Take Time to Understand the Why

Without self-reflection and understanding of our intentions, we are often pulled to outcomes that don’t serve us

Many of us spend a lot of time improving our crafts, but often ignore the mind that supports and directs our efforts. The reality is that without self-reflection and understanding of our intentions, we are often pulled to outcomes that don’t serve us, or we are driven by the desires of others.

Many of us spend a lot of time improving our crafts, but often ignore the mind that supports and directs our efforts. The reality is that without self-reflection and understanding of our intentions, we are often pulled to outcomes that don’t serve us, or we are driven by the desires of others.

The need to fit in drives many to steroids, eating disorders, role-playing, and many other less than desirable outcomes. There is nothing more tragic than sacrificing every ounce of yourself towards a goal only to look back and wonder why it was so important in the first place.

To Thine Own Self Be True

Regardless of your desired outcome, the inability to understand what is driving you is really a lack of control. Your goals should not be contingent on other people’s opinions. Your motives must be for you and your purpose—your ability to be self-realized.

This concept is harder than ever because of a social media-driven, outrage based society where all are encouraged to carefully curate an image. We are fed notions such as “perception is reality” and “image is everything.” All the while our ability to be authentic becomes blurred by the need to be who others demand.

I’m not talking about split personalities or the Jekyll and Hyde duality of human nature. Rather, there are a few different concepts of self that tend to drive most developmental approaches. For the best training, coaching, and living we must intentionally emphasize the correct approach to self-development.

Assess Your Self-Esteem

Basically, this is the extent to which you feel you are special. People with high self-esteem believe they are significant. This is not all good or all bad. Certainly, extremely low self-esteem presents its own issues such as neediness and a dependency on other people’s opinions. Yet, dogmatically revering self-esteem tends to do more harm than good.

Generations have been raised on the notion that self-esteem is the bedrock of success and happiness. This has spurred the participation trophy, the four-hour sports banquet, and a host of other seemingly benign efforts to make everyone feel special.

Yet, the deified role of self-esteem as the lynchpin of all mental health has been proven false. Depression, anxiety, and suicide have only increased in the wake of efforts to placate this false idol. Unfortunately, the simplistic self-esteem driven approach tends to lead individuals down paths of delusion and narcissism.

An inflated sense of self-importance, particularly early in life, seems to preclude essential qualities like the ability to seek and learn from constructive criticism and the ability to work well with others. Furthermore, a belief that one’s work is better than it is tends to set up disappointment and an insistent victimhood when people’s self-reverence isn’t reciprocated.

Photo by Bev Childress

Ironically, the self-esteem movement pushes many away from a true confidence. We can only tell ourselves that we can do anything we want for so long. Eventually, life’s feedback is internalized. Confidence grows from action and experience with failure that removes our fear. Obsessively monitoring self-esteem levels creates extremely self-conscious individuals and distracts from building the resiliency, grit, and task-conscious inclinations that spur success.

Become Self-Aware

The biggest issue with the self-esteem movement is that it impedes the development of self-awareness, and instead creates unreal expectations and delusions of grandeur. People of high emotional intelligence tend to be the most emotionally stable and fulfilled. Rather than measuring self-worth by using dramatized interpretations of external outcomes, they are able to realistically evaluate the environment and respond more appropriately. At the root of this stability is self-awareness.

Self-awareness is defined by Psychologist Daniel Goleman as “knowing one’s internal states, preference, resources, and intuitions.” Self-awareness is the ability to know the emotions tugging at us and yet not be controlled by them—it is the ability to honestly analyze our strengths and weaknesses so that we can pragmatically direct future actions. It then becomes an honest evaluation of our conduct in relation to our values and expectations. Self-esteem is closer to ego, while self-awareness depends upon honesty and humility.

Clearly, this is far more desirable than simplistic notions of making sure everyone “feels good about themselves.” But how is it instilled? Self-awareness is fostered in growth-oriented climates that focus on effort and process over outcomes.

Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck has highlighted the distinction between what she calls growth mindset and fixed mindset. Fixed minded people believe-ability, whether strength, intelligence, or a skill is basically fixed. They are victims of natural ability. Her research indicates that praising people for traits like “being smart” or “naturally athletic” creates a fixed mindset and actually promotes risk aversion so that people can avoid a failure that shatters their self-esteem.

Conversely, growth-minded people see their ability and current station as malleable—and therefore able to be influenced by their efforts. This is not to say they delude themselves into believing all are equally gifted, but their focus is on the power of training to re-shape the mind, body, emotion, and habit.

Author of Gamechanger: The Art of Sports Science, Dr. Fergus Connolly, preaches three essential ingredients in successful groups:

  • Hard work
  • Brutal Honesty
  • Humility

It is the second two that are most overlooked when we overemphasize outcomes and self-esteem. Self-aware people realize their current limits, but that humility is not a bad thing. It creates a framework where they are inclined to address weaknesses and grow. When working in groups it promotes the vulnerability that invites cooperation and honesty. Real progress depends upon honest analysis that is impossible when protecting delicate egos is the only prerogative.

Self-esteem and self-awareness are not mutually exclusive. Self-esteem is still nice, but it is not the priority in successful people. Most will assume they have high self-awareness, but there is a fairly simple test. When people make fun of you, when they joke about your quirks, do you laugh at yourself with them? Or do you get defensive?

The ability for self-deprecating humor is an essential contingency to success. Ideally, we operate with a purpose-driven seriousness about our work that is tempered by an ability to laugh at ourselves.

The Role of Self-Actualization

Self-actualization is the realization of our fullest talent and potential. Many psychologists, most famously Abraham Maslow, consider this the deepest desire of humankind. If you have goals and are still reading, we can most likely agree you are striving towards self-actualization. Our ability to approach self-actualization is contingent upon self-awareness and a growth mindset. It requires real purpose.

We can do so many things, but we have to prioritize. Purpose clarifies direction and invokes consistency even through hardship. Only purpose can bring us towards our highest point of contribution. Unfortunately, the masses whose experience have only oriented them towards self-esteem will never refine a true sense of purpose. Their primary goals will center around optimizing comfort, ease of life, avoidance of responsibility, and self-promotion. These are far more common motives with far less fulfilling results.

According to Sebastian Junger, author of Tribe, “Human beings need three basic things in order to be content: they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives, and they need to feel connected to others. These values are considered “intrinsic” to human happiness and far outweigh “extrinsic” values such as beauty, money, and status.”

Find Your Why

Competence, authenticity, and connection; real competence and real self-esteem will not be the result of superficial participation trophies, but rather struggle, failure, persistence, and growth. Only through real challenge with real feedback can we have any notion of who really are and the strength to be that person. When we have attained a competency and a true sense of self we have real ability to contribute to something bigger than ourselves, endearing real connection.

With this in mind, why do you want to exercise? Why do you want to lose weight? Why do you want to be strong? We all train our bodies, yet this must go hand in hand with mental training and self-reflection. When intentional effort aligns with purpose we have real momentum.