Self Improvement….is it a relentless onslaught?

Most of us inherently want to do better. Earn more, weigh less, run faster, play an instrument, learn a new language and so on, arguably it’s instinctive human behavior. The motivation to be better stems from a myriad of personal, economic, social and historical reasons that are beyond the scope of this article and are subject to so much ambiguity that we would end up going round in circles.

Doing ‘better’ and motivation are intrinsically linked to the self improvement juggernaut that steams into our lives daily in various forms; social media tips on how to be more productivity, entire books on developing strategies to accomplish the things you’ve always wanted to (Tim Ferris anyone?) and therapists whose entire job revolves around helping you be a better you.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with this but a recent article in The New Yorker raised some interesting points around the relentless pressure on a person to ‘be more’. Have you fallen into the self-improvement trap?

According to Dr. Bob Stahl, Senior Teacher at the Oasis Institute for Mindfulness-Based Professional Education, this trap is the fine line between self-improvement and self-degradation. The fine line between ‘I want to be better’ and ‘I am not good enough’. Although these statements sound like they are pointing at the same thing, there is a subtle but important difference and a pervasive sense of unworthiness doesn’t do anyone any good.

Modern living exacerbates this feeling. As Alexandra Schwartz reminds us in her excellent New Yorker article (link below) ‘What we’re being sold is metrics. It’s no longer enough to imagine our way to a better state of body or mind. We must now chart our progress, count our steps, log our sleep rhythms, tweak our diets, record our negative thoughts—then analyse the data, re-calibrate, and repeat’

It’s almost inescapable, literally, a trap.

The trap can take a darker form; The desire to achieve and to demonstrate perfection is not simply stressful; it can also be fatal, according to the British journalist Will Storr. His forthcoming book, Selfie – How we became so self-obsessed and what it’s doing to us, opens, alarmingly, with a chapter on suicide. Storr is disturbed by the prevalence of suicide in the United States and Britain, and blames the horror and shame of failing to meet the sky-high expectations we set for ourselves. He cites surveys that show that adolescent girls are increasingly unhappy with their bodies, and that a growing number of men are suffering from muscle dysmorphia; he interviews psychologists and professors who describe an epidemic of crippling anxiety among university students yoked to the phenomenon of “perfectionist presentation”—the tendency, especially on social media, to make life look like a string of enviable triumphs.

We don’t hold the answer as to how to avoid this trap and mange feelings of self-improvement and associated self-loathing. Solutions in the article point to some rather cliched ‘self acceptance’ advice; namely, accept you aren’t perfect and learn to live with it.

Hardly a groundbreaking solution.

Other, more practical advice speaks of increasing assertiveness. Be more aware of what you want and how to get it – in other words, be less of a pushover. How hard this is to translate from thought to action is anybody’s guess but it may be worth a try.

The fact is, life is moving forward at a rapid pace:

‘In our secular world, we no longer see eternal paradise as a carrot at the end of the stick of life, but try to cram as much as possible into our relatively short time on the planet instead,” he writes. “If you stand still while everyone else is moving forwards, you fall behind. Doing so these days is tantamount to going backwards. ‘ – Svend Brinkmann (Author, Stand Firm – Resisting the self-improvement craze)

Ultimately, it’s up to us to balance the need to keep up and not lose our minds while attempting to do so.