Where’s the instruction manual (to life)?

When you spend most of your adult life working towards a goal, only to find that it wasn’t all that you wanted, needed, or expected it to be, you’re faced with a choice:

1) do the healthy and mature thing – reflect on what’s missing, set new goals and press on, or
2) do the less healthy and less mature thing – ignore the frustrating insight and carry on as if all is well.

Well, just because you are a “mental health expert” doesn’t mean that you aren’t also a human being. So after all those years of delayed gratification and supposedly having been told I was competent (as evidenced by my Psychiatry residency diploma), I was confronted by the reality that I was ill equipped. I felt disappointed, but I chose to carry on as if everything was fine, at least for a few years. But, I could only look away for so long.

Because that’s how real life works – it has a way of chipping away at denial and revealing what is true.

Like for most people, this awareness came from a continuous flow of experiences over time that challenged my existing (but inaccurate) beliefs.

Because that’s how the truth works – it’s always true and exerting its truthfulness in the Universe, even if at first you don’t believe it.

So eventually I accepted that despite having spent eleven hard years of my life learning what I hoped would be enough, I would still need to keep on learning. As it turned out, it would actually be the next eleven years that followed my formal education that proved to be most valuable to both my professional and personal development.

Here are the five most relevant things that life told me was true:

#1: “No longer sick” is not the same thing as “healthy”

A close variation is “no longer suffering” is not the same as “happy.” This was true for my patients and for myself. No longer feeling sick or no longer suffering was more like “partial temporary relief and appreciation. Then occasional enjoyment with periods of frustration, discontent, and ambivalence in between.”

Good enough, especially when most people come to therapy during pretty terrible seasons of their life, but not enough when looking at it from a whole life perspective.
This insight came early in my career, but it was merely the discovery of “the problem,” which is unsettling. The second insight came gradually and is the resolution to the first.

#2: We have enough of what we need to be healthy, but don’t know how to use what we have

The experience of “not enough” was not because I didn’t have the right experiences or resources. They were available to me all along. It was that I didn’t recognize what I had and also didn’t know how to use my resources as they were intended.

In other words, I was always properly equipped but what I was lacking was not enough awareness and competency. It was like everything I needed came in the box, but I was trying to assemble this complex thing called life without referring to the instructions.
However, through no fault of my own, I didn’t get an instruction manual. Neither did you. Our parents didn’t either. Nor did our extended families, teachers, elected officials, doctors, bosses, coaches, gurus, or self-proclaimed thought leaders.

We’re all on some level improvising our way through life. Some of us realize it. Many of us don’t. Which leads to insight number three.

#3: What we think we know, our core beliefs, dictates how we live our lives

As human beings, we are moved to act by what what we believe. Yes, there are parts of our brain that can get temporarily hijacked by big emotions and in those moments we can act more reactively. But overall – what makes human beings different than all other living creatures is the degree to which our thoughts, perceptions, ideas, and belief systems exert control over our behavior.

This is good when our beliefs are grounded in what is true and good. However, this is not always the case.

This is directly related to the next insight.

#4: There’s a lot of things that many people believe that are wrong, and those false beliefs make sense as to why many of us have a hard time getting past “good enough”

Our beliefs are highly vulnerable to bias – unreliable memories, limited life experiences, life experiences that we give too much emphasis to, unreliable sources of information, and a fear that changing our beliefs (even if the change is towards something truer and healthier) will create instability that we can’t handle.

Back to the instruction manual analogy, in the absence of reliable and easy-to-understand instructions, we’ve been either improvising on our own or following the advice of others. Sometimes that advice has been reliable and helpful. Many times it’s been flat out wrong. Even worse, sometimes we don’t even know that it’s wrong (and harmful).

For example:

  • Many of us still believe that good behavior leads to being a good and happy person. It doesn’t. We have B.F. Skinner and people who like to hold onto their power over others to blame for that one. (see Being Human = Beliefs > Behavior)
  • Lots of people believe that what makes you special is what makes you worthy. Not only is this not true, but believing it makes many of us feel bad about ourselves because we’re never “special enough” to feel “worthy enough.” We can attribute this misdirection to the well intentioned but totally misguided self-esteem movement. (see The One Idea That Will Make You a Better Person)
  • Some of us still believe that you can’t change people. But you can and you do – through your relationships. But only if you believe in Science, the wisdom of the Arts, and the history of Humankind. (see The One Choice That Changes Us All)
  • We’re told don’t be sad, boys don’t cry, women are too sensitive, don’t worry, you shouldn’t be angry, that it doesn’t hurt, that it’s not too bad. Somewhere along the way, we were also told that intellect was better than emotion. That being logical was being mature and that feelings were weak. All this unfortunate advice has been costly because emotions actually make us more intelligent, more motivated, and more competent. Even Spock now sees the error of his ways and is pro-emotion too. (see Science Fiction & Science Fact: What They Tell Us About Emotions)
  • We’re told that the secret to life is to find your happiness. Not quite true. You actually have to create happiness for others too. And be good at things. And get things done. And learn to be effective when suffering and failing. And it’s not a secret.
  • We’re told that the way to be successful is to believe that “you can do it,” or alternatively to “just do it.” In the real world, truly successful people do neither. They pick ambitious but realistic goals, then think, feel, and try their way through the hindrances.
  • Lastly, we’re told that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” This is sort of true for dogs, less so for clever chimpanzees, but not true at all for us humans. For human beings, it is our natural, default state to always be adapting, growing, and progressing from the moment we are conceived to the day we die. We are always learning new tricks. (see You Really Should Change Your Mind)

And this last correction is part of the good news, and what makes all of this more than just an intellectual exercise.

#5: It’s never to late for us to change because change is inevitable

There are a few things that make human beings unique in the animal kingdom. One is the fact that our brains continue to grow throughout our whole life span. We are always revising our memories, our thinking, and our beliefs. As I mentioned above, these changing beliefs lead to changes in our mindset and our behavior. As I also mentioned above, the resources to live life as it was intended are ones that we all possess. We may have been missing the instruction manual, but all the necessary parts did come with the packaging.

Put it all together and here is the simple, integrated truth:

We all have the ability to live authentic, fulfilling lives if we can learn to use our natural and universal abilities as they were intended.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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