A big part of my twenties was focused on compulsive change and improvement. I morphed myself into the best person I could be, always left feeling guilty. I wasn’t getting enough quality sleep. My meditation plan was destroyed by distractions. I was eating unhealthy foods. I was trapped in a cycle of being good and being bad. And that invisible guilt, the smoke that lifted over my shoulders, made me want to constantly fix myself.
We are constantly inundated with the rah-rah cheer of self-improvement. Boisterous personal growth is the gallant and seemingly brave overarching theme of storytelling and life itself. Wellness is an anthem. Self-care, its lovable counterpart. The beauty industry tells us to stay younger looking, longer. Beauty is attainable at any age because we don’t need to stop seeking society’s idea of femme fatale. Kitschy Instagram posts are telling you to “Hold your fucking head up!” and reinvent yourself. Articles in magazines give us self-help tips. Alicia Keys wants to tell you a little something about self-care! Here’s how to ask for more money at work! Here are ten reasons you should be in therapy! Shop organic! Improve, improve, improve.
I’m getting really tired of the pressure to be my best. For longer than I know to be true, the Western world has had a self-help obsession. Sometimes I wonder if it might be because we’re obsessed with ourselves. We can’t stop thinking about how authentic we’re being and how unique we are on Instagram. We post encouraging content on social media. Self-help gurus are telling us how to love ourselves through meditation and healthy eating and more sleep and drinking more water. But can…we…just…stop?
Self-betterment is a process without an end. Improvement is an advancement, but a circle, a constant spinning and flowing of actualization and perfection.
In a GQ article, “Why Self-Help Might Actually Be Making You Less Happy,” Danish professor, Svend Brinkmann, encourages the journey to find your best self but worries the ability to optimize all the time and overperform has become pathological. He goes on to say that we become too addicted to looking inward and achieving our own ideals. The process can be exhausting. And unhealthy. Why? Because we end up focusing on self-improvement so much, we don’t actually go out into the world and be ** that thing ** we want to be.
Above all, self-betterment is a process without an end. Improvement is an advancement, but a circle, a constant spinning and flowing of actualization and perfection. A solidified conclusion is never entirely possible because we are egotistical enough to insert ourselves into every situation that can’t be fixed. We measure how great we’re doing with others. How can I come out of this a better person? We wonder with self-realization lust. How can there be growth? Becky’s self-improvement journey really is thriving. How can I be better?
This reinvention conflict spans across so many personal issues. The most interesting thing I read was how Amy Clover, in her blog Strong Inside Out, writes about how self-improvement didn’t help her recover from depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. “You can read all the self-help books you want,” she writes. “But it would take an extraordinary amount of willpower, grit, and just unnecessary effort to do it all on your own.”
For example, if we suffer from stress at work, we try to change ourselves instead of expecting the workplace to change. If we suffer from social issues, we think wellness therapy will change us first so we’re ready to be a “better” citizen. This is all instead of removing ourselves from the narrative and doing something about the problem, rather than sitting inside and reading about how we can improve all the time. I know life isn’t easy. And I’m not above a good mindfulness journey. But changing the world isn’t always about self-improvement first; closing it off and not talking to others about how to best change it won’t help anyone.
I’m not happy with myself all the time. And I’m afraid part of that is because I’m conditioned to feel like I can do better and be more positive and be more productive all the time. I’ve grown up learning that life is for YOU. Bitch, you’re a GIRL BOSS. Climb that latter! Smash the patriarchy! Live, laugh, love. But, I’m tired. I don’t want to “push harder than yesterday if I want a different tomorrow.” I would rather read a book in a desolate forest and not think about anything inspirational for a month.
Speaking of cheesy quotes often directed at women… ”take the time to make your soul happy” is so self-righteous. What is happiness anyway? Can any of us even define it? Who are we doing happiness for? I love this quote from Svend Brinkmann, “I find it very important to be interested in something beyond yourself. . . . Go into the world instead of staring into yourself. Try not to be so obsessed with happiness. You have this happiness imperative: Life is about being happy. It’s ridiculous. Who said that happiness is all that? No one knows what happiness is.”
Getting better at something you love is one of the most elevated feelings in the entire world. We should be proud when we look back and see how far we’ve come. But how can we appreciate a slower process?
On the flip side, I do think ambition is beautiful and part of the human experience (i.e., change and evolution). Getting better at something you love is one of the most elevated feelings in the entire world. We should be proud when we look back and see how far we’ve come. But how can we appreciate a slower process? How can we become comfortable with valuing chilling instead of **being a boss**? And not feel the pressure to be better all the time?
Firstly, maybe happiness isn’t always within ourselves. And self-improvement and happiness aren’t connected. Self-improvement is a tiresome barrier of entry to find meaning in things and places other than ourselves. We have to reach beyond that, step away from ourselves, and define what life means without that egotistical authenticity search.
Since the pandemic, I’m not as ambitious as I once was (Writer’s Note: This is initially why I wanted to write this article). Sometimes, I just want to weed my garden, drink fresh-squeezed orange juice, read a chapter a month in my book, and hang out with horses all day. My new vibe is definitely one of those motivational nineties posters that say “PASSION” but reworked into an anti-motivational poster that says “Lack of Improvement is Fine.”
It’s not to say I don’t believe “you have to love yourself before you love another.” I do believe that. Wholeheartedly. Being a good person is a worthwhile thing to do. I just think we have to look at the “ask” here. The structure of the whole thing. To me, self-improvement is never-ending and it’s too much pressure to expect change constantly. What else are we missing? What else can we think about? How can we become comfortable doing something for ourselves that actually makes the world a better place holistically? Lack of motivation is okay. Lack of anything is human and it makes us who we are.
Perhaps the solution has something to do with limits. Less self-improvement, more thinking about how small life is. We live in a tiny part of the galaxy and constant growth is so small and individual. So pointless almost. We need to do things because we love them, not because we’re being better than everyone else. Self-improvement is a comparative obsession; a competitive flex. It becomes the least selfless thing we do.
Constant self-improvement is too broad, too infinite. Flatlining through life while being a good, kind person isn’t an end-all. It’s a beautiful way to love yourself safely.
I want to be happy with plainness. I want to be satisfied with simplicity and the beautiful ways I can lack. I want to be proud of how I can improve in small ways and look back and see how far I’ve come almost as a casual mistake. I don’t want to feel bad if I stay up too late or swear too much or have silly vices. Constant self-improvement is too broad, too infinite. Flatlining through life while being a good, kind person isn’t an end-all. It’s a beautiful way to love yourself safely.
Ending with my last favorite Svend Brinkmann quote that ties this idea in a perfect bow:
“People think that individual freedom is about removing limits so they can do whatever they want, but I think it’s the opposite. Without limits we cannot be free. I write in my books a lot about death—not because I have a morbid interest in dying or death, but because, existentially, the fact that we’re going to die and the fact that we know that we’re going to die really structures what we can do in this life.”
Brittany Chaffee is an avid storyteller, professional empath, and author. On the daily, she gets paid to strategize and create content for brands. Off work hours, it’s all about a well-lit place, warm bread, and good company. She lives in St.Paul with her baby brother cats, Rami and Monkey. Follow her on Instagram, read more about her latest book, Borderline, and (most importantly) go hug your mother.