Warning: This post is not for everyone. Only continue reading if you're willing to stare directly into the parts of yourself that you do not like, even hate, and want to use them to grow. If you are not afraid of your imperfections, if you seek to change them in a sustainable way that doesn't harm yourself or others, I invite you to keep reading. All others will find what I have written below to be a waste of time. If you are already perfect and don't want to change how you think, feel, and act, then stop here.
We want to change things about ourselves. Whether it's our body, personality, or life story, there's who we are and there's who we want to be. Stronger, less fearful, more active, more expressive, less lazy, less picky, more tolerant, more "I got this," less paralyzed, more intelligent, more good looking, more bad ass, basically just different, and on top of that more happy, more authentic, and more alive.
So, great, let's do it.
What's that? You're not Ideal You yet? Still just You You?
Y'know what that means?
Congratulations, you're not a machine. You cannot be upgraded, repaired, returned, or refurbished. You and I are what science calls "Humans."
This means we are complex. Complexity means having many tiny interconnected parts that interact with each other to create what looks like a large whole. The thing is, the large whole only looks like a single thing, when it's actually a million tiny things bumping into each other. To make changes to a complex system, you can't just bend it with your hands.
Think of an ant colony. Let's say I want to get it to move in that direction, away from my back door and kitchen. Well, I can just step on the ants, the little parts, whenever I see them. I can spray an invisible line of toxic chemicals around my door and assume there'll be no unintended side effects. Or I can turn on the hose and just flood my back yard. Any simplistic antagonistic approach will work for a short period of time until the complex intelligence of the ant system overcomes my challenge, and they swarm all over my filthy stove again. Just hypothetically. This is an analogy.
We are more ant colony than we'd like to admit, and the approaches we take to improving ourselves often resemble trampling the parts of us we don't like whenever they show up, shooting chemicals into and at our bodies, and flooding our minds with feelings so intense we can't feel anything else. None of these truly changes us, gets our ants to move, makes us more who we want to be. So what are we missing?
I think it comes down to a misunderstanding. I believe I should be able to control all the tiny parts of me at once. Of course, none of us has this much control, and feeling this can lead to interpreting our situation as having NO control over ANY parts of us. This is the misunderstanding. We can control some parts sometimes. And therein lies the secret to change: control what you can when you can, and don't try to control what you can't when you can't.
The secret is that I don't have to control everything in order to make changes to the complex system I call "I." The more control I pretend to have, or think I "should" have, the less control I end up with. The more I embrace my lack of control over certain parts of me, and learn how to work with them on their terms, the more control I will actually have. This is essentially a corollary of Nassim Taleb's reasoning behind Antifragility. The more fake control we exert in complex situations, the less real control we have.
So back to the question: How in the name of goddamnitall do I get myself to be the me I want to be?
The answer is counter-intuitive. Step by step, the process I propose looks like this: 1) Try something, a new way of thinking or acting (i.e. be New You) for a little while, maybe a day or two. 2) Be as observant as possible about what step 1 feels like. Journal about it or tell a friend about it. 3) When you feel yourself starting to slip: Give yourself room to go back to being 200% Old You. 200%. 5) Trust that swinging back around to 200% Old You is good. You have not lost the war; you are just getting started. 6) As Old You fades in intensity, repeat step 1. Throughout this process, do NOT worry about trying to change yourself in other ways while working on this one. E.g. if you're changing your diet, don't also try to read more books, go out on more dates, or build your business. Slow and steady wins the race. Fast and furious crashes at the first turn.
A little explanation on the backfiring from step 3. Since we're made up of many little parts, when we try to change our whole selves, what's really happening is that some parts want to change, and other parts don't because they like how things are. When we start being New Me, those parts that don't want change will notice the changes and react. "Oh no you don't," is more or less what they'll say. At this point, the parts of us that DO want change will react back. "'Oh no I don't,' oh no you didn't," and then it's a tug of war between Old You and New You, between a gorilla and an animal balloon, respectively. How does an animal balloon get a gorilla to relax? It gives the gorilla room to be 200% gorilla.
Something to keep in mind during gorilla season is that the damage we do to ourselves by relapsing is smaller than the gains we've made by trying out the new changes. This is true of most self-destructive things that feel good. They take time to do damage, so intense but short bouts aren't as bad as long, steady habits. Relapse FEELS worse than it actually is for us, but when we resist the gorilla, it resists back, and that makes it go on for longer.
Many people I've told about this have a hard time with my answer. Give the gorilla what it wants, 200%? Doesn't that mean it'll rule you forever and you'll be lost? Only if you forget that life is long. When the gorilla senses that it's being pulled, it will go nuts; let it. Then it will slowly fade in intensity as it sees it's not fighting against anything. After a few days or a week, you will eventually have another chance to slip into your New You suit again. And then the cycle will repeat, with the gorilla being more intense than normal, and you letting it, and it calming down, and you trying again. The goal, if I'm not mistaken, is to have true freedom, the honest choice to be New You or Old You whenever it's advantageous to do so; to degrade our compulsion.
Many people will not understand what I've just written. This is OK. For those of you who do not believe that this is how personal transformation works, I hope you find a better way that works for you. I can only say that this has worked for me, and it makes sense to me why: I'm complex; I cannot control all parts of me; the parts that don't want me to change will exert influence over me when I try to make them change, hence "backfiring", the period of time after making progress toward New Me when I swing all the way around and become an even more intense version of Old Me.
What I believe more than anything about change is that I need to keep adjusting, to meet change with change, and above all stay open to the fact that I do not have control and that that is truly OK. I can work with that; what I can't work with is fake control, the feeling that I know what will happen, that I know what'll work and what won't work before trying them out, or that I can predict exactly who I'll be tomorrow. These are illusions that stop me from experiencing what's happening right now. They stop me from feeling human. They stop me from seeing future possibilities. New Me doesn't exist yet.
P.S. Here's an example of how I'm currently going through this.
I have had eczema since I was really young. It's bad, and I've rarely if ever met anyone equally afflicted. I have tried many remedies, and the best ones have worked for a while and then stopped working. After reading Antifragile, I was convinced to cut down on sugar, and to try periodic fasting. I'd never fasted before, and I was also at the same time changing my diet. I went for 2 weeks not eating any meat, dairy, sugar, or wheat/rice. AND I fasted twice, each for a day during that time period. My skin was better than it'd been in two years. And after two weeks of that New Me diet, what do you think happened?
One day, after easing off a little, eating at restaurants a couple times, I decided I'd try to fast again. I ate lunch, planning on it being my last meal for the day. When I got home, there was a big bag of cheese popcorn on top of the fridge, and I ate the whole thing. Then I went to a friend's house and ate half a pint of ice cream, several brownies, a few pieces of banana bread, and at 11 pm was about to order a burrito. My girlfriend stopped me, thankfully, as I wasn't capable of making that decision at that point. But the key was that I GAVE it to myself. I gifted the freedom to eat whatever I wanted, knowing full well that my skin would suffer again, because I was convinced that it was the long term right move. The three days after that were similar. I had thoughts of trying to stop myself, but then I had other thoughts of, "It's OK. This is just backfiring. I've made progress already, and this needs to happen now." I gave myself room to be as Old Me as necessary, without judgment. Four days later, I fasted again. I am still figuring out how to create a sustainable action plan. Every step I take provides me with more information, and gets me closer to finding the right path.
I believe that I will be successful if I can tolerate cycling between New Me and Old Me without getting stuck. That's where I'm at right now. This is by far not the last I will write on this topic.