Why self-improvement can totally suck… and what you can do to prevent this

Credit: Jeshu John from  Designerpics.com

Credit: Jeshu John from Designerpics.com

You’ve probably realized by now that this blog is strongly focused on self-improvement and methods of bettering your character. At the same time, it seems like this is becoming a mainstream obsession given the tremendous rise in self-improvement books, blogs (including mine), and ‘thought-leaders’ in this area.

Despite how much I praise the merits of personal development – which, on the whole, I absolutely still champion because committing to improving yourself is one of the best things you could ever do for and to yourself – there are still dangers with this practice, as with everything else in life.

I place great value on balanced argumentation in life and, therefore, I thought it was only fair that I apply it to my writing as well. I shouldn’t only talk about the “good” side of self-improvement; the bad stuff should also receive some attention. Because of this, I decided to do a round-up of what various people across the Internet say about the negative sides of this self-improvement.

Positive Thinking or Thought Control?

There’s nothing wrong with those who have a naturally sunny disposition or who enjoy the odd self-help book, says Brinkmann. The problem is when happiness becomes a requisite. In the workplace, for example, where performance reviews often insist on focusing on positive growth rather than genuine difficulties, demanding displays of happiness is “almost totalitarian.” Brinkmann likens insistence on employee happiness to “thought control.
— Olivia Goldhill on Qz

Olivia Goldhill from Qz cites the Danish psychologist Svend Brinkmann to discuss the dangers of turning positivity into an obligation. This is the part of SI (let’s go with the abbreviation for now), that emphasizes fighting self-deprecating thoughts with, well, “just thinking happy thoughts all the time.”

To be fair, this is something that I never really get into in my writing because it’s somewhat counter to my style and, in hindsight, I’m happy that I don’t. Why? Because I think this is a terribly misleading, oversimplified, and cliché way of looking at SI. Just think positively, stop worrying, and everything will be ok!

I absolutely recognize the power of your mind in shaping your negative habits and, to an extent, your currently shitty predicament, but there’s a reason that I constantly emphasize getting out of your head and taking action: you can’t just “think your way” to success and happiness.

Positive thinking should not be defined in this polarizing way of permanent hyper-ecstasy and excitement about the world around you. To me, positive thinking is “rational” thinking; let’s say you think girls won’t date you because you think every other guy has his shit together and you don’t. What rational proof do you actually have for this belief? Once you find that you actually don’t have concrete proof for it, you’ll (hopefully) realize that your life is not so doom and gloom after all and that you can take small, simple steps to improve your dating game.

The underlying idea that anyone can make herself feel happy implies that unhappy people are to blame for their own misfortune.
— Olivia Goldhill on Qz

Curiously, I agree and disagree with this statement. I agree in the sense that this notion of positive thinking spreads the idea that you are miserable and the architect of your own destruction because you’re not shooting rainbows out your ass every day. Obviously, this unfairly alienates and makes people feel guilty people. It's stupidly simplistic for others (or you) to say that your life sucks because you're not happy and/or positive all the time. It's far more nuanced than that.

However, I do disagree in a nitpicky sense. A person’s mindset and mentality can be fundamental enablers or disablers for taking action in her life. Like I said before, if you irrationally think that you’re the worst person on the world, you won’t take action to change your life. I do hate to say this but honestly, you have to take responsibility and ownership for your own inaction, shitty mindset, and, as a result, current state in life.

All this is to say that if you don’t consciously choose to adopt an enabling and rational mindset and take responsibility for the things that happen in your life, no action will ever occur. Obviously, no amount of positive (rational) thinking will change your predicament if you don’t take action, but it's an important starting point. Action and mindset are simply complimentary sides of the same coin; much in the same way that Yugi Mutou and the Pharaoh are two parts of the same body.

I won’t blame you for your misfortune, but I will blame you for your inaction.

SI is not exclusively defined by positive thinking; it is merely one of the many variables involved in improving yourself. However, if people think that positive thinking is all there is to it, I don’t blame them for being put off by this movement and preferring to stick to the status quo.

There’s something wrong with me!

Suzanne Eder gave a short but interesting TED talk about the problem of people following this obsession with SI because they feel like there’s something wrong with them that they need to fix.

