Is Self Improvement Really Helping Us?
“Self Improvement” has been something I’ve strived for most of my life. I always thought this to be a positive and healthy attitude - shouldn’t I be working to be the best version of myself? There was a time where thought it was my duty to... and I thought I enjoyed it. I thought it was a loving act towards myself. However, in the past few years, out of necessity I’ve taken a very honest look at my intention to “self improve” and zoomed in closer on the thoughts and beliefs driving the drive to “be good”. And I’ll tell you, as someone devoted to bringing more self-love into my life, I am no longer a fan of “self improvement”. The “ideal” and “healthiest” and “best” lifestyle means different things to different people - what we need to do and be in order to be “good” or the “best version” of ourselves is defined differently by everyone. In la, there a lot of pressure to be “spiritual” and the tasks we “should do” in order to live a “good life” and be a “good person” involve a lot of meditation, juicing, and yoga. In the equestrian culture, there’s a lot of pressure to “train hard”, and dedication to achievement is defined differently pretty much everywhere you look. In the media, there’s a lot of pressure to look a certain way - to strive for a certain body type and follow the latest health fad. I mention all of these different ideals in order to point out that there is no one “Devine way of being good” - there is no one “good”. All have different definitions of how to live a “good” life - all have different ideas on what it means to “live perfectly”. Some people say in order to be living your best life, you have to mediate every morning. Some say you have to get up at 4am. Some say you have to take cold showers to build resilience. Some say you have to start with a cleansing tea every day. Some say you have to train for x amount of hours. Some say you have to do all of these things before 9! The requirements are different for everyone - there is no one truth, yet these ideas of what we “should” be doing are usually sold to us as such.
Personally, I’ve studied youtube videos about the “perfect morning routine” and done “yoga every day” challenges and tried to eat “clean” vegan, and while none of my “perfect rituals” have ever stuck long term, there was a time where I went back to them again and again because I believed they may be the key to a better me... that they may be the “fix” I was looking for (even though I never thought of them in those terms). And while all the things I listed could be seen as “positive changes” to make in our lives, when done because we think we “should” do them, we are no longer striving for true health and happiness - I believe this is when we start being led by shame and beliefs of “not good enough as I am”. I didn’t see this for a long time; to me, these things I “should” be doing were always “positive” in my eyes (how can meditating every day be bad?), and thus it was my problem that was having such a hard time sticking to them. I felt inside that the issue was me, and I ignored my resistance to the cage of expectations I was making, writing it off as my “lack of willpower”. All of these positive things and changes I thought I “should” be doing/making, started inviting more guilt and shame into my life, but I thought the issue was me. I never used to see the shame, but now after truly diving into and dedicating myself to the energy of compassion (for myself and thus others), I find “self improvement” to be a very slippery slope. One that always sells itself with a pretty bow of promises, and usually leaves us feeling like something is wrong in us because we couldn’t find the will power to stick to “the plan”.
I remember one time a friend of mine came into my room and saw posted on my wall a sheet of paper describing my “ideal morning routine”. She looked at me and said “whoa... that looks like a lot of pressure”.
Let me tell you, it freaking was.
But my idea of what was “right” was so ingrained, I wasn’t even in touch with my feelings about it - or perhaps I didn’t like my feelings on it and didn’t think I *should* feel it was a lot of pressure.
At first, I felt a little bit defensive because I didn’t want to admit to myself at the time how hard it was for me to stick to, thinking that admitting that meant admitting to how weak I had been. I remember thinking “well yes it is, but also if I was good and had the willpower, I’d be able to do all of those things no sweat”. I would be able to do it all with ease if I were just a bit more “dedicated” and had stronger “will power” - and I judged myself for not being better at it all.
Yes, it was a shit ton of pressure - but I thought my struggle with it was proof of my inadequacy, my laziness - and I was ashamed.
When I tried to commit to a morning routine, what usually ended up happening was that I’d do it for a day, feel good that I’d “done the right things”, and the next day or a few days later once the excitement of “changing/improving myself” wore off, I’d hear my alarm go off early in the morning and no longer be able to find the motivation to it again. I’d skip it and feel like a bit of a failure for the rest of the day.
What was wrong with me that I couldn’t even stick to a morning routine? Where was my willpower? Why was I so lazy? These thoughts would stick with me and ultimately make me feel worse about myself. Even the things I truly enjoyed on the list, I wasn’t able to find the motivation to do them - and I thought it was all my fault, when in reality the pressure to “be something” and “fix myself” was so great, that I’d feel paralyzed. Shame has a way of doing that to us... and like I said, I realize now that many of my decisions to “self improve” came from a place of shame... I think most of them do for many of us.
While one part of me desperately wanted to “be good” and do “what was good for me”, another piece of me rebelled hard, and made it feel almost impossible to take action. The whole thing felt a lot like dieting - you get inspired in the moment, convince yourself that on Monday morning you’re going to start “fixing yourself”, and a few days or weeks in, find it impossible to keep the restriction up. You may blame yourself for falling off the “wagon” until hopefully you realize diets statistically fail 95% of the time, not because 95% of us don’t have the proper “willpower”, but because the human brain isn’t designed to thrive with that restriction and shame. We are working against our own biology, and blaming ourselves. It’s wagon is broken - not us. 95% failure is terrible odds... and yet, we think it’s our personal problem. So the cycle of shame spirals.
