Read an Excerpt
The Power of Self-Trust
How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something, but to be someone.
Everywhere I turn, I hear people are overwhelmed. Married or single, with kids or not, working or not, people are struggling to keep their heads above the water of their lives. We're overwhelmed by our to-do lists, we're overwhelmed by all the information coming at us, we're overwhelmed by how fast everything is moving and how fast we must run to keep up. We try to simplify, we try to get more organized, we try not to sweat the small stuff, we try to meditate or do yoga, but nothing seems to help very much.
There are good reasons for feeling this way--daily life is more demanding and less spacious than it once was. We are flooded with information and choices. We are all doing too much and have fewer options than we might like.
When I ask people about feeling overwhelmed, the words I most often hear are "inadequate" and "helpless." That's because when we have trouble keeping up, we're sure it is our fault. Thinking this way only adds to our sense of overwhelm because on top of all that we have to do, we are now carrying the belief that there is something about us that makes us unable to cope.
I've been contemplating this problem for a while now, and the more I look at it, the more it seems to me that the reason we can't seem to get a handle on things is that we haven't gotten to the heart of the problem: that on top of all we have to deal with, we fundamentally don't trust ourselves.
We don't trust in our capacity to deal with life as it comes at us, so we are in a perpetual state of fear and worry. Or we try to control life through perfectionism and freak out when we (or others) make a mistake. We take on too much because we don't trust our judgment of what we should be doing, or we don't trust that we will be acceptable to others if we say no. We don't trust ourselves to make the right choices, so we spend tremendous energy deciding and then second-guess ourselves after the fact. We consult friend after friend and expert after expert. Or surf the Net endlessly, looking for more information. We don't trust our parenting instincts (I just read an article in Child saying that never have parents done so much right and felt so anxious about making mistakes), so in our self-doubt we overwhelm our children with too much, which overwhelms us managing and paying for it all. We don't trust our feelings, so we stay as busy as possible to avoid them.
We seem to have lost the sense of ourselves as reliable sources of the wisdom we need to navigate through our lives. Instead, we see only our problems. Each and every one of us can catalog in detail the whats and whys of the ways we are screwed-up, flawed, broken. "I have low self-esteem, so I can't say no." "I'm a procrastinator . . . an introvert . . . a control freak." Of course we don't trust ourselves--why should we when all we recognize about ourselves is what's wrong with us?
It's no wonder we feel this way. We are flooded every day with messages about what's wrong with us--what kind of disorder, syndrome, or problem we have. And what we should be doing or buying to fix ourselves. Our teeth aren't white enough, we aren't good enough parents, we're eating too much, we have ADHD. There are precious few messages out there that we are fine just the way we are (that's why so many people are attracted to Buddhism these days, I believe: because this is one of its main messages) or that we have what we need to deal with life. No wonder we feel overwhelmed--all the messages we hear reinforce that we can't manage as we are.
*Several years ago, Ann Landers was asked what question she was most frequently asked. What's wrong with me?" she replied.
*From birth, we're now examined for any deviation from what some expert considers "normal." Fully one-third of schoolchildren are now on some kind of prescribed drug for a disorder.
*My local newspaper's "Lifestyle" section is ten pages. Recently I counted how many pages were taken up with advice columns--half, excluding ads. Two general advice columns, plus one each on sex, money, parenting, manners, relationships, and romance.
*A recent Psychology Today article examined the explosion of self-help advice on TV, radio, Web sites, books, and magazines, detailing how there is now even niche advice--for gays, for African Americans, for twenty-somethings, for intellectuals, for right-wingers. Here's how they put it: "People are keen to outsource a wide array of their needs, from personal finance to parenting."
*Apparently we've even lost the capacity to dress ourselves and decorate our homes, so we have What Not to Wear, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Trading Spaces, and While You Were Out, to name just the most successful shows in this genre, so that the whole country can laugh at our poor taste.
There is nothing wrong in and of itself with needing help. But much of the advice we're bombarded with reinforces the message that we are screwed-up and that the answer to our problem lies in following this particular expert's idea of what's right. Rather than being helped to understand how we best function, how to find the solutions that work best for us, we have become a people who look to others to define who we should be, how we should feel, and how we should live. This has led to an increased incapacity to deal with life.
You Are a One-of-a-Kind Miracle
I am larger and better than I thought. I did not know I held so much goodness.
The other day, I was driving down a country road in upstate New York when a giant billboard for a car dealership caught my eye. It had a picture of a smiling infant with the legend "You Were Born . . . Preapproved." Tears sprang to my eyes. How would the world be different if I, if you, could claim this basic trust as our birthright? How much pain would we have avoided, how much feeling odd and different, how much loneliness and fear? How less overwhelmed and more joyful would we be? How much more successful?
As I work with clients, as I hear from readers, as I go about my day as a mother, a friend, a partner, I am constantly in awe at the unique magnificence of each and every one of the human beings who cross my path, what incredible resources of mind, body, and spirit each of us possesses. And I feel great sadness at how unaware so many of us are about the riches we hold or how to use them to be happy and contribute our gifts to the world. It is to begin to address this terrible blindness that I'm writing this book.
