Max has only one little vice. Every day, he spends a dollar on a single lottery ticket.
One day, Max comes up with a winning ticket. He arrives home with a check for a million dollars. As usual, Max hands the check to his wife. The next morning, he gets up, puts on his threadbare clothes as always, and gets ready to go to work.
His wife stops him. "Max, you've worked so hard all your life and now you have the opportunity to enjoy yourself. Go get a new suit and a massage. Take care of yourself!"
Ever-dutiful Max does exactly what his wife suggests. He gets a massage and a facial, and then spends hundreds of dollars on a beautiful new outfit. It's a complete transformation. Who would ever believe this is the same Max?
He crosses the street with his shoulders back and chest out. Just then, a car barrels down the street and runs over poor Max.
Because he has been so good throughout the years, Max takes the express lane to heaven. He gets to talk to God directly: "God, I only have one question. I have been such a good person my whole life. Always, I'm the same Max, living the same way. Finally I get to be a different kind of
guy, and you take everything away. Why?"
God pauses for a moment and says "Max, to tell you the truth, I didn't recognize you."
Many of us live our lives as though we would be happy with ourselves if . . . (just fill in the blank: More money? Obedient children? A perfect spouse? Better looks?). I know I did. As a matter of fact, this was one of my first observations about being human.
All my life, I never felt that I was good enough. My school performance, as I've mentioned, was not very good, and because of that I felt shame. And not only that, I was the younger brother of an extremely bright, attractive, popular older sister. Though I was popular enough, I always thought I was too short compared to other guys— and that bothered me. As for my shortcomings as a student, adults around me said that I was just lazy. I secretly thought that I must not be very bright—either that, or there was just something defective in me. So I never felt that I fit in with my super sister or my high-achieving friends. I secretly told myself that if I were taller, stronger, or smarter, I would be okay.
Later on, when I first began working, I told myself that if I received a great deal of professional acclaim, earned a respectable income, or married a beautiful woman, then I would fit in. Yet after I did all of these things, I still felt I didn't fit. So I worked even harder.
After I broke my neck—when I realized that no matter what, I would never feel like I fit in—I began to watch those people who appeared to fit in, as well as those who didn't. In my despair and loneliness, like a desperate child looking for his family, I hoped that I wasn't the only one who experienced life in the way I did.
What I observed was this: Most people appeared to be doing the same thing I had been doing—working terribly hard to become different or better.
Most humans, I've noticed, are trying to figure out what's wrong and then change it. Whether our goal is to fix what we think needs fixing, to effectively hide our defect, or to finally find security or unconditional love, most of us work very hard to bring about change. And most of us, when we're not successful with that effort, do what I did: work even harder.
A couple of years ago I saw a man in consultation who had been in psychoanalysis for eighteen years. This man was in his mid-sixties and looked pretty dejected when he came to my office.
"I feel like a failure both as a man and as a patient," he told me. "When I first went into therapy, I didn't feel like I was very important in this world. And now, after all this work and money, I still don't feel like I'm very important."
In a light-hearted attempt to broaden his perspective, I said, "I have good news and bad news. You are not a failure. You are truly not very important in this world."
At first he laughed quite hard. And then he cried. And then he laughed again. He told me he cried with relief and sadness about all of the wasted time. And he laughed because deep down he knew he wasn't as important as he thought he should be, just as I, as a child, knew deep down
that I would never fit in.
When we try to change ourselves, the focus of our worldview becomes narrower. The more self-critical we are, the more self-absorbed we become.
Most of us have a part of our brain that observes our own behavior. But the observers lodged in our brains are neither objective nor compassionate. They're more likely to be judgmental, always reminding us that we are not good enough. And so we criticize ourselves, judge ourselves, work harder, sleep less, or push our loved ones more . . . all in an effort to somehow be okay.
Most people I know assume that the judge is accurate! They consider it the "ego ideal"—the voice that tells us how to be the person we think we should be. Others call that critical voice the conscience. Generally that critical voice is seen as one who has power or wisdom.
I see it a little bit differently. What I've discovered is that the voice in the brain is not the voice of some wise observer. Rather, it's the voice of our own anxiety and insecurity telling us that if we become different, then we will no longer be insecure. I see that critical voice as a scared child saying, "Do this and do that . . . and maybe then we will be okay." Instead of taking that critical voice seriously, try listening to it as an anxious part of your personality that needs comfort and reassurance rather than obedience.
The truth is, if we become comfortable with who we are rather than who we think we should be, then we will be less insecure.