1. Forgive yourself. Have a sense of humor.
If you can, don’t just swallow your sense of defeat and halfheartedly “accept” the fact that you’re imperfect. Celebrate the fact that — cheesy as it sounds — the people who have the courage to confront their flaws are made far richer by those flaws. If we didn’t have snags in our character and behaviors, if everyone glided from cradle to grave with effortless grace, there would be no need (and no opportunities) for developing self-awareness, discipline, and a sense of humor about ourselves. Our capacity for compassion for others (and their flaws) would be severely limited; how can you forgive and feel for someone else’s mistake if you’ve never made one (and regretted it) yourself?
An accessible, unpretentious entry point into self-forgiveness: watch your favorite standup comedian (or start watching standup, if you don’t). This is an art form that trades, first and foremost, in the raucous celebration of personal shortcomings and the debacles that ensue. I particularly like Louie C.K. — I wouldn’t recommend adopting his self-flagellating mentality, but I would take a few cues from his ability to speak openly about his most shameful behavior and not only laugh at it, but invite others to do the same about themselves.
A friend of mine turned me on to Pema Chödrön, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, and suggested I read her book When Things Fall Apart. Before you roll your eyes, hear me out. Her book (one of many she’s written) was the buoy I clung to while graduating jobless from college and starting my independent adult life in the middle of my parents’ contentious divorce. Pema is the shit, because she writes frankly about her own shortcomings. When her husband told her that he was leaving her for someone else, she threw stuff at his head. When she began her life as an ordained nun, she was hungry for approval and attention. As she continues to battle insecurities, she makes compassionate jokes about her impatience with her own fallibility.
I suggest checking out her videos. She breaks down how to meditate, how you can develop awareness without meditating, and some deeply moving and actionable insight into how develop a friendship with yourself, how to smile at fear, and how to unlock our natural capacity to love. Take it or leave it; all I can say is this stuff changed my life and my relationship to myself.
3. Face your flaw. Name it.
A good way to do this: reorient the language you use to describe your shortcomings. “Failure,” “hot mess,” and “shit-show” are colorful self-descriptors that will get a laugh when you’re telling your friends a funny story about how your flaw ran you into a briar patch of trouble. But when you’re sitting alone in your room after a hard day made harder by a guest appearance of your flaw, these identity-encapsulating titles take on a life of their own. They consume your sense of self with an all-or-nothing sense of finality: you are your flaw, and that’s what makes you a “hot mess.”
Not true! There is plenty of good in you, too, and I recommend making a counter-list of your virtues. If you can, avoid naming your goals or virtues with the same extreme language: your “best self,” your “best life.” These are buzzwords, not accurate or attainable ways to describe self-worth and constructive personality traits. More on this later.
4. Identify the circumstances that typically bring your flaw to the fore.
Get specific. Rather than just “bad at XYZ,” break down the reactions built into your actions. Detailed descriptions like “During a fight, I avoid expressing my anger in the moment” and “I smoke when I’m lonely” will help you understand why you’re behaving the way you are. It always takes two, and while you do need to adopt personal responsibility for your actions, it’s important to locate the relationships, behaviors, and circumstances that influence or aggravate your flaw. Plus, framing your action as a “reaction” will help with Number One (forgiving yourself). You’re not out for blood, actively seeking conflict; you just have some unexamined sore spots that are easily or unpredictably triggered by sensitive situations.
5. Identify the consequences of your flaw.
I know. This is no fun — and it’s easy to get mired in a defeatist, pessimistic, fatalist state of mind if you spend too long on this step, so limit the amount of energy you spend here. That said, it is a crucial step in motivating yourself to change. When you look back and see how your flaw extends into the lives of the people you love (or just the people you work for!), you realize A) Self-improvement isn’t all about you, and B) You will be able to love more fully if you stick with this path to confronting your flaw.
A constructive way to take this on: write letters or gratitude or apology to the people you’ve wounded along the way. Thank them for their understanding or explain the aspects of their personality that you admire and hope to learn from. Say you’re sorry, and you’re working to change. If this is too daunting (Yom Kippur, anybody?!) then start smaller. Make a list of gestures you can act on tomorrow, to address the consequences of your flaw (“I will send that overdue work email,” “I will tell my partner that they look great in that sweater”).
6. Examine the “bright side” of your habit.
There is one, I swear. Some flaws (like substance addiction) only hold the benefit of “the journey”: that is, a difficult series of events that force you to get to know yourself better. But many flaws have obvious bright sides. For example: my anxiety, when it’s under control, drives me to work harder and perform better professionally and creatively. If I weren’t at least a little anxious, I’m not sure I would have gotten where I am in life. (And I wouldn’t have researched all this self-help shit for you to read about!)
This step is going to be a lot easier if you dig into Number Three and Four: begin by naming your habit in detailed but compassionate language, and know when it comes up. Then, examine the moments when this flaw (perhaps in less full-swing) actually helped you accomplish something. Even if the flaw is “I have a quick temper,” that may mean you’re better about communicating your objections in the moment, instead of bottling up your feelings and letting them fester and control your life.
7. List your role models: their virtues, flaws, and how they work around their own challenging characteristics or behaviors.
This one is fun. And if you really open yourself up to feeling gratitude while you take stock of all the good people and rich relationships you have in your life…not gonna lie, you might juice a lil’ bit (tears of joy, not pain, FOR ONCE). So, go ahead. Start with the people around you, whom you see every day. Realizing their good (and flawed) traits will give you courage, inspiration, and a sense of togetherness: they, too, have had to find ways to work around their own shortcomings. If they can do it, so can you.
Practice expressing gratitude (out loud or in a text or email) for others’ virtues. Congratulate your friends on their successes; confront your feelings of jealousy as they arise (and examine where in your life these feelings are really coming from), but also experiment with feeling…genuinely happy instead of threatened when something goes right from someone other than yourself.
I like to listen to songs that reaffirm this practice. My favorite right now? Lil Simz, “Wings.” Especially the lines: “But now I know that I just gotta be thankful / Blessings every day, shit, I’ve got my hands full / Lessons every day, I’m learning for more angles.”
8. Share your awareness and ongoing efforts with loved ones.
This is a good step to keep yourself accountable to your goals while also gathering support, sympathy, and encouragement as you confront your flaws. If your flaw has been dragging down your relationship with your significant other, or pumping the breaks on your professional growth, it may help the people around to know that you’re aware of both your behavior and its effect on them. This disclosure might make you feel overexposed and vulnerable, but more often than not, people on the outside view this expression of self-awareness and desire for change as a strength and mark of maturity.
9. Try, fail, and forgive yourself.
The hardest part. The most important step. Rinse and repeat Steps 1-9, baby.
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