Updated: May 7, 2020
By Pernille Karlsen
What does it mean to be human? To fully exist.
Photo by Retha Ferguson
Are we actually human beings or simply human doings? Is there a meaning for our existence or are we all just here to live a life in the rat race inside an unscrupulous system that has lost its focus on discovering what it means to be human?
Pretending to be happy while identifying solely with our possessions and job status, rather than what we stand for and believe in. Suppressing our emotions and need for human connection to appear strong and beat the fittest.
If that is the case, shouldn’t life be simple? Shouldn’t we all be happy doing what we were “programmed” to do, following the unwritten guidelines to success? Or is there a reason why we keep chasing the idea of happiness from an outside world that in the end doesn’t satisfy our needs?
In modern day society, there is a general perception that success equals happiness, and that it is achieved through accomplishing goals, in school, at work and in social settings. In our education system, grading is based on guidelines that allows for no failing. It simply does not acknowledge the values and importance of making mistakes in order to learn and grow. A system that was built to guide us through life, is leading us to believe that failure is not an option. We are taught that in order to succeed, we have to be the best in everything, getting the best grade, scoring the most points in a game, getting the next promotion, dating the most beautiful partner, buying the biggest house and driving the newest luxury car. This triggers a fear of failing which can lead to a pressure of having to perform and be perfect in everything we do. It is not until much later in life that we discover, through personal experiences and life situations, how valuable the lessons of failure are.
As Albert Einstein said: “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new”.
It means success comes from failure not from success itself. And by always focusing on the outcome rather than the process itself, we are programmed to believe that happiness is not achievable in the present moment, that it is in fact a destination.
The pressure of having to perform is something experts define as toxic perfectionism: “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations”.
Studies have shown that this causes stress on a mental and emotional level, especially among youth, which can lead to an unhealthy lifestyle and a constant feeling of never being good enough. According to studies done by Dr. Gordon Flett and Dr. Paul Hewitt, perfectionism has repeatedly been linked to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Toxic perfectionism is also known as our inner harsh voice that acts like an overly strict parent, beating up their child for not getting an A+ on their latest essay. So even when children are not around their strict parents or teachers, they are carrying their own self-destructive thoughts. The inner critic that constantly tells them that they’re not good enough — no matter what they do or how hard they try. A feeling that no child nor adult should carry with them.
The insecurities of not feeling good enough creates a fear of standing out. And not being “normal”. Normal. What does that even mean? If we look at the origin of the word normal itself, it derives from the Latin “norma” which means “rule or pattern” as well as “a carpenter’s square”. I believe this is why we use the terms “to fit in a box” or even when we “think outside the box”. We are accustomed to act and behave a certain way according to this program, which is made up by rules and patterns in governments and societies. Today, more people struggle with stress related illnesses caused by molding and reshaping individuals to fit in this box, not questioning our self, nor our identity. Doing what everyone else is doing, following the other sheep in the flock. But isn’t “normal” today, the struggle? The imperfections. The black sheep and the misfits. We are all the same, pretending to be something else to fit in a system that is making us unhappy.
By molding ourselves to fit in the box shaped by society, we generate a fear of standing out of the crowd. It’s easier to pretend that we are all the same than step outside of the box and show our true colors, because that makes one vulnerable and exposed. This fear is the same reason why most artists struggle to express themselves. There’s suddenly a lot at stake when you put yourself out there in the open, allowing people to judge your work. Because your work is you, your feelings and emotions on paper, canvas or in words. So instead of self-expression, we continue to live a life that isn’t ours, working the jobs that are easy to do because once you clock out, you’re “off”. You’re safe and sound, back in the comfort of your home. Your carpenter’s box. Until you realize that there are things beyond the layers of what is visible to the naked eye. And because you are not expressing your truth, it results in more emotional stress. Leading to thoughts and doubts about human existence and the purpose of life. Why am I here? What is the meaning of it all? We begin to feel lost, anxious and fearful, but we don’t share it with anyone. We keep it to ourselves. Because we were taught to be strong, and never given the tools to understand and deal with our emotions. Instead we suppress them and continue to look for happiness outside ourselves. Because it is much easier to attach to material things and identify with some thing or some one rather than opening up Pandora’s box of unresolved trauma and digging deep to discover the truth of who we are.
