In Greek mythology, King Sisyphus was punished for his villainy by having to roll an immense boulder up a hill. After it rolled back down, he had to start over and then repeat the process for eternity. It’s a story for the ages because so many people can relate to feelings of persistent discouragement.
Many people go around sneaking that disheartening feeling into their daily life for hidden or unconscious reasons. Here are ten ways we maintain the emotional conditions that lead to discouragement. With this insight, the boulder stops here:
1 – Comparing oneself to others. Some people are always comparing themselves to others. In comparing themselves, they’re likely to be introducing self-doubt into their assessment. Their conscious intention is usually to feel good about themselves. Their unconscious intention, however, is to entertain the feeling of somehow being a lesser person. They deceive themselves by thinking they want only to feel good about themselves. If they feel smug or superior when comparing themselves to others, they’re using this satisfaction to cover up (defend against) what they don’t want to acknowledge, namely their hidden emotional willingness to experience themselves as the lesser person.
Sometimes, though, the person doing the comparing is quite conscious of feeling himself to be the lesser person. So he’s cultivating that painful impression in a more overt manner. Either way, he’s likely to feel disheartened. When we compare ourselves to others on a regular basis, we’re going to be prone to bouts of discouragement because we’re bringing forth self-doubt and actively undermining our self-esteem. The solution is to become aware of what it means to be comparing oneself to others and to understand that in doing so we’re actually belittling ourselves and setting ourselves up to be easily discouraged.
2 – Chronic complaining. Some among us are chronic complainers. We moan, groan, and whine about the slightest annoyances or challenges. Complaining creates an illusion that we’re expressing some degree of aggression or that we’re entitled to passive feelings of victimization. That illusion is comforting because it hides from our awareness the reality (which is offensive to our ego) that we are indulging in feeling passive and victimized. When we complain a lot about our plight, we’re often expressing how helpless we feel in doing anything to resolve our situation. We’re keeping ourselves entangled in passive and negative feelings, and we will then, of course, easily feel discouraged.
3 – “I’m not supported.” It’s often tempting to feel unsupported by family members, friends, and co-workers, or by a spouse, romantic partner, or life itself. The person might feel, “They should be sharing more of my burden!” He or she might feel defeated by a slow economy and drained when paying bills. The feeling sometimes produces anger. Friends and even politicians might be targeted with resentment because “they’re not doing enough to support my existence.” Certainly, life can be difficult in many ways, but when we unwittingly add our inner weakness to the mix, the feeling of discouragement can grind us to a halt.
Often we unconsciously go looking for the feeling of not being supported emotionally by the attitudes and actions of others. This problem of expecting not to be supported is common among people who had an insensitive, withholding parent. Now we exaggerate the impression of not being supported, while we withhold emotional support from ourselves when we could instead feel strong. We’re not providing enough inner support for our existence, meaning not enough appreciation, recognition, trust, and respect for ourselves. At this point, we want to recognize and understand the inner passivity that maintains us in this weakened state.
4 – “Life is hard.” Often people feel burdened and weighed down by the simple routines of daily life. It all feels like the same old boring existence, day-in and day-out. Life feels like a series of obligations and responsibilities, a whole litany of endless things that must be done and need to be finished. This individual might start to put things off and begin to procrastinate. When this happens, the person is experiencing the simple requirements of daily life as hard-and-fast obligations, as if he or she is being forced to fulfill a series of burdensome impositions. The individual feels this way because he’s experiencing basic tasks and chores through inner passivity. This creates the impression that somehow the individual must expend an inordinate amount of time and energy just to maintain oneself. Here the individual needs insight into how he has emotionally been willing to feel burdened by activities that are otherwise simply part of the flow of life.
5 – “Chip off the old block.” Some of us had a parent or parents who were easily discouraged. Children feel what their parents are feeling through the body language and facial expressions of the parents, as well as through their sighs, groans, and various remarks. We become like our parents in a variety of ways. We often become quite a bit like the parent who we had the most difficulty with and who annoyed us the most. It helps us to be more objective about ourselves if we can recognize the traits in ourselves that correspond with what we disliked in one or both parents. If we had a parent who was easily discouraged, we know we don’t want to follow in that parent’s footsteps.
