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Are You Stuck in the “I’ll Feel Better When” Cycle?

Striving for major accomplishments requires feeling satisfied along the way.

Key points

  • When it comes to big aspirations, it’s beneficial to reflect on the good within more minor accomplishments along the way.
  • Often people’s “feel better when” comes from their mind’s capacity to imagine what will happen in the future.
  • Know when good enough is good enough. Try not to waste energy on maximizing things that don’t matter.

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 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 more minor 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 savor a feeling of satisfaction.
  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, a person who is thinner, smarter, more self-controlled. Be an observer of your 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 satisficer ( may bring some discomfort and Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) or Fear of a Better Option (FOBO). However, 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 do curiosity and perspective-taking change your experience in relationships? Focus on the bewilderment of the process. Savoring is a crucial mindset of happier people. Your life is now. Enjoy it!
  5. Remember, you are not a self-improvement project. It hit home for me when I first heard the term “the subtle aggression of self-improvement” by meditation teacher Bob Sharples. 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 matters. Just because you are attending to the 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 a die-hard. 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. As Steve Hayes shared with me on Psychologists Off the Clock, the goal isn’t necessarily to “feel better” but to “get better at the 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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