By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
Chronic dissatisfaction is an epidemic in our outer-focused culture. We live in a world of “never enough.” Never rich enough, thin enough, attractive enough, youthful enough, happy enough, accomplished enough or good enough. But how can we ever experience contentment if we are never satisfied with what we currently have and who we currently are? If the goal of getting more is so that we can conceivably be happier, doesn’t a constant feeling of “never enough” prevent us from ever feeling happy?
There are some Eastern and tribal cultures that do not experience the dissatisfaction, depression and addiction that we suffer from here. These cultures teach their children to focus on wanting what they already have instead of getting more of what they want. They teach children that they are inherently worthy instead of having to earn their worth by being smart, attractive, thin, rich, coupled, etc. Such Eastern and tribal cultures tend to focus more on who people are as opposed to who they aren’t. The focus tends to be more on what is than what if. These inner-focused attitudes cultivate peace rather than the anxiety, stress, depression and addiction that plague our outer-focused nation.
We all have areas that we may want (or need) to grow in or improve upon. But we have choices about how we attempt to motivate ourselves. Simply put, we can do it harshly or kindly. Many people use an internal whip of criticism that usually only serves to keep them stuck in a place of “never enough.” But another option is putting down the whip and picking up a light feather. When we treat ourselves with gentle compassion and kind encouragement, we are much more likely to make the changes we desire — and, if we are kinder and gentler with ourselves, then even if we don’t change, we still end up feeling better! Conversely, when we beat ourselves up in an attempt to motivate ourselves, we are not only less likely to change but our internal critic continues to harangue us even if we do change, so we still end up dissatisfied!
Human beings are hardwired to notice what’s missing. Rumor has it this wiring was intentionally designed to keep us on the lookout for unsafe threats. But what if we are already safe in reality and our biggest threat is our brain telling us we are not okay and we will only be okay if… or when…?
Author Dennis Prager gives a great example to illustrate how human beings are susceptible to chronic dissatisfaction. He asks his readers to create an image of a beautifully tiled shower… with one single tile missing. He suggests that most people will focus on the one missing tile as opposed to the many lovely mosaic tiles they are surrounded by. Sound familiar? It is so easy to focus on what we don’t have and what we think we aren’t rather than all that we do have and all that we already are.
If what they say about The Law of Attraction is true (whoever “they” are!) and we really do attract what we hold in our minds, then it seems like a good idea to focus more on gratitude for what we have rather than the dissatisfaction of what we think is missing. And even if we spend more time in gratitude and we don’t happen to attract more positive things and experiences, we are still living in a more positive state, which sounds pretty good to me!
I remember many years ago reading about the notion of fostering an “Attitude of Gratitude.” I think it was Oprah who suggested writing down five things you are grateful for every day. I started the ritual that day and I haven’t stopped since. First thing in the morning, I wake up and write down five things I’m grateful for (sometimes many more, sometimes just the five). And, interestingly enough, since that time, I have been a much more content person.
So, given that our brains are wired for negativity and that we are surrounded by a goal-oriented, never enough culture, it can take a real effort to turn our attitudes around. But it is well worth the work. We actually have the control (to a large degree) to determine how positive or negative we feel, regardless of the circumstances of our lives. The exception to this is that we are not destined to be happy or content all the time. There are moments, days and time periods where sadness, anger or fear are the appropriate and healthy reactions to things that are happening to us or around us.
Contrary to popular belief, our feelings do not always have to be dependent on our outer circumstances. I am guessing you know people who seem to “have it all” and yet they are still dissatisfied. Or perhaps you have observed someone getting something they dreamed of and finding they are still not happy. It’s an attitude adjustment to decide we are going to focus on what we have rather than what we think is missing.
There is an old Cherokee legend about a grandfather teaching his grandson an important life lesson. The grandfather explains to the young boy that we all have a battle going on inside of us. He said, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ that live inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: ‘Which wolf wins?’
The old Cherokee replied simply, “The one you feed.”
We don’t get to choose what “wolf” our parents fed inside themselves or which one they used to parent us but we can choose which one we feed everyday. We can let our dissatisfied minds lead us around or we can take charge and shift our focus to what we do have, how we are enough, and what we are grateful for.
Maybe you can give it a try. Spend some time each day practicing an attitude of gratitude. Become aware of when you are lashing yourself with a “not good enough” whip and turn it around by thinking of the things you are grateful for. Try asking yourself, several times a day: “Which wolf am I feeding?”