The Dark Side Of Self-Help — How Self Improvement Almost Destroyed Me
Six years ago, I became obsessed with self-improvement. Many people have an eye-opening moment where they become acutely aware of the need for change in their lives. I drastically needed change and turning to self-improvement delivered. It took me from a hopeless, single, and lost Geography student to a “successful” career at an investment bank with a loving girlfriend. That platform then helped me pursue my desires outside of corporate work as a personal coach and writer.
Unfortunately, my enamor with self-improvement came at a cost. The desire to continually move forward began to consume me. What was an initially blissful experience turned into a recurring nightmare — an obsession with being bigger, better, and achieving more.
Any journey of personal development is an admirable and worthwhile pursuit, but there are risks involved. The purpose of this post is simple — to share my experience so that you can avoid the same monsters that almost destroyed my self-esteem and sense of worth.
Let’s explore some of the dangers that I faced and how you can avoid them.
I Lost Sight Of What I Had Achieved
When you continuously try to move forward, you can quickly lose perspective on how far you have come as an individual. With each new goal or achievement, it becomes increasingly easier to brush it off and move on to the next pursuit. This leads to a feeling of emptiness as you begin to base your self-worth on what comes next, while completely ignoring the accomplishments that have got you to where you are now.
A great example that we can all relate to is moving job. Every job move furthered my career. Despite this, after a few months in a new role, I found myself agitated about the next step and frustrated that I haven’t progressed quickly enough. I forgot all the hard work put in to get me to where I was and ignored how fortunate I was to have moved forwards while others were still trying to hard.
Takeaway: Always stop to smell the roses
I’m a believer in “Kaizen” — the Japanese concept of continual improvement. Having a relentless desire to get better is one of the keys to success, but you must frequently perform a personal “check-in”. Review and most importantly celebrate all the wins that have allowed you to make it this far, and then look to what’s next. Giving yourself appreciation for your hard work and accomplishments will provide a sense of pride and keep you grounded when you are disillusioned about your current state.
Self-Awareness Eroded My Self-Esteem
The more I learned about different qualities that a person can have, the more aware I was about my short-comings. It began to feel like a constant attack on my self-esteem — I never felt good about myself, knowing that so many areas of my character were lacking.
Two pivotal moments significantly damaged my self-esteem — taking the Myers-Briggs personality test, and learning about “Executive Function”.
As I have written about before, Myers-Briggs is a dangerous instrument if taken at face value. The original proponents of the test assert that your type is fixed and cannot be changed. My results categorized me as an ENFP — someone who is highly emotional, lacks practical skills, is unable to focus, and continuously overthinks. These characteristics naturally hurt me, given how much I now aspired to be a high-performance person and tried to model myself after the most successful individuals in the world. The notion that this was all fixed was demoralizing.
Discovering Executive Function twisted the knife further. These are cognitive functions, including the ability to pay attention, regulate emotions, stay focused on tasks, and prioritize accordingly. My deep-dive into self-development had heightened my self-awareness because I was always comparing myself to extraordinary entrepreneurs and achievers. I quickly realized how little I had of these functions, and it wounded my view of myself.
Takeaway: Psychometric tests don’t define you, focus on yourself and don’t compare to others
Psychometric tests are nothing more than subjective views on your natural behavior. They do not represent or limit you, and merely provide insight into potential strengths and weaknesses, both of which are within your control to change.
The beauty of humanity is that we are all unique, possessing different talents and abilities. As you begin to model yourself off extraordinary people, you will find certain traits and skills do not come as naturally to you. Rather than trying to be like someone else, acknowledge the gap, and focus on what you can control — your development. Never compare yourself and then allow that comparison to define you. Time is a precious resource — spend it on situations that you can control.
The Industry Exploited My Insecurities And Wallet
The self-help market in the U.S. alone is estimated at $10 billion. There are thousands of products that are carefully marketed using emotionally charged language. You will encounter precisely written sales letters that innocently expose and exploit your vulnerabilities, to the point where you feel you need that product to fix yourself.
I have spent $1000s on personal development. I studied NLP to the Master Practitioner level, bought digital courses, and read all the books imaginable. Every product helped me identify more weaknesses and areas of improvements, each conveniently leading me to another solution that would require another investment.
Much of the industry means well. There are fantastic people with beautiful intentions, focused primarily on helping you find your way. As with any industry, there are those whose goal is exclusively financial gain. I have fallen prey to these suitors because of the level of emotions that were stirred within me. I wanted to address my shortcomings and become a better person, and with every purchase, I felt like I was on my way.
Takeaway: Be wary of buying self-help — everything you need is within
The truth is you don’t need all these products, courses, or guides. Nobody can make a change for you — a real change comes from within, and it comes via execution. You can read all the content you want, but until you make a conscious decision that you are going to take responsibility for your life, nothing matters.
You cannot buy change — you create it.
I Became Stuck In My Head Instead Of Doing
In my search to be perfect and avoid failure, I found myself perpetually overthinking. I was so scared of failing and obsessed with finding the right solutions that I started to live in my head instead of doing. Rather than executing to make my dreams a reality, I researched and drew inspiration from youtube videos and motivational stories from self-help gurus.
Becoming stuck in your head is dangerous. There is a surprising amount of scientific research that adds significant credibility to this view. A 2008 paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science correlated rumination with a variety of adverse conditions such as hopelessness, pessimism, self-criticism, dependency, neediness, and neuroticism.
Moreover, Yale Professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema notes that are three significant side effects from this habit:
- Increased frequency of negative thoughts
- Decreased ability to solve problems
- Reduced motivation and energy
When we become engulfed by our thoughts, not only do we become disassociated from reality, we also neglect to take action.
Takeaway: Stop overthinking and do the work
There is no perfect solution. There isn’t always a right and a wrong answer. What we have is choice. The choice to do, to take action, and to move forward in your chosen direction.
To keep myself on track, I ask myself one question daily:
What have you done today to progress?
When I ask myself this one question, it keeps me honest and focused. Measuring the steps you have taken to make your goals and aspirations happen will transform your life, and elevate you from being a talker to a doer.
The Point Of Self-Improvement
The purpose of this post is not to denigrate the concept of personal development but rather to ensure we remember its essence — to improve ourselves. This isn’t a competition against other people, but rather a battle against the current version of yourself. If we maintain sight of this fundamental component of self-improvement, we have a greater chance of happiness, growth, and avoiding the dangers of external comparisons.
Always recognize where you have been, what you can do, and that you have the power to change. This journey is all about you pushing your limits and capabilities, rather than competing with everyone else around you. When you embrace this attitude and put in the work, you’ll find yourself soaring to new heights without the need for validation from others.
Make it happen.