Are You Really Broken?

Posted on 25 September 2020

In what ways does your working life need ‘fixing’?

Is the pursuit of happiness the main cause of your problems and misery?

Our modern world is too attached to options, choices and preferences. Everything is ‘customized’ to your wishes—or can be, if you have the means to pay. People are obsessed with ‘having it all’—whatever ‘it’ is and however likely or unlikely it may be that they can ‘have’ it.

This goes well beyond material possessions. People demand to ‘have’ certain life experiences and emotional states. They want to ‘have’ a perfect life, perfect relationships, a perfect career—plus extensive wealth, mind-blowing sex on demand, perfect feelings of joy and happiness all the time and complete freedom from the ‘bad stuff’.

When this doesn’t come about—and how would it?—such people believe they and their lives are broken in some way. Now they want a cure—preferably one that is instant, low-cost, and requires little or no effort. Is it any wonder the world is full of snake-oil salespeople selling personal development and lifestyle ‘cures’ for lots of money?

Our fantasies of being ‘cured’

Many self-development practices—even some religious cults—ways of escaping from reality: little more than a series of precepts that promise you can become something other than what you are; provided only that you believe—and pay promptly and in full. Like all nostrums and panaceas, they promise what they cannot deliver.

You would think people would learn their error and give up a hopeless chase. Instead, they simply move from one (failed) approach to another that promises more or less the same thing. The lure of being ‘fixed’—of getting what you want in some painless and predictable way—seems too strong to resist.

What such people almost never do is stop to ask themselves what they are trying to cure in this way. If they did, they would quickly find the answer: they’re either trying to cure themselves of being who and what they are, or trying to ‘fix’ other people to fit better into they way they want them to be.

You are what (and who) you are

There’s no cure for being ‘you’. Of course you’re not perfect: perfection is a concept—something artificial. It doesn’t exist in the real world, so chasing it is chasing a fantasy: you’ll never get close and you’ll wear yourself out trying.

That doesn’t mean you can’t—or shouldn’t—try to become the best version of yourself you can manage to be, but note the proviso: the best version of yourself, not a version of someone or something else. Too much pain has already been caused in this world by people to straining to be someone else; to get away from themselves and take on another persona. That’s like trying to run away from your own shadow.

Other people are not ‘broken’ either

Forget any desire to alter other people’s behaviors to suit your personal prejudices, wishes, and beliefs. You can’t do it; and, besides, most everyone is just fine as they are. Tinkering with their lives won’t make them better, but it will definitely make your relationship with them worse. Some people enjoy change, but almost no one enjoys others trying to change them. Do that and your relationship is doomed, sooner or later. Trying to change other people is foolish.

You are who and what you are. So are they. Good relationships start when everyone accepts that and decides to enjoy the ride.

If happiness is ‘all in the mind’, so is unhappiness

In fact, a good deal of unhappiness and stress is caused by chasing impossible, unrealistic fantasies of happiness. People can’t reach them—not surprisingly—so they become angry, frustrated and depressed. Instead of enjoying what they have, they make themselves miserable obsessing about what they don’t have—and probably never will.

Just because you can set yourself (or someone else) a goal to achieve, doesn’t mean you should. Nor does it mean that goal is either sensible or attainable. We can all dream the impossible dream. Fortunately, most of us understand that’s what it is: a fantasy that’s maybe fun to imagine, but not something to wreck your life trying to make true—let alone wreck other people’s lives along the way.

Do what you can, then get on with life

Change what you can and learn to accept the rest. If there’s something you can do to make things better—for you or others—do it right away. Then get on with your life. If you can’t change things, learn to accept them and move on anyway. If people don’t behave as you think they should, learn to cope with that too.

Unhappiness is a state of expecting or desiring something that you haven’t got and, maybe, can’t get. You can’t have it all—no one can. Nor do you have any right to be happy. Even the US Declaration of Independence, a pretty idealistic document itself, only asserts a right to the pursuit of happiness, not the right to possess it.

We have no right to be happy, any more than we have a right to be rich, good looking, healthy or popular. If you are any of these, be grateful. If you aren’t, do what you can and accept the rest. At least that way you won’t add to your unhappiness by obsessing about your deficiencies all the time.

