March 9, 2021
Why do we fight ourselves so bitterly? It's a question I find myself pondering every single day. As humans, it seems as though we are hard-wired to serve as both hero and antagonist in our life stories, doing our very best to thwart our ambitions despite ourselves.
We know what is right and what is good for us, yet we fight against those things without fail. Whether it's getting up for that hour of exercise, committing to periods of uninterrupted focus or diligently working towards an established goal, we find ourselves struggling to take that next step.
Although self-destructive behaviors plague everyone to one extent or another, it's highly ambitious individuals who are most at risk.
I fall into this category, and I've learned that to live a life of consequence is to wage war against oneself. I have always been happiest when I'm busy, and because of this, I've always sought to take on extreme workloads. Experience has taught me that the more I have to do, the more I find myself capable of doing.
My primary professional focus is leading a large and rapidly growing mission-based lender. However, that's not all I do. I'm also leading and expanding a related nonprofit organization, teaching several university courses, writing another book, advising both a law firm and a family office, serving as a board member for several startups and, most importantly, raising a young family.
I've managed to keep all of these plates spinning and achieve the results I desire, but it isn't easy. I struggle against an insidious enemy intent on making life difficult and often frustrating.
This enemy isn't a person, workload or external commitment; it's my own mind.
Distraction, self-doubt, and anxiety frequently plague me like the demons they are, causing unnecessary pain and frustration. As a result, I find myself in a state of perpetual war against my base desires, weaknesses and emotions.
Sometimes I'll allow an external development that I deem negative to ruin my day, robbing me of my focus and leaving me struggling to catch up. Other times I'll let my distractions get the best of me, frittering away critically valuable time reading the news or checking the latest trading prices.
However, the worst scenario is when I let my fears and anxieties (almost all of which are abstractions) dominate my thoughts. Such thoughts serve no purpose other than to sap my focus and distract me from the matters at hand.
When faced with such self-inflicted obstacles, the natural response is to push for even more self-discipline. However, I've found that this approach only prolongs the inevitable. When you frame the battle as a matter of resisting an attractive force, you've doomed yourself to the cycle of constant failure. Willpower, it seems, is a finite resource. You can struggle to maintain it all you want, but eventually, you'll grow fatigued and give in.
Instead of looking at your self-sabotaging tendencies as something to repress or deny, the wiser path is to accept them and turn them into fuel for healthier perspectives and behaviors.
Over the years, I've developed three strategies that have helped me gain better mastery over my mind and reactions.
1. Look to the past for inspiration
In We Philologists , Friedrich Nietzsche remarked that "People have always endeavored to understand antiquity by means of the present — and shall the present now be understood by means of antiquity?"
Nietzsche was making the point that there is nothing new under the sun. The struggles I, and many others grapple with, are not unique. Human history is full of examples that articulate the folly of self-sabotage better and more eloquently than any self-help book ever could.
For example, Sophocles's Ajax tells the story of a respected Greek warrior who lets perceived slights and failures completely derail his otherwise successful life, ultimately resulting in the act of suicide.
Now, this might seem dramatic, but how often have we allowed our skewed perception of a situation, whether a missed promotion or lost opportunity, to control our actions and responses? In my case, it's more often than I care to admit.
The ancient world's philosophical and dramatic works can help you put your challenges in perspective and dissuade you from ever thinking that the situation you're facing is somehow unique. Learning from others' mistakes, whether through real-life examples or fiction, helps you to play through theoretical consequences and make better decisions in your life.
If you're looking to wage war against the worst parts of your mind, immerse yourself in the ancient works. You'll be shocked at how relevant they are in the modern world.
2. Talk to yourself in the third person
You might think that talking to yourself is a sign of mental instability, but it can be a valuable tool for helping to overcome struggles.
Why is it so much easier to give other people advice than controlling our own actions? The answer comes down to perspective. You're able to see others' situations more clearly and base your response on facts rather than emotions.
Try treating yourself as the "other," and talk to yourself in the third person. If you were someone else, advising an outsider, what would you say? I'd be willing to bet that your response would be much more precise and straightforward.
We must all remember that our reactions are choices. As Marcus Aurelius says in Meditations , "If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment."
I've found that sometimes approaching your struggles as an outsider gives you the distance you need to put Aurelius' advice into action.
3. Start fresh every single day
The final tactic I've learned over the years is to leave the past in the past. I keep my eyes fixed forward, always looking to the future. The past cannot be changed, no matter how hard we might try to do so. Dwelling on past failures is perhaps the most insidious act of self-sabotage anyone can commit. Just let everything go at the end of each day.
Maybe you allowed yourself to get distracted today, or a piece of bad news derailed your focus. Now you're hopelessly behind in your work and feel like your drowning. Should you dwell on it and beat yourself up? Absolutely not.
As Seneca said, "Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life."
Instead of holding on to the failings of the past, you should give yourself some grace. Learn from your experiences, pick yourself up, and move forward.
The worst mistake we can make is believing that our lives — actions, decisions and emotions — are dictated by external forces. You are the only thing you can control in this world. Your mind might fight against you, but you do not have to let it win.
Instead, adopt a stance of perpetual vigilance against self-sabotaging actions and thoughts. If you can conquer those demons, you'll find that you're capable of accomplishing so much more than you ever imagined.
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