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Do You Think “I’ll Feel Better When…?” Try This Instead

October 18, 2021

We are often caught in the trap of believing that we’ll feel better at some point in the future, when life circumstances change. Clients will frequently tell me (and I’ve told myself): “I’ll feel better when…” I’m done with school I find my life’s partner I have a baby I’m less anxious I lose weight […]

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Diana Hill, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, international trainer, and sought-out speaker on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and compassion

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We are often caught in the trap of believing that we’ll feel better at some point in the future, when life circumstances change. Clients will frequently tell me (and I’ve told myself):

“I’ll feel better when…”

  • I’m done with school
  • I find my life’s partner
  • I have a baby
  • I’m less anxious
  • I lose weight
  • This work project is done
  • The pandemic is over

But what happens when that future never arrives, or if it does, you’ve already moved on to the next “I’ll feel better when…”?

Allison Briscoe-Smith described this type of striving as having a “bitter aftertaste” when I interviewed her for the From Striving to Thriving Summit. So what can we do instead?

  1. Psychologically hydrate. When it comes to big aspirations, it’s beneficial to take in the good of smaller accomplishments along the way. Rick Hanson gave me this wise advice when discussing skillful versus stressful striving. Complete a small task and linger on the feeling of a job completed. By sticking with an experience of completion for a few moments, you can encode a feeling of satisfaction in your brain and body, helping to engage positive neuroplasticity.
  2. Take perspective on your self-story. Often our “feel better when” comes from our human mind’s amazing capacity to imagine. We compare ourselves to other people who we think have what we want. We imagine a “better version” of ourselves who is thinner, smarter, more self-controlled. Be an observer of your own imagination. What stories does your mind create about you and others? Are they helpful or harmful? Are there other perspectives you can consider?
  3. Be a satisficer. Know when good enough is good enough. Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice has well documented that folks who are satisfied with what they have are happier in the long run than those who keep working to maximize their options. Becoming a satisficer may bring some discomfort and Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) or Fear of a Better Option (FOBO) But, FOMO and FOBO may be a good thing when it means you are no longer wasting your precious energy on maximizing things that don’t matter to you. Some have termed this JOMO! (Joy of missing out!) Pick out the good enough outfit, select the good enough restaurant, stop at the good enough work and spend your energy enjoying the life you are in!
  4. Attend to process over outcome. Savor what it feels like to be on the journey rather than  focusing on endpoints. How does moving your body feel when you exercise? What does learning and working toward mastery feel like right now? How does curiosity and perspective-taking change your experience in relationships? Focus on the bewilderment of the process. Savoring is a key mindset of happier people. Your life is now. Enjoy it!
  5. Remember you are not a self-improvement project. When I first heard the term “the subtle aggression of self-improvement” by meditation teacher Bob Sharples, it hit home for me. As a therapist, I am in the business of helping people lead rich and meaningful lives, but many times I see that this becomes a business of, “there is something wrong with you to be fixed.” I’ve become wary of self-help programs that contrast you now with the future, better you. It’s a great sales tactic to improve something that is broken, and it’s a terrible way to approach being human. You may be stuck in addiction, old relationship patterns, or anxiety, but remember, you are not broken. You are whole and always have been.
  6. Maximize where it mattersJust because you are attending to process, accepting yourself as you are, and allowing for good enough, it does not mean you should stop focusing on purpose-driven pursuits. I believe in putting your all into places that are meaningful to you and linked to your values. Go all out. Be gritty. But only … in the domains that are most important to you. Then be present in the vitality of living your values.

We don’t have to wait for a future point when we feel better to start living fully. In fact, as Steve Hayes shared with me on Psychologists Off the Clock, the goal isn’t necessarily to “feel better” but to “get better at feeling.” Let go of the small stuff, choose your values, and play big where you care.

Journal Prompts:

  • Consider some tasks or relationships that are draining you. How do you know when you have done enough? What is good enough for you?
  • If you were to live in line with your values today, what kind of action would you take? What outcomes would you be willing to let go of?
  • Where do you want to maximize your efforts? What values deserve your greatest effort and energy?

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