How Self-Improvement Can Actually Hurt You

“We can view any desire to change ourselves as an act of aggression towards ourselves.” —buddhist monk.

It’s that time of year when people think about what they’d like to change about themselves and their lives, and make Resolutions accordingly. However, by trying so hard to “improve” ourselves, we may be causing ourselves more harm than good.

“A Tale of 2 Boyfriends”

Here’s a rather personal example. I once had a boyfriend who seemed to be on a mission to “improve” me. He was a designer of sorts, and I was at the tail end of my anti-beauty/quasi-punk phase of life, so you can imagine what he thought of my wardrobe, my hair, etc. He wanted me to dress “better,” look “nicer,” etc. I know he meant well—in his mind, I was a diamond in the rough that just needed a little polishing to shine my brightest.

But for me, it wasn’t a very fun experience. He constantly criticized how I looked, what I wore, my hair—even how I tied my shoes! It quickly became very stifling. I felt like I was a My Size Barbie that he was trying to turn into his Dream Girl. Before long, I became resentful and rebellious, and resisted all his attempts to “improve” me, because I wanted to be accepted as I was, without all the judgement.
By contrast, I had a different boyfriend (no, not at the same time) who was quite the opposite. He seemed to appreciate every little quirk of my personality, and every eccentricity that most people found annoying. He even liked my careless, very un-sexy choice of attire. He constantly expressed his appreciation for things that I said or did. Not the cheap, empty compliments that many people give, but honest, sincere appreciation for my general Me-ness.

I never felt like he wanted to change me into something I wasn’t. Instead, I felt truly seen and loved more deeply than I ever had before. I certainly never felt resentful or rebellious toward him. His consistent appreciation and acceptance actually motivated and inspired to be the best Me that I could be—which resulted in quite a bit of personal growth.
We’ve all experienced when someone tries to “fix” us

Maybe it’s a significant other, a parent, or even a well-intentioned friend. And we all know just how much fun it feels to be “improved.”  Yet when it comes to Self-Improvement, we often treat ourselves this exact same way. We use criticism, micro-management, self-shame, and other very negative tools in an attempt to “whip ourselves into shape.”  Just yesterday, I overheard a fitness instructor telling his students to “beat themselves into submission.” I believe that most people (myself very much included) choose these methods because we’re afraid that if we don’t give ourselves a good beating on a regular basis, sheer force of gravity will lure us into remaining complacent couch potatoes who never grow to our fullest potential.
But this aggression takes a toll on our psyche
It’s hard to maintain self-confidence and self-respect in the face of constant criticism. Even if this works for awhile, eventually we end up feeling discouraged or resentful. This is likely why so many New Years Resolutions fail within the first few months. Rather than feeling inspired to continue our growth, we become rebellious, and quickly return to our familiar ways.  But, paradoxically, through truly accepting and embracing what we are, we can more easily allow ourselves to become the best that we can be. By just being who you are and doing what you love…the growth simply happens.
“Be more of what you are, until you’re ready to be something else”
One of my Feldenkrais® mentors describes our work this way: “We help people be more of what they already are, until they’re ready to be something else.” It seems almost ludicrously simple on the surface, but it can be the hardest thing in the world to do. Giving yourself (or someone else) permission and support to be even more of what they already are—not what you think they should be—can be the greatest challenge in love, acceptance, and patience that you’ll ever have. But, as with the 2nd of my two boyfriends described before, it can be the greatest gift that you ever give to another human being. Including yourself.

Wishing you the most self-accepting New Year ever!

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