Self-Improvement is a common-place term you likely hear on a daily basis. Walk into any bookstore and you will most likely find a substantial section entitled “Self-Help” that provides you with information on topics ranging from how to improve your relationship, manage your mood, communicate more effectively, lose weight, feel happier, reach your goals, eat healthier, improve your self-esteem, find love, and change bad habits (to name a few!). We are also bombarded with media that provide endless tips about how to fix every possible problem of being human – physical, emotional, mental, and social.
Our culture is full of messages that tell us we can be better and do better as human beings. An underlying assumption in this is that we are inherently flawed or under-developed as beings and that we need to strive for constant self-improvement, self-growth, or evolvement. It involves an assumption that we are not good enough or adequate as we are, and that we should constantly be “working on ourselves” to be better people. No pressure, right?
And what does “better” even mean? What exactly is that perfect ideal that we should all be working towards? Should there be an ideal? Or is it different for every individual? How exactly do we measure self-improvement?
As a life coach, these questions are particularly interesting to me. Often within the coaching, the primary focus is change. Changing how one feels, how one thinks, or how one behaves. It could also include resolving a problem that causes discomfort or distress. However, some other important goals of coaching could also include self-growth and development, increasing self-awareness, or improving self-understanding. This could involve simply (or not-so-simply) clarifying one’s feelings, thoughts, or behavior without the goal of modifying, altering, or making these “better” in some way. Gaining self-awareness and clarity are themselves processes of change.
This is an interesting concept – being aware of oneself without trying to change or be different from who you already are. Developing an awareness of your current experience as it is, your thoughts and feelings as they currently are, and observing your own choices and behavior. Self-awareness can be the goal itself (versus self-improvement). Above, I spoke of the inherent assumptions embedded in the notion of “self-improvement”. Primarily that we are not good enough as we are, and that we should strive to be better in some way. Alternatively, self-awareness does not share these assumptions. In fact, there is no judgment about what is good or bad, what needs fixing or what doesn’t, what is flawed and what isn’t. It is about recognition and acknowledgement of oneself.
Now, I want to clarify – I am not saying that self-improvement is a bad concept. Practicing habits that improve your mental and physical health are important. Taking action to promote your sense of well-being is also important. It is logical to make choices such as eating nutritious food, getting sleep and rest, being physically active, or socially connecting with others. It is also logical that if you have a medical condition that requires ongoing management through healthy lifestyle, that you would take the steps required. All of these things promote health and well-being. I am not suggesting that, for example, simply being aware that you have diabetes but not taking steps to manage this through diet and exercise is the best option. Rather, when it comes to the psychological aspects of ourselves, I am suggesting to take a moment and reflect on what you feel needs improving and why. What is the need behind the desire to improve yourself in some aspect or another. Does it come from feelings of inadequacy, self-criticism, perfectionism, shame, or guilt? Or from a desire to be strong, healthy, and well-balanced? And what impact does this have on your self-concept (ie. how you view yourself as a person)? How you perceive yourself, understand yourself, and relate to yourself is key to your psychological functioning. Your relationship with yourself is the most important and long-lasting relationship in your life.
Becoming aware of one’s own inner world (thoughts and emotions), and recognising one’s own behavior without trying to change anything, encompasses a degree of acceptance. It is not always easy to accept things which we perceive to be undesirable or uncomfortable, including aspects of ourselves that we may not like so much. But think for a moment about how life might be different if you were to befriend yourself exactly where you’re at right now, as an alternative to striving for improvement? If you were to accept all aspects of yourself, including what you judge to be negative or unwanted. If you were to experience self-appreciation before trying to change into a new, improved version of your being. How would this change your relationship with yourself? And how would that change the way you experience life?
My hope is that this article does not leave you with the impression that self-improvement is a negative notion. My intention is to encourage reflective thought about self-improvement as a current movement in our society, and where its place is in our lives. I encourage you to set personal goals from a place of self-acceptance, appreciation, and respect. Before joining in this culture of self-improvement, reflect on your motivations for doing so.