We are all perfect, and we could all use a little work.
Is this you?
Do you sense an aura of stress and anxiety hovering in the air, a bit of shiftlessness as you race through your day, or wander about the world? Are you so used to running that you long for a chance to take a breath? Are you addicted to this state of constant movement, looking for the next distraction, feeling you’d be more satisfied somewhere else?
Do you feel a tender awkwardness in exchanging what you hope passes as genuine interest with an acquaintance? The inevitable patterns kick in—how to smile, how to exude excitement, how to hide irritation. It’s like stepping into a sleeve of self that’s been tried and true. How does one truly empathize to the tune of coarse soundbites—“norms,” “covering,” “vulnerability”?
Do you feel like a player in the game of human optimization, of #liveyourbestlife, trying to collect as many meaningful experiences as possible in the time passing by? Are you trying to “find” or “be” yourself? What permutation of appearances and preferences and values uniquely make up “you”? What does it mean to “live your truth” ?
Perhaps a feeling of security is around the corner, after you’ve learned enough, achieved enough, traveled enough. Maybe that feeling will be ratified by how you position yourself for public consumption on social media. Will we be able to edit our feelings into a more blissful state? Will that be enough to quell the self-critique in your mind? How much do you rely on the judgment of an external stamp or brand by association?
Inner wellness for healthy normals
Some of you may resonate with these types of sentiments or recognize them amongst family, friends, and acquaintances. For many, this reflects how we co-habitate with our mental patterns and neuroses, the very reality we experience, and the way we connect with ourselves and others.
Many of us may consider ourselves “healthy normals.” We had wholesome childhoods, caring parents, the grit (or high-functioning abilities) to advance in our jobs, enough charisma or conviction to convince others of our future potential. We figured out how to get through and to excel—if we have stress, we drink; if we have fatigue, we caffeinate; if we feel isolation, we yoga by candlelight. If this is not you, perhaps you know someone like this. We walk and talk and function, and we do it all pretty darn well. We believe we have the solutions to “hack” ourselves and our lives.
I do find something missing in this picture for healthy normals. I puzzle over why our millennial generation with a social conscience has placed a premium on outer appearances and snap judgments and hyperindividualism. I wonder why some of us do not cultivate our inner selves as much as our outer selves, our relationships as much as our appearances.
Under this influence, healthy normals do crazy things to ourselves and others. We may claim we want deep relationships but nod along with subtle behaviors of exclusion. We may assume positions of leadership to test-flash our style rather than to work on changing the status quo. We may chafe at our own privileges while feeling misunderstood that others can’t see it from our side. We may become bosses who curry favor with our bosses to ensure that the people we hire make us feel safe. We may become parents who model how to “other-ize” a sense of self-worth to our kids. Healthy normals do crazy things.
In identifying as “healthy normal,” we remain ignorant of the ways that our mental and emotional patterns hamper our ability for authentic connection with ourselves and others. Yet undoubtedly, we ache of social isolation and fragmentation, the kind of pain that David Brooks calls “an epidemic in our society.”
A caution against the quick fix
In response to the epidemic, there has been an upsurge of interest in providing wellness products and services, in fitness, mental health, food & beverage, technology, hospitality. My enthusiasm about the rising wellness industry is tempered by doubts that we are largely searching for a “quick fix.” We want something done to us—a mass meditation, an IV drip, an adaptogen tonic—a form of self-medication wrapped up in an experience. We work with a therapist or mentor, but only as long as they tell us what we want to hear.
While a quick fix may provide relief on the scale of minutes or hours or days, it may be less effective in undoing the years of habitual patterns we’ve built into our minds and bodies. The longing for short-term relief is so humanly relatable, yet easy antidotes are not necessarily sustainable solutions. Our reliance on such antidotes may create a cycle of seeking and dependence, and undermine our chance at lasting wellness.
Developing wellbeing in our mind, body, and spirit is an undertaking that requires hard inner work. Inner work may be highly uncomfortable, confronting you with parts of yourself you consider undesirable, with intense feelings of fear and shame, with periods of sleeplessness and hopelessness. Stuff will come up that you won’t recognize. There will be moments when you question whether you really need to go through this. But fundamentally if what we seek is to deepen our connection to ourselves and others—to find a sense of belonging and personal freedom in this world—then we ought to learn how to work deeply with ourselves.
The root cause of the epidemic is not a shortage of products or services, but rather a mindset of how to practice true inner wellbeing.
Cultivating the inner self
Whatever you may pick as your method, I would offer that we are all born with and always have the innate ability to be well and to access authentic connections—we are not permanently stuck or helpless. In recognizing that how you feel and think on the inside are the determinants of your reality, here are two sets of questions to consider on cultivating your inner self.
First, how much compassion do you show to yourself? How do you care for your own pain and stick with yourself through it, rather than belittling it or stowing it away? Can you make friends with yourself? How do you care for the suffering of loved ones and strangers, and show them generosity, patience, and kindness?
Second, what is the boundary to what you can accept? Can you let go of the need to know and control? We have spent years honing our skills of analysis, anticipation, and judgment, training our abilities of inquiry and skepticism. Many of us are beholden to the narratives we create. We have spent far less time training our ability at acceptance. Can you put aside self-aggression and accept yourself in all your parts? How much can you accept someone else, without knowing the facts about their life or schooling or social circle? How can we find ways to be more boldly, relentlessly, unconditionally accepting?
Pain is like gravity
There is no sufficient how-to guide or listicle on being well, no “solution” the way we problem-solvers like to devise. But we’re not flailing in the dark either—to achieve true inner wellness there is a direction that we aim toward.
A good friend once said, “Pain is like gravity. That is the direction we go.” Our pain, whether it’s a flicker of annoyance or a heavy cry, has something real to teach us. If there were nothing there, you wouldn’t be feeling it. Investigate it. You can bet that is the marker for a good lesson.
The path to authentic self-discovery and connection is made easier if you can tow along kindness and acceptance, and some courage and good humor. If you practice holding space for all kinds of experiences to arise, you will find yourself more able to sit in difficult places with openness.
Commit to the practice. Truly the felt experience of your life and how you connect with others is on the line. When healthy normals have internalized this mindset for cultivating inner wellness, we will know that the mainstream consciousness is shifting. We will find that we have immeasurable space inside us to deal skillfully with all of life’s emotional experiences. We will no longer feel that being around ourselves and others threatens our identity or security. And we can be more available, open our eyes, and take greater interest in the community and world we share.