I see it on my newsfeed, hear it on the radio, see it in magazines, and feel it swimming around like frantic fish in my brain—the constant invitation to improve ourselves.
It can feel exhausting and endless. It can be absolutely relentless.
Apparently, we need to change our diets drastically, take 10 types of exotic herbs, revolutionize our creativity, cleanse our chakras, purify our homes, detox our skin, fix our relational wounds, and learn to set ourselves emotionally free.
The ironic thing is that often this feels like the exact opposite of free. Am I right?
Now, during this pandemic, the business of self-improvement is amped up even more. Advertisers lure us in by making us believe we need a thousand things to be this so-called “better” version of ourselves, urging us to take advantage of our extended time at home.
We start to think (and yes, I often do too) that once we fix this or that, then everything will be perfect. We will find the ideal partner, our careers will explode, and everything will be just right.
Sure. Maybe. But also—and much more likely—life will continue to have its ups and downs, and we can choose to lean into it all.
Now, I’m not knocking working on ourselves. I love growth and will always thirst for it. I know many of us do.
It’s lovely to want to reflect on our actions, be authentic, and feel well, but the way self-improvement is presented to us, and the way we relate to it can become desperate, addictive, and clingy.
It can be fueled by a sugar-coated fantasy that stems from fear. Fear of the uncertainty and pain of life. Fear of sitting still. Fear of feeling. Those things can be scary for sure, but we don’t strengthen our thinking and actions by simply covering our fears in a wrapper labeled, “sweet spirituality.”
Also, why don’t we stop to ask when is self-help not helpful?
We forget that there is no such thing as a flawless person. No miracle cure can take away the suffering, joy, sweetness, loneliness, embarrassment, goddamn breathtaking and at times excruciating, tenderness of being human.
Life is messy. We are messy. I don’t know about you, but I will always have a bit of dirt under my fingernails from digging in my garden. There will always be some paint on my pants from a project gone slightly awry, and some pain in my eyes, leftover from the past.
I will say the wrong things and sometimes feel insecure. I’m becoming a little more okay with that.
In our culture, there is this constant, privileged, never-ending, frenzied desire to be more, be it all, and have it all. It seeps into everything, including self-help, especially when times are uncertain.
We reach for someone or something to save us, to have the answers, to cure us so we can be this “better” person. But maybe we’ve got it upside down.
Maybe there is nothing terribly wrong with us. Maybe we don’t need to fix anything thing today.
Yes. Breathe that in. It can feel like a soft, welcoming breeze against our cheek in a world that constantly screams for our attention. We all have them—the sweet moments when we relax a little and realize we don’t need to adjust a million things about our lives.
It’s smiling with simple awe at the apricot gold of the sunrise, it’s a deep belly laugh with a dear friend, it’s how green the leaves are today. It’s when our love for another brings us to trembling tears.
In these moments, we forget all about striving to be unblemished and glowing and superb.
We remember that we are pretty cool and happy and okay, just as we are.
We see that we don’t need to be someone else. We don’t need to be the always calm, with our sh*t together, enlightened, or super successful person we believe we should be.
And perhaps in this gentle embracing, we recognize that sure, there are some things we could work on—there always will be. But there’s also so much we don’t need to work on.
Maybe we can focus on that for a change. Perhaps we can concentrate on sitting still and witnessing the buds and blossoms within us—our gifts, strengths, wisdom, and all the weird, messy, completely fantastic things that make us who we are.
Maybe we would be surprised at how beautiful it all is.
“We already everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves—the heavy-duty fearing that we’re bad and hoping that we’re good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy, and the addictions of all kinds—never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here. This is who we really are. We are one blink of an eye away from being fully awake.” ~ Pema Chödrön