Mother might have felt that father was a disappointment, or vice-versa, or one or both of them might have felt disappointed in his or her life and accomplishments. The person feels that he or she doesn’t measure up in some manner. Such emotional impressions are common in human nature, and they can produce unconscious expectations of failure and emotional associations with defeat. We have to learn to support ourselves more effectively, and we acquire that ability as we see more clearly how tempted we can be to slip into inner passivity and feel ourselves collapsing inwardly in the face of some challenge. People need to become more aware of their tendency to identify with this default position of weakness in their psyche.
6 –Sensitive to criticism. The criticism of others can often discourage us. Sometimes people are very sensitive to feeling criticized. This feeling originates in the psyche where our inner critic assumes to pass judgment on us and hold us accountable for our imperfections. People who are sensitive to the criticism of others are inwardly intimidated by their inner critic. They take that inner criticism to heart, even though the criticism is often unfair, wildly exaggerated, and completely false. The more they take the criticism at face value, the more easily they’re discouraged. Be more alert to negative inner voices, and understand what they represent so you can stop taking them seriously.
The indifference of others also discourages some people. The weaker we are emotionally, the more we need validation from others in order to carry on. When it appears that the validation is not forthcoming, such people collapse into discouragement. In a sense, the indifference of others is now being used as an excuse, a reason to fall back into the default position of inner passivity and then become indifferent to one’s own aspirations.
7 – Dwelling on mistakes. People frequently dwell on their mistakes. They keep replaying their mistakes in their mind, even those missteps that might have happened years ago. It’s obvious that discouragement will arise from this emotional pattern. Why do people replay painful feelings associated with their mistakes? Our tendency to absorb self-criticism is the problem. As mentioned, many people have a harsh inner critic, and they’re especially sensitive to self-criticism. The inner critic will use whatever “ammunition” works to harass and torment us. If we continue through inner passivity to make ourselves a target for this self-aggression, then our inner critic is able to gun us down even with old bullets, meaning memories of old mistakes, misdeeds, or failures from our past. We want to learn to neutralize our inner critic because it has no business butting into our life and shooting us down with painful allegations of wrongdoing.
8 – Identifying with victims. We can be prone to identify with victims. When we see someone who is being ill-treated, we’re certainly entitled to feel some compassion. But often it’s not compassion that inspires people. Instead, they identify with the victim in a way that arouses their own self-pity. They might, for instance, see a beggar and connect painfully with their own issues involving feelings of being unworthy, unsupported, and abandoned. When they do this, they’re likely to walk right past the beggar without leaving a dollar in his hat because, as a defense, they don’t want to see in him what they have repressed in themselves. However, they’ll feel what they imagine the beggar feels, namely a profound discouragement with life.
9 – Can’t strategize or visualize. People who are easily discouraged often fail to produce a strategy for their advancement. Or they can’t visualize a future laden with success. The person has an emotional block to success. Moving oneself forward requires some aggressive energy, but an abundance of inner passivity in the psyche blocks the development and flow of that energy. This person needs to become more conscious of how he or she sees the world and relates to it from a passive perspective. An unconscious entitlement mentality, which itself is passive, can also be part of the problem. If we don’t see this inner passivity, we take it for granted. It then feels normal to be passive, at which point it’s difficult to escape from under the crush of discouragement.
10 – Misled by identifications. Some people are under the influence of misleading identifications. For instance, they identify with (or relate to) certain celebrities who, while highly regarded in the media, still represent shallow values and exhibit self-aggrandizing characteristics. Many of the anti-heroes presented in movies and fiction are somewhat hollow deeply-flawed individuals who fail to develop morally, spiritually, or psychologically throughout the course of the story. Instead of being inspired by heroic strength, we resonate with their weakness; as a defense, we feel comfortable in the conviction that they’re no better than us.
Many people identify with the politician who represents and “validates” all their own shortcomings and resentments. We’re thrilled by the achievements of action heroes in blockbuster movies because, in resonating with their magical or uncanny power, we cover up our deep identification with weakness and passivity. Often the friends to whom we’re drawn are people who share our fears and insecurities. The more we’re aware of such misleading identifications, the stronger we become.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.