And never, never believe anyone who tells you that you can become happy simply by following their instructions—especially if they come with a hefty price-tag attached. If you can’t make yourself happy (and you can’t, believe me), no one else can make you happy either.

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This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 293 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

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24 Comments For This Post

  1. anonymous says:

    Very true that we can’t change others and will just wreck relationships if we try. Very true that we must come to terms with children who ignore us as we age, never send mother’s day cards, don’t visit us when us are in town for a few months between long years of working abroad, and who make us feel ourselves failures as parents for expecting a little love and warmth that isn’t given.

    Very true that as we age we shouldn’t expect good jobs or maybe any jobs and can’t take it personally that we have to beg to be underemployed. Very true that we really can’t expect any better in this society and therefore it’s certainly not our fault. But humans do expect things, unfortunately. Our family structure is based on that. If we want to become rocks without feelings, completely self-sufficient, I suppose we can be perfectly happy. But I for one, though I acknowledge the ‘wisdom’ of what you say, haven’t a hope in hell of achieving it.

  2. Carmine Coyote says:

    @anonymous: I’s sure each of us could do something, even if it’s not as much as we might like in an ideal situation. What I’m suggesting is that we should stop depressing ourselves by focusing mostly on what we don’t have and what we can’t do.

    Do you really not have “a hope in hell” of achieving even this modest goal? Or is that merely what you are telling yourself—a grim outlook formed of depression and perfectionism? And must family structures be based on expecting things? What about basing them on giving things, including love and affection?

    Most people have far more options that they think they have. It’s mostly habit and an unwillingness to change that locks people into place—plus internal stories that tell them it can’t be done, so there’s no use trying.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  3. Norman Dragt says:

    I admit that happiness can not be achieved through chasing material things. Happiness can not even be achieved by asking others to make you happy, or making others responsible for your happiness. However, happiness and being happy are achievable. The problem is, that the way to achieve it is not something you can learn just like that if you are brought up in a world in which material things and the others are the means to making oneself happy.

    If you want to be happy, you will need to learn to listen to your own voice, your own will. The problem however is that to be able to listen to ourselves, we need to be silent. And that is exactly the problem in our western world, we are not allowed to be silent, not even in our own head we are allowed to be silent. We must be ready to answer any question asked to us. We must be ready to answer any demand put to us. We must be ready to answer any responsibility given to us. We are never allowed to take the time to come to our senses and answer from within. And the reason for this state of the human universe? We think that others should be accountable, should be predictable, should lower our fears, should make us happy, should protect us against danger, should give us everything we need to survive.

    So the answer to becoming happy is leaving behind the expectations of others and knowing the difference between our own expectations and those others have of us. The moment we live according to our own expectations, we will become happy. The moment we live according to the expectations of others we are unhappy.

    And you know what the strange thing is, if we are happy we will create happiness around us. Because if we allow ourselves to live according to our own expectations, we will be able to let others live by theirs.
    So now all we need to do is learn to heed our own inner voice and motivator and leave behind the voices of those who taught us the little they knew about their life and start living our own life. The day we start living our own life, we will be happy.

  4. sambit says:

    How many of us really want to be happy ? Mostly we want to be rich, powerful, healthy etc. wishing that happiness will come along as an attachment. If anybody wants to be happy, he must first dwell on what makes him happy and then start the pursuit instead of barking up the wrong trees.

    Then comes the analysis of requirement and strategy to achieve it with what we have. Obviously it will entail optimum utilization of our abilities and resources as well as taking care of the constraints. But first we must want it for itself and not as an attachment. As it is an individualistic concept, only I can say what makes me happy and it will not be same for others. That’s why it is a lonely road and very few take it as there is no beaten track. It is the pathless path.

    Thanks a lot for the innovative topic.

  5. Carmine Coyote says:

    @sambit: Gald you liked it. Keep reading, my friend.

  6. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Norman Dragt: I agree with you: too many people act as if others responsible for making them happy. It’s rather sad, and accounts for much of the unhappiness in the world.

