‘Self-improvement is masturbation. Now self-destruction…’ Tyler Durden Fight Club.
In facing my anxiety and depressed moods, I’ve read my fair share of self-help books. But after many years, I became somewhat disillusioned with the genre.
My quest for personal development leads me to read, listen and watch so much advice. But a part of me became exasperated. ‘When will it end, when can I give up with all this learning?’ I just want to sit back and be content for a while.
This feeling sparked me to delete some podcast episodes on self-help. I wondered to myself. ‘What if those episodes were important? What if they had good ideas that I might need?!’ I felt somewhat afraid. As if my life would fail if I didn’t have the knowledge they contained.
Where did that fear come from, and why?
Self-help, self-improvement is a vague idea, and when I first started on my quest, I had the notion of improving my life by dealing with my anxiety and finding success. But I’m wondering if all that reading was necessary.
I had to ask myself what am I’m trying to do. Words like self-improvement and personal growth are often used, but are they the right words to use?
What’s more, there’s a whole self-help industry out there worth billions. How useful is their advice? Is self-improvement possible, and what do we mean by that?
I wonder if the idea of self-improvement is just a misleading notion.
Self-improvement seems to be based upon an ‘Illusion of progress’. There is this benchmark to measure our lives, and we need to be improving to justify our existence. It’s an appalling side effect of modern capitalism. Today people have become cogs in a machine, and they need to be improved.
Economics has now become part of our sense of self-worth, the language of the factory the business now used in our personal lives. The result is endless words on productivity and self-improvement.
Self-help seems to use fear to sell us a product or service. It caters to our insecurities about our status, our self-worth.
Yet despite this dark side, there are genuinely good ideas to be found. It’s just you have to be wary; you might find yourself acting out of fear, even as you read books on dealing with fear.
To improve is our aim. But I have trouble with this because it implies that we have a ‘self’ to improve. What I’ve learned from Buddhism is the immutable everlasting self is an illusion. There is no unchanging core piece of ourselves. If it’s fixed, how can we change it?
Our identity changes over time, the problem here is the word we use. ‘Improvement.’ We take it to mean a process towards perfection. To improve is to make better. But how do you measure that?
Consider an acorn, then a sapling, then a tree: They’re different, yet they’re all the same. How does improvement fit in here?
You might think who you are now is an improvement on the past, but is an oak tree an improvement upon an acorn?
Maybe growth is a better word. It’s not better at who we are; we cannot help but be who we are. Instead, it’s more a case of realising our potential, making sure the acorn does become the tree.
Our lives are full of possibilities; not all will be realised. But we all fear not living up to something greater.
Self-improvement seems the wrong word. What we want is to Flourish as I put it. ‘Not just to live but to thrive.’
‘Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer, maybe self-destruction is the answer’Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
Perhaps the best way to understand what we want is what we try to avoid.
The enemy of growth is stagnation. Stagnation is stasis, rigidity, an attitude that resists change. We recoil from stasis because it implies that the world has left us behind. We’ve become obsolete.
‘Self-improvement’ may be the biggest myth the industry exposes. Such a tale profers up endless reading, and foster ‘analysis paralysis’. It tends to result in the opposite of growth, stagnation. We fall into the dilemma of trying to eliminate uncertainty and doubt before we act; this is what the self-help addiction does to people. It gives the illusion of progress, reading makes us feel we’re doing something necessary, but it’s nothing if we never take action upon what we read.
Progress can be more a case of letting go of bad ideas and self-destructive habits, removing obstacles in the way of growth: illusions, misunderstanding of how we work, and how the cosmos works.
One example for me was confidence. I had the belief I need to be confident before I acted. I was wrong; you don’t start with confidence and then act; you act upon your fears to gain confidence.
Attitude towards change
‘Your level of success will seldom exceed your level of personal development because success is something you attract by the person you become.’Jim Rohn
Self-improvement is more about shifting your attitude and seeing through falsehoods. Improvements come along with it. It’s a case of seeing with better eyes, which make better desires, therefore better habits and better priorities.
What stops most of us are fears, distractions and falsehoods. Growth only comes through doing the work and facing our fears and changing our false perceptions for better ones.
Once you see through the illusion, you see there’s less and less to stop you from chasing your dreams. Many of the problems were in your head. Fears, once useful, have now become your prison.
This is what I feel is more in line with personal development—breaking down barriers and illusions towards growth. Another is to avoid the superficial habits of distraction and laziness, and instead use our time on those behaviours that will make us happier.
We have to let go of those limiting beliefs that hold us back, to self destruct is one way to look at it.
Self-improvement is a tricky thing to define, yet often the most important values are.
Self-improvement can be a toxic influence just as much as a beneficial one. We chase after goals, focus on productivity but often forget we need to ask ourselves what we are pursuing and why it matter to us?
I think the better way to see personal development is growing and flourishing, and it has more to do with letting of disempowering beliefs than accumulating more. Avoiding the self-esteem craze and instead focusing on our shortcomings, and our passions to find out what matters to us most.
Self-improvement is the intersection between our inner values, hopes, fears, and our outer existence, our lifestyle and habits. It’s how we show up in life.
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