You and I were preapproved at birth. Each and every one of us is a miracle of creation. Your particular mind/body/spirit has never been replicated in the more than seventy billion human beings who have lived on this planet. From the possible combination of genes of your parents, three hundred thousand billion different humans could have been created. But you were. Your brain is the most sophisticated structure ever created, with "thirteen billion nerve cells, more than three times as many cells as there are people on the planet," as Og Mandino writes in The Greatest Miracle in the World. And science is just beginning to understand that our minds are not located solely in our brains; other cells in our bodies seem to have intelligence as well.
Through these genetic resources and our personal histories, each and every one of us has precious unique attributes to draw upon, sterling qualities that we were born with or have developed, as well as a lifetime of experience that is our treasure store of personal wisdom. No matter how much we've been wounded, how defeated or unworthy we've been made to feel, those inner resources lie in wait, ready to be used on our behalf at any moment in our lives. But we have to believe that they are there and know how to open the treasure chest. In other words, we need to trust ourselves.
Self-trust is a virtue, like patience, that has been all but lost in the externally focused society that has increasingly evolved over the past fifty years or so. It is a combination of three emotional and spiritual qualities: self-awareness, the accurate assessment of who we are and what we care about; self-acceptance, the embracing of who we are in all our complexity; and self-reliance, the ability to use what we know about ourselves to get the results we want in our lives without constant worry about the approval or disapproval of others.
That's what you'll learn in this book--the attitudes and behaviors that support self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-reliance, as well as the benefits you'll reap by committing to the process of trusting yourself.
Genuine self-trust, in the words of psychologists Carol D. Ryff and Burton Singer, "is not narcissistic self-love or superficial self-esteem, but a deep form of self-regard built on awareness of one's positive and negative attributes. . . ." In other words, it's not thinking, I'm great. It's about coming to understand how I am great, where I want that greatness to manifest, and how to use that greatness when I encounter the big and little difficulties of life. If we know these things, we can move through life like a regal schooner rather than a tippy canoe. For the more we come to understand our unique capacities and how to use them, the less overwhelmed we will be no matter the circumstances.
Self-trust is not the same as self-confidence. "Confidence is more cerebral," writes Jack Gibb in Trust, "more calculated, and based more on expectations than trust is. Trust can be and often is instinctive. . . . It is something very much like love."
Self-trust has always been an important quality of heart and mind, but it is even more crucial in these fast-paced, challenging times. Here's how James C. Collins and Jerry I. Poras put it in Built to Last: "With the demise of the myth of job security, the accelerating pace of change, and the increasing ambiguity and complexity of our world, people who depend on external structures to provide continuity and stability run the very real risk of having their moorings ripped away. The only truly reliable source of stability is a strong inner core and the willingness to change and adapt everything except that core."
According to Webster's, the first meaning of trust is "Assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something." When we trust ourselves, we're in touch with that inner core Collins and Poras are talking about. We have self-possession--an ease under stress that reflects a command of our powers. Consequently we know we can handle what life throws at us--we can complete the assignment, juggle our schedules, organize our desks, handle the difficulty with our boss.
When we trust ourselves, we can better navigate the waters of challenging emotional times--when we feel lost or grieving, angry, or afraid--believing somewhere in our hearts and souls that we will make it, even if we're not sure how or when. We're safe in our own care. We treat ourselves well, kindly, as a loving mother would nurture her beloved child. We learn from our mistakes instead of beating ourselves up about them, because we understand that life is about learning and therefore seeing errors as valuable information about how to go forward. We don't consider ourselves bad when we screw up, just not yet as skillful as we would like to be.
Precisely because we accept ourselves exactly as we are, we are more able to change. Shame and guilt loosen their grip. We may be in difficult or challenging circumstances, but rather than getting mired in them, we see ourselves like the lotus flower. The lotus's roots are deep in mud, yet its flower is one of the most beautiful in the entire world. Each and every one of us is like that lotus--precious and whole, despite the mud of our lives.
The ideal of self-trust has been around for centuries--it was Shakespeare who said, "This above all: To thine own self be true." And it was the belief in themselves that the founding fathers of the United States relied on when declaring independence from England.
One hundred and sixty-two years ago, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote his famous essay "Self-Reliance," a treatise on the crucial importance of self-trust. Here's a bit of it: "A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. . . . Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. . . . I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. . . . My life is for myself and not for a spectacle. . . . Insist on yourself; never imitate. . . . Nothing can bring you peace but yourself."
Inspiring words, but somewhere along the way from then to now, we've lost our sense of their importance. So much so that when I proposed self-trust as the topic for this book, some people questioned whether it was a concept that readers would even understand! We have been so indoctrinated into looking outside ourselves for the answers and to consider ourselves unreliable that we have very limited notions of what it means to approach life from this perspective. As author Jaya Sarada writes, "You can observe how deeply conditioned the self is to seek the stamp of approval from outside sources. From an early age we are told we are good or bad according to the judgments of others, so life begins a cycle of imitation."
Given the training we've had in listening to everyone but ourselves and believing we are broken and bad, how do we begin? We start by understanding that the capacity to trust ourselves is not a fixed state we either have or don't, like straight hair or violet eyes. Rather it is a quality of heart and mind we can cultivate. Like a muscle, it grows or shrinks with practice. Trusting ourselves will wax and wane depending on life's challenges. For each of us, particular things will shake our sense of self-trust, but each time we realize we've lost faith in ourselves, we can incorporate what we learn and grow our capacity to trust ourselves more.