Why You Should Stop Trying so Hard to Change Your Life
“Trying to change yourself — that is, who you are — will inevitably lead you to fail and feel hopeless.” — Mark Manson
As a runner for the past 11 years, whenever my performance wasn’t going well, I used to try hacks— a new diet, drinking significantly more water, diving into strength training, or saying a mantra to keep me able to power through anything. Since I’m a human being and not a machine, the new hack would fail to get me where I wanted to be as I continued to beat myself up. I wanted to change my life. I hated where I was in terms of how fast I was running, so I wanted to take my destiny into my own hands. But it seemed like the harder I tried, the slower I got, and all the hard effort I put in was wasted.
I’m not taking running as seriously anymore, but nowadays, it seems like everyone on a self-help journey is hellbent on trying to change their life. Whether change is a form of dissatisfaction with present circumstances or just a redirection of life for the future, change seems attractive, especially when you’re in a dark and unsatisfactory place.
However, what if we stopped trying to change our lives? What would happen? Would that mean we’re not growing or moving? Would that mean we’re static completely static? Would the world burn down and our lives go to shit just because we’re not trying to change our lives?
Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, instead pleas for us to try to change our actions instead of trying to change our lives. Chasing change is something he urges against since change is simply an “arbitrary construct.” After any given action, we don’t change — we simply did something different.
People tend to have very different perceptions over what “changing your life” actually means. Does it mean becoming famous? Having a salary of six digits? Or can it be something more trivial like quitting watching TV or not eating ice cream on a given day? We could have a field day looking at what changing your life means for different people.
“We don’t know what change is because we don’t know what the hell we are,” Manson said.
The key, for him, is not to be attached to such imaginary things — he uses the example of going to the gym. Going to the gym can become an activity that we just do, or it can be part of who we are. The problem with the latter is that having gym attendance be a part of who we are raises the emotional stakes— going to the gym becomes part of our identity.
Our fitness, work, salaries, and other forms of noise become emotional stakes that start to dominate our lives. However, Manson pushes against arbitrary actions deciding our character, and we start viewing ourselves as having less value as human beings if we don’t “change” in the way we want.
Manson talks for the rest of his article about untying identity from actions and accomplishments. He talks about the difficulty of quitting smoking or any habit as having it tied to your identity — having the differentiation of “smoker” versus “someone who smokes” makes all the difference. At 32, Manson started to wake up early and be productive every morning, and he attributes the success of that life change with untying his identity with his accomplishments.
Well, it’s a lot easier said than done, and I think Manson makes a bit of an oversimplification. But he has a point. As a Christian, my identity ideally is tied around Christ and human relationships all the time instead of around external noise, like work, accomplishments, and fitness. But I struggle and vacillate all the time with my priorities, like most people, and like most Christians.
Nancy Colier at Psychology Today also requests an empathy check on self-help’s journey to fix ourselves. To her, growing and evolving too often become shorthand for “correcting our basic unworthiness,” and we start to internalize a message that there’s something wrong with us. A failed performance at work starts not only to reflect on our actions, but we are as human beings.
Seeing ourselves as enough, and being entitled to what we feel allows us to accept ourselves. At the core of why we pursue self-improvement is that we aren’t who we should be. To accept who we are is “tantamount to accepting our effectiveness and giving up all hope of fruition,” an acceptance that, in the world of self-improvement, we see as naive, complacent, lazy. We start to beat ourselves up when we don’t change who we are when given self-help’s narrative.
“Self-help…strengthens our core belief that we are inherently defective. Self-help starts with our effectiveness as its basic assumption,” Colier said.
Colier urges self-acceptance instead of self-improvement, but I still think it’s easier said than done not to chase that need to fix, change, and improve. I realized a long time ago that no matter who we are, we don’t change — we grow. It means we can’t just cast aside who we are to turn the page anew. The past will always be with us.
I find myself to be unsatisfied with the self-help movement, but always do have an urge to improve and develop — but perhaps the reason for my distaste with self-help is that change does not come by forcing it. Growth does not come by force. Of course, there are times when we can use an extra push, but other times when we simply need to surrender our need to control. Self-improvement will come, much of the time, when we’re not seeking it.
For example, when I first learned to drive, I really tried to force improvement. I tried, practiced, tried, practiced, and did get better, but I started to internalize my failures whenever I made a bad turn or failed a parallel parking attempt. Once I stopped focusing so much on being a better driver, I did become a better driver because it was simply something I needed to do every day. The same goes for running or teaching — activities I do almost every day. Chasing improvement, trying to change everything I’m doing wrong, and overcorrecting in every way possible ends up shooting myself in the foot more than it does move me forward.
What to do Instead
The question remains. If you’re not trying to improve your life, and if you’re not trying to change your life, then what are you doing? That’s not a question I’m asking you as much as one I constantly ask myself. Well, it’s often counterintuitive advice, but I’m a proponent of going through the motions. Perhaps it’s simply another way of saying self-acceptance. Your religious and spiritual life are often areas for growth, but going through the motions is drastically underrated advice.
I can see your head shaking — but regardless of whatever happens, life goes on. The older I’ve gotten, the more I realize you simply have to pick and choose your battles. You can’t fight your boss on everything. You can’t resolve all your family’s problems.
The default mode of going through the motions might sound like complacency, and it might even sound like it’s coming from a place of privilege. But when you struggle with your mental health, when every day feels like a monumental task to get through, Albert Camus puts it best:
“Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.”
You don’t tell the exhausted mother working three jobs that she needs to self-improve. You don’t tell a waiter working a 12-hour shift he needs to self-improve, and you don’t tell someone with chronic illness they need to self-improve. Sometimes, normal is very hard. Normal is chaotic. And sometimes, normal means just getting through the day is an accomplishment.
I joked often throughout my first year as a teacher that success on a given day at work was showing up to work and making it through the day. Those might seem like low expectations, but that’s because work was excruciatingly overwhelming. I felt like I let my students down every single day — but those are natural feelings for being thrown into the fire as a first year teacher. Showing up to work and getting through the day was an accomplishment when so many of my co-workers didn’t show up on a daily basis, and survival mode became the default for running a short-staffed school.
Naturally, I got better at teaching by going through the motions. I got better at writing by going through the motions. I got better at running by going through the motions and running. Ironically, the more I disengaged from something I was obsessed with, the better I got at it. I stopped trying to force things. Life is often a war of attrition more often than not — and the only way to win a war of attrition is to press forward, last, and survive — even when you’re worn down.
I have had many days during dark periods of my life when it felt like the world was crashing and the floor was slipping into sand. The sun still rose the next morning, and I still woke up to a new day. Time passes, and seasons go and come. Going through the motions is not defined by actions, but rather by a state of mind — because resisting the constantly life’s toil is very consuming — and that kind of energy is a limited resource that’s better spent on something that’s not resistance.
I used to believe you could will your way through everything, bulldoze your way to accomplish whatever. By the tone of this article, you can gather that I was wrong. Life is hard enough. Going through the motions is a rational, and even brave response, instead of forcing your way to change your life.
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