We’ve spent time talking about the mindset you’ll need to have to give your new journey in life a real shot at success. A big part of that mindset will involve the way you treat yourself throughout the process.
Often, the challenges themselves don’t get in your way, but rather the way you treat yourself and talk to yourself throughout the process. Most people fail not because of a lack of talent, but a lack of energy and sanity throughout the process. This is where self-care comes in. You do have to take care of yourself over the long-haul, but the idea of self-care can quickly become a trap. Let me explain.
The best way to set a trap is to make it subtle and appealing. Add the right bait, put it in proximity, and carefully camouflage the trap. We tend to forget that humans are animals. And just like the prey we capture, we can be captured by even larger predators. So who or what are you prey to exactly? You can fall prey to influences meant to hinder your progress that are portrayed in a positive way. Enter the self-care trap.
They go by many descriptions — the self-care guru, the meditation sage, the Buddhist hipster, the “treat yourself” enabler. Their goals and opinions are the exact opposite of the prototypical guru’s.
Instead of telling you to pull up your bootstraps, they pretend bootstraps don’t exist. Instead of telling you you’re weak unless you’re successful, they tell you that you’re strong because you’re not successful. Instead of telling you to hustle 24/7, they tell you to reward yourself for doing nothing.
Both sides of the coin are wrong. As always, the answer lies in the grey. Nuance often doesn’t pay as well. It’s easier to paint a black and white binary view of how the world works.
It’s easier to sell and it’s easier to consume. I decided for better or worse, even if it makes this book less read or profitable, that I was going to tell you the truth. So what’s my truth. Many versions of self-care are heaping loads of B.S.
The Happiness Dichotomy
There are two types of happiness — memory happiness and experimental happiness. Memory happiness answers the question “How has my life turned out so far?” If you have experiences in your past that boost your confidence, remind yourself of your worth, and confirm your identity as a successful person, you’ll have great memory happiness, fueling further success.
The converse is also true. Human beings all have a goal achieving mechanism. Some are stronger than others. In your case, if your memory happiness doesn’t include the achievement of goals that mean something to you, no amount of “in the moment happiness” is going to solve that.
I meditate daily, journal, eat healthily, treat myself, etc, but I also work on goals that have meaning to me. This idea that you can use mindfulness to remove your goal-seeking mechanism is false. Maybe you can pull it off like the Dalai Lama, but odds are the pangs of desire will stay in you forever.
Let me be very, very, very clear for the peanut gallery. I’m not attacking the idea of caring for yourself.
I’m attacking the idea that you can live a full life without achievement being a central piece of it. By achievement, I don’t mean a million dollars, just something that matters to you. I fear the self-care movement often tricks people to feel good about themselves in the short-term, which leads to forgoing better long-term goals like meaning.
This bastardized version of self-care says, “You are inherently good, deserving, and entitled to self-worth.” It argues that you should feel good about yourself, no matter what, but is that actually true?
Is your life supposed to be comfortable? Do you deserve comfort and ease at this point in your life? What if your life objectively sucks? Pat yourself on the back? Only you know the answers to these questions but think about it.
Be honest, what do you think about more — random moments of experiential happiness or the constant thinking of the past (what you could’ve done differently) and incessant mulling about your future (what you want, wish, and hope to do but often procrastinate on)?
If your lack of achievement doesn’t haunt you, then close this article. But I bet it does, no matter how much you try to bury it. Isn’t quieting your inner turmoil by achieving your goals a form of self-care, too? Yes, and it’s often a better one because it lasts. Juxtapose it with the opposite.
“Treat yourself,” “take a break,” “enjoy the moment” “avoid burnout.” All of these statements would be beneficial if you’ve been giving it your all toward something worthwhile. When it comes to burning out, most people don’t reach it through the exertion of effort.
If you’re really spent from taking the time to build your dream, of course, take time to recharge. No, often people burn out because they’re working on the wrong thing (career), they’re focused too much on petty distractions and errands, or they’re just inaccurately assessing how hard their life is.
If you don’t have genuine diagnosed depression, live in poverty, or have a truly dire lifestyle, I’d bet dollars to donuts you’re using self-care as a cop out or you’re just making mental mountains out molehills. Following this path of chasing experimental happiness will never quell the voice of desire inside you.
On top of that, you can’t trick yourself into loving and respecting yourself. You have to earn it from yourself. Let me explain.
Problems Self-Care Can’t Solve
Life is hard. Inherently tragic. Regardless of who you are, you’re oppressed, experiencing hardship, and “the man” is holding you down in one way or another. Whether the blame is placed on the glorification of status, societal expectations, or other people in your life, the moral of the story is the same — “It’s not your fault. You couldn’t avoid your fate. Effort is overrated. You deserve a break.”
