It's nearly the end of January. You know what that means? Most of us have already given up on our resolutions by now. I hate to be a downer, but it’s true. Remember those firm commitments we made on Dec 31st to eat better, exercise more, drink less alcohol, spend less time on social media, etc? By now, they’ve all either been forgotten, abandoned, deferred, or rationalized away. Who can blame us? It’s a lot of effort to muster all that self-control day after day.
Once upon a time I used to be really good at New Year’s resolutions. Not just making them, but making sure I stuck to them. This was back when I identified as an over-functioning type - when I used get a thrill from crossing things off my to-do list. This earlier version of me actually read self-help books for fun. I recently came across a bunch of journals I had kept as a teenager. Would you believe, my journal is mostly a bunch of lists of things I want to learn, be, do or have? I kid you not, when I was 14, one of my goals was to take out a book from the library about composting, and build a compost system for our family. I’m happy to say I do compost these days, although I don’t think I ever finished reading that book, which is why my methods are still pretty sloppy and inefficient.
It’s funny to admit these things about myself, but really, I can’t deny my nature. A drive for self-improvement is one of those innate qualities about me, like my auburn hair (now with a few of my first grey hairs mixed in) and the fact that I always feel chilly. And on top of that, I’ve always been pretty willful. As in, when I say I’m going to do something, I will find a way or collapse from exhaustion trying. All this means is that it takes a lot of effort for me to stop trying to help, to fix, to solve.
Once, a long time ago, someone asked me what super power I would pick if I could have any ability. Without missing a beat, I said “improvement wand”. You know, like a magic wand that I could wave around that would instantly improve whatever it passed over. And by “improve,” of course, I mean perfect. And in case you are thinking how virtuous of me, please don’t be fooled; there some big drawbacks to being an overachiever. These traits used to get me into a lot of trouble. We’ll get more into the dark side of self-improvement later.
I have gotten better about relaxing, letting go, and accepting my flaws and weaknesses. Each year I get a little older, my drive to keep improving slows down a little. At 34, I’m definitely less driven than I was at 24.I like to imagine I have a healing wand as opposed to an improving wand. I make fewer lists and I care a lot less about perfection and a lot more about pleasure in life. Mostly, I feel that’s a good thing. I believe I am better without all that constant pressure to perfect, and I often counsel people to do like I do and stop listening to the inner critic and start enjoying themselves again.
However, lately, as I’ve recently once again set some challenging goals for myself, I’m starting to miss my old ‘frenemy’ self-discipline. I might even say that feel a little nostalgic for that iron will I used to have - the willpower that kept me committed to a goal no matter the obstacle. It’s what got me through grad school while single parenting a little child. It was what kept my butt on the meditation cushion back when I first committed to daily spiritual practice. But it’s also the whip that I used to punish myself for not being good enough for so many years as a younger person. So the thing is, I know too much of this is toxic to my emotional, physical, and spiritual health and tends to ruin my relationships as well. Surely, there’s a way to go after big ambitions and improve myself without throwing off the psychological and emotional balance I’ve come to know and love in my life?
Thank goodness for all that training I’ve done in meditation and hypnosis, which has given me the ability to notice this inner conflict as it arises, and to become curious about it, as opposed to judgmental. So here’s what I am mostly curious about these days (and maybe you have some of the same questions?): What does it even mean to “improve” yourself? Do efforts toward “self-improvement” really work? Is self-improvement virtuous or a harmful illusion? Is there such thing as too much self-acceptance? What makes one decide to change their habitual behavior, and what motivates them to sustain the effort long term?
I plan to delve deeper into this topic over the next few weeks, and to share my musings and conclusions with you in a series of 4 posts. We will be exploring our attitudes and beliefs about what it means to set intentions, how we choose goals and succeed or fail to meet them. I plan to take these questions into my office where so much of my experiences working with people in healing capacities revolves around the tension between self-acceptance and self-improvement. I plan to look back at some of the history of philosophy and psychological sciences to see what they have to tell us about the subject. And of course I’ll be drawing a lot from my own personal life’s experience throughout all the highs and lows the roller coaster of individuation. So I invite you along for my ride. Who knows, maybe we might help each other recommit to those New Year resolutions, or maybe do better next time it comes to setting new intentions.
For now, let me leave you with some questions for self-reflection. Because I’m curious about you. What motivates you to try to change yourself? Do you respond to supportive encouragement? Do you need to get an ass whupping once in a while? Does it happen only after you’ve bottomed out? Or are you more likely to do self-improvement work when you’re already feeling good? What keeps you going? When do you know you’re over-doing it?
See you in a bit and I can’t wait to hear your answers.