    I also agree that people don’t—or won’t—slow down, stop making so much noise and take the time they need to work out what might make the happy. Instead, they swallow the rubbish set out by a million advertisers and marketing copywriters and try to buy their way to happiness. That makes the manufacturers and retailers happy, but not the people themselves. As we approach the holiday season, you’ll see this shift into high gear: an orgy of purchasing in the futile belief that buying and eating will ensure a happy Christmas.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  7. Xox says:

    Thanks for this great post.

    But I am not obligated to become happy or stay happy, or am I?
    I’m allowed to be sad or unhappy if I want to or need to be sad or unhappy, right?

  8. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Xox: It’s always your choice—always. Keep reading, my friend.

  9. Wally Bock says:

    Another post up to your usual excellent standard. I love the emphasis that there is no magic formula for happiness and certainly no pay-as-you go solution.

    On the other hand there seems persuasive evidence from positive psychology folks that people with religious faith and good support systems including spouse, family, and friends are more likely to be happy than other folks.

    An interesting note is that Bhutan structures national goals in terms of a GNH – Gross Happiness Index.

  10. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Wally Bock: Thanks, Wally. Glad you liked it. Interesting to hear about Bhutan. Keep reading, my friend.

  11. peter vajda says:

    There’s a basic formula that goes: happiness is expectation divided by reality. Simple formula, very complex formulation in that many folks’ expectations are unrealistic - misguided expectations, unreal attachments to things, and “stuff’, misguided self-images, ego-driven beliefs, assumptions that end up being self-destructive and lead to pain and suffering on many levels-mental, physical, emotional, psychological, financial, social, etc.

    ….the Buddhists have it right…no attachments, no unhappiness…a very hard concept for those in Western culture to grasp.

    A great post and thank you.

  12. Carmine Coyote says:

    @peter vajda: Thanks, Peter. I hadn’t heard that ‘formula’ but it is a good one: a simple statement with complex resonances. I guess emotional, reflexive happiness will be highest when expectation is low and reality proves to be high—the unexpected moment of great good fortune. When expectation far exceeds reality, it will be at its lowest.

    The first of these situations is inherently unstable: moments of sudden, unexpected good fortune are few and generally don’t last long. The second is common because it is self-inflicted: excessive expectations are bound to be a poor match with reality.

    To be happy in a stable way, either expectation and reality need to match up, more or less—a tough result to achieve consistently—or you need to have no expectations, so there’s no mismatch whatever the circumstances. As you say, this is an extremely tough thing for our Western culture to grasp, especially since it encourages people to set themselves many goals and equates having high expectations with being ‘motivated.’

    Thanks for bringing this to everyone’s attention, my friend.

  13. Norman Dragt says:

    I agree with Peter Vajda, that having no expectations is the easiest way out. But that the Western culture has a problem with this concept is not completely true. You could also call it acceptance of reality, something Jesus Christ preached about. So the concept is not unknown, because what is the difference between acceptance and no expectations? Accepting your reality means, that you do not expect anything from it, you take it as it comes.
    Our real problem has become, that we want to change the world, because we have expectations. But we forget where these expectations come from. Because if the expectations are our own, we will have the energy and feel the happiness, while we are busy achieving our expectations. And those expectations are not to high or unreachable. However if we follow or adhere to the expectations of others we become disappointed, stressed, unhappy. And the real reason we become unhappy, is because this feeling of unhappiness is needed to make us stop doing things we do not want to do. So unhappiness is not a bad thing, it helps us to become aware of what we are doing. But instead we have learned that we must overcome our unhappiness and work hard at becoming happy by doing what others want us to do. (E.g. How many parents accept, that a child of six does not want to eat at the same time as they do?) So now we are not only unhappy, but it is our own fault that we can not be happy by working at the goals of others. And all because neither we nor the others can accept the world, including ourselves, as it is and we want to change it.

  14. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Norman Dragt: What you describe about how we weigh ourselves down with duties and expectations seems to me to be a fair description of reality. I think many people shy away from the Buddhist position because is sounds passive and fatalistic. Perhaps a more acceptable approach would be to say that people would be happier if they changed what they could (for the better) and leanred to accept what they cannot change.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  15. peter vajda says:

    I think many people shy away from the Buddhist position because their ego mind is trying to understand the concept and it really can’t as the ego mind cannot gets its hands around, “What, me, have no expectations?” which the common Western ego mind translates into materialism, stuff, etc.

