Are you Living Life on Autopilot?

PERSONAL GROWTH

Are you Living Life on Autopilot?

     With the hundreds of volumes that have been written on the ins and outs of personality, emotions, and behavior, how can it be that most of us know more about the basic features of our televisions or computers than we do about our own thoughts and feelings? A quick scan of the self-help section of any bookstore confirms it: we have more information at our fingertips on how to build self-awareness than we could ever read in a lifetime. And although we read the information – some of us obsessively – most of us are so caught up in trying to figure ourselves out or find out what’s wrong with us that we don’t realize that we are living in a chronic state of non-acceptance. We keep trying to be better than what we are, hiding our perceived imperfections and hoping we just survive without being found out.  

     If we don’t love our jobs, if we feel stifled in a relationship, if we get impatient with those we love or just have a restlessness we can’t quite define, we try to rationalize it away instead of staying with the feelings until we are really clear about what message we are trying to send to ourselves. But the truth is that most of us just don’t understand our own needs, feelings, and habits of mind very well, so we sabotage ourselves by living life at less than full throttle. Over time, we may accept this compromised situation as living, when, unknown to us, all we are really doing is living life on autopilot and trying not to rock the boat.

     When we feel insecure or indecisive, we don’t seem to have the skills and capacity to look inward for answers or we are too afraid or embarrassed to seek help. We often end up with some degree of persistent, unfocused anxiety about ourselves. We keep pushing ourselves to do more and have more or are in pursuit of a perfect state of being that always seems to elude us. We do what is expected of us because we are too afraid we will disappoint or upset others should we reveal our human qualities or perceived limitations. 

We can get so caught up trying to do what others expect of us that we become a “human doing,” stretching ourselves so thin that we end up running on empty. We make decisions that are inconsistent with our own values, and we forget that we have a self to take care of. We don’t always think of the consequences of this and, if we do, it probably comes in the form of negative self-talk. For example, “Why did I say that I would help Ted move? I am so stupid. My wife is going to be so angry with me. I keep doing the same thing over and over again. When am I ever going to learn? I am hopeless.” This type of self-talk only serves to make us feel defeated as we go from activity to activity, without awareness of the price we pay when we are  just surviving our day-to-day lives.

     Why do we stretch ourselves beyond all reasonable limitations or repeatedly fail to say what we really want? Simply put, we do it out of fear for the way it will make us or someone else feel. We let our fear define and decide what experiences we will have and what we will say, because we are afraid of stirring up emotions in others or ourselves. We don’t want to risk causing those whose love and approval we desire to feel disappointment, frustration, or anger when we fail to meet their expectations. We are also afraid of the feelings we might have – such as anxiety, embarrassment, or shame – when we don’t measure up to our own expectations. We adapt excessively, looking outside of ourselves to let us know who we should be and how we should act.

     Looking outside of ourselves in order to get to know who we are or who we should be doesn’t make sense. It’s like looking through an open window when what you really need is a mirror. When we depend on others’ approval to determine what we will do with our lives, it keeps us living in a narrow, distorted version of ourselves. The same thing happens when we compare ourselves to others. We don’t realize how much we weaken our self-esteem by making these comparisons, as they tend to make our own perceived shortcomings appear even worse. Whenever we look outside for acceptance and approval, we move further away from our true nature, and become more and more dependent on others to validate us. Asking others who they think we are meant to be is like calling out through the open window, saying, “I’m searching for myself. Have you seen me anywhere?”

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