How to Nail Self-improvement (hint: by steering clear of these common pitfalls)

I am the type of person who is always “working on stuff”. Whether it’s my own informal research, a self-help book, or seeking the advice of a professional, I feel like I am constantly hungry for new information, and seeking new tips and tricks on how to be happier and healthier. But at the back of my mind is often this lingering impression that I’m working really hard without actually getting anywhere. After some honest self-reflection, I think it boils down to a few things. If you happen to be frustrated with a similar feeling, read on to hear what might be holding you back.

The first, and most important thing, is that you might not actually be putting everything into practice. It’s an easy thing to be guilty of. Change is hard. But the thing that’s not as easy to recognize is that you can be putting something into practice only superficially, which isn’t going to work. For example, let’s say I commit to going to the gym on a regular basis, as part of a stress management strategy. I might have no issue actually getting there, and working out. It seems like it should be doing wonders, and so I’m confused when it’s not. If I analyze it I realize that even though I’m taking the time to commit to the actual exercise, I might nevertheless spend my hour on the treadmill stewing about a hectic day, scrolling through emails on my phone, and getting myself worked up, instead of unwound. That’s not going to help my stress level. Instead, I would have to really focus on mindfully working out, and shutting out the distractions, to give my brain the proper break.

Another time I read a whole stack of books on positive thinking, hoping it would improve my mood. I would find myself parroting off the pep talk, and saying phrases like “It could always be worse” or “Things are never as bad as they seem”. I would try and write down the things I was grateful for, each night before bed, and confused why I didn’t really feel better. I’m learning that a big part of it was that I wasn’t internalizing these concepts, only applying them superficially. Almost on a sort of auto-pilot. A counselor once called me out on it and said I couldn’t just “fake it till you make it”…

Another thing you might be hung up on (because I certainly was), is how people will react to the changes you’re making. Even when it’s an overall positive change, like me becoming less negative or anxious, I still wonder if people will be weirded out. Because I’m not normally the calm one, the happy one, or the outgoing one. The bottom line is that changes, even improvements, felt like I was fundamentally changing who I was. And that’s scary.

I think a couple of things you’d want to keep in mind here is that these changes, while seemingly significant to you, might not actually elicit much of a reaction from people. In my mind I’m worried about people having to adjust to a “whole new me”. But really, the changes weren’t as shocking to people as I thought they were. Furthermore, it was pointed out to me that worrying about people’s adjustment isn’t actually all on me. People can learn to adapt. Provided that my changes are positive, of course, it shouldn’t be an issue. You have both the right and responsibility to create happiness for yourself.

The final hang up I’m going to touch on is the fact that you might be expecting too much, too soon. You know those people, who were formerly couch potatoes, who sign up for a gym membership, and are upset that they haven’t lost 50 pounds in a week? Don’t be one of those people 😉 It’s easy to be hard on yourself, and expect instant improvements. But it’s not realistic, and sets you up for disappointment. I love the saying that success is a journey, not a destination. You’re not going to get to a place where you’ve nailed absolutely every aspect of your life perfectly (and where is the fun in that, anyway? Where would you go from there?). I’m sure that if you really think about it, you’ll realize that the small strides are actually turning into big ones. And you are making changes. If I think back to how I was 10 years ago, it’s actually mind-blowing how much I have changed. I’m less reactive than I was, I am more accepting of myself (and others!), and feel a little more in control (well…sometimes). Am I 100 per cent where I want to be? No. Not even close. I have days where it seems hopeless, where I feel sorry for myself, or completely frustrated with myself. But I hope that I never, ever stop trying. That would be the only sure-fire way to make sure that things won’t change.

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