The Problem with Constant Self-Improvement


The Problem with Constant Self-Improvement | Wit & Delight
Photo by Anna Sullivan on Unsplash

A big part of my twenties was focused on compulsive change and improvement. I morphed myself into the best person I could be, always left feeling guilty. I wasn’t getting enough quality sleep. My meditation plan was destroyed by distractions. I was eating unhealthy foods. I was trapped in a cycle of being good and being bad. And that invisible guilt, the smoke that lifted over my shoulders, made me want to constantly fix myself.

We are constantly inundated with the rah-rah cheer of self-improvement. Boisterous personal growth is the gallant and seemingly brave overarching theme of storytelling and life itself. Wellness is an anthem. Self-care, its lovable counterpart. The beauty industry tells us to stay younger looking, longer. Beauty is attainable at any age because we don’t need to stop seeking society’s idea of femme fatale. Kitschy Instagram posts are telling you to “Hold your fucking head up!” and reinvent yourself. Articles in magazines give us self-help tips. Alicia Keys wants to tell you a little something about self-care! Here’s how to ask for more money at work! Here are ten reasons you should be in therapy! Shop organic! Improve, improve, improve.

I’m getting really tired of the pressure to be my best. For longer than I know to be true, the Western world has had a self-help obsession. Sometimes I wonder if it might be because we’re obsessed with ourselves. We can’t stop thinking about how authentic we’re being and how unique we are on Instagram. We post encouraging content on social media. Self-help gurus are telling us how to love ourselves through meditation and healthy eating and more sleep and drinking more water. But can…we…just…stop?

Self-betterment is a process without an end. Improvement is an advancement, but a circle, a constant spinning and flowing of actualization and perfection.

In a GQ article, “Why Self-Help Might Actually Be Making You Less Happy,” Danish professor, Svend Brinkmann, encourages the journey to find your best self but worries the ability to optimize all the time and overperform has become pathological. He goes on to say that we become too addicted to looking inward and achieving our own ideals. The process can be exhausting. And unhealthy. Why? Because we end up focusing on self-improvement so much, we don’t actually go out into the world and be ** that thing ** we want to be.

Above all, self-betterment is a process without an end. Improvement is an advancement, but a circle, a constant spinning and flowing of actualization and perfection. A solidified conclusion is never entirely possible because we are egotistical enough to insert ourselves into every situation that can’t be fixed. We measure how great we’re doing with others. How can I come out of this a better person? We wonder with self-realization lust. How can there be growth? Becky’s self-improvement journey really is thriving. How can I be better?

This reinvention conflict spans across so many personal issues. The most interesting thing I read was how Amy Clover, in her blog Strong Inside Out, writes about how self-improvement didn’t help her recover from depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. “You can read all the self-help books you want,” she writes. “But it would take an extraordinary amount of willpower, grit, and just unnecessary effort to do it all on your own.”

For example, if we suffer from stress at work, we try to change ourselves instead of expecting the workplace to change. If we suffer from social issues, we think wellness therapy will change us first so we’re ready to be a “better” citizen. This is all instead of removing ourselves from the narrative and doing something about the problem, rather than sitting inside and reading about how we can improve all the time. I know life isn’t easy. And I’m not above a good mindfulness journey. But changing the world isn’t always about self-improvement first; closing it off and not talking to others about how to best change it won’t help anyone. 

I’m not happy with myself all the time. And I’m afraid part of that is because I’m conditioned to feel like I can do better and be more positive and be more productive all the time. I’ve grown up learning that life is for YOU. Bitch, you’re a GIRL BOSS. Climb that latter! Smash the patriarchy! Live, laugh, love. But, I’m tired. I don’t want to “push harder than yesterday if I want a different tomorrow.” I would rather read a book in a desolate forest and not think about anything inspirational for a month.

Speaking of cheesy quotes often directed at women… ”take the time to make your soul happy” is so self-righteous. What is happiness anyway? Can any of us even define it? Who are we doing happiness for? I love this quote from Svend Brinkmann, “I find it very important to be interested in something beyond yourself. . . . Go into the world instead of staring into yourself. Try not to be so obsessed with happiness. You have this happiness imperative: Life is about being happy. It’s ridiculous. Who said that happiness is all that? No one knows what happiness is.”

Getting better at something you love is one of the most elevated feelings in the entire world. We should be proud when we look back and see how far we’ve come. But how can we appreciate a slower process?

On the flip side, I do think ambition is beautiful and part of the human experience (i.e., change and evolution). Getting better at something you love is one of the most elevated feelings in the entire world. We should be proud when we look back and see how far we’ve come. But how can we appreciate a slower process? How can we become comfortable with valuing chilling instead of **being a boss**? And not feel the pressure to be better all the time?

Firstly, maybe happiness isn’t always within ourselves. And self-improvement and happiness aren’t connected. Self-improvement is a tiresome barrier of entry to find meaning in things and places other than ourselves. We have to reach beyond that, step away from ourselves, and define what life means without that egotistical authenticity search. 

