Most of us don’t think much about what type of person we are. We have a hard enough time attending to the practical details of daily living—staying virus-free, caring for children, paying the bills, having enough food in the house, and knowing what our next project is at home. Few of us would choose having better character as our next trial. Most of us are so overwhelmed by the problems of modern living that the last thing we would think about is what type of person we are becoming. We live in an age of many challenges, and it only makes sense that first things ought to be first.
Nevertheless, let’s not fool ourselves. When we spend too much time on human doings, we may neglect our human being. Our good character can sustain us way more than all of our mortal accomplishments and success. Afterall, when we have good character, we always have the best of all possible friends to rely on—namely ourselves. Also, our kindness towards others and self-awareness can make us quite successful in our human endeavors. When we focus on personal betterment, we may learn to control our impulses, anticipate the needs of others, make lasting friendships and have better control of the demons within us, allowing us to more easily compromise in our dealings with others. Actually, character awareness and improvement may be the very best use of our time when so many external forces are making demands on us. Working on being a better version of yourself will likely outweigh any of our worldly successes and have greater meaning to us. Or, as Paul Tsongas, a former US Senator once said, “I doubt that any of us on our death beds will say, gee, I wish I had spent more time at the office.”
What is a better version of yourself?
Each of us must answer this question for himself or herself. Some of the guiding principles that may assist your efforts include:
- Can we put ourselves in other people’s shoes and experience life as they see it?
- Are we able to forgive ourselves as we forgive those who harm us?
- Are we the center of the universe or are we small stars twinkling in the heavens along with many other stars?
- Can we hold ourselves to a high degree of personal accountability or do we seek others to blame?
- Do we make real amends to people we have hurt and allow ourselves to be humbled?
- Are we more interested in saving face with others than taking personal and full responsibility for our actions?
- Can we maintain a sense of humor with our own failings and love ourselves anyway?
- Do we avoid the traps of holding grudges and being prejudiced towards others?
- Can we put ourselves second, third and last before others if a greater good is at stake?
- Do we have a personal relationship with a Higher Power that is part of our daily life?
I hate to break this news to you. You are not hopelessly flawed.Probably the most important principle of them all is: Taking our own fearless moral inventory of ourselves that is independent of what others think of us and what they think we should do to improve ourselves. So, you can use these principles above to guide you but it’s best if you can come up with your very own list of personal principles. You will know in your heart of hearts if you are doing the right thing in your life. You will feel proud of yourself and more confident in your identity. You will feel it in your body.
What stops us from looking at ourselves?
Many factors contribute to our lack of self-observation: Mindlessness over conformity to social trends and pressures, fear in having to look at our own flaws, helplessness in trying to cope with early child abuse, brainwashing that nothing we do will make a difference, unrealistic fear of genetic inferiority, isolation and the mistaken belief that we are the only people with our personal burdens, and lack of a clear path towards self-improvement. The more these beliefs get repeated the more they get reinforced. Too many of us develop a mistaken belief that we are uniquely unlovable and hopelessly flawed to make a difference in our own lives. We use this pessimism to act out with addictions and abusive relationships. We use these beliefs to think that personal growth is for losers who don’t want to have fun. Can you relate?
“If I had to live my life again, I’d make all the same mistakes–only sooner.”
—Tallulah Bankhead, infamous actress, humanitarian, and shameless bad girl of the 30’s and 40’s–
I hate to break this news to you. You are not hopelessly flawed, you are hardly unique in your life challenges, many other people are in the same boat as you, and you already have many good qualities that knock the socks off others. The problem is you have a persistently distorted and pejorative view of yourself that deflects from how others have failed you. You ought not to use your low opinion of yourself as an excuse to act out. It’s a lot wiser and easier to relay on others and your Higher Power to bring out the better parts of yourself. You don’t have to know how to help yourself. It’s enough to reach out to ask for help from others and have willingness to grow as a person. Although you may be looking at a mountain of challenges you may be surprised by how quickly you can feel hope in yourself. The mountain may in fact become a mole hill. Perhaps you’ve already taken the first step simply in reading this article. We all have been where you are and where you need to go. You are not different from any one of us.
“You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?”
My challenges to becoming a better person
Let me talk about what I do to be a better person. There are a number of areas to work on. My challenge to manage my type 2 diabetes is quite a chore. If I don’t keep my glucose level down, I can lose my eyesight (not good for writing articles) or lose one of my legs to amputation (not good for walking with friends). As I also struggle with hypertension, I could easily not manage my weight and fitness and pass away from a stroke or heart attack (equally not good for writing articles or walking with friends). Actually, I am doing quite well with those health issues, which in some way is like having to embrace sobriety forever. The steeper mountains to climb for me are my tendencies to be co-dependent. I have this incredible savior complex. Most of the time it can be helpful to help others. Occasionally I go over the line and feel it is my job to make sure others I love do not suffer. Perhaps a little grandiose you might say?! I just can’t stand it when those who I love are really hurting. I don’t like dogs, women and children who get abused (not in that order). I can’t even watch the ads on TV about abused pets because I feel like strangling their owners! God forbid if anybody even harmed even one hair of my beloved wife! In general, I barely can watch the news each night as the world gets more insane and dysfunctional. I sometimes see it as my job to be the Don Quixote of the world to correct all these injustices. I work to be mindful when I have crossed the line and realize that I’m actually diminishing others from helping themselves. I do not want to use others for my own ego needs. I live and let God do his work. Sometimes I slip and get controlling of my loved ones. I usually apologize and pray.
Some practical steps on your own character work
Here are some things you can do to become a better person:
- Look at yourself in the mirror and decide if you really want to be a better person and why you want to be a new version of yourself.
- Solicit input from others about how you are honestly impacting them and really let yourself be criticized. They may also tell you lots of good things about yourself too. Remember their faces when they tell you how they feel about knowing you.
- If you are stuck in patterns that you can’t seem to change on your own, then get help. A trusting relationship with a professional helper, like a good connection to a doctor, can be lifesaving.
- Be around other people who are working on their identities. Perhaps pick a challenging sponsor in a 12 Step program and a connection to peers who work their program and don’t just occupy space. Do this especially if you’re scared to do so.
- Don’t forget you have a body to take care of. Get regular exercise that is moderate (3 x 20-minute walks a week, preferably with a friend). Avoid marathons. Just enjoy your workouts no matter how intense they are. Remember to always get back on the horse when you have taken a break from exercise.
- Get regular restful sleep each night. You may need a helper to advise on how to do this. Your energy level should pick up when you do.
- Find a good nutritionist through your health clinic and get guidance on healthy and tasty nutrition. Don’t worship food to medicate your feelings. Let good food nurture you.
Study what it means to develop good character. Visit the on-line VIA Institute of Character Building and get on their mailing address. It is a treasure house of unbiased education and research on how to have better character along with practical testing to assess and improve your personality.
Read the amazing writings of healers like Confucius, an Ancient Chinese Healer who said,
“Before you set out to avenge wrongs done to you, dig two graves.” The Wisdom of Confucius, Lin Yutang, Modern Library 1977.
and Epictetus, a Greek Philosopher who said, “No man is free who is not a master of himself.” The Philosophy of Epictetus, Dover. 2017
Both of these guys were the ethical geniuses of their time and today’s modern world. They will knock your socks off if you let them.
May you take my words and sentiments in your journey to good character.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul, MN and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.
Last Updated on September 8, 2021