Is Self-Improvement Ruining Your Life?

by | Jan 3, 2012 | Science of Happiness | 54 comments

There’s a gap between who you are and who you wish you could be. A hole that you tell yourself can only be filled with discipline, hard work, and sometimes more than a little frustration.

But what happens if you stop beating yourself up because you’re not thinner, more productive or traveling the world? What happens when you let go of expectations, both society’s and your own?

What if the real work is to become comfortable with who you are today?

There’s a dark side to self-improvement that we don’t talk about very often, but was summed up beautifully by one of my clients, Maria:

I am so exhausted of trying to improve myself all the time that I do not want it anymore. I just want to be myself, to do what I like, to have time and to enjoy my life. Thereโ€™s not enough time to have it all. On the assumption that the next year might be the last year (as you wrote in your blog): How long shall I wait for just enjoying my life and not focusing on improving it constantly?

I couldn’t stop thinking about this question because, as Leo Babauta says, self-improvement has been a rallying cry in my life in for a very long time. The vision of a better me kept me going when I wondered if all the time and effort I was putting into something was really worth it.

But the truth is, it also served as the basis for an awful lot of guilt and self-loathing when I failed to reach my “ideal” as fast or as completely as I wanted. I know exactly what Maria means about feeling exhausted.

When it came to the subject Maria and I were really discussing, changing careers, the answer seemed obvious. I told her changing careers isn’t about self-improvement at all, but about being more true to who you are right now.

That’s when the light bulb went off.

I realized being yourself isn’t nearly as easy as it looks. And that maybe much of the frustration and angst I see among those trying to change careers, or make any other big change in their life, comes from the disconnect between those two visions of the self. Not because you can’t improve or change, but that it may actually be counter-productive to a happier life, a conclusion Gretchen Rubin came to in her book The Happiness Project.

Lately, when I’ve wanted clarity on a topic or just some validation that some big idea I’m kicking around isn’t totally crazy, I’ve been pasting it to my Facebook page. Here are a couple of the responses I got to whether this gap between who we are and who we wish we could be was a good thing, or a source of serious frustration … or both.

What I love about these two entries is that they so perfectly sum up the two voices in my own head. Back and forth, back and forth, because don’t they both seem absolutely true?

Below, I tackle some of the four of the most common areas for self-improvement, and discuss how I settled the argument, at least in my own head

1. Weight loss

A couple of months after I stopped breast-feeding my daughter, my weight skyrocketed. Where I’d been able to rely on a fast metabolism prior to giving birth, no more. It wasn’t long before I got completely disgusted with myself.

I joined Weight Watchers, picked a target weight with the help of a personal trainer, and within a few months, I looked better than I did pre-pregnancy.

People who knew me then always remark how well I’ve kept the weight off over the years. But I’m actually about 5-7 pounds heavier than that “ideal weight” I chose for myself.

When I told a friend I was struggling to get back to my “ideal weight,” he told me that I’d reached my “happy weight” and should give up on ideal. He explained your “happy weight” is the weight you can maintain with a diet you enjoy (that is, you’re not dieting at all, but just eating what comes naturally).

For the last year, I thought he was crazy.  I stepped on the scale and lamented the extra weight, day after day, but failed to make lasting changes to my diet necessary to lose weight.

Now I think my friend is brilliant. I may not look like an air-brushed supermodel or the way I did in my 20’s, but the truth is, I’m happy with the current trade-off between my diet and my weight. It’s well within the range of healthy.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t try to lose weight if you’re truly unhappy or unhealthy. But beyond that, ending the mental struggle between “ideal” and “happy” is a huge relief.

2. Getting fit

Every year I have a fitness test that I have to take for the Air Force. And every year I completely stress out about it.

I used to be better about working out. In fact, I used to run marathons until my knees decided otherwise. But it was always something I had to push myself to do.

I hired a personal trainer much of the time, just to force myself to show up. And while I got a high from a good workout, if you’d asked me the next day if I wanted to go again, I would have said, “not really.”

I wish I could be like Farnoosh Brock, who makes yoga look sexy and is clearly energized by it. I wish I P90X didn’t sound like some modern form of torture.

When we moved to London, we decided to test out living without a car.  Which means in a typical day, I might walk 2 or 3 miles up and down a number of hills, just picking my daughter up from school and running errands. If I’m feeling really sporty, I take a walk in the huge park near our house.

It’s not glamorous, but I’m ready to admit that I’m a walker. It makes me happy. I’m telling myself it’s good enough–because it is.

3. Being a better parent

Recently, when I went back to the States for a couple of weeks, we hired a nanny to pick my daughter up from school and spend a few hours with her until my husband could get home. Every day I got reports of the amazing crafts they made, the farm they visited, and how they went swimming (twice).

It was like we hired Mary Poppins. And it made me just a wee bit sick.

Being a good mom is about the most important thing in the world to me. But put some pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks and some markers in my hands, and I’m completely befuddled. And while I occasionally take my daughter on fun trips around the city, more often than not we come back to the house and veg out.

In fact, if I’m being really honest, she spends an awful lot of time entertaining herself.

Then I realized that I did the same thing as a kid. I had a pretty active imagination and happily spent hours upon hours in my room, creating worlds with my dolls and generally day-dreaming. It’s actually something I’m proud of about myself.

Last night, after two full weeks at home with what I call a pretty dull mother, my daughter told me she loves spending time at home with the family. Apparently, Mary Poppins parenting isn’t required. Whew!

4. Balance

The biggest thing I’ve been struggling with over the last year is my over-achiever nature. There are times I’ve nearly quit my budding business, the work I absolutely love, because I was convinced I didn’t have the right “balance.”

When I left the Air Force, I had visions of quiet, slow-moving days. I’d get the family ready for school and work, then work out at the gym (ahem), and maybe spend some time browsing a farmer’s market, thinking about that evening’s delicious meal. I imagined myself relaxed and stress-free (insert Mary Poppins image here).

Let’s just say it didn’t exactly work out like that. That kind of life is a complete and utter fantasy, at least for me.

For a year, I’ve been battling two images: the one I describe above and the one I’m living, and truth be told, enjoying. But I felt guilty that I was working so hard, that I’d stress about my next launch or lose sleep over not writing more guest posts.

Nearly everyone tells you to stop worrying about those things, because in the grand scheme of things, they don’t matter.

You know what? They matter to me.

I’m a driven woman, and for a long time, I somehow felt this was wrong, that it needed to be fixed or cured, much like a disease.

This is a huge moment for me, but my only resolution this year is to embrace myself more honestly and fully. No more feeling guilty when I want to work. No more admonishing myself to get out and see the world, when my greatest enjoyment comes from having a cup of tea in a local cafe and taking a walk around the park.

That doesn’t mean I won’t continue to develop my skills or learn new things. Those “improvements” are part of my nature as a life-long learner. But there’s an acknowledgement (and a relief) that I don’t really need to do or be anything I don’t want to. I’m just fine the way I am.

I’m a writer and an entrepreneur, and yes, an over-achieving introvert.

And this year, I’m going to enjoy it.