I emphasized the word deserve because it speaks to the overall goal of the self-care practitioner. They want you to feel like you’re entitled to feeling better. Somewhere along the line, respect for yourself became a basic human right instead of something you earned.
Feelings of entitlement, martyrdom, and superiority gained through disingenuous humility will make you feel good in the short run, but entitlement doesn’t solve the deep underlying problems human nature equips us with.
The Root Causes that Make You Feel Bad in the First Place
Fake self-care is the classic form of “treating the symptoms without addressing the diagnosis.” Pain-meds will ease your pain if you’re terminally ill, but you’ll still be terminally ill and die. The only thing that can save your life is an actual treatment, a cure.
You can ease your pain, dissatisfaction, and discontentment with “self-care” but it doesn’t address the reasons why you feel you need self-care in the first place. Often times, you feel bad because your life is actually bad.
If you’re working a job you hate, have low-quality relationships, don’t feel a sense of meaning, have bad health, don’t have the things you desire, all of which paints a general malaise on the canvas of your life, of course, you’re going to feel bad. I mean, why wouldn’t you feel bad?
Your mind uses external cues to form an identity. The state of your life itself often dictates how you feel about your life. If you know someone who’s done it, let me know, but you can’t wish away the deep-rooted needs, fears, frustrations, hopes, and desires that come with being a human being.
A few years ago, I’d gotten the most out of shape I’d ever been. I felt like I’d hit bottom. You know what got me out of that sadness and frustration? Telling myself to accept myself no matter what? Nope. Getting in shape lifted me out of that sadness and frustration.
When I was broke, 70k in debt, and living in an apartment with no electricity and rats crawling in the walls, I was not happy. You know what helped me get happy? Meditating and renouncing my possession? Nope. Reinventing my career, earning more, and improving my standard of living did that.
Before the peanut gallery starts to yell at me for being shallow, understand the point I’m trying to make. This isn’t about the way society or other people feel about you, it’s about the way you feel about you. I don’t know you. I’m not judging you. I’m asking you to judge yourself. Whatever answer you come up with is fine, as long as you’re being honest.
Do you deserve to be taking time off, really? In your current situation, which will work better for you, trying to conjure up a positive self-image in your mind, or doing something tangible to help you change the way you see yourself? Only you know the answer. Sit with it. Journal about it. Once you know, act on it.
I have plenty of self-care routines, actually. I meditate 20 minutes a day, “treat myself” to massages and pedicures, take one day off of work per week to recharge, etc. But these techniques are compliments to my real self-care routine — working hard, doing the things I love, and create a life that means something to me.
That’s another thought pill to swallow. You only have to make yourself happy by your standards — not society’s, not your family’s, not your friends’. Even though you have your own unique set of standards — some people measure success differently — you still have to meet them. If you don’t, all the self-care in the world will do exactly zilch.
The Underlying Sense of “Not Being Good Enough”
Yes, you can place partial blame on the arbitrary measures of success we all abide by, the social status standards society sets, and the media that turns our insecurity into revenue. Obviously, there are factors. But there’s a more potent source of not feeling good enough that does way more damage than the ones listed above. Sometimes you feel like you’re not good enough because…you’re actually not good enough.
I have many sources of motivation, but one stands out above all else — dissatisfaction. The process of solving the problems in your life that create dissatisfaction is the most rewarding process you can go through.
You get to conquer something. When you continue to conquer goals and solve problems, you become a conqueror. You start to look at yourself as a person who overcomes challenges, faces fear, and persists through failure. This builds true memory happiness.
There is no greater or purer sense of pride than an earned sense of pride. This isn’t arrogance. It’s the certainty that you are a worthwhile human being. Nothing can fill this void accept effort, action, work.
Some would say I place too much emphasis on work. Maybe it’s because I was born in the West — the land of rugged individualized and the pursuit of happiness. Maybe it’s because I read The Fountainhead and now I’m brainwashed. Maybe I’m projecting. These are all possibilities.
Knowing I’m fallible often causes me to beg the question instead of command the action. My question for you — is it society’s fault you don’t feel good about or is it yours?
The “Outward Success” Problem
I get why people tell you not to focus on outward success. Ambition can become a poison just as powerful as discontentment. You can chase after the wrong goals, follow the wrong carrot, and waste your time building up your status account.
Still, pretending like worldly success isn’t something you’re both judged on and judge yourself on doesn’t account for the way the world works. Even if we removed all media, advertisements, and the entire slew of gurus, you’d still constantly compare yourself to other people. You’d still feel envy, not from arbitrary success, but from other people who genuinely follow their own paths, regardless of what the path is. You’d still worry about what other people think.
