Hi, I’m Anni and I’m addicted to life improvement and self-help. 😉
I love nothing more than reading books and articles related to personal development. I love it because that’s just the type of geek I am. But I also love it because much of it has actually helped me improve my life in significant ways. There is amazing human wisdom out there for those of us who care to look.
But. (There has to be a but, right?) Sometimes it can be hard to find the wisdom that is the correct wisdom for your particular situation.
One of my goals with this website is to share my mistakes, so that you can learn from them. And in this article, I’m going to tell you about a GIANT mistake I used to make over and over again when looking for wisdom and advice from other people to improve my life.
My GIANT mistake was sticking with this or that piece of advice for way too long even if it wasn’t having the desired result. It took me a long time to understand that even if something worked for other people, it wasn’t a given that it was going to work for me.
Here are a few reasons why I think I kept making this mistake:
- Because I was a people-pleaser with not much self-confidence, I always assumed that the problem was me and not the advice.
- If a piece of advice was popular and a lot of other people seemed to like it, I always assumed that there was something wrong with me if I couldn’t make it work.
- If the person doling out the advice had expert status either because of education or experience, I always assumed that the expert must be right and I must be doing something wrong.
Once I gained the maturity and confidence to start evaluating the advice I was getting more critically, I started making progress so much faster.
I’m going to give you three criteria that I now use to evaluate personal development advice together with examples of VERY popular advice that I have learned to ignore, because it wasn’t right for me.
I’m including the examples not because I want to argue against them. I know they must work for many people or they wouldn’t be so popular. But I’m giving these examples to show you how I went about evaluating this advice for my particular situation and how something that sounds really positive and like a universal truth may actually not be the right advice for everyone.
1. If Advice Puts You In Conflict With Your Authentic Self, Ignore It
My Example: Be Present
I suspect that the advice to “be present” works wonders for people who have a tendency to think of the past with regret or the future with worry. To me, this advice has actually been outright harmful.
Being present puts me in conflict with my nature. At my most authentic, I’m an absent-minded dreamer. I’m an intuitive introvert. I live for ideas and theories. I love making plans and thinking about the future. My happy place is somewhere far away from the physical world in the depths of my mind with a thousand strands of thought going at once. The more I’m NOT present, the more my creative mind is able to flourish.
But for much of my life, I have been told in both subtle and not so subtle ways that this is not an ok way to be. Still to this day, when I see an inspirational quote on Pinterest about being present, it feels like a slap in the face and fills me with self-doubt. So for much of my life, I have fought this most essential part of who I am. I have berated myself for being wrong. I have tried to force myself to be present to the point of being totally exhausted from the effort. But all this forcing, all this trying has never resulted in anything good.
Here’s what I have learned about myself. My mind is not my enemy. It’s not something I want to try to control or manipulate or empty. My mind is my best friend and advocate. But it can only work if given the space to work. If it’s distracted by too much being present, if it’s not given time to work things out, it will get stuck in a bad place. I will get depressed.
Life still requires my presence for a large chunk of most days. And of course, there are some moments with those I love that I WANT to be present for.
But I now respect my nature. I spend as much time as I possibly can in my inner world, NOT being present, letting my mind fly free.
2. If The Advice Is To Convince Yourself To Feel Something You Are Not Feeling, Ignore It
My Example: Choose Happiness
I don’t exactly understand how “choosing to be happy” works for anyone, but I suspect there are people who just need a little nudge to get out of a temporary funk and a bit of positivity is all it takes.
This has never worked for me. At all.
First of all, I don’t think it’s realistic or necessary to be happy all the time, so I’m not very motivated to “find the positive in every situation”.
Second, happiness is a feeling. I either feel good or bad or somewhere in between. These feelings arise from whatever I’m experiencing. They don’t happen because I talk myself into them. Whenever I have tried to “choose to be happy” or “think positive” it has felt fake. Like I’m lying to myself. Like I’m trying to convince myself of something that isn’t real.
Third, I think the biggest issue is that I’m a bit greedy when it comes to happiness. I don’t want to just tell myself that I’m feeling good. I want to ACTUALLY feel good. So instead of trying to convince myself that I’m happy when I’m not, I choose the following:
- I choose to seek happiness.
- I choose to acknowledge problems and seek solutions.
- I choose to make changes to improve my life.
- I choose to add more activities and people in my life that make me feel good.
- I choose to minimize activities and people that make me feel bad.
Related: How To Make Your Brain Happy
3. If Trying To Follow The Advice Constantly Makes You Feel Worse, Not Better, Ignore It
My Example: Practice Gratitude
I really wanted this one to work. Like really. It’s what all the cool zen people seem to be doing. And it’s on pretty much every “10 Ways To Be Happier” and “15 Ways To Reduce Stress” list.
But every time I tried to “practice gratitude” it would go horribly wrong.
First, I would get angry. Gratitude is not a feeling that comes to me naturally. I don’t ever remember going about my day and stopping to think “Oh, I feel so darn grateful right now!” So when it was time to write down my list of things I was grateful for, there I was again trying to convince myself to feel something I wasn’t feeling. And when I try to force my brain to go a certain way, it likes to fight back by giving me the opposite. So whenever I tried to think of reasons to be grateful, my brain would give me reasons to NOT be grateful. Every bad thing that ever happened to me would pop up. And instead of “thank you universe” I would be filled with “fuck you universe”.
And then that would lead to feeling bad about myself. I’m an ungrateful bitch. I have so much when so many people in the world are suffering. I’m terrible. What is wrong with me that I can’t muster up a little gratitude?
And then I would go back to being angry again, listing all the bad things the universe had subjected me to and the reasons why my ungratefulness was justified.
Believe it or not, I engaged in this cycle quite a few times, before I trashed my brand new pretty journal with flowers on it and admitted that maybe this wasn’t the best exercise for me.
Eventually I decided that if I was feeling more anger than gratitude toward the universe, then that was my feeling to carry. I would feel that feeling whenever it came up and own it. I didn’t have to justify it to anyone or feel bad about it. Whether it’s anger, anxiety, or depression, the one thing that has consistently failed to dissipate these feelings for me is trying to reason myself out of them or convince myself not to feel them. Just like I can’t talk myself into a feeling, I also can’t talk myself out of a feeling. I can only make choices that might lead to a different experience.
Practicing gratitude was a bust, but I still wanted some way to emphasize the positive in my life. So I came up with my own alternative practice. It’s called the Feel-Good Diary. At night before going to bed, I try to think of three things that ACTUALLY felt good that day. I don’t write them down because I wasn’t about to waste money on another journal. I just think it.
I would love to hear what you think about all of this in the comments below! Have you ever tried to follow advice that totally backfired?