step one usually isn’t hard for people. We all, at some level, know what we want, what we want to get better at and improve in, and what we’ve been afraid to say out loud. We know in our hearts what would make us happy or what we dreamed of as kids. The challenge isn’t the dream, the challenge is the things that get in the way; our own minds. I’ve seen clients share with me their deepest dream in extraordinary detail, and then moments later talk themselves out of it because of their fears and limiting beliefs about themselves. We all have fears and insecurities, we’re human, but that doesn’t mean your fears and perceived limitations are true. Actually, for most people, they are blatantly inaccurate and completely false. We are far more capable than we could ever imagine, but the beliefs we hold about ourselves, because of our past, keep us stuck feeling worthless, incapable, and unlovable. The greatest way to break free from this is by naming the fears and identifying the patterns we get ourselves into. Look back to a time when you tried to change something in your life but it didn’t work out, what happened? What were the thoughts, fears, and emotions that came up, how did you respond or react to them? What barriers got in the way? Why did they stop you? Get clear on these, so that this time you’ll know in advance they will probably come up again, and can move on to step number three.
Step 3: Identify and Create a Simple Plan to Get There, and Take Action
Once you know what your meaningful life would look like, and you know the barriers that might get in the way, you can start making a plan to get there. What are a few, small actions or steps that you can begin taking every week to help you fulfill your meaningful life? This does not need to become a radical life shift. This is why most people don’t succeed, they set unrealistic goals and expectations for themselves, try to force themselves to follow through, and when they can’t they let themselves fall into the belief pattern that it’s because they weren’t good enough and weren’t deserving of it. The truth is you were just following the wrong plan and steps. Start small, I say this to every client of mine. You’re better off starting small and succeeding, showing yourself you are capable, and building from there, than trying to transform yourself overnight, failing, and believing it’s because YOU are a failure. You are not a failure, you are not worthless or unlovable, you’re just expecting too much too soon, rather than giving yourself the time and space to grow into the person you’re trying to become.
A meaningful life that brings you joy and fulfillment is possible, at Evolve Ventures we have helped hundreds of people do this through one-on-one therapy and coaching, and even more in the community through group coaching, the podcast, and our social media. You don’t have to stay stuck in the cycle of momentary pleasure anymore. You can evolve, and see the truth that your life can be the most beautiful thing in the world. Give yourself the chance to see it come true.