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December 4, 2020

Why my Obsession with Self-Improvement Kept me Stuck & Unable to Change.

 

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I felt like a pathetic movie cliché.

Sitting on my therapist’s velvet couch, clutching a tissue box, and tearfully going through everything going wrong in my life: my job, my personal life, my weight, my general lack of direction, my inability to stop feeling sad no matter how much journaling, reflecting, and examining my past I did.

I had given her a thorough explanation of everything I felt was holding me back in the hopes that she’d give me the golden strategy for how to finally make it stop. 

Instead, she told me about “the importance of acceptance,” which made me want to scream at her, like a toddler having a temper tantrum. If it had truly been a movie, I would have gotten up, thrown the tissue box down, yelled, “This is what I’m paying you for?!” and run out of the room. 

Since it wasn’t a movie, I just sat there and seethed quietly. I finally interrupted her and said something less dramatic, like “Can we not talk about this?”

But why was I so angry at her for talking about acceptance, of all things?

As a self-proclaimed personal development junkie, I thought I knew all about acceptance from the stacks of mindfulness, spirituality, and self-help books I’d read over the years. I was obsessed with “changing myself for the better.” And while I was ready to journal, meditate, reflect on my past, rewrite limiting beliefs, and do all kinds of other things these books instructed, I didn’t just have no interest in acceptance, but a disdain for it. 

Sure, I conceptually understood that learning to accept where I was would make me enjoy my life more in its current form. But it felt like giving in. Why would I spend time working on being happy where I was when the last thing I wanted was to stay stuck there? I wanted to make changes! And frankly, anything that implied I should learn to be happy where I was was insulting. 

So, I wasn’t in the mood for a lecture on how I needed to learn to love my 10-pounds-more-than-I-wanted-to-weigh body, my garbage personal life, or my unfulfilling, low-paying job, and I was uninterested in “healing” my relationship with myself. 

What I wanted to learn was what was going to make me stop dating unavailable men, stop wanting to binge eat, and figure out how to get a better job that paid more money ASAP. Then acceptance would become a nonissue because I’d have what I wanted. So working on it was a waste.

My fear of acceptance kept me stuck.

Underneath my obsession with self-improvement and disdain for acceptance was a deep fear.

I was terrified that if I fully accepted myself in my current state, I’d become complacent, lose my drive to change, and hold myself back from fulfilling my full potential. 

I didn’t understand how my refusal to accept was the very thing keeping me stuck and unable to make the changes I was craving.

Here’s why:

1. Refusal to accept is a form of avoidance, which prevented me from seeing my situation clearly and slowed my progress.

My perpetual drive to make myself “better” kept me from truly experiencing and fully understanding what was happening in the present moment. It kept me from taking actions that would have moved me forward faster. 

I felt frustrated about my lack of clarity around my career, and I wanted to “fix” it and know what I was doing with my life, which included reading countless books, taking personality tests, and arbitrarily trying things in the hopes they’d be “my calling.” 

I couldn’t bear the thought of being in my uncertainty without an “answer” for any length of time. I wasn’t taking this time to truly be in my thoughts and feelings, so I was completely out of tune with my own internal guidance. I barely knew what I liked and didn’t like because I was so busy looking for a magic bullet external answer to provide a solution for me. 

When I finally allowed myself to be in my uncertainty without trying to run away from it with an arbitrary plan (go to law school and decide what you want to do later! Pick a job based on how much you get paid! Do what people who other people think are smart do!), I naturally got more clarity by listening to my inner voice, which I’d been shutting out in favor of outside help. 

2. Refusal to accept made me self-sabotage. 

Self-sabotage occurs when we don’t feel safe doing the thing we think we want to do, or when fear of failure is so strong that we feel like we wouldn’t be able to handle it if it happened. 

Because I made my current state “unacceptable” to myself, changing and “improving” became an almost life or death quest.

“I’m not good enough the way I am, so I have to change to have the life I want,” I thought. This framing put so much pressure on me to change that my fear of failure skyrocketed. I subconsciously kept myself in “working on myself” mode instead of taking the risks I was supposedly working toward. I stayed stuck because I was too scared to try and fail at what I really wanted. 

Additionally, by refusing to accept myself, I created an environment where I didn’t feel safe or comfortable making a change, no matter how much I wanted to. 

