Reaching rock bottom is often a time when we make significant changes in our lives. Whether you end up in rehab, unexpectedly lose someone important to you, are diagnosed with a severe health condition, or go through a near-death experience, these moments automatically ground you and often act as turning points to a more authentic and fulfilling life.
This begs the following question: Why do we begin to take charge of our lives reactively and not proactively? Why do we not consistently live more intentionally?
There are many contributing reasons. I will highlight three main ones.
Our need for constant stimulation
Today’s digital age brings many advantages and opportunities; it would be difficult to argue with that.
What is problematic is not the technology itself; it is our mindless and obsessive use of it.
As we allow ourselves to be exposed to a never-ending stream of ads, news feeds, and social media notifications, this influx of information consumes our minds in incredible ways.
But this addiction to our devices is merely a symptom of a deeper problem. More generally, our need to constantly keep our minds engaged, to always be doing something, represents our profound resistance to being alone with our thoughts and feelings.
That’s because the moment we sit quietly, unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and memories might surface. And many of us prefer to push these away rather than tolerate them.
In fact, in a series of studies conducted by the University of Virginia, researchers asked participants to sit alone for fifteen minutes without having any external stimulation. They were given the option of administering a mild electric shock to themselves during this time.
All the participants had received the shock before starting the experiment and stated that they would pay not to get shocked again, i.e., it was unpleasant.
Surprisingly, they found that as much as 67% of the men and 25% of the women eventually decided to self administer at least one electric shock during the fifteen minutes; to distract themselves from their thoughts.
Why is this finding problematic from a well-being perspective?
Well, if we are serious about wanting to design a life that is meaningful to us, we have to get intimate with our deepest self, not be afraid of or uncomfortable with it.
If we don’t face our complex emotions, they will keep on unconsciously driving our behaviors. To move beyond them, it is necessary first to acknowledge and tolerate them.
And if we do not have the mental space to be in touch with our gut feelings and reflect on our needs, values, and goals, how can we ensure our actions align with them?
Formal education and societal norms
We are born as passionate, creative, and expressive beings.
Just pause for a moment and visualize a child singing, dancing, performing, or speaking about their dream career with complete confidence and without any shame or self-consciousness associated with it. There is almost no gap between their internal self and the person they show to the outer world.
This attunement to one’s internal experience and authentic self-expression is crucial to happiness and life satisfaction.
As we become increasingly conscious of societal norms and as we go through formal education, we internalize values that aren’t ours and slowly begin to create a wall between our internal self and our outward expression of self.
As we perceive our unique aptitudes, interests, and character traits as not serving us in being what is expected from us and what is celebrated in our environment, and as we internalize shame and judgment, we begin adding layers to our personality that are more compatible with those external signals.
This molding of oneself according to one’s environment helps us feel accepted and connected to others, rather than alone and not good enough.
Dr. Gabor Mate, a childhood development expert, rightly put it by saying:
People have two needs: Attachment and authenticity. When authenticity threatens attachment, attachment trumps authenticity.
For example, in school, a very particular and narrow idea of success is introduced: That of the calm and cerebral kid who excels in Math, English, Science and doesn’t fool around too much in the creative space.
Given that children tend to be quite innovative, unorthodox, and spirited, this portrait of the model student excludes many of us.
If our parents, teachers, and other significant figures in our lives don’t encourage us to follow our natural talents and curiosities, we learn to stop paying attention to them as well. As this wall thickens, the wall between our internal and external self, we gradually become oblivious to our values and aspirations.
As we stop nurturing what we are good at and what is meaningful to us, it’s no surprise that our naturally driven and passionate selves take a hit. This is partly why feelings and thoughts such as these are so common in adulthood:
“I am not satisfied with my life. Something is missing.”
“I don’t like my job, but even if I were to quit, I don’t know what I would want to do. Nothing excites me.”
“I’m not great at anything. I don’t have a talent.”
The subjective mind and objective reality
A third fundamental reason for our automatic way of living has to do with the mind-matter duality understanding of the world; The notion that our mind (energy) and matter (everything in our physical world) are separate.
In the 1920s, through what they called the “observer effect,” quantum physicists showed that what we call matter is primarily made up of energy and that our mind can interact with and shape the material world.
The placebo effect, the phenomenon in which patients show improvements in health conditions after only receiving an inactive drug, is a well-known illustration of just how powerful our minds can be. In fact, researchers have shown that the placebo response involves changes in brain connectivity, demonstrating how our thoughts can change our biology.
The rise in the use of meditation and eastern practices in the western world is evidence that individuals increasingly recognize the link between our mind and what we consider more tangible: Our relationships, health, career growth, etc.
Nevertheless, most of us do not fully grasp the extent to which and the mechanisms of how our minds can shape our physical lives.
Going one step further, we certainly haven’t been trained to use some of the coping tools that are very much part of our inherent abilities.
Techniques routinely used by mental health professionals, such as: Shifting from a limiting to an empowering perspective of viewing or handling a difficult situation, visualizing desired behaviors, developing a growth mindset, accessing our unconscious mind to become aware and let go of self-sabotaging habits, etc.
These techniques have scientific evidence behind them.
For example, a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that the students who were asked to simulate good study habits mentally studied more and had better grades than those who did not. In another study, visualizing one’s performance was found to enhance public speaking performance.
Even as these strategies can allow us to build resilience and take charge of our lives, there is a lack of awareness about them.
Evidently, the fact that they have not been integrated into mainstream educational curriculums doesn’t help.
And because we do not operate with the fundamental belief that we can utilize the power of our mind to transform our everyday reality, we tend to react to events in our lives rather than actively attempt to create them.
After all, it seems foolish to focus on our desired experiences if we do not viscerally believe that we are agents of our own lives; and if we believe that our past experiences, internal roadblocks, and present circumstances define us and our future possibilities.
We tend to go through our lives quite passively because we are disconnected from what matters to us; our “inner compass” and from our innate ability to thrive.
Certainly, re-connecting with these inner truths and capacities can be challenging. Often, what holds us back in reclaiming agency over our lives are unconscious beliefs, negative feelings, and behavioral patterns that we have been stuck in our whole lives: Self-victimization, fear of failure, co-dependence on others, fear of judgment, low self-esteem, to name a few.
Professional guidance from a therapist, coach, or another type of mental health professional can be quite valuable in helping us move beyond these deeply rooted and usually unconscious internal blocks.
Unlike those who have reached rock bottom at some point in their lives, you may never be explicitly nudged by your external environment to re-examine your life as a whole.
That being said, I would encourage you to summon that motivation internally.
To let your life slide by without expressing yourself fully and without experiencing all that you want to and can experience is a pretty significant loss, in my opinion.
Let that be your new rock bottom and enough of a reason to begin actively creating the life you desire as a unique individual. You owe it yourself to live wholeheartedly and unapologetically.
Bronnie Ware, palliative carer and bestselling author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, wrote that the most common regret she had heard from her patients was that they wished they dared to live a life true to themselves and that they had honored some of their dreams.
Let’s learn from the wisdom of others and commit to living in a more authentic and meaningful way.