So instead of getting to the root of our problems, we look for a quick fix. It’s easier to run away than to face our inner demons and unresolved trauma that need healing. The same system that taught us no-failure, provides us with western medicine which always looks for a solution in extrinsic factors, treating symptoms rather than solving the problem. But we give in as we’re desperate to feel. Pills. Alcohol. Television. Games. Exercise. Sex. Gambling. Co-dependent relationships. Shopping. All of the things that make us high for a moment. We choose to live for the weekends and escape reality through these addictions. The escape acts as a band-aid solution for our chronic insecurity and inner demons, but just like any topic treatment, it is only temporary. It gives a kick of dopamine on the highs but brings us to a low right after the effects wear off. Monday comes around, and we continue the rat race by starting a countdown for Friday. We work hard to save money, so we can continue escaping and if we’re lucky, we may have enough to prolong the escape by traveling the world.
As much as we would all like a quick solution to our “personal misery,” happiness doesn’t come easy and it’s not achieved solely from outside. We are raised to believe it is so, in order to keep people in the status quo. We are trained to follow rules and unwritten guidelines in society, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can keep running away from those feelings until we are forced to sit down with our thoughts.
Perhaps a pandemic hits the world and we can no longer run or get that kick of dopamine, unless we continue looking for them at the bottom of a bottle or at the end of a spliff. But how long can we keep that cycle going? We slowly begin to realize that what we’re really running away from is our ability to live, here and now. We have been so accustomed to worrying about tomorrow’s tasks or getting stuck in the problems of yesterday, that we forget to focus on what is right in front of us and utilize our power within.
Our mind is the most powerful tool we have if we learn to use it to our benefit; it can be our best friend rather than our worst enemy.
By focusing solely on material things and appearance, we neglect the importance of training the mental body. It's crucial to pay attention and listen to the voice beneath the noise. The intuition and not the ego. The truth is that life isn’t happening to you, it’s happening for you, and every problem you face is just another situation. You can only control the perspective and how you wish to perceive it. We create our own reality, so if we are constantly telling ourselves that we can do better, we are never going to have courage to pursue our dreams or discover our full potential.
We live in a society that evaluates people more and more based on the things we own. We are the education level and career we have, the car we drive, our relationship status, the size of our home, our clothes, the digits in our bank accounts, the designer bag we carry… but at the end of the day, nothing we buy and no one we encounter will ever bring us happiness if we don’t have an idea of who we are and love ourselves for what we stand for. If we don’t define our values and purpose, we don’t know how to live a balanced life aligned with them.
Unless we drastically change the way we live, the “programming” will continue and so will the increase in mental illnesses.
It is time to re-evaluate what it means to be human and how to define happiness. Could it be that nature has given us a second chance, a time-out and a slap in the face to rethink our behavior? Is this situation possibly our last chance to see opportunity over misery, to sit down and think about how we’ve behaved, and redesign our future? We already know what needs to be done. Most of us already know what brings us joy. What makes sense to be doing for the rest of our lives. It’s time to start listening to the voice beneath the noise, see through the gameplays from governments and societies, stand up for what we believe in and support each other rather than always compete.
We are all in this together, Mother Nature will survive, so if we as humans want to see the world as a better place, we have to seriously rethink the way we live, eat, work, consume and communicate. Instead of worrying about tomorrow, the best thing we can do is to take time for ourselves today. Taking an inventory check with oneself can be a game changer. Some people call it connecting with our inner child. What brings you joy? What was your favorite activity growing up? It doesn’t matter how childish it may seem to others, we have to go back to playing. Being present.
Going with the flow. This is also what we as yogis call “mindfulness”, which is usually achieved through meditation.
But meditation is not only the act of sitting cross legged on a mat with eyes closed. It is a state of mind, which upon mastered can be applied to everyday living. It’s something many people find when they are in “the flow” or “the zone”. Csíkszentmihályi describes the flow theory as a mental state of being completely immersed in an activity, and enjoying the process.
Now ask yourself -- what is your flow? Whether it is walking in nature, dancing alone in your room or with friends, singing, drawing, writing, cooking, doing yoga, building houses… find your meditation practice and make it part of your daily routine. The more you do it, the more you will realize that all we have is right now. So what’s the point of working a job that blocks rather than supports your creative expression to flow?
I believe we have the power to create the reality we want and to find what brings us joy. Now, it is our responsibility and opportunity to collectively redesign a world to support the future generations in discovering their purpose, making sure they are treated as individual human beings rather than identical human doings.
About the Author:
Pernille is a Danish designer, storyteller and yoga teacher. Upon discovering her purpose, she gave up chasing the "American Dream" to become a social entrepreneur and environmental activist. Her passion is to help people finding their power within, reprogramming their minds by embracing imperfections and authenticity to envision their individual, ideal futures
Pernille recently relocated to Costa Rica where she collaborates with other change-makers to envision ideal futures. Through work she aspires to ignite positive social and environmental change, while inspiring others to follow their dreams.