In this space, I explore psychology, consciousness and emotions, all to encourage the question: How do I want to live?
Subscribe and receive an email every Wednesday about something psychological, usually personal, and always factual.
(I am neither a therapist nor a medical professional; I am simply someone using my lifelong experience with an anxiety disorder to highlight material well understood by psychologists. Existence is painful. I like helping.)
For my very last newsletter of the year, I planned on writing about what I’ve learned in 2021. But as I began, I realized I didn’t learn new lessons this year; old ones were simply reinforced. So instead, I’m going to write about something I know for certain, which I’ve learned over the course of my adulthood. I think that will serve you better going into 2022.
What I know is that far too many of us believe that we are “too much” or “not enough,” and that we’re alone in our harshly critical self-judgements. We don’t realize that such thinking is common, and that there is a name for it: Cognitive Distortion. We share too little of ourselves because we’re afraid, and this fear keeps us separate.
For the longest time, for nearly my entire life, and in every area of it, I believed I was not good enough. But the more work I did on myself, the more I read and thought and talked and wrote, the more I realized that this belief is universal. Of course, not every single person suffers in this way—some lucky few don’t suffer at all—but a lot of us do. And the more we can talk about the ways that we suffer, the more we can understand just how not alone we are.
It’s not possible to be “too much” or “not enough” of anything, and yet we convince ourselves that we are, based on stories of ourselves from childhood that other people told. Then we take our internal conviction out into the world, assuming that everyone agrees with our silent assessment of ourselves.
Our critical invisible beliefs live inside many of us, as a tiny secret self that we can’t seem to slay. This tiny secret self is constantly popping its head up, making sure that we notice when our fears have been confirmed by a random encounter, a bad conversation, a tonal shift, a side eye. That tiny secret self began as the voice of someone else—a parent, a teacher, someone on an overheard phone call, a bully, a doctor—but now it’s ours, and we are the ones who keep validating what we believe (and fear) is true about us.
We’re all trapped in an infinity mirror of selfness, one where we look outside ourselves only to return and report back to ourselves that we were right—we don’t belong. We were right—we’re not smart enough. We were right—we are too much. We were right—we’re not enough. We’re on a walkie-talkie playing both sides. Calling and answering, not even realizing we’re talking to ourselves. We’re in a loop, a fractal of me-ness, and we don’t know the way out.
Except that we do.
We hold on to the story of our broken selves because it feels safer to be that story—the story we’ve been telling ourselves our entire lives—than to live life anew as our true self, separate from the outdated narrative. But we don’t need it anymore. It’s taking up too much of our lives. Once we drop the story, we can actually do our work, deepen our friendships, experience what really matters, and strive to get what we feel we deserve, even if we never get it. Because the point is not getting it, the point is the belief that we are deserving of the goal.
Since we’ve never stopped clinging to this story of ourselves that other people spun for us, we’ve never really developed the actual person we are. The one who doesn’t recommit constantly to the worst of herself, but who just doesn’t care. The one who truly gives zero fucks. It’s only when she gives zero fucks that she can actually experience life. She can experience what it feels like to be a human being. She can experience what it feels like to truly live, as opposed to living in the constant pushing away.
The truth is, letting go of the belief that you’re not enough or that you’re too much, and embracing exactly who you are, is not scarier or harder than holding on to that belief. Because it doesn’t happen all at once. It happens little by little, like easing your way into the swimming pool an inch at a time. Jumping out for a minute before going back in. This is what life is. Those who really want to stop telling the same story, who are tired of it and have finally understood that they are brave enough and strong enough to walk away from that story, can do it.
We can only be what we agree we are. We only gravitate toward what we agree with. So ask yourself, for real, do you agree with yourself? Honestly? Shut your computer. Take a walk. Sit quietly, think, and answer. Do you agree that you are who you fear you are?
If you don’t want to close the computer or put down your phone at the moment, that’s okay. The question is in you now. It won’t go away. Get to it when you’re ready. When you want to. We can only agree with something we believe in. So what do you believe in? What do you stand for? What’s your purpose? Your mission? Your drive? The source of what carries you through every day?
It’s also okay if you don’t know. The question won’t go away. Even if you forget it, it’s in there. You’ll get to it when you’re ready. And here’s the magic about life: The answer is not really going to change. The answer is stable. It’s our questions that are all over the place.
This is how we’re all the same. We all share a secret, and it’s the secret of ourselves. Some of us don’t even let ourselves know we have this secret—maybe we will one day, maybe we won’t. But I’m convinced that I’m describing most everyone who has the cognitive capacity to make sense of their feelings, even if they don’t know how.
Be who you are by learning who you want to be. We were raised to learn by studying, but most of us don’t study ourselves. Not to the extent we should. If you want more confidence, trust, gratitude, love, or anything else your story has cheated you of—study it. Learn how to gain it, and then practice. Read about it, talk about it, think about it, watch movies about it, research it. Learn it as though you need to teach it, because you do. You need to teach yourself what you need to learn.
Of course, our stories differ in a variety of ways, including level of acuteness. Some lucky few are even immune. But by and large, I believe that most of us spin our false beliefs as truth and call that existence reality.
What I know is that we choose the reality we live in. We don’t choose the external realities, like poverty, the pandemic, and cancer, but we choose what we believe about ourselves. We choose what is meaningful to us, and it’s in that meaning that we understand who we are and how we want to live.
And now...a THANK YOU and an announcement...
Beloved subscribers—all 5K of you—thank you for making these past three months so meaningful. I launched this newsletter on September 8th, 2021, with zero subscribers. That it’s grown so quickly and so fast is astonishing to me. Thank you for the support and cheer of your emails and DM’s over these past three months. They’ve meant the absolute world to me. I’ve loved writing this newsletter. I’ve loved reading and researching and thinking and talking about every piece, hoping that you’ll get something useful from it. I hope you have.
Thank you as always to Edwina White for pairing my words with the absolute perfect images.
WHAT’S COMING UP IN 2022:
Over the past two months, I’ve been quietly building a premium version to complement the ALWAYS FREE “How to Live” newsletter. I’m so excited to share it with you in 2022. For now, it’s top secret, but I can tell you that its content will be for paying members only and it will include a private group for the community, a resource library, and many other exciting things.
The weekly newsletter will remain as is and free, so have no fear.
Stay tuned for an announcement mid to late January.
Please have a healthy entrance into 2022. I'll see you there.
Until then, I remain,
How to Live is a newsletter about all things psychological. To read more and subscribe, go to amandastern.bulletin.com
If you want to know more about me, you can read my memoir Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life.