Imagine being friends with someone who is constantly telling you to be different. How comfortable would you feel around this person, and how excited would you be to make the changes they were suggesting, even if they were good ideas or things you yourself wanted to change? Chances are, you’d constantly feel like you were going to mess up, which would either make you actually mess up or make you too nervous to act for fear of messing up. That’s what I was doing to myself.

3. Refusal to accept destroyed my confidence and trust in myself.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that constantly being told to change will take a toll on self-esteem. But it was harder to make the connection when I was doing it to myself, under the guise of self-improvement. I was “bettering myself,” which meant being in a constant state of trying to change and telling myself I needed to.

Beyond feeling exhausted from constantly trying to figure out what I needed to be doing differently, I also felt zero confidence in the current version of myself. 

This took the form of everything from taking a million resume workshops but not applying to jobs, to stockpiling draft blog posts I never posted, to going to the gym to “feel more confident in my body” but refusing to date until I reached a certain weight. 

So as much as I wanted to achieve big things, whenever I had a chance to do something big that would bring me closer to what I wanted, I would freak out that I wasn’t “ready” because I wasn’t yet the best version of myself and go back to the drawing board to “be better.” 

This kept me playing small and scared to go for real opportunities for years. 

Integrating acceptance.

Focusing on acceptance does not mean becoming complacent or dropping all our goals. We don’t have to reach “perfect” acceptance before we can start achieving what we envision.

Once I understood that acceptance and self-improvement work better in concert, I was ready to start shifting the way I approached my goals, but it took me a while to find the right balance of both. 

Throughout my journey, I developed three keys that helped me approach goal setting from a place of acceptance and enoughness. 

1. Reframe “failure.”

In the words of Thomas Edison, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” Failure is a part of any process of achieving anything that challenges and excites us and should be embraced rather than avoided. 

I used to view every stumbling block as evidence I wasn’t capable or worthy of what I wanted for myself, which discouraged me from pursuing some of my deepest desires. 

I remember taking an expensive course to prepare for the law school admission test and not going to any of the timed and graded practice tests because I knew if I saw a low score, that would mean I wasn’t “naturally smart” or “cut out for big things.”

If one guy didn’t like me, it meant I wasn’t pretty or desirable. If I messed up a presentation, it meant I was bad at presentations. 

When I stopped making failure mean something about myself or my abilities and began to view it as a necessity and a part of the road to success, I stopped sabotaging and giving up on my most ambitious goals. 

That doesn’t mean I don’t get upset or triggered when mistakes, failures, or roadblocks come up—I do. But because I no longer view these things as signs that I’m incapable or unworthy, they no longer serve as a reason to stop what I’m going after. 

2. Give yourself grace and compassion.

Just as it’s natural to stumble along the way as we pursue our aspirations, it’s also natural to fall into old patterns. Things started to really shift for me when I began to respond to these patterns by asking myself what I needed instead of how I could stop. When I began to see triggers as signs I needed love rather than signs I was failing, I was able to nip them in the bud much more easily.

When we catch ourselves stuck in an old pattern, we can ask ourselves what we need in that moment and find a way to give it to ourselves, rather than getting tough and trying to force the behavior to stop.

This can look like going on a fun solo date when you feel needy, literally holding and hugging yourself when you cry, or another variation of meeting “bad” habits with love instead of discipline or suppression.

3. Be vulnerable with yourself, and get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Learning to “feel your feelings” is the ultimate source of power. One of the biggest reasons I was afraid to take action was because I was scared of how it would feel if it didn’t go as planned, or if it exposed me in an uncomfortable way.

When I learned to allow myself to feel everything, my intense fear around high stakes experiences or risks subsided. I knew that the worst thing that could happen was I would feel a certain way, and knowing I could handle any feeling made the prospect of going through it less daunting. 

It’s natural to want to run away from negative or painful feelings, but it will always end up making the problem worse. If I tell you not to think about the color blue for 30 seconds, you’re going to spend those 30 seconds thinking about nothing but blue objects. That’s how it works with emotions.

Allowing myself to be with my emotions not only felt like a weight lifted off my chest, but it also made difficult feelings pass quicker. Because I let them be heard, they had no reason to stay longer than necessary to deliver their message.

Acceptance and growth are inextricably linked and work best together. Changing the way we view failure and being compassionate and vulnerable with ourselves shifts the personal development journey into a place of growth from acceptance rather than lack. 

This can provide clarity of purpose, remove the need for self-sabotage, and increase confidence and self-trust, all of which provide the momentum to achieve change faster than resistance and self-denial. 

~

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