    When one comes from a deeper place, the concept is more clear…that like Sisyphus, constantly efforting and pursuing more and more, from an ego perspective, is a self-defeating proposition..that will never lead to satisfaction.

    When the Masters and Mystics walk(ed) the Earth, one thing is constant…they almost never experience “highs” and “lows”, peaks and valleys…rather they walk in a state on consistent well-being, with an inner peace and calm…a sense of well-being…a happiness…not the “western-type” of happiness that is induced by “having” and “doing” and expecting and needing more and more but by just be-ing…where they are…not caught up in superficial wants and needs…we see that in a Dalai Lama or a Mother Teresa and in many closer-to-home instances of folks we know (and often judge critically) who are not caught up in the Western materialism approach (misguided beliefs, assumptions, self-images that we think will bring us happiness).

  16. Norman Dragt says:

    I would like to point out here, that ego is not something bad in itself. I do not know the Buddhist position well enough to know how they see ego, but I often get the idea, that in Buddhist beliefsytems ego is something bad. Just like in the western culture. However the ego is no more then an interface between soul and material universe and human civilization, that makes it possible to interact with other humans. So if the ego can not get its hands around a problem, that in reality is a problem of the soul, you can not go out and blame the ego.
    But that is something most mystics have preached, do not blame anything, because the world is as it is. So blaming your ego for not understanding is like blaming a dog for not talking English. Our problem however is, that we have learned that only blame is the solution to solve our feelings of inadequacy.

    And as you say Carmine, it really is the saying: Give me the wisdom to understand what I can change and what I must accept and know the difference between both.

  17. Carmine Coyote says:

    @Norman Dragt: I don’t think Buddhists see the ego as bad. I think they say that it doesn’t have any true existence—it’s nothing more than a concept people form in their heads. The problems with the ego arise mostly from the assumption that it both exists and is important.

    I’m not a Buddhist, so I may have this wrong; but if what I say above is fairly close to what they think, I would agree with it. Whether you call it your ego or anything else, people get into problems when they become emotionally attached to some kind of self-image, then seek to defend it against reality.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  18. peter vajda says:

    Norman and Carmine,

    As I understand it, the Buddhist concept of ego refers to an unchanging, permanent and individual self and Ego is the notion that “I” (me) is a real thing, separate from all else in the world. According to Buddhism, this notion of the ego is destructive because it causes suffering to one’s self and others-mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, etc.

    In Buddhist philosophy, the world and everything in it is permeable, ever changing and interdependent and to believe that one has a self (me, ego, as separate from you) that is independent can only lead to suffering because no such substance exists in the world.

    The Buddhist Second Noble Truth explains how suffering is based upon the ego. The Buddha tells us that suffering, or Dukkha, has three aspects. The first is suffering that is physical or mental, the second is suffering that is produced by change or impermanence, and the third is suffering produced by conditioned states (i.e. the concept that one is not separate from anything else).

    These three aspects of suffering apply to the idea of ego because through ego we often add mental pain and frustration to our physical pain, as well as find stability and permanence, and when we do not find these, due to constant changing and conditioned states, we suffer. To overcome the suffering produced by the notion of ego, Buddhists aspire to attain egolessness - that there is no absolute and unchanging self.

    It’s this “little ‘i’, the ego personality as opposed to the “I”, (the soul and interconnectedness with all) that’s in play here when I speak of the ego. It’s this little ‘i’, the persona and personality, that is self-centered, controlling and narcissistic and is the root cause of suffering.

    For me, personally and in my work, ego and personality are essential players in our theater of life. Personality is the vehicle for Spirit to evolve through form, i.e, through which we see that we are the cause of our own suffering and if we choose can move through suffering to a place of inner peace…by doing “inner work”. Through inner work, our Soul sparks our potential (the greater “I”) that exists within our personality. We don’t want the ego to disappear – we want it to open to divine guidance so the two may work together in alignment.

