Too Much Self-Improvement May Be Detrimental

Don't kick yourself for falling short on your self-improvement plan. Treating yourself like a never-ending work in progress may be harmful to your mental health argues author Karen Karbo.

By Didi Gluck
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How far back does this notion of self-improvement go?

The notion of self-improvement is the foundation of philosophy. The ancients reclined on their thinking pillows all the live long day pondering how men might improve themselves. Socrates, the great Stoic Epictetus, Descartes, Benjamin Franklin – they all thought a lot about self-improvement, but let’s never forget they were men talking to other men. Women were beneath consideration, and worth less than livestock; even if we wanted to improve ourselves, we were probably illiterate, and thought to be incapable of rational thought. This was pretty much the situation until the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of the marketplace. By the early 20th century, women were recast as consumers, upon which the new economy depended. We were homemakers, girlfriends, mothers, wives, and advertisers and marketers figured out we would buy stuff if we believed it would improve ourselves and our lives. 

Some people would say self-improvement is a noble pursuit. Why do you feel it can be damaging?

Two quick questions to ask yourself before deciding to launch upon some self-improvery: 1) Are you doing it because it’s something our culture demands of women, but that you would never do if you lived alone on a desert island?  2) Does anyone stand to gain anything by your quest to better yourself? If the answer to either of these is yes, the quest is perhaps less noble than we might imagine.

While writing this book, I resolved to be more accepting of my own flaws. This contradicts part of what it means to be a successful female in the modern world, to always be striving to be prettier, thinner, fitter, nicer, more organized, more productive, more fun and nurturing. And always, until our dying breath, smokin’ hot. To accept our flaws means to resist the cultural imperative. Also, no one stands to gain by my doing this. No one is getting richer. I’m not consuming anything. 

To answer the second part of your question – the quest for self-improvement can become damaging in several ways. First, it trains you to doubt your own judgement. Anyone who grew up in western culture, especially women, knows how to eat. You don’t need a celebrity influencer to tell you it’s better to eat an apple than a bag of Funyuns. And yet, people are seduced into crazy ass diets all the time. It’s a $72 billion industry because people don’t trust themselves to eat less and do more, which is the only diet that works. It’s also damaging because we become convinced that we don’t deserve to be happy right now, just as we are. That we’ve got to improve ourselves to be happy.

What does letting go of the notion that we are a continuous work in progress allow us to feel and do?

At first, swearing off self-improvement is a huge relief. For most of us, hamster-wheeling after self-improvement makes us anxious and miserable. Whatever system or regimen we’ve adopted only reinforces how unacceptable we find our selves to be. And the goal posts keep moving. We never reach a place where we think, “Ah ha! This is the improved me! Now I’m just going to make myself a gin and tonic and sit back and enjoy!” To say, “this is me, take me or leave me,” feels empowering and courageous. It’s why the subtitle of my book contains saying f*ck it all, because that’s how it feels at first. We’ve freed ourselves from our shackles! From now on, your life will be one big come-as-you-are party!

How do we reclaim our flaws? Seems easier said than done…

Way easier said than done! That sense of relief doesn’t last forever. From the time most of us hit puberty we’ve been indoctrinated to believe that we need to fix ourselves. To know ourselves and accept ourselves, without lunging after a new program, regimen, system, or scheme is done moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day. The cure is to not just swearing off self-improvement, but also self-involvement. We are so self-obsessed.  One quick way to change the script: volunteer. There are a gazillion opportunities, and it’s an easy way to get out of your own head, do some good and – guess what? – feel better about yourself.

I’ve embarked on several self-improvement plans since quarantine started, including playing more piano, and done none of them. And now I feel doubly bad because I've had the time, and haven't used it well...

Boy howdy, I know this feeling well. We manufacture a completely closed system, where we create expectations for ourselves, then fail to meet them, then feel bad about ourselves. No mean girls, evil boss, or hateful ex- required! This happens in the best of times, but these are the worst of times. We need to remind ourselves that during quarantine an hour is not a neutral hour, to fill with enriching activities. We only have these free hours because we are living through a disaster. It’s like expecting yourself to be able to finish an email while the plane is going down. If there was ever a time when we needed to appreciate who we are, as we are, this is it. That said, it speaks well of you that you wanted to improve something you presumably love (playing the piano). Trying to improve a skill, especially for women, is a bit different than the usual self-improvery we’re drawn to. Taking the time master some fiendishly complicated Chopin etude is very different from devoting yourself to increasing the width of your thigh gap, so you can incite envy among the girls at the office or the gym, when this whole thing is over.

Having said that, isn’t there a healthy balance between trying to better yourself — and opting out entirely?

I suspect it depends where you are, and what your experience has been of this crazy time. If you’re a doctor, physician’s assistant or nurse working on the front lines you might be forgiven for forgetting to floss. If you live in a hot zone and have lost your job, likewise. But for the privileged many who are simply stuck at home, it’s better to try to respect the good habits we’ve always established.

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To say, 'this is me, take me or leave me,' feels empowering and courageous.

Karen Karbo, author of Yeah, No. Not Happening.

How do you see the self-improvement industry evolving?

It will adapt to suit the times. It’s not a multi-billion dollar a year industry for nothing.

Has listening to your true self — and true impulses — helped you weather quarantine? Has it opened up a whole new world that was restricted to you before?

I think being in a relatively safe place, in good health, and quarantined with a guy I not only love, but with whom I’m an excellent parallel player, has helped me weather the quarantine. In terms of choosing my true impulses over self-improvery, it does make life more interesting. I’m reading books about the history of French, teaching myself some complex knitting patterns, painting, and dancing in my living room. When I have free time (like you, I’m still working), I do this, rather than a 45-minute booty blasting workout, or trying to up my productivity, or making a healthy lunch that requires a degree in biochemistry to prepare.

I know you’re in France right now. Are the French less judgmental toward themselves and others than we are — and more accepting of their true selves? Is that what led you to quarantine there?

My husband and I moved to France in May 2019, so we were already here when “en confinement” occurred. In my experience, the French are judgmental, but they don’t find that problematic. They consider it having an opinion, and having an opinion is a good thing. There is no requirement that you should be or look like everyone else. In fact, they find that uninteresting. In France you don’t see armies of women with flat-ironed blond hair, plumped lips, and false eyelashes. That said, French women are still pressured to be thin. Try shopping in a clothing store that caters to the average French woman, and the sales girl has no compunction about advising you to go on “une régime.” 

What was the favorite thing you learned from writing this book?

That the secret of being confident is not becoming better, but daring people to take you as you are. 

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Karen Karbo is a writer and super-clever lady. Her book about ditching "self-improvery," Yeah, No. Not Happening., came out earlier this month.

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