The Secret to a Fulfilling Life

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” - Aristotle

In my last blog post, I talked about what effective self-care looks like. I’m talking about the type of care that benefits us over the long-term, encouraging us to live in accordance with our core values while simplifying our lives and reducing stress.

Putting an effective self-care plan in place and sticking with it takes work. It also requires a willingness to expend time and energy gathering important information about yourself. It means identifying your core values and assessing your behaviors and motivations so you can figure out what is and isn’t working.

In other words, effective self-care starts with self-awareness, which requires committing some time to activities that aid self-discovery. Personally, I’ve found activities such as journaling and mindfulness meditation helpful, and both are flexible enough to fit into my daily routine fairly easily.

Over the years, I've spent a lot of time thinking and learning about the self-awareness process. Here are some of the things I've learned.

Woman relaxing with coffee

Dig a little, rest a little

It’s important to approach self-discovery with the right frame of mind.

It’s tempting to simply put together a laundry list of all the things you’re doing wrong with your life and call it “self-discovery”. But true self-discovery is more comprehensive. Sure, you will likely identify a bad or habit or two that you’d like to change. But be sure to take note of your strengths as well so you can harness their potential. Speaking for myself, while I’ve discovered that I have habits that hinder me (such as a tendency to dwell on things), I also know that I am both resilient and persistent – qualities that are enormously beneficial. Be sure to take note of personal assets as well as challenges.

And take your time. Self-discovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Do a little digging, take a break, then dig a bit more. At first, just focus on discovering things without judgment. Perhaps you acknowledge that it’s hard for you to say no, or that you can’t figure out how to prioritize your own needs when your kids overwhelm you with theirs. Be sure to be kind to yourself, no matter what you discover. We all have our shortcomings; it’s how we manage them that matters.

The real value of self-discovery comes from an honest look at the big picture and identifying which current commitments and behaviors are serving the life you most want to live, and which aren’t. Self-awareness is an invaluable opportunity to engage your intellect and curiosity in the service of growth and fulfillment. 

Expect More – and Less

Effective self-care is balanced. It’s about clearing your to-do list of meaningless tasks while also holding yourself accountable to healthier habits. It means addressing unpleasant truths about your finances or sleep habits while also making sure to schedule regular intervals to relax and play. It means giving yourself permission to say both no and yes when you really need to; in other words, when these responses are in service to a more fulfilling vision for your life that you’ve thoughtfully identified and committed to.

What is authentic self-care for you? I really can’t say. Only you can.

Woman taking nap

Only you know if a pedicure is what you really need right now. Maybe a foot massage will help you pause and relax, which will help you think more clearly so you can take a realistic look at your to do list. But maybe a pedicure isn’t so much what you need as what you’d like; it sure sounds like self-care, but in your heart of hearts, you know it’s really just distracting you from the activity that would provide greater peace of mind long-term – organizing your taxes, exercising, or making that difficult but necessary phone call.

What passes for genuine self-care changes depending on the individual and the point in time. One person’s genuine act of self-care can be another’s avoidance behavior. And a nap can be exactly what you need one day, but on another it’s just a way to procrastinate an important task.

And be aware of the reverse – an assumption that an activity that simply feels good and allows you to relax can’t possibly provide real value. Sometimes, an evening of Netflix is exactly what you need to recharge. Sure, you are resilient and capable and can probably press on through the mountain of tasks before you for some time, even though your shoulders are glued to your ears and you’re so tired you can barely see straight. But what are you moving towards, and at what cost? Giving yourself regular opportunities to unwind can help you assess both and keep you on the right track.

The only way to navigate the options before you and find a healthy balance is to know yourself well. And for this, self-awareness is key.

Woman looking out over water

The catch is that developing self-awareness takes time, which is in short supply for most of us. In my experience, though, self-awareness is worth the investment because what you discover makes life easier and more fulfilling in the long-run.

I’ve found that greater self-awareness has allowed me to establish an internal compass that helps me:

  1. Expect less from myself. For example, I’ve stopped trying to fix things that are beyond my control (well, usually…) and I give myself permission to let go of expectations that are important to others but not to me. I also find ways to break important but difficult tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. Rather than trying to accomplish big audacious goals with lightning speed, I constantly remind myself that it’s better to make slow and steady progress towards something I know is important than meet an arbitrary deadline that only increases my stress.
  2. Expect more from myself. Understanding my core values means I have a responsibility to act in a way that is in alignment with them – by behaving in ways that reflect my values and avoiding behaviors that run counter to them. I also work to stick to routines that enhance my well-being over the long-term and abstain from time-wasters that distract me from more important things. 

While gaining self-knowledge isn’t an instant panacea (I still find myself overcommitted and frustrated more often than I’d like) the insight I’ve acquired hangs over my head in a good way. It’s a regular presence that constantly prods me to make better choices over time.

Plus, expending the effort of self-discovery gives me more confidence. Armed with a clearer understanding of my values, I have more courage to say “yes” to certain things and “no” to others with more conviction and less guilt.

Thumbs up

Sow and reap

As Tami Forman, Executive Director of Path Forward writes, “It takes discipline to take full and complete responsibility for our own well-being.”

Living well takes real work. Knowing what you value and what makes you tick provides a critical barometer against which you measure what you expect from yourself daily and – just as importantly – what you don’t.

Far from being a waste of time, we’re doing ourselves a huge favor when we make the effort to turn the lens of discovery inward. It’s a necessary step towards taking ownership of our own lives and putting in place behaviors that help us live with less stress and greater purpose.