Last updated July, 2020.
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One of our course participants, Dawn, asks the following question:
"I constantly have thoughts of inadequacy. What is the best way to deal with them?"
Aristotle once said:
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
This quote is relevant to Dawn's question. But, I would change it a bit:
"It is the mark of a liberated (or enlightened) person to entertain a thought without identifying with it."
Consider some of your recent thoughts of inadequacy - for simplicity, here are a few we all have at one time or another:
These could be in regard to a relationship, a task, a job, et cetera. What makes them so powerful?
They are powerful because we identify with them. We believe "this is who I am":
We indulge these thoughts, and build stories around them. These stories take the form of an inner narrative that constantly plays in our head, perpetuating more thoughts and emotions, all revolving around the belief "this is who I am."
It becomes a vicious cycle that can bury us in a landslide of mental noise - in this case, about how inadequate we are!
Refer back to our examples above. You can take the path of trying to resist these thoughts. You can try to convince yourself that you are good enough, you aren't a failure, you are deserving. Or, maybe you try to silence them through sheer willpower:
Or, you can take the path of accepting these thoughts as true, and end up wallowing in self-doubt. As the days go by, they become ingrained and cause you to develop (and reinforce) a negative self-image, which only serves to sabotage your longer-term happiness and well-being.
Regardless of which path you take, you are still identifying with thoughts. Whether you believe them to be true or false, identifying leads to self-imposed suffering. It conditions your behavior, and leads to habitual actions and reactions.
There is a better way to deal with thoughts, however. It's to recognize they are simply thoughts, and to understand they hold power over you only because you view them as personal and permanent. This is a view you can change.
You can learn to observe thoughts without getting caught up in them. You can see thoughts for what they truly are: temporary phenomena that come and go (arise and pass). When you understand their temporary nature through direct experience, it's easier to stop identifying with them, and to stop chasing after what you consider "pleasant" and running away from what you consider "unpleasant."
As you practice this, you will eventually learn to say
"There are those thoughts again. I'm watching them come (arise), and I won't indulge them. I choose to move my attention away from them, and let them be as they are until they go (pass)."
Is it really that simple? Yes, it is. Your attention causes thoughts to persist - when you indulge them, they become "sticky" and give rise to more thoughts. But, when you move your attention away from them, they will pass the same as they came. They may return, but you repeat this process again. Eventually, without your attention to energize them, they will stop being as persistent.
This is the basis for mindfulness and meditation. While simple, it does take consistent practice. And, that's the problem for most people: consistent practice takes time and effort. And time and effort is, well, time and effort.
We procrastinate. We forget. We prioritize other things ahead of it. We get comfortable in our suffering, and decide to accept the status quo.
There's no "magic pill" to get you to take action. You simply have to make the decision to do it, and start doing it.
The good news is, the end result is worth it. In fact, it's one of the most important things you can do for your happiness and well-being.
So, decide now. Get started. Go do it!
Your thoughts are as transient as the clouds in the sky - learn to watch them float by. You don't have to attach to them. You don't have to build a story around them. You don't have to identify with them.
You don't have to follow your mind wherever it leads.
If there is any "secret" to life, this is it! But, most people won't accept it. It's too simple. And, if they do accept it, they won't practice - they won't put in the time and effort.
Don't be like most people!
Addendum to the original article:
Many readers asked about thoughts of superiority as opposed to thoughts of inadequacy. These are two sides of the same coin. Some examples:
Identifying with them ("this is who I am") leads to conditioned behavior, and habitual actions and reactions. And, as we see time and again, thoughts of superiority can cause actions that are detrimental to yourself and others.
Why do we struggle?
If you're like the rest of us, you spend a lot of time trying to “fix” everything that’s wrong in your life. But, you tend to ignore your mind, which is more often than not the root cause of those problems you're trying to fix.
We experience every single moment of life with our minds. And, it's our minds that create the majority of our struggles and suffering. Reality is, no matter where you go or what you do, you can’t escape your mind.
The good news is, you don't have to!
You only need to understand how your mind works, and learn to stop getting lost in the non-stop thoughts running through your head. We wrote “Your inner narrative” to help you do exactly that, and you can read more about it here (includes a free preview).