My life got better when I started to use my innate traits to my advantage. Instead of trying to feel no envy, I used envy as fuel to reverse engineer the strategies of people more successful than me. Instead of pretending like I don’t care what other people think at all, I follow my own path to the furthest extent possible so I know that people have no choice to respect my hustle (envy and hate are often angry versions of respect). Instead of pretending I didn’t want more money, I just got more money and then reinvested it right back into a quality life — putting it into creative projects, spending it to improve my health, and using it to buy more time and freedom.
Maybe my advice doesn’t apply to you. If that’s true, skip to the next chapter, but I’m guessing it does. I’m guessing you’re constantly watching your up and down movement on the totem pole. Why not just move up? Because you’ve been convinced not to.
The Societal Magic Trick
In an earlier chapter, I talked about why society doesn’t want you to succeed. I explained that there’s no “grand conspiracy” where “the man is trying to keep you down.”
No. There are just many incentives for society wanting to keep you distracted, conformist, indebted, angry and helpless.
Remember, “Never look at anything else when you should look at the power of incentives.” Whenever someone is trying to sell, persuade, or inform you, think about their incentive for doing it. Nobody does things for no reason.
Even if unbeknownst to them, they have a subconscious incentive to do so. So what are the incentives for pushing this fake self-care mantra? Let me explain.
The Money Incentive
First, self-care makes money because there are products to fill that avoid. What, do you think Dove tells you to take a calm bubble bath with their products because they care about you?
It’s just an inverted version the “exacerbate your insecurity with beauty standards” strategy. You’re good enough, worthy, deserving of care, so here, buy this “all natural” body scrub.
And it makes no sense for advertisers selling the self-care brand to help you actually get better. Never in the history of ever has an advertisement said, “You have the power to control your own life without the help of my product.” It doesn’t make sense.
The more self-reliant you become, the less you need these both the keeping up with the Joneses products and the self-care products. They’re different frequencies of the same energy — somethings wrong with you and solution is filling the void with anything but actual effort.
If you think the media controls the social standards, you’re admitting that you can’t think for yourself. In fact, they want you to think that. That way, both sides of the coin can profit from your insecurity. Buy a Rolex or “Spark Joy” by throwing everything away. Neither message says, “Focus on your effort to build a life of meaning.”
The Conditioning Incentive
Again, these different institutions and people aren’t all in cahoots. But they all tacitly work together and experience the benefits of conditioning you to feel helpless. If the self-care industry was truly about wellness, meaning that helped you take care of yourself and become your best self, I’d be all for it. In reality, the gear that keeps the wheel turning is the idea that you’re helpless.
You can’t have a society filled with awake, aware, and self-reliant people. The house of cards would collapse. You also can’t overtly show disdain for success, because that would be too obvious. No, you need coded, subtle, and repeatedly asserted messages:
- You deserve [x] — When you deserve something, you’ll never work for it, you’ll wait for it to come to you or you’ll buy it. Someone will always be there to fill that void.
- It’s not your fault — Few people sell the measured message of “circumstances do get in the way, but they’re not a death sentence.” No, it’s easier to sell you the idea that nothing’s your fault, nor will anything change. Might as well dive into nihilistic bliss and comfort.
- You’re oppressed and helpless — Sure, you live in the wealthiest period of human history, have a supercomputer the size of a credit card in your pocket, and access to infinite amounts of free education and resources, but you’re fucked and life is just too hard. Vote for me.
The Ego Incentive
All markets, copywriters, and persuaders know that playing to your ego is the best way to sell you, especially if they’re trying to sell you bullshit. The idea that you’re helpless, weak, burned out, unjustly unsuccessful, and deserving of a better life all speak to your ego.
Your ego doesn’t exist to help to self-actualize, it exists to protect you from perceived harm. It will gladly step in to replace the idea that you need to exert more effort with the idea there’s nothing you can do.
No matter how hard your ego works, though, it can’t erase the feelings of discontentment, dissatisfaction, and wanting more for your life. So what should you do instead?
What You’d Do if You Really Cared for Yourself
If you really cared for yourself, you’d do everything in your power to live a better life. You’d work hard, challenge yourself, face fear, and turn pain into triumph. Why? Because true self-care comes from doing things that are hard.
You don’t become healthier physically from comfort. You put yourself through a positive form of stress like exercise. You don’t become healthier mentally by avoiding what’s hard. No, as Tom Hanks said in Field of Dreams, “The hard is what makes it good.”
Here’s a nice mental image to help you get the idea. Which will make you feel better? Sitting around the house doing nothing and cracking open a beer or glass of wine to “treat yourself”?
