A video of a commencement address by Jim Carrey recently went viral, with more than 7,000,000 views on YouTube alone. In the talk, the comedian poignantly captured what holds most of us back from achieving our goals:
"You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about the pathway to the future, but all there will ever be is what’s happening here and the decisions we make in this moment, which are based on either love or fear. So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it."
He went on to relate the story of his father, who he says “could have been a great comedian,” but instead lost his “safe” job as an accountant:
"I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love."
Carrey’s simple and inspiring message has been splayed across social media, showing how strongly it hits home. Every one of us is capable of undermining our own goals because we all have an inherent inclination to self-sabotage. Two of the most important questions we can ask ourselves are why and how we get in our own way when we seek to achieve what matters most to us.
The following are four common reasons we place unnecessary limitations on ourselves that keep us from living our dreams.
1. Self-hatred. Every person will land somewhere different on the spectrum of self-perception, from self-loathing to self-confidence to narcissism. Every one of us is divided. Part of us is on our own side, goal-directed, and positive. However, part of us—the part my father, psychologist Robert Firestone, refers to as the “anti-self”—is against us. The anti-self is an internal enemy residing in our mind. It speaks to us through self-critical, self-denying, or even self-soothing thoughts known as the “critical inner voice," the purpose of which is to hold us back and keep us in our place. The voice is shaped by early life experiences, the ways we were viewed and treated growing up.
If we were regarded as a burden or told we were stupid, we will engrain these beliefs in our psyche, accepting them on some level as truth. We are also affected by our early environment: If we were miserable and lonely, we may grow to feel unworthy or uncomfortable socially. If we were told tasks would be too hard or shown, by example, to be passive or victimized, our critical inner voice will echo these messages, for years to come. We may also imitate or take on the attitudes that our early caretakers had toward themselves. If they were self-hating, timid, or depressed, we may emulate these traits or view ourselves as having these same characteristics in adulthood.
2. Comfort. The critical inner voice likes to keep us in a box, pigeonholed by an identity assigned to us and not necessarily one we earned. It can be tricky and flood us with thoughts that are seemingly self-soothing. It’s easier, after all, to recognize an internal enemy when it’s yelling at you that you’re stupid or a failure. It’s harder to identify it when it’s whispering thoughts like, “You’re fine on your own. Just be by yourself. Have that extra slice of pie. Smoke one more cigarette. You deserve it. You’re tired. Turn on the TV. Kick back. Don’t worry about your goals today.”
This soft, parental voice warns us of potential dangers: “Don’t make a fool of yourself. Stay in the background. You’re not getting that promotion. You’ll only be disappointed and humiliated. Do you even want it anyway?” Listening to this voice may feel comfortable at first, but once we give in to bad habits or avoid going after what we want, our inner critic starts in with the self-punishing thoughts: “What a loser. No one loves you. You’ll never amount to anything. You’re a nobody.”
3. Rigidity. A negative self-image is unpleasant and destructive, but we often don’t challenge it, because it’s familiar. We start to make rules for ourselves and our lives based on old defenses we believe will protect us but that actually hurt us in the long run. These defenses are often adaptations we made to less-than-ideal conditions in our childhood that now limit us in adulthood. Being quiet in our household may have kept us from getting yelled at as kids, but acting timid as adults can keep us from being our real selves and getting to know people on a deeper level. Similarly, losing our temper may have been the only way to feel heard by our parents, but yelling at our partner or spouse will only push them further away.
The defenses we form as a way to self-protect often serve as the foundation for rules we make that can limit our lives. We see everything in terms of shoulds or shouldn’ts, cans or can’ts: "You should only date men or women who will take care of you. Don’t let people get that close to you. You can’t handle too much responsibility. You shouldn’t ask for help. You can only have a job that doesn’t involve creativity."
4. Fear. As Carrey pointed out, fear is usually at the root of what holds us back—fear of the unknown or unfamiliar, fear of failure, fear that our critical inner voice will be proven right or overpower us, fear that we will have too much to lose or that we will have to face pain or rejection. The truth is we are much more resilient than we think. That same inner voice that tells us we can’t handle obstacles feeds our fear. But in reality, life is both joyful and painful. The more fully we live and love, the more sadness we are bound to experience. Our inner critic shields us from feeling the pains and joys of existence. It keeps us in a chronic state of numbness or dissatisfaction. To face our fears, we must consciously identify and actively ignore this voice.
All of us can develop a more realistic and compassionate view toward ourselves. We can learn to foster self-compassion, which studies show can improve every aspect of our lives. Research from Dr. Kristin Neff shows that, in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring behavior in relationships, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger. In this more centered state, we are better able to go after our goals and cope with any anxiety that may arise. We can start to distinguish what we really want instead of what others want for us. We can make our destiny, rather than live one prescribed to us by our history.