Yes – it’s possible to overdo self-improvement…

A few weeks ago I was having a rough week at work. I was feeling overwhelmed and decided that it was time to step away from desk for a bit, before I hit a breaking point. It should have been a simple thing – I could have went outside for a quick walk, made myself a cup of coffee, or initiated a chat with a supportive friend. Unfortunately, what happened, is I felt paralyzed by indecision at this tiny choice.

Part of it might have been the typical decision fatigue some of us are experiencing during the pandemic. But it was also idiosyncratic. A few of the thoughts and considerations that ran through my mind were:

“Maybe I should sit and enjoy a mindful cup of coffee by the window, like I saw that girl on YouTube do. People say that should calm me down”

“Hmmm…That book suggested that I spend more time in nature, so the walk might be nice…”

“Maybe I should call a friend and chat about how I’m feeling overwhelmed…that’s what that psychology podcast recommended”

For the record – it’s embarrassing for me to admit that I couldn’t make such a simple decision. That in reality, I turned my so-called break into something stressful. A few years ago, I likely would have simply stepped away and made a cup of coffee. Now, I feel it’s troubling that I spend several minutes pondering if I was enjoying my coffee “the right way”.

Luckily I have pretty good self-awareness and realized this wasn’t exactly healthy, or helpful. I started to get curious and wonder what, specifically, I was so afraid of when making these small decisions. And I concluded pretty quickly that at the crux of it all, I was worried for being at fault for something, and taking personal responsibility to the extreme.

I thought it was so admirable to try this hard at nailing every aspect of my life. To be the best possible version of myself in all shapes and forms – being productive, organized, emotionally intelligent. And I realized that I was ultimately afraid that if I wasn’t working so hard, 24/7, that it would essentially mean I deserved to feel like garbage sometimes. That if I didn’t feel well – that it would be squarely on me.

If I didn’t have enough energy? Maybe that was my fault for not eating properly. Didn’t sleep well? Probably my fault for not practicing good sleep hygiene. Was I grumpy? I must not be practicing mindfulness. Feeling down? Well, clearly, I needed to force out some more gratitude. And the list goes on. I was being way too hard on myself, and trying to circumvent any possible blame. It didn’t occur to me to let myself have a bad morning (or day, or week) and accept that this was simply a part of being human. While I still think it’s important to take personal responsibility for my own health and happiness, I’m realizing that no matter how hard I try, I’m still going to have the normal gamut of human experiences. I won’t be calm, blissful, and organized every single second (and really — some people might not want to be around that sort of robot, anyway!)

You can find a number of articles and bloggers arguing how this is when self-help can become a little toxic – when we forget that there really can’t be a blanket approach. And that sometimes, people in life face horrible adversity, have serious set backs, and can’t just be expected to white-knuckle through it with a better attitude. Maybe someone has a history of trauma, a chemical imbalance, or even a personality disorder that simply makes this a little more difficult for them to change. It’s important to work on the personal responsibility stuff, but we can’t completely ignore the biological, circumstantial or external factors, either.

I’ve been thinking about it and noticed how much I was hyper-analyzing every aspect of my life, and how much bloody time I spent trying to learn how to do life perfectly, without well – actually living life. I don’t even remember the last time I read a fiction book, for example. It’s one self-help book after another. While I don’t agree with everything in Mark Manson’s article (my self-help books are usually research-based, for starters), I agree with his assertion that it was mostly about “…the perception of progress and not progress itself”. It’s almost as if I wanted to have a huge stack of self-help books to point to, the next time somebody accused me of being “too anxious” (or “too negative”, or whatever) so I could point to something tangible and prove just how hard I was trying.  

And it’s not just the books. We have the podcasts I listen to, the videos I watch and the activities – all ultimately geared towards me finally getting to this bright, shiny version of myself. As this New York Times article suggests, I was likely on the road to improving myself to death.   It was a wake-up call. As I write this post now, I even start to feel a little narcissistic, realizing how much time I spend obsessing about myself.

After chatting it out with my therapist she reminded me of something very basic: that too much of anything can be harmful, even a “good thing”. Exercise is great, for instance, but if you overdo it you’re at risk of an injury. We came to the conclusion that I can at least start to correct the imbalance. To be clear – I’m not giving up on the self-improvement stuff. Not even close – I am loving the journey, and have made real, positive changes (which I firmly maintain benefits not just me, but also the people I have relationships with). That being said, I was reminded that it’s ultimately about the journey. Not the destination. If you’re working so hard on self-improvement that it takes you too a place of constant self-doubt and shame, this leads to even less confidence, and is therefore counter-productive. Ultimately, you’re the one who knows best, and as relevant as some of the podcasts, articles, and books are, it shouldn’t lead you to totally doubt yourself, and your capacity to make good choices.  

What’s funny is that one of the most important things to me is not being on auto-pilot (or, as my therapist calls it – “being asleep at the wheel”). But in trying to hard to be aware, to be headed in the right direction, I was ultimately becoming un-aware. To keep up the journey/destination metaphor, it was ultimately like I speeding down the highway, ultra-focused on “getting there”, and not even paying attention to anything going on around me (maybe I was missing some beautiful scenery, people, or experiences).

She pointed out that I was possibly being too discriminate with how I spent my time, and what my activities where, as if to say it was only worth engaging in something if the end result was a benefit to my quest for perfection. Going forward I’m going to try and do what feels right in the moment, and trust myself, instinctively, to know what I need. And if I made the wrong call? No big deal – I can choose differently next time. The key is that not every choice or action has to have the narrow goal of: “becoming a better person” or “Being happy”. I’m also going to try and have more of a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. What works for some people might not be the right fit for me. I don’t always need to look to anyone else for the answers. There is no one-size-fits-all, and everyone’s life and experiences are unique.  

In the case of over-analyzing what to do on my break, as discussed above, I might just head out and take a walk and not really expect anything out of it – especially because there isn’t a lot riding on it, really. Maybe I won’t come back refreshed, or feeling positive, but the act of taking a break away from my desk is still beneficial nonetheless. And while I might still have a self-help book on the go, and read a chapter before bed, other times I might let that book sit for a bit, and take a night to catch up with Netflix. I can be less hard on myself for that. And without even focusing on a goal, the end result is that if I’m choosing either of those activities, being honest with what my needs are at the time, I likely am going to find some peace and happiness, in the long run 😊

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