On Giving Yourself Permission (To Be Unhappy)

We often hear advice about “giving ourselves permission to be happy.”

And that’s good advice…

But in my opinion, the opposite version of this advice is also extremely important…

Which is that:

You should give yourself permission to be unhappy.

I’m not joking:

Allowing yourself to feel unhappy, angry, pissed off, depressed, etc…

It’s wildly important if you want to be successful.

Why?

There’s actually a bit of a paradoxical effect that happens here…

Which is that once you remove the guilt that comes from doing something self-detrimental…

A lot of the times, you’ll no longer want to continue on with this behavior in the future.

The Upper Limit Problem

Many of us have a “comfort zone” when it comes to our mindsets, our beliefs, our quality of life, etc…

And what happens is that when we start getting out of this comfort zone, when we begin to level up…

We find ways to self-sabotage and pull ourselves back down to this comfort zone.

Gay Hendricks talks about this in his phenomenal book The Big Leap…

Which, in my opinion, should be required reading for all adults.

What Hendricks says is that we live our lives in one of four main operating zones:

Zone of Incompetence – where you’re consistently doing tasks you’re not good at and that others can do better

Zone of Competence – Where you are consistently doing tasks that you ARE good at, but others could do them just as well.

Zone of Excellence – Where you perform activities and tasks extremely well and you make a great living. You’re comfortable here, but you’re still capable of doing even bigger and better things.

Zone of Genius – This is the zone where you are in touch with your most creative, effective, needle-moving self. Being in here is like a “flow state” and it’s one that brings you immense satisfaction in every facet of your life.

According to Hendricks, the reason most of us never reach or stay in the Zone of Genius has to do with what he calls the “Upper Limit Problem.”

And what happens is that as we’re leaving the familiar atmosphere of our Zone of Excellence, for the otherworldly vastness of our Zone of Genius…

There are four barriers that emerge and pull us back down to earth:

1. Feeling Fundamentally Flawed – “There’s something wrong with me. I don’t deserve things, I’m unworthy.”

2. Disloyalty and Abandonment – “If I expand and embrace true success, I’m leaving friends and family behind and I don’t want to be alone. So I’ll stay where I am out of duty.”

3. Believing That More Success Brings A Bigger Burden – “I’m already a burden to others. If I become more successful I’ll become an even bigger burden.”

4. The Crime of Outshining – “If I become too successful, I’ll make others look bad. Other people deserve success just as much as I do so I should tone it all down.”

We don’t all experience all four of these barriers, but most of us experience at least one, and often there’s a combination.

And regardless of which barrier is most prevalent in our lives…

The end result is the same…

As we begin to flirt with, or even enter our Zone of Genius…

Deep-seated beliefs and patterns inside of us are triggered (due to the four barriers)…

And we find a way to drag ourselves back down to the lower zones as quick as we can.  

The unenlightened don’t even realize they’re doing this…

The semi-enlightened call this “self-sabotage” but don’t know how to stop it…

While the fully enlightened identify self-sabotage as a pattern that needs to be disrupted.

For me personally, I compare self-sabotage to a modified version of the addiction cycle.

Specifically, let’s use the example of a cocaine addict…

Because I’ve known a lot of those folks in my adult life.

What’s fascinating about cocaine addiction is that for a lot of people…

It’s not like they depict it in the movies.

Many folks who are addicted to cocaine don’t do it all-day every-day…

Instead, they binge on it roughly once a week and it looks like this:

Friday night, they go wild, drink a ton of alcohol, do a ton of cocaine, and end up partying until the early hours of the following day – often making other unhealthy decisions along the way.

When they finally “crash” they get maybe six hours of sleep and wake up feeling like shit (obviously), and decide they aren’t going to do anything of consequence that day.

They lay around all day watching Netflix or movies, order comfort foods like tacos or cheeseburgers, spend a lot of time on their phones looking at social media posts, and are genuinely immobile.

And throughout the course of the day following their binge…

They repeatedly tell themselves that they’re going to stop this behavior. It’s unhealthy and it’s too disruptive (especially if their binge happens on a work night instead of a weekend night, which I do see happen).

They feel a LOT of guilt…

And their focus becomes on just recovering and getting back to normal…

So that they can still have a fairly productive week.

And that’s what happens.

By Sunday, they’re feeling about 80% better. They go out and do stuff, they’re feeling pretty normal, but they still have no desire to drink or party at all.

Monday is actually a pretty good and productive day…

So is Tuesday

And Wednesday is a really good day, where they get a ton done and start feeling good.

But then, something changes…

Either on Thursday or Friday

One of two things happens:

Either they have an incredible, wildly productive day…and they decide they want to go out and have dinner and have some drinks to celebrate because they “deserve it”…

Or they’re having an okay day, but then something happens that really stresses them out. Something doesn’t go to plan, they feel angry, frustrated, physically agitated…and they tell themselves that they deserve to go out and blow off some steam.

In both cases though…

They’ve now set themselves up to repeat the exact same self-destructive behavior that just five or six days ago they swore they’d never again do.

Remarkably though, they don’t even fully realize this at first…

And once they do, as they’re on their way to the restaurant for dinner, or heading to the bar to have drinks with friends…

They start making all kinds of promises to themselves that they AREN’T going to do cocaine this time…

They’re just going to have a few drinks, blow off some steam, and head home early so they still get a good night’s sleep and have a normal and productive next day.

Except that doesn’t happen of course…

They find that after just a few drinks, they feel drunker than normal…

Or maybe they do drink a lot – they look down and suddenly realize that they’re on their third or fourth shot…

And before they know it, they’re reaching for a bag of blow, or they’re calling their dealer, or whatever…

And it’s all coming full circle.

