You may have emotional or psychological issues that get in the way of your being able to discover your life purpose or to make it happen in your life. Let’s look at a few. You may discover others in yourself.
Some people approach the question of life purpose with explicit or hidden ideas of what their life purpose ought to be. This usually comes from “shoulds” they have internalized or created about how to serve the world. You may believe your life purpose must fit some idea of a good person or that you must pick a life purpose that involves giving to others. There may be someone who is important to you who has an idea about what your career should or shouldn’t be. Life purpose is not about being a “good person” according to any standards and it isn’t necessarily about giving. It is about following your heart and doing what you love to do and is deeply meaningful. Your life purpose will probably turn out to be an important contribution to other people and the world, but it will be one that springs from passion and meaning, not a sense of obligation or guilt.
People who want to be social change agents are especially prone to shoulds. For example, “If I really care about poor people, I should join an activist group that works on social justice issues.” That is the best way for some people to help the disadvantaged, but maybe your life purpose is to produce art that inspires downtrodden groups to recognize their collective power. It is crucial to follow your heart, not some standard for what should be done.
A related problem is that social activists often find their life purpose quest blocked by guilt. There are so many different issues that need changing. When you read about one in the paper, you may feel guilty that you aren’t doing something about it. This is can lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed and stuck, not knowing which way to go. It all feels like too much, so you avoid taking any action. If this is happening to you, it is helpful to remember that you can only help with one (or two) issues. You should choose them carefully according to the passions of your life purpose, and then let the others go. You can still care about them, but you must focus your efforts on what you are called to do.
Success and failure provide important feedback from the real world about the wisdom of your choices as you search for a way to manifest your life purpose. When a project doesn’t work out, the best response is to see this as a learning opportunity, not a statement about your capacities or your self-worth. A constructive response is to consider how to approach the situation differently or discover other directions that will work better. Instead, often a failure is taken as proof of your inadequacy or unworthiness. The need for success and fear of failure can block your ability to even know your life purpose. You may doubt your ability to take on a project and therefore not even consider it as your life purpose. You may tell yourself that you aren’t worthy enough to think about a certain life purpose.
Once you are working on actualizing your life purpose, insecurity can make it hard for you to act. You may feel pressure to perform and a fear that you can’t. You may be afraid to take the risks required to truly fulfill your life purpose. You do need to match your abilities with your dreams and choose a career or project that fits you. However, everyone has a contribution to make. It is only a matter of discovering yours. It can be helpful to do psychological work on your self-esteem in order to work through blocks in this area.
Fear of Success
The fear of success may also block you from knowing your life purpose. You may fear that you will be ostracized if you are too successful, or that some calamity will befall you because you don’t deserve success, or that it is disloyal to your parents to be more successful than they. You may feel that it isn’t OK to be as “large” as you really are. Therefore you may not consider a life purpose that involves a significant project or makes you publicly visible. Making these fears conscious goes a long way toward dispelling them. You may have to let go of a certain dependence on a parent or partner. You may have to relinquish an image of yourself as small and weak.
Fear of Risk
You may be avoiding knowing your life purpose because it would involve risks that make you anxious. You may want to avoid changing jobs because you feel secure and at home in your current job even though it isn’t right for you. Sometimes just recognize these fears is enough to get past them. Sometimes taking one risk helps to overcome the anxiety in future situations.
While engaged in your life purpose, you may discover that you also have strong ego motivations for doing the project–prestige, money, being liked, power. This is not necessarily a problem, but if your ego needs become too great they may eclipse your true motivation for your life purpose, and the project or job can be diverted or distorted from its real aim.
Getting Practical Too Soon
At the beginning of the life purpose search, it is important to let yourself dream, to contemplate your ideal career or way of contributing to the world. Don’t let yourself rule anything out because it doesn’t seem practical or you don’t think you can make a living at it. Don’t ignore something just because you don’t think you can pull it off. Later on you will need to deal with these questions, but if you bring them in too soon, you may rule out your true life purpose before you give it a chance.
If you discover that you are called to something that seems impractical at first, you may discover an unexpected way to make it work as a career. You may integrate it with something else you are good at. You may find a creative, off-beat way to make it happen. You may collaborate with others. You may have to work up to it over many years. Even if it doesn’t work as a career, you will want to pursue it as a volunteer activity or hobby. Therefore, let yourself discover what your life purpose truly is without reference to feasibility. Later in the process, you will get practical.
Fear of Giving Up Activities
You may be afraid that if you pursue your life purpose, you will have to give up things that are important to you in life—relaxation, leisure, fun, self-care, personal growth. You may fear that a career-oriented life purpose will take up all your time, and you will have an stressful, unbalanced life. While this could happen, it doesn’t have to be this way. Your life purpose is something you will love doing, it isn’t something you are supposed to do. It doesn’t require a compulsive involvement. You may want to throw yourself into it during certain times, but that is your choice. Following your life purpose really means doing what is most fulfilling for you as often as you can, so it really should lead in the direction of a balanced life. Part of your life purpose may indeed be to relax more, to enjoy yourself, to take better care of yourself, and so on.
Fear of Giving Up Interests
If you have many different interests, pursuing your life purpose may involve narrowing this down to the one or two you are most passionate about. However, you may be reluctant to give up any of your interests, and therefore you may avoid knowing your life purpose. Keep in mind that it is often desirable for a person to choose a life purpose that integrates two or three of their primary interests. And you don’t have to give up anything that is really important to you. If you explore yourself to find those pursuits that are most deeply meaningful to you, you will gain immense satisfaction from following those. These rewards passions will far outweigh the disadvantages of giving up some of your lesser interests.
If you look closely, you may realize that you have always had to choose. You may have dabbled in many different interests but you couldn’t pursue them all at once. In exploring your life purpose, you are choosing those interests that are most central to who you are. And by narrowing your focus, you can really pursue them, leading to much greater satisfaction.
Belief that You Can’t Make a Difference
If you want to make changes in the world as part of your life purpose, you may find yourself saying things like: The world is too big and society is too entrenched to change. How can one person make a difference anyway? I don’t have what it takes to make a difference. These thoughts can block you from discovering your life purpose. However, when looked at from the right perspective, other truths emerge.
It is all too easy to think that you have to solve all the problems yourself, which leaves you feeling overwhelmed and helpless before the immensity of the world situation. The truth is that we are part of a movement of people from all around the world who are attempting to make fundamental changes, yet we sometimes think only in terms of the effect of our individual actions. This is a reflection of our cultural emphasis on individuality. We tend to see ourselves as isolated persons rather than as parts of a larger whole. In evaluating the impact you would like to make in the service of social transformation, it is enormously empowering to focus on the impact of the groups and larger movements you would be part of, not just on your personal impact. For example, in working with battered women, you would be part of a movement of women who are doing the same, with all of you part of the larger women’s movement. In working to bring spiritual values to your company, you would be part of the larger movement aimed at this, and also part of the still larger spiritual renaissance of our time.
In addition, the way we each are living our lives is right now contributing partly to the current social order and also partly to a new, healthier one. The way we buy and consume, the way we eat, our relationships, our living situations, and many other aspects of our lives all are relevant to social change. You can appreciate and expand on those aspects of your life that are enhancing the emergence of a new, healthy society. Your personal growth is not just for you; it can change you so you become a more effective transformative citizen. You also have many opportunities to influence other people—not just their politics, but their values, their worldview, their way of being. You can affect the institutions that you support or participate in. You can create community with like-minded people so as to exert a collective influence and begin to create new social customs and values.
It’s not always easy to see what impact you are having, but it can be quite important nonetheless.