I’ve been thinking about zombies. It seems like they are more popular than ever nowadays. Zombie TV shows. Zombie movies. Zombie apocalypses.
Unfortunately, we tend to spend much of our time like zombies, mindlessly going through the motions of our daily lives, staring at our phones, and finding a million ways to distract ourselves. How can we hope to change our thought patterns and behaviors if we are not aware of them?
There is good reason for our zombie tendencies. In the course of our lives, we will inevitably get…let’s just call it…feedback that we are falling short of expectations (either our own or someone else’s). We often react by shutting down, blaming others, or shaming ourselves.
We might seek to blame external factors, including other people, for our predicaments. This reaction is understandable. I see many people who face extraordinarily difficult challenges. Let’s just face it, sometimes others will behave in ways that are truly offensive or hurtful to us. However, focusing on external factors distracts us from the one factor we have the most control over—ourselves. We cannot always change our circumstances or the people around us, but we can always choose how we respond.
At other times, we might turn our negative feelings inward and feel shame at our real or perceived shortcomings. Most of us have, at one time or another, struggled to change bad habits or reach goals that we have set. We have setbacks. We make mistakes. But the real problem is when we get stuck in a shame cycle that shuts us down and prevents us from trying to better understand and change our patterns. Shame tends to create a self-perpetuating, destructive cycle of damaged self-esteem, increased anxiety, and lowered expectations.
By tuning in and leaving the shame and blame behind, we can better focus on being the people we want to be. How can we do this? Two steps that can help are Defining Self and Gaining Awareness.
Defining self may sound simple, but it is truly our life’s work. It means deciding who you want to be and striving to be true to your values. This is not easy to do given the fact that we are shaped by the expectations of others from the moment we are born. When we haven’t defined our own aspirations, we give ourselves the impossible task of meeting everyone else’s.
If we have defined success as meeting others’ expectations, then we are bound to experience “failure” when we don’t (and there will be times we don’t). However, when we develop a stronger sense of self and are guided by our own values, we are less likely to dwell in blame and shame. That doesn’t mean we won’t ruffle some feathers or get some bad “feedback” sometimes, but we won’t internalize that feedback as much.
Amazing things can happen when we take a moment to observe ourselves, and become aware of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We are no longer defined by them. Instead of judging ourselves, we can observe ourselves with curiosity and be more compassionate with ourselves and others. We can learn about ourselves and explore how to manage our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
This is not a linear process, and we will likely stumble at points along the way. The important part is that we do not let the stumbling blocks halt our journey—that we do not shut down or get lost in shame or blame. We keep exploring, not for the “right” answers, but for the answers that are right for us.