The Self-Improvement Paradox

Can you improve yourself without feeling like you always need improvement?

Artwork by Jaye Ahn

Artwork by Jaye Ahn

If aliens were to land in America, all they would have to do is open a magazine, listen to a podcast, or browse a bookstore before scribbling “obsessed with self-improvement” on their list of Earthling characteristics. From diets and exercise programs to self-help books and career/spiritual/financial/social/animal counselors, there is always an abundance of resources available for anyone looking to become a better person.

The most common critique of these messages is they force us to always find something wrong with ourselves, creating obsessions with unattainable perfection. Maybe too much self-improvement can be dangerous, but a healthy amount of the stuff is also necessary to grow as a person. After all, nobody’s perfect, and sometimes it is necessary to take a long look in the mirror, take responsibility for our more jagged edges, and promise ourselves, our friends, our family, and our world to do better next time.

Recently, I started going to therapy. It took many years to work up the courage, but in the spirit of finding ways to improve my life, I scheduled my first appointment. I started by telling my therapist about my tendency to pull away from people, and my ever-present fear of rejection. Immediately following the first appointment, I felt on top of the world. After an hour-long conversation, I walked out with a mental list of all the things I was going to do differently to become a happier, healthier person and a better friend.

Despite my initial rush of excitement, the week following my appointment was miserable. With everything I did, all I thought about was whether I was being a good friend or making progress toward being “better,” whatever that meant. I told my friends how I was bad at talking about my feelings, and how I had a tendency to pull-in instead of reach out, listing them like items on a grocery list. Initially, I thought naming and claiming my flaws would more easily lead me down the road to happiness. Instead, I convinced myself I had wasted years being a failure of a person, causing my own sadness. I convinced myself the entire world knew I was awful all this time, but never bothered to shake me out of it.

Needless to say, when the therapist asked me how I was doing at our next session, I said, “Rough.” After explaining the downward spiral I had found myself in, my therapist paused and said: “You seem to be very judgmental of your feelings.” Just as I was adding, “Stop being judgmental of my feelings” to my mental list of self-improvement, my therapist continued: “Maybe the changes you are making aren’t good, they aren’t bad, they are just different.” Cue a domino effect of explosions in my head ending with an epiphany symphony.

After an hour-long conversation, I walked out with a mental list of all the things I was going to differently to become a happier, healthier person, and a better friend.

Ding ding ding! Perhaps self-improvement isn’t trying to find all the ways I am doing things wrong, but about experimenting with different ways of doing things. Choosing to exercise more, or reach out to friends more, or write more doesn’t inherently mean the way you were doing things before made you a failure or bad in any way, it just means you are doing things differently now. Yes, some ways of doing things have outcomes that are perhaps less desirable than others, which is probably why it is so hard to not feel like a bad person when you are trying to make changes for the better. Ultimately, the danger in viewing changes as improvements is you’ll probably find yourself on a slippery slope toward a constant loop of, “I could do better and therefore I’m a bad person.”

Maybe what we really need when it comes to self-improvement is a frameshift, where each iteration of ourselves is valued in and of itself, because simply living is valuable. If I spend a few years pushing people away in a misadvised move toward self-preservation, that is nothing more than one iteration of myself through an entire lifetime of change. Even as I work to let more people in, I’m not necessarily a better version of myself, just a different one. Ultimately, I will probably prefer the outcomes of letting people closer to me, but that doesn’t make either of these versions of myself wholly good or wholly bad. They just make them different.

At the end of the day, life is just a series of choices, so it would be a waste not to choose something different every once in a while, but we don’t need to beat ourselves up for making a less-than-perfect choice.  So let’s just shake things up whenever we feel like it, staying mindful of the outcomes and making choices accordingly. After all, life is all trial and error, so let’s just do our best and forgive ourselves for the rest.