I’m kind of a self improvement addict—always have been, really.
When I was eight, I created a schedule for my after-school time, planning my activities down to the minute and making sure I included all the stuff that was good for me: a healthy snack, time to practice my soccer skills, homework, chores and, of course, an early bedtime.
If, heaven forbid, my schedule got disrupted and I was still brushing my teeth a few minutes after I was supposed to be in bed, I would start to freak out and stress because it felt like my entire life was going to fall apart.
I was eight years old. My biggest responsibility in life was packing my lunch for school the next day. Yet I couldn’t have felt like my actions were more critical if I were President of the United States.
Fast forward about 17 years, and my desire to improve myself found a new outlet. Following a full-on mental, emotional and spiritual breakdown, I began participating in individual and group therapy. I started attending meetings for a 12-step program for families and friends of alcoholics. I began to pay a lot more attention to my internal world and notice patterns that weren’t serving me so well.
In short, I discovered the world of personal growth and development.
This world gave me access to incredible wisdom, transformed my anxiety and depression into freedom and fulfillment, led me to my calling, and honestly saved my life. It also gave me a whole new realm in which to obsessively strive to improve myself.
Now I had an entirely new vocabulary with which to question my adequacy: Was I being true enough to my authentic self? Was my inner child happy? Had I let my fears, self-doubt, and negative vibrations get the best of me again?
I also found that the more I tried to improve myself, the more intractable my flaws and foibles became. The harder I worked to be like the Buddha, the more anxious, self-critical and generally unenlightened I became.
That’s how I discovered the problem with self improvement.
The word improvement itself implies that there’s something wrong with us, like a house with a leaky foundation. Many articles, books and seminars also seem to imply that with their secret formula and enough hard work, we can fix all our flaws and turn our hovels into mansions.
The problem with this approach is that it keeps us stuck in the same perspective that generated our trouble in the first place. And as Albert Einstein said: “You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.”
In my experience, almost all of my suffering comes from identifying with my small self (my ego), rather than who I really am. When I’m relaxed and feeling relatively safe, I sense how big my true self is, how whole and brilliant and secure and intrinsically connected it is to everything and everyone around me. As my true self, I have access to all kinds of love, wisdom, compassion, strength, joy, guidance and trust—it’s all within me.
But when any kind of stress, disappointment or perceived threat emerges, I lose touch with my true self and go back to identifying with my small self—the one who feels inadequate, scared and lost. And that causes huge amounts of suffering.
So what do I do? I try to address this suffering by improving something about myself. In other words, I reject some part of myself as broken, try to fix it, and virtually guarantee that I’ll continue to identify with my small self and suffer even more.
In fact, all my efforts at self improvement are pretty much efforts by my ego to control my thoughts, feelings, and actions and make them perfect so I can finally feel good enough, or to acquire some new skill, quality or ability that will get rid of the discomfort and somehow make everything okay.
What my ego is missing is that everything is already okay, and that the best way to realize that isn’t to strive to make my thoughts more positive or to love myself more or to follow some other piece of generally good advice, but rather to relax into and embrace what’s happening right now—whatever that is.
The irony is, when I do that, when I accept the self hatred, the fear, the doubt, or the despair—the very things my self improving ego wants me to get rid of—when I let them be exactly as they are without trying to change them, they don’t hold so much power over me. I can recognize my flaws and feelings for what they are—fleeting experiences that, far from taking away from my awesome-ness, are actually part and parcel of it.
Amazingly, when I stop trying to change what is, poof, I reconnect to my larger self and the suffering takes care of itself. And when I don’t try so hard to improve myself, I actually discover and grow the most.
That’s because we all have a natural tendency to learn, develop and heal. Paradoxically, it’s by not trying so hard to change that we can best tap into this capacity.
That’s why I no longer try to improve myself. Or rather, I try to no longer try to improve myself (I am an addict, after all). When I catch myself self improving, I just notice it like any other flaw and do my best to observe it with compassion and curiosity. Bonus points if I can laugh at myself for my impeccable predictability.
If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s this: we don’t have to try to change anything. And in the end, that changes everything.
Author: Meredith Walters
Editors: Katarina Tavčar; Emily Bartran
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