    On the spiritual path, we must be diligent to discriminate whether we are acting from ego or from soul. If ego is in charge, what we do is self-referencing (little ‘i’, me , that “ego”). At the deepest levels, we are motivated by our own self-interest. We’re looking out for ourselves more than for others and the myriad of ways we are constantly looking for #1, me, is, too, the root cause of suffering as it’s all based on attachment to ego-define needs and wants…that are never fulfilling or that bring true and real happiness.

  19. Carmine Coyote says:

    @peter vajda: Thanks, Peter. That’s a helpful explanation.

  20. Norman Dragt says:

    Yes Peter, thank you.

    I find myself thinking in the same direction as you do. I need to focus on my soul and what it wants, to be able to find some kind of inner peace.

    But as I read your explanation of the ego in the Buddhist philosophy, I just see a nice way of saying that ego is bad. It is even supported by the fact that Buddhist try to achieve egolessness. Which in my opinion you would only try to achieve if you have a judgement about something. And maybe there lies the difference between Buddha’s teachings and Jesus’. The first inherently says that the world contains bad and good. And to achieve the good you need to let go of get rid of the bad. Jesus’ teachings say that there is no good or evil, because you can only accept something if you see all its properties.
    But the problem with all this is, that the soul can not distinguish between anything as it is already connected to everything. The soul is already at the point the Buddhist are seeking. So that would negate the need for a world in which matter complicates everything. The soul would never need to live a life in matter. So seeking egolessness, as the Buddhist do, would be, from the point of view of the soul, useless. As if you would try to make a stone into a stone. So I need Ego, as you call it, to achieve something, the soul on its own can not. I think the word FORM you use says it completely. Form is what its about, to create it, the soul uses the Ego. And suffering comes into existence the moment Ego becomes ego. The moment Ego sees itself as a free independent system, that does it all and no longer listens but to itself. You might use the reaction of Moses on his water making from stone as an example. The moment Moses said he made water, he was speaking from ego, he was ego. He was no longer Moses, but moses. So the moment we forget we are more then just flesh and bone, we become ego, as we become completely self absorbed and afraid.
    And the moment we forget we are flesh and bone, we become free of fear and can feel happiness, in its most obvious form the loss of being bound by time or flow as proposed for this state by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.
    And yes as you say, that means doing inner work. To become free of pain I need to be able to be aware of all sides, the good as well as the bad and everything in between and be aware that they are part of it all. This in opposition to understanding, which the ego wants to do. And being aware is off course what makes it all so difficult, because awareness is something personal and can not be shared with others. Where understanding can be spoken about, written down, discussed and regulated. Which brings us back to why do we have problems with achieving happiness. That is because happiness for the ego means lowering fear or making it go away. Were the Ego and the soul are not seeking happiness the way the ego does, because fear is neither bad or good, it is part of what makes us human. But to achieve that, you can not talk about it, you have to become aware of it. And that awareness can not be shared, every human has to reach that state on his own. Maybe with a little direction and help, but never through someone else.

  21. peter vajda says:

    Hi, Norman, yes, in a word, as you say, form…once we put all this into form then the ego-personality mind takes over and we move out of the heart (EGO) into the head and “ego” (small “e’). To add to your comment, when we begin to inquire as to how I am contributing to my own unhappiness, taking responsibility for it, honestly and sincerely, is where the insights and AHAs come in and we can begin the “work” to morph from ego to Ego. Thanks for your comments and for taking the time.

  22. Norman Dragt says:

    Your welcome Peter, it is very enlightening to have this conversation.
    So in the end it is about taking responsibility for ones one life. So going from victim of your life to creator, and accepting that this is the way life is. But also understanding that you have the freedom as creator to form your own life.

    Thank you for your insights and time.

  23. peter vajda says:

    Norman, you say, “But also understanding that you have the freedom as creator to form your own life.”

    Which is why I always say, we have free will, and “free won’t”. Life is choices.

    Thanks again for the conversation.

  24. sambit says:

    it is a beautiful conversation and highly enlightening. Thanks to all of you for it. I will like to think that even when you annihilate your expectations [If at all that is possible], the experiences of your past can make you unhappy. The solution is somewhere in between, you got to live in the present fully without having burdens of the past or expectations of future to enable you to enjoy the present and be happy.

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