For a long time, my main goal in life was to become a better version of myself.
I fell for all the slogans — “Improvement begins with I”, “it’s all about your attitude”, “a day spent in stagnation is a day wasted”, and so on.
I tried to control every aspect of my life.
I would get up extremely early every day including the weekends. I closely monitored my diet always choosing healthy meals over comforting ones. I had a long to-do list, and I never could quite get to the end of it.
By the standards I set for myself, I was improving. But still, I was never good enough. Every few days, I’d slip up a little and go off schedule. When that happened, I’d feel like I committed some horrible sin.
I Had to Stop Punishing Myself for Being Human
I got to a point where I woke up every morning dreading the day ahead. I felt like I was failing at life, even though externally it seemed like I was doing just fine.
One day, it hit me out of the blue: I wasn’t doing anything wrong and I had no reason to feel all this shame.
I’ve since learned that people need spontaneity to thrive. We need time to ourselves, to mentally process everything we’re going through. Schedules can be a great guideline but they shouldn’t control our lives completely. Making time for small pleasures is how we stay sane.
Self-improvement culture is too rigid. Whenever you’re not “evolving”, you feel like you’re failing. You hold yourself to an impossible standard because you think everyone else is better at this than you are. But that’s a lie, and a damaging one.
You shouldn’t compare yourself to other people or to some ideal version of yourself that only exists in your mind. To live a happy and balanced life, you need self-acceptance more than you need self-improvement.
I made a leap forward after I stopped trying to become better. All my previous steps to progress were coming from a lack of self-love. But once I stopped trying so hard, I felt lighter, I felt free. It was easy to get up in the morning and face the chaos of life.
Think About What’s Driving Your Need to Change
Why are people drawn to self-improvement? I think the reasons are complex and some of them are good reasons. For me, it was a combination of the following factors:
1. A desire for simplicity
The world is loud, complicated, and exhausting. For a while, self-improvement gave me a structure to rely on. It helped me stop neglecting my health. It gave me valuable tools for dealing with stress and minimizing my social media use.
But it all got out of control when I started micromanaging my life. Instead of feeling reassured by my schedule, it became suffocating. Instead of simplicity, I got new complications to juggle. My mind was flooded by the advice I read, and I felt overwhelmed and unsure of myself.
“Philosophy calls for simple living, but not for penance — it’s quite possible to be simple without being crude.” — Seneca
2. Curiosity about how the world works
My search for spiritual clarity comes from my Cartesian anxiety — I have doubts, I want proof and certainty. I want to understand myself, and other people, fully.
With self-improvement, these existential questions have a simple enough answer: everything depends on you — or if not, it’s best to ignore it.
You just have to follow the rules, dedicate yourself to the cause of self-improvement, and keep moving forward. It’s straightforward and it’s tangible. You work out, take cold showers, split your workday into pieces, and there’s no time for existential dread.
Self-improvement slots into the role of religion more often than we’d like to admit. And just like with any religion, being too didactic makes it lose all its value. Taking it too far makes you cruel to yourself and to others.
To take a simple example: morning routines. My routine is important to me, and it helps me cope with stress and work overload. But it’s too easy to forget that not everyone has time to themselves in the morning. And if you forget simple things like that, you may become arrogant and overly critical of others. This is how self-improvement can wreck your relationships.
The thirst for self-improvement is often fueled by the desire to be better than others.
I’m not a competitive person but subconsciously, I started falling into this trap. It doesn’t help that social media use fuels narcissism (and vice versa). I’d go online and I’d see perfect people living perfect lives. It made me feel both guilty and resentful.
So I ended up punishing myself, thinking I was a worthless piece of crap because I couldn’t get up at 5 am or do 50 pushups in a row. That was self-flagellation, not any kind of improvement.
Hold Yourself To a Higher Standard, Not an Impossible One
Because the standards you impose on yourself are so high, you feel small when you can’t reach them.
If you want to get out of a toxic self-improvement mindset, you need to stop trying to prove yourself and set your priorities straight. Do not confuse getting better at stuff with being a better person.
Next time, you miss a day at the gym or sleep through your alarm clock, don’t be too hard on yourself. Instead, put the focus on being a good parent, partner, and friend.
Let things happen. In wanting to gain control, you’ve been missing out on the real joy life can offer you. Be your happiest self, not your best self.
Eric Sangerma is an entrepreneur, founder of TrulyScaled.com and Wholistique.com and co-host of The Wholistique Show which explores how to reach peak personal and professional performance while living a minimal and balanced life. Follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Image courtesy of Maddog 229.