Everyone has some negative feature of themselves that they’d like to work on. A personality flaw, a vice, a failing, a lack in some area. Collectively, let’s just call these “bugs,” and for the rest of this post, that’s what I mean when I use the term. Anything about yourself and/or your life that you’d rather improve or eliminate.

My personal theory (backed up by plenty of personal experience) is that it’s not the bug that’s really that hard to get rid of. It’s everything else that’s attached to the bug.

You see, bugs have a way of insidiously burrowing into many adjacent (and even not-so-adjacent) aspects of your life. Partially that’s your own doing – on some level you know the bug is a bad thing, so you create justifications for it. But those justifications, over time, become foundational to big parts of your life if you don’t catch them. You start to identify with the bug, instead of with the person you’d be without it.

Take drinking, for example. Like probably most Americans, I know lots of people who have had unhealthy relationships with alcohol, ranging from full-on addiction to just problematic interactions. For some percentage of these people, the physical dependence on alcohol is the primary factor preventing them from killing this bug. But that’s actually a small percentage! For the larger majority, the problem isn’t physical dependence – it’s how much of the rest of your life becomes centered around drinking.

You drink when you party. You drink socially. You drink to relax. Someone buys you a bottle of wine as a present. You share drinking-related humor on social media. You might not be physically dependent on it at all, but you have zero idea how to interact without it. Maybe quitting drinking was easy – but dealing with the fallout of quitting was ten times more stressful.

Drinking is an easy example to visualize, but it’s everywhere. Take my friend Steve* (*name changed to protect the innocent… me, from backlash). Steve was in bad shape, overweight, unhealthy. Fixing this was tough, so instead he started to identify with it. He made in-shape people his “outgroup” and made fun of people for being “meatheads” or “gym-rats” or whatever, implying that anyone who worked out had to be a “dumb jock.” As a result, he had no in-shape friends and his social circle was all other unhealthy people who felt the same way. Now getting into the gym and cutting out the pizza and soda wasn’t his problem; his problem was that he’d systematically eliminated any possible support group for that. He could have hit the treadmill any time, except now it’s not about the physical difficulty, but the fact that his entire social life was built around being fat and unhealthy.

People do this all the time. They let their bugs take control of the system. Some people spend a few early years in a minimum-wage job and decide to learn more skills and work harder and get out. Other people start identifying with being poor and hating people who aren’t, and now suddenly your identity is as someone who can’t succeed no matter what.

We all have bugs. Bugs aren’t themselves a moral failing – each and every one of us will have things we want to improve, escape, or change. But there are two critical things you need to do in order to kill the bugs:

  1. Don’t let the bugs become your identity. Always make sure that the person you see yourself as is the person without the bugs. See yourself as fundamentally a sober, healthy, successful, whatever person who is working always to become that.
  2. Don’t surround yourself with people who do let their bugs become their identity. They will drag you down, reinforce your bugs, and prevent your empowerment.

Those are both very, very hard things to do. But I’ll give you a great tip for how to start: meet someone new.

Before you do the incredibly difficult work of changing your self-perception and cutting negative people out of your circle, meet just one new person. Make sure that person isn’t someone who identifies with their bugs, and make sure when you first meet them, you tell them who you’re trying to be. I know a lot of great people like this and I’m happy to introduce you.

Why is this important? Because that one person can start the process of turning the tide. They can pull you up, because they know who you’re trying to be. They can give you positive encouragement when you need it. They won’t already be a part of your negative circle. They can be the first person in your new in-group that will start to outnumber the old. It’s easier to eliminate your bad influences if you don’t feel like they’re they only people you have.

This person could be a boss, a mentor, a person in an organization you belong to (or join!), or even a very old friend you haven’t spoken with in years and re-connect with. Or they could be a complete rando you meet in a coffee shop that seems cool. They could be someone I introduce you to, like I suggested. But they do exist – which can be hard to see when all your existing people are so negative.

The journey of self-improvement can be lonely, and the very desire to have people near us can attract us to exactly the people preventing that self-improvement. So it’s good to have someone to talk to who isn’t, if you need it.

I’m here if you do, my friend.

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