Lost in the Pursuit of Substitutes

Ever since I was a teen, my drive to be productive has been a key strategy of what I often refer to as my “wanting self.” When I feel insecure, producing—whether it’s a finished article, a stack of paid bills or a clean kitchen—is my most readily accessible device for feeling worthwhile. This producing isn’t simply the natural urge to be creative and contribute to the mix of life, it’s energized by fears of inadequacy and the need to prove myself.

When I’m caught in this strategy, I turn to English Breakfast tea to give me the boost I think I need to remain productive throughout the day and often into the night. The price is that I become speedy, impatient and distant from those I love. I get disconnected from my body as I relentlessly urge myself onward to get yet another thing done. Feeling self-centered and bad about myself for workaholism doesn’t slow me down. “Getting one more thing out of the way” seems the most reliable way to get what I want—to feel better. 

At a psychotherapy conference I attended, I saw a poster that struck home. In it two homeless men are sitting on a park bench. One is saying to the other, “I used to have a private jet, condo in Aspen and be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company … then I switched to decaf.”

Photo Credit: Shell Fischer
It’s not hard to understand why our substitutes are so attractive. Even if they don’t address our deepest needs, they prop us up and for a time keep getting us the goods that give us those momentary pleasant sensations. Our efforts in pursuit of substitutes preoccupy and distract our attention enough to shield us for a time from the raw sensations of feeling unloved or unworthy. Accomplishing things does temporarily stave off my feelings of inadequacy. Yet underneath, my wanting self urges me on, fearful that without being productive I’ll lose everything, like the executive who switched to decaf.

While having a job is usually necessary to meet our basic survival needs, where and how we work is also a key domain for substitute gratification: work becomes an indirect means for trying to win love and respect. We might find what we do entirely meaningless, we might hate or resent our job, yet still hitch our desire for approval and connection to how well we perform.

This strategy delivers the goods through money or power, through the strokes we get for our diligence and competence, through the satisfaction of “getting something done.” But we can get lost in these substitutes, soothing and covering over our unmet needs, overlooking the fact that they will never satisfy our deepest longings. 

Even when we are engaged in activities that are meaningful to us, that are creatively and spiritually gratifying, they can be “co-opted” and used to satisfy the unmet needs of the wanting self. This happens to me most often when I’m preparing talks or workshops for meditation groups or writing articles on Buddhist practice. When I remain aware that the Buddhist teachings are precious to me and I love sharing them with others, I can throw myself into what I’m doing with enormous passion. When anxiety or frustration arises, I’m able to meet it with acceptance.

But sometimes that voice of insecurity and unworthiness arises, and I listen to it. Suddenly writing or preparing a presentation is linked to winning or losing love and respect and my entire experience of working shifts. The wanting self takes over. While I always intend to give a wholehearted effort, now that effort is wrapped in fear. I’m anxiously striving to be “good enough” and to reap the rewards. My love for what I do is clouded over when working becomes a strategy to prove my worth.

We are unable to give ourselves freely and joyfully to any activity if the wanting self is in charge. And yet, until we attend to the basic desires and fears that energize the wanting self, it will insinuate itself into our every activity and relationship.

D.H. Lawrence tells us that “Men are not free when they are doing just what they like ... men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes ….” When we are motivated by immediate gratification to do “just what we like,” we will feel continuously driven: No amount of productivity or consuming or recognition can break through the trance of unworthiness and put us in touch with the “deepest self.”

As Lawrence points out, to do what the deepest self likes “takes some diving.” To listen and respond to the longing of our heart requires a committed and genuine presence. The more completely we’re caught in the surface world of pursuing substitutes, the harder it is to dive.

From Radical Acceptance (2003)

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