When we think there’s something wrong with us, we look outside of ourselves for answers and solutions. We abandon our own inner wisdom, our inspired impulses… and instead place all of our trust in the advice of others. We abide by common knowledge… in effect we just give our power away.
— Suzanne Eder (TedxWilmington; minute 3:15)

It seems like Eder is talking about herd-mentality here and she makes a very important point. From how I interpreted her talk, it seems like SI itself isn’t necessarily bad but it is instead the process that can be harmful. We look up to these experts in search of answers and cures to our imperfections and look to them to make sense of our imperfect selves. We are often more than willing to surrender ourselves in order to cure the mental discomfort we have from this urge/desire to have things be fixed.

When we think there’s something wrong with us that needs to be fixed, the improvement process becomes about the fix, the end point, the goal. So we strive to get to that point because we only experience satisfaction when we reach the goal.
— Suzanne Eder (TedxWilmington; minute 4:05)

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? If I just do this, then everything will be fixed. If I just get that job I love, then I’ll be okay. If I just find my passion, then I’ll be happy. This reminds me of one of my favorite blog posts from the Fizzle crew that talked about this constant fixation we have on the end goal of a pursuit as the immediate and permanent cure to some existential problem in our lives (which Eder alludes to in her anecdote about her client Darla, from about 5:00 onwards).

To combat this negative aspect of SI, critical thinking and perspective is very necessary. When you’re reading a self-help book and taking up one of its strategies, you have to think to yourself: is this really for me? Does this feel right? Does this even make sense? Am I doing this from a place of fear or from a place of genuine interest, curiosity, or positive desire to deepen my character?

Stay critical, stay vigilant, stay alert, and you won’t fall into this trap of “giving yourself away” to the experts. Or as Daniel Kahneman would say it, don’t let System 1 run rampant.

When we secretly believe there’s something wrong with us, we will keep creating experiences reinforce that belief [Editor’s note: this is also known as the confirmation bias]
— Suzanne Eder (TedxWilmington; minute 4:43)

Don’t stop till you get enough!

The final piece of wisdom regarding this self-improvement craze is painfully simple: we are Never. Freakin. Satisfied. Not only are we never happy with our material possessions, but the same is also true with our psychological state of being. Thus, this obsession with improving ourselves comes from this insatiable hunger for more, more, more in every facet of our lives.

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits discusses this very eloquently in one of his blog posts. People engage in SI and consume every single book, blog post, “top 10 tips” article, and guide in the world because they don’t want to be left behind. Once again, it’s coming from a place of fear and external validation; seems to be a trend, no?

To be fair, I think this negative aspect is the least prevalent part of the problem, but I can still see how it can be dangerous because of the “Keeping up with the Joneses” mentality. You don't want to be the one that's left behind, right?

Parting Thoughts

At the end of the day, I gather two key insights about self-improvement from these articles and videos. The first, most crucially, is that your reason/motivation for doing this absolutely has to come from a good place. If it’s coming from a place of fear, anxiety, or inferiority, then please take a step back and reevaluate.

The second is the ability to zoom out and see the bigger picture because, oftentimes, the closer you look, the less you see. If you’re so obsessed with the mere attainment and/or achievement of some great goal – this so-called “tick-the-box” mentality – you’ll never understand what or who it is that you’re doing this for in the first place.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
— Mark Twain

I engage in self-improvement because I think that, given that I'm blessed with a life that is really quite good, I have an obligation to be the best person that I can be. In addition to that, it comes from a place of intellectual fascination and curiosity. I don’t see self-improvement necessarily as a process of improving oneself in the same way that one obtains a certification for a profession.

No, I visualize it as a process of learning. A process of mastering a martial art. A process of understanding a skill and how it affects different areas of my life. In the same way that Vegeta could never back away from a challenge because it was what made him come alive, I can’t back down from such a challenge because the fascinating process of mastery engages and invigorates me intellectually.

At the end of the day, the choice is yours: is this self-improvement stuff really for you?

Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.
— Don Draper (Mad Men Season 2, Episode 1: “For Those Who Think Young")

See you, Space Cowboy.