Since the pandemic, I’m not as ambitious as I once was (Writer’s Note: This is initially why I wanted to write this article). Sometimes, I just want to weed my garden, drink fresh-squeezed orange juice, read a chapter a month in my book, and hang out with horses all day. My new vibe is definitely one of those motivational nineties posters that say “PASSION” but reworked into an anti-motivational poster that says “Lack of Improvement is Fine.” 

It’s not to say I don’t believe “you have to love yourself before you love another.” I do believe that. Wholeheartedly. Being a good person is a worthwhile thing to do. I just think we have to look at the “ask” here. The structure of the whole thing. To me, self-improvement is never-ending and it’s too much pressure to expect change constantly. What else are we missing? What else can we think about? How can we become comfortable doing something for ourselves that actually makes the world a better place holistically? Lack of motivation is okay. Lack of anything is human and it makes us who we are.

Perhaps the solution has something to do with limits. Less self-improvement, more thinking about how small life is. We live in a tiny part of the galaxy and constant growth is so small and individual. So pointless almost. We need to do things because we love them, not because we’re being better than everyone else. Self-improvement is a comparative obsession; a competitive flex. It becomes the least selfless thing we do.

Constant self-improvement is too broad, too infinite. Flatlining through life while being a good, kind person isn’t an end-all. It’s a beautiful way to love yourself safely.

I want to be happy with plainness. I want to be satisfied with simplicity and the beautiful ways I can lack. I want to be proud of how I can improve in small ways and look back and see how far I’ve come almost as a casual mistake. I don’t want to feel bad if I stay up too late or swear too much or have silly vices. Constant self-improvement is too broad, too infinite. Flatlining through life while being a good, kind person isn’t an end-all. It’s a beautiful way to love yourself safely.

Ending with my last favorite Svend Brinkmann quote that ties this idea in a perfect bow:

“People think that individual freedom is about removing limits so they can do whatever they want, but I think it’s the opposite. Without limits we cannot be free. I write in my books a lot about death—not because I have a morbid interest in dying or death, but because, existentially, the fact that we’re going to die and the fact that we know that we’re going to die really structures what we can do in this life.”

BY Brittany Chaffee - August 12, 2021

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August 13, 2021 10:28 am

I am so glad i found this article! So well written. I felt very connected to every word.

August 16, 2021 9:35 am
Reply to  Andrea

Hi, Andrea! I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it and felt so close to the words. Thank you for reading!

Kim D. Brothers
August 14, 2021 9:21 am

Thank you so very much for sharing this article! We can’t stay always positive, always motivated, and constant self-improvement… I agree with you that we need to improve in small ways and take care of ourselves, first of all. To live in a harmony with ourselves. I am keen on psychology and write on different topics at website. Your post inspires to be yourself, care for yourself, and remember – it is ok not to be ok sometimes. Thanks!

August 16, 2021 10:16 am

Thank you so much for your kind words. I appreciate you reading and finding care in the words. Being in harmony with who we really are definitely means to be easy on the expectations we set for ourselves 🙂

August 20, 2021 6:29 am

It’s about knowing yourself and being balanced. There are those who would benefit from goal setting, striving, and reading a book about how to improve. There are also those who need to slow down, enjoy the moment, and celebrate the place they’re in now. Must people will fluctuate back & forth in the same lifetime. You just have to know where you are, and what you need at the time. And keep it about your journey, not a comparison with anyone else.

August 20, 2021 8:23 am
Reply to  Karen


Live Musings
August 26, 2021 1:48 am

I love this. It’s exactly what I’ve been thinking but cannot put into words. Thank you!

March 25, 2022 10:27 pm

This is a very insightful and well-written article. This hustle culture has such a facade of being empowering (especially to women, ‘you’re a boss ass bitch, queen!’), but it actually just guilts people in the form of toxic positivity that preaches the message that being yourself isn’t good enough – unless you are constantly beating your personal best, waking up early, clearing your diet, balancing your finances, social life, studies and work, you’re a lazy pig!

June 13, 2023 6:04 pm

This could not be more what I needed to hear right now. Thank you so much for this! That being said, I have no clue how to incorporate this into my life. I guess that in itself feels like a self-improvement goal 🙂 but maybe it’s a more worthwhile one.

June 14, 2023 4:24 pm
Reply to  Sandro

This makes me so happy! Thank you for reading and enjoying 🙂

June 25, 2023 9:01 am

I see where you are coming from But I think the issue is constant self-improvement materially. I don’t always want to be chasing money, status, and my career development. Even though they are important, I like to constantly self-improve in other ways. Like health, relationships, mindset, and my behavior. It is important for me to always improve because we all have a ripple effect on the world. I do like the idea of this article about improving more slowly, when I tend to try to improve so much at once I end up improving less like people with new year… Read more »

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