Or going to do two hours worth of yard work until you’re sweaty and tired then enjoying a nice cold glass of beer as a reward, finishing that draft of your novel before you have that Moscato.
Self-Care Should be a Reward
When you care for yourself as a reward for doing the hard work it takes to improve your life, you enjoy that self-care with a guilt-free sense of accomplishment. You can relax because you genuinely believe you deserve to relax. If you reward yourself with self-care because of your lack of effort, you create a negative incentive.
You’re not in stasis, you’re moving backward because you’re rewarding yourself for bad behavior. Again, the measuring stick belongs to you. I don’t dictate that. Whatever your standards are, rewarding yourself for not meeting them is a surefire way to continue to not meet them.
Self-Care Cures the Diagnosis
In the book, 12 Rules for Life, one of the rules is “Treat yourself like you’re someone worth caring for.” The author uses the example of people taking medication. If you have someone you care for who needs medication, like your pet or child, you never miss a dose.
But often, people care less for themselves. They’ll miss taking their meds or ruin their health. He cites the statistic that a surprisingly large number of people fail to take anti-rejection medication after getting transplants! How could one cause such a negative and unavoidable consequence?
You care for yourself less because you know everything about yourself. You know your flaws, the evil you’ve committed (we’ve all committed evil), every mistake you’ve made, and every negative thought you’d ever had. Since you know this, you’re harder on yourself than you are on anyone else. The often given example is that you’d never talk to a friend the way you talk to yourself inside your head.
True self-improvement, real help, happens when you find a way to step outside of yourself so that you can truly care for yourself. If you treated yourself as if you were an outsider seeking to advise or help yourself, you’d really try to help yourself.
You wouldn’t settle for rationalizations, you’d become your biggest coach, fan, and cheerleader to help you alleviate the true causes and achieve the goals that would swing your life in a positive direction.
How can living a life well below your potential be considered caring for yourself? When you think about it rationally, it can’t. But humans are irrational. And we convince ourselves to focus on comfort instead of improvement. Improvement is almost always the best remedy.
Self-Care Should be a Means, not an End
Self-care is a great means to an end. It can help you de-stress and recharge. You need to de-stress and recharge. Just like I believe people often underwork themselves or work on the wrong things, I also believe that there is a thing as overworking yourself and burning out. Tim Ferriss’s 4 Hour Work Week and the fact Elon Musk works 100 hours a week both miss the mark.
But when you’re focused on your genuine life vision, you’ll only burn out when you’re truly out of energy. You’ll burn out because your effort has been spent on worthwhile and rewarding goals instead of burning out because you let distractions and unimportant tasks suck the life from you.
I work about 10–12 hours a day every day, roughly 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. Yes, I exert effort, get tired, and have to do some tedious tasks I don’t necessarily love, but I’m not really working. I have a professional mindset and workmanlike attitude, but mentally I’m a kid in a playground. I love writing and the effort spent often adds value to my life. I recharge because I want to be ready to challenge the next goal, not because I’m trying to avoid it.
What This Means for You
One thing I’ve learned about writing that helps me push past criticism and self-doubt is the fact that I’m just presenting ideas and suggestions. I can’t make you do anything. I can’t make you feel certain. However, you feel about what I’ve written is how you feel about it.
So how do you feel about what I’ve said? Do you take issue with it? If so, why do you take issue with it, because you think I’m wrong or because deep down, you know I’m right? One thing that can piss you off most is hearing the truth you know but don’t want to hear. You’ll have to parse that one out on your own.
Do you feel that I am right, but still feel a bit lost, confused, and lacking in motivation? If it helps, I spent years living the “life of quiet desperation.” I’ve experienced laziness, depression, and aimlessness. I’ve felt it to the point I felt I’d always feel it.
If that’s you, realize this is not the end. The strategies I provide in this book might not work right away, but they will work if you work on them for a long enough period of time?
Do you feel duped? When I started to form a more accurate view of the world, I actually got pissed off at first. Understanding the incentive structure that led to my mental conditioning made me upset with the people trying to condition me.
But over time, I accepted how the world works. It makes you less angry and self-righteous. You judge other people less. You judge yourself less. When you feel like you know the rules to the game, you can actually play it. When you’re sleepwalking and confused, you might have an even-keeled sense of contentment, but it will be laced with a dull malaise.
Once you understand how the world really works, you can never go back to not knowing. Even worse, knowing your life is primarily on you can make you feel worse because you can’t hide behind excuses. Use these feelings. Let them motivate you. Don’t let them go to waste.
If you really want to practice self-care, take better care of yourself.
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