That’s how all these “self improvement” tasks I gave myself felt for me... from feeling like I needed to do something to be a “better version of me”, because me right now isn’t good enough, and when I inevitably couldn’t stick to them, I always thought it was my fault.
God, I wish we could all realize that we can relax - we don’t need to be fighting so hard for our worthiness - to be “good”.
What is self love and self compassion? I’ll tell you what I have found it is not. It is not trying to “fix” yourself, assuming that some part of you is inherently broken - it’s accepting yourself as you are. It’s not trying to “be a better version of you”, implying that where you are and who you are isn’t good enough - it’s seeing yourself as inherently good enough. It’s not beating yourself up because you fell off the proverbial wagon - it’s burning that wagon and trusting your body, your pleasure, and yourself again, above everyone else.
It’s not punishing ourselves with what feels bad and therefore must be helping us - it’s believing that you can have what feels good, and you can trust it.
In my experience, all of these “improvements” perpetuate the idea that we aren’t good enough as we are - that we have to fix ourselves and control ourselves and put ourselves through adversity and stress and even punishment in order to be “good”. They also perpetuate the idea that we can’t trust our own nature - that left to our own devices and pleasure, we will go wild, and that wild is bad. This is why I love the idea of re-wilding so much; to me, Wild means accepting and trusting our nature - our bodies - ourselves. Rewilding means coming back to the parts of ourselves we have been taught to be afraid of - the part that knows it doesn’t need micromanagement or fixing - the part who knows how to exist as she is without stress, because she knows she is inherently good enough. She is inherently worthy right now, no changes necessary.
The wild in us trusts her own pleasure, and she uses that as a road map rather than exterior cages of “what I should do” and “who I should be”. Fear of pleasure is ingrained in our society, stemming from confining and controlling religious dogma that tell us that what feels good, our true and wild nature, can’t be trusted. We’ve been told that at our core, we are lustful, greedy, gross humans, and we need containment. This fear disconnects us from ourselves and our inner wisdom.
One of the greatest resistances to “letting yourself off the hook” and taking away the plans/rules to control yourself is the though that, if you “let yourself off the hook” (or “let yourself go” as we sometimes put it) and stop pushing yourself to do the “things you should”, you are just going to watch tv all day, eat cupcakes forever, never go out to see your horse, never do anything productive, and do all the things you think of as “bad”. I know this fear of losing control, this distrust of our basic nature; I’ve felt it. Yet, the truth is, when I stopped holding on so tight, and I stopped trying so hard to be “good”, and I let what *felt good* to me lead the way - I found the opposite to be true. Yes you can watch TV without guilt in the morning, yes you can accept yourself even if you didn’t work with your horse today, yes you are a worthy person even when you aren’t being productive.
Taking off the conditions for being “a good human” is the self acceptance that frees you up to actually *want* to do the things that are “good for you”, without a chart or a wagon. It actually leads to *more* self accountability.
There were tasks on my “morning routine” that I truly enjoyed - but having them on a list of what I “should do” made it so I could never find the genuine motivation to do them. I was doing it out of shame and guilt, not pleasure.
Throwing away the list and taking off all pressure... I do those things naturally now. Not because I think I *have to* but because they feel good. And not all the time! (I don’t beat myself up over that)
It’s a monumental change that makes all the difference.
If I get up in the morning and I want to do yoga because it sounds nice, I will do that. If not, I won’t. And I’m not going to feel bad about it. I’m done using the word, “should”. I either want or need to or I don’t.
Taking out “shoulds” and committing to what feels good has actually made me more likely to do the hard things, have the hard conversations, do what I need to do, because I have the resilience and the self compassion too see them through. Once the pressure is off and we trust ourselves enough to stand with ourselves, we have the resilience, the self compassion, the motivation and the courage to do the things even that are hard. And also, when we are in touch with real pleasure, we start realize that even the hard things feel good. This is getting into the subtlety of pleasure that is often drowned out in our self-management.
I may think I want to watch TV, and I totally can without guilt, but if I really feel into what feels best, yoga may ultimately feel better this morning. And if I’m listening to pleasure, I’ll do yoga. If I’m guilting myself into yoga, I likely will end up feeling shame and thus find it hard to do anything.
I may have been putting off a hard conversation for a while, and if I feel bad about myself for not doing it, I’m not likely going to reach out. But if I have compassion for myself in the situation, and I’m tapped into the subtlety of my own pleasure, I know leaving things unresolved weighs on me, and I know I will feel better if I reach out. From there, I can find the self compassion and courage and genuine motivation to reach out and have even a really difficult conversation – because ultimately, even if it’s uncomfortable, it feels good.
We can trust our pleasure.
No more dogma. No more dogma that I have to be vegan or I’m bad. No more dogma that I have to work my horse everyday or I’m bad. No more dogma that I have to eat in this way or I’m bad. No more dogma that I have to do my spiritual practice or I’m bad. No more dogma that I have to be productive or I’m bad.
Dogma is an opposite of compassion. You don’t need that shiz in order to be lovable and worthy - by yourself or by others. You can relax.
I am all for growth. I am all for looking at ourselves, being honest with ourselves, looking at old patterns, holding ourselves accountable, changing, letting go of judgment, becoming more and more loving - all things that can’t be done through shame or perfection. Real growth requires the bravery to look at ourselves, and that takes a shit ton of self compassion ♥️