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The Quest For Self-Improvement: Are we asking for burnout?

By Sarah Hughes

Self-help books have never been my thing. When everybody else was raving about ‘The Secret’ and how it was definitely going to help them manifest their dream life, I was rolling my eyes at them and reading something hilarious by Marianne Keyes instead.

It’s the same with podcasts. I know all the cool kids are listening to ‘How to Fail’ and feeling all empowered and inspired; but I’d rather be listening to yet another fascinating but freakish true crime series.

See the thing is; I’ve long suspected the modern obsession with self-improvement, with truly knowing ourselves, of (and this is one of my most hated phrases) ‘doing the work’, is actually making us more miserable rather than less. I worry that all of these self-improvement ‘tools’ are putting even more pressure on us… self-improvement is becoming just one more area of our lives where we need to succeed, or at least be seen to be succeeding.

Ok, Ok self-help devotees; hear me out.

We live in an age which glorifies not only wealth and material possessions, but also health, wellness and spirituality. The achievement of these things exalts us to a higher social standing than those people who are just a bit less, well, zen, apparently. But just as the relentless pursuit of money and material things has been proven not to bring happiness, neither does the relentless pursuit of self-improvement. Whilst it’s healthy to set goals and use them as a way to motivate yourself, evidence shows that a lifestyle that is too goals-oriented can quickly lead to burnout.

For me, any structured form of self-improvement is another stick with which to beat myself. Take meditation, for example. As a not-great sleeper, I am frequently advised to take up meditation in an effort to relax, unwind and achieve that hallowed six hours a night. But despite downloading all the highly recommended apps, despite following all the correct protocols and procedures; I’m just not very good at meditating. And I know, I know, the idea isn’t to be good at it… but everybody else is talking about how it’s transformed their lives and given them a deep inner peace. I can do approximately 37 seconds before I’m thinking about what I might have for lunch or whether the kids need their PE kits at school tomorrow.

I want to be clear that I’m not averse to healthy reflection. To looking at how I’ve reacted in a certain situation and assessing how I might have handled it better. To committing, in my own quiet way to trying to just be a bit of a nicer, kinder person every day. It’s just that the focus on introspection and shining a spotlight on our flaws in order to be ‘the best version of ourselves’, perplexes me. What if I don’t want to be my best self everyday? What if we all should embrace the multi-faceted, messy versions of ourselves too?

What if all that navel-gazing and looking inwards stops us seeing the beautiful moments that are happening in real time, in our real, day to day lives, rather than on the pages of a book, or in the words of a podcast host or whilst cuddling goats on a silent yoga retreat. What if we’re all spending so much time searching for fulfillment and meaning, we’ve lost track of what it means to be fully alive?

Being fully alive surely means accepting that some times will be harder than others, that there will be a full gamut of emotions to run through and experience. And that each one of those experiences will teach us a little bit more about ourselves. And of course we can also learn things from books and podcasts and courses, as long as we don’t feel like we’re failing if we don’t feel empowered and centred all the time.

Ironically, the idea from this article came from a talk I heard by the legendary American researcher Brene Brown. I’m sure you’ll have heard of her fascinating work on shame and how it impacts our whole lives. Brown talks about the concept that instead of a focus on self-improvement; how about we just enjoyed the process of self-expansion? She explains it as simply doing things (and that thing might be meditation… you do you) purely for joy. Because that thing adds an extra element to your life, it expands your life and your heart. Do it because it’s fun, not because you want to be good at it. Do it without having any aim for an achievement or a prize at the end.

It’s harder than it sounds to reprogram our goal-orientated brains, but self-expansion let’s you try things out with way less pressure on your shoulders. Stop trying to improve yourself… I’m certain you’re perfect just as you are.


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