One of the most remarkable things about all of this by the way…

Is that as they’re ordering extra shots, or they’re texting or calling their dealer…

Their bodies and brains are almost on autopilot…

It’s like they aren’t even conscious of what they’re doing…

And in a way, they aren’t…

Because at this point, an entirely different part of their brain has taken over…

The part that’s addicted…

And in a sense, they are powerless to stop it.

And then the next morning, when they wake up…

When their “rationale” brain has returned…

They can’t believe they did it again…that they broke all of the promises they made to themselves, that they were so WEAK…

And it leads to anger, and guilt, and self-loathing…

Which starts the cycle all over again.

But You Don’t Have To Be A Cocaine Addict To Experience What I just Described…

Did I just go off on a tangent about addiction?

No.

Because I’ve noticed that a lot of folks who have never sniffed cocaine in their lives…

Are still being driven by this same addiction cycle.

Drama, letting loved ones down, unhealthy sexual relationships, sabotaging relationships, mismanaging finances, saying hurtful things, screwing up business opportunities, being angry or outraged…

We all have these behaviors and patterns in our life that we continue to revert back to…

And each time we indulge ourselves…

Once it’s over, we usually feel this immense sense of guilt.

We can’t believe we “did it again.”

We promise that we’re not going to continue this behavior in the future.

And for a while, things go well…

Yet inevitably…

Before long there is another trigger, something that happens…

And it leads us right back to the same behavior we swore we’d abolish.  

And here’s where the “Permission” thing comes into the picture…

One of the most powerful tricks I’ve found to combat and even break this cycle…

Is to actually give yourself permission to do all of those terrible things.

I know this sounds weird or controversial, but let me explain…

If you want to break these negative habits or patterns in your life…

The first step is to become self-aware and realize that they are happening.

You need to study what the pattern looks like…

And identify the “triggers” that appear right before you engage in this self-destructive behavior.

This is crucial, and you need to commit to continuously being self-aware, and to asking yourself:

“Am I really that mad, angry, depressed right now – or is my brain taking me in this direction because it wants the gratification of XYZ self-destructive behavior?”

Another thing you can do is, once you start feeling your mood shift, and the angry, negative impulses and emotions coming on…

Ask yourself: “what is it that I most want to do right now?”

If the answer is that you want to do the same thing you always do, the thing that you’ll regret doing the next day, that you continuously swear you’re going to STOP doing…

Then, if you’re being honest with yourself, it becomes apparent that maybe the emotions you’re feeling inside aren’t even all that genuine or real…

Maybe they’re being manufactured by your brain for the simple purpose of getting you to indulge in whatever self-destructive behavior you’re addicted to…

So that you can move away from your Zone of Genius as fast as you can.  

So that’s step 1…

But step 2 is the really weird one…

The counterintuitive one…

Step 2: Once you’ve identified that you’re on the edge, and that you’re about to dive off into the deep end of whatever guilt-inducing, self-destructive behavior you’re addicted to…

Give yourself permission to go for it.  

I know, what the fuck, right?

But here’s the big secret…

So much of your guilt and shame is coming from the fact that you’re constantly denying yourself permission…

Then doing whatever detrimental activity you’re addicted to anyways.

So what happens when, instead of denying yourself, you give yourself true, unconditional permission to engage in that same vice?

Suddenly, the opportunities to feel guilt and shame are eliminated.

They’re removed from the equation entirely.

And in one fell swoop, you’ve begun to break free from the addiction cycle…

Because a huge part of that cycle is the guilt and shame you feel the next day.  

Plus, even more importantly…

Once you’ve empowered yourself, and given yourself permission to be miserable…

Now you’re forcing your brain to make a conscious, intentional decision…

And what you’ll often find is that once you have to consciously decide whether or not you want to do something detrimental, self-destructive, negative, etc…

The decision to willingly engage in a self-harming activity starts to feel preposterous and absurd.

It’s almost laughable.

Applying This To Your Life

Obviously there are limits to what I’m saying. I feel like I could load this up with countless disclaimers. I get that some drugs are just horribly addictive, and that it’s such a deep and strong physical addiction that none of this counts. And I’m not saying you should “give yourself permission” to do illegal, terrible things. I’m also obviously not an expert on any of this stuff.

And yet while that may all be…

There are numerous places in your life where this can apply…

From getting in fights with your spouse to making terrible business and financial decisions…

And in cases like these…

I’d encourage you to give this stuff a try…

Examine and identify the patterns associated with the behaviors you dislike…

Then, in the moments before you’re about to engage in those behaviors…

Take 15 seconds to breathe…

Give yourself permission to engage in those behaviors…

And ask yourself if you want to proceed.

The vast majority of the time, you’ll probably decide not to…

But even if you DO…

That’s okay too.

Seriously, it’s okay. That’s the secret.

If you really decide you want to get into a fight with your partner, then go for it.

If you really decide you want to sabotage a friendship, have at it.

If you really decide you want to go on a junk food bender, enjoy.

If you really decide you want to get black out drunk and call out sick from work the next day, bottoms up.

And if you do give in to those negative behaviors…

You seriously, truly, have to be okay with it.  

Because otherwise, this “permission” thing is a false choice.

It has to be a true choice.

One that you make and then don’t feel guilt or anger about after.

Because even if you do make a self-destructive choice…

The next day, when you wake up and there’s no guilt there…

You’re going to find that whatever self-destructive decision you made feels much hollower anyways.

You won’t get the same perverse joy out of it that you used to…

It’s going to be strange.

And a week, or a month, or three months later…

When you have a choice to make again…

The chances are just that much higher that you’re going to decide NOT to engage in that activity…

Because now the self-flagellating guilt and shame is all gone.