Self-Improvement Is Killing Me

I want to be better — but I won’t pay for it with my happiness.

Marta Brzosko
Aug 17, 2020 · 6 min read
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

For a while now, I’ve been trying to dilute my message. I wanted my writing to be mild. I feared that if I sound too radical, this will repel people.

But what I have to say today can’t be diluted.

My truth has to come out. It may trigger some self-improvement junkies. But whether you like it or not, this is my experience:

This post is me throwing up the leftovers of hacks and tricks that my system couldn’t digest.

For the past three years, I’ve been testing various techniques, hoping to optimize my life. I ran self-experiments and tracked the results. Without realizing, I started seeing myself as a machine which, when well-maintained, would perform in a way that leads to “success.”

I bought into the idea that to be successful, I needed to have certain things in place. Morning routines. Accountability systems. Habit trackers. Journaling practice, exercise plan, intermittent fasting… All aspects of my life structured and optimized.

Today, it feels exhilarating to say: Fuck that.

I want to enjoy my life in the first place. Everything else comes later.

Self-Improvement Has Made Me Unhappy

This subhead is a paraphrase of Niklas Göke’s headline Self-Improvement Has Made Me Worse. I keep coming back to that piece because it reminds me how the pursuit of “better” can cloud our vision to all the great things we already have.

For someone like me, it can also harm mental health. The idea that I must fix myself and try harder has perpetuated the issue I’ve been wrestling with all my life anyway: the overpowering belief that I can never be good enough.

Through reading about and practising self-improvement, I strengthened that belief. My efforts to improve myself became a form of self-aggression. Of course, it didn’t happen consciously. I thought I accepted myself — but saw it as a moral duty to become better each day.

That’s the issue with any cultural programming: it doesn’t work your mind on a conscious level. It’s not explicitly stated by anyone. Nobody throws it in your face or serves it to you on a plate.

The most pervasive cultural ideas are those that your unconscious mind constructs from seemingly unrelated scraps of information.

Remember the movie Inception? Leonardo DiCaprio and his crew are on a mission to invade the mind of Robert Fischer, the son of a recently descended business giant. The point is to convince him to disregard his father’s last will and dissolve his financial empire. A pretty big thing to persuade someone to do, huh?

That’s precisely why the idea needs to be planted unconsciously — that is, in a dream. This way, young Fischer will believe that the decision was his own all along.

The true power of unconscious ideas is that we abide by them without question.

That’s why self-improvement reinforced my feelings of inadequacy so strongly. On a conscious level, no one told me I was broken.

But I collected many bits of information that confirmed my low self-worth indirectly. As a result, I internalized the need for endless optimization. When this paired up with my default belief of “not good enough,” I started heading towards trouble.

That trouble was intangible and hard to notice at first. These days, I call it “the self-improvement burnout.”

What Is the Self-Improvement Burnout?

In my recent conversations with Shelley Prevost, business psychologist and co-founder of Big Self School, I learned two things about burnout:

  • Although it seems that each person experiences burnout in their own way, the root cause is usually the same. Shelley says that burnout arises when you forsake your soul’s needs in the pursuit of success.
  • One of the most characteristic symptoms of burnout is resentment. On the path to your goals, you may make sacrifices you don’t want to make. When this happens, you start resenting that aspect of your life without consciously knowing why.

The latter happened to me with self-improvement. But for a long time, I didn’t classify that as resentment.

When I didn’t feel like doing my daily planning or weekly review session, I wrote it off as self-sabotaging resistance. I needed to overcome it. I thought that to be successful, meticulous time management was essential. So, I forced myself to do it.

When I didn’t track my habits, eat according to the current regime or wake up at a designated time — I secretly beat myself up. I never allowed myself to question whether those practices were right for me. I took it that they were right for everyone who wanted to succeed. If I skipped them, I wasn’t “using my full potential.”

I kept trying hard to hold myself to arbitrary standards that productivity gurus seamlessly integrated into the definition of a “successful life.”

But this approach was doing more harm than good. On the surface, I was becoming “better” — in control of my time, more disciplined, and deliberate about my goals.

At the same time, these were the very things that made me unhappy. By trying to optimize all aspects of my life, I was blocking my natural flow.

And even if it’s not perfectly productive, it’s that flow which gives me 10X the joy that all the self-improvement hacks ever could.

As Niklas Göke wrote, “There’s not much to gain from Pomodoro timers and dollar cost averaging for the people who enjoy their lives precisely for the lack of those things.”

It took me a while — but I realized that I am one of those people.

Putting productivity and self-improvement before joy eats away at my soul. I’ve been letting this happen for too long. And I don’t want to anymore.

I choose the alternative way to a good life.

The One Word Most People Are Missing

Self-improvement helped me put some structure into my life. At the same time, it became the perpetrator of one aspect of the Western culture that has been undermining our individual and collective mental health for decades — if not centuries.

Valuing future growth and development over what we already have keeps us unhappy. It’s the endless pursuit of better, faster, stronger and richer that prevents us from using the one word that could put water over the flames of our dissatisfaction:

Enough.

“Enough” is the word that’s missing from our everyday vocabulary. At the same time, it’s the word that can make us happy right now.

“Enough” doesn’t imply that you don’t change. It doesn’t mean that you ignore your problems and never try to solve them. It’s not synonymous with “settling for mediocrity.”

It does, however, give you a chance to validate your life exactly as is. It silences the belief that you should be somewhere else by now. “Enough” empowers you to look within, rather than mindlessly chase one external achievement after another.

It allows you to finally catch a breath. Appreciate yourself for what you are. Acknowledge how far you’ve come and where you want to go.

Above all else, you become aware of what’s going on right now — before you set out to improve.

Self-Awareness, Not Self-Improvement

“Self-awareness before self-improvement” became my new mantra — and I hope it sticks for longer. Awareness must precede improvement. Otherwise, your efforts to better yourself are likely misguided.

Before you decide what there is to change — you must become aware of the current state of affairs. This is the natural order of things, beautifully expressed by Sheryl Sandberg:

“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”

I’ve been trying to force myself to do things in rigid ways for too long.

I’ve been trying to optimize my sleep, eating habits, mindfulness practice and work structure — without questioning the purpose of it. I willingly put on self-improvement handcuffs and I wore them as a badge of honour — even though they turned me into a slave of my own making.

Now, I want to optimize my life for one thing only: joy. To create a lasting sense of joy, all I need is a good awareness of what I already have.

What we have in our lives is usually enough. If you don’t experience the joy you’re looking for, you probably won’t find it by becoming faster, better or stronger in the future.

Joy is available right where you are. The only question is, do you know where to look to for it?

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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