The Dangers of Self-Improvement: Why Most New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work
The holidays are almost upon us, and that means people are about to start making resolutions, trying to carry them out, failing to stick to them, and then hating themselves for it.
It seems like our whole culture is obsessed with either:
- Self-improvement (i.e. “I’ll make myself happy by becoming the perfect person!”)
- Self-destruction (i.e. “I drink/binge/cry because I realize I’m not a perfect person.”)
For most people, these two are deeply related and the good news is—they don’t have to be. There’s nothing wrong with self-improvement! In fact, lifelong personal growth is absolutely necessary for our survival. Without it, we become bored and, when bored, we’re apt to do all sorts of dangerous things like gossiping and eating cake.
Personal growth is the process of building upon yourself to become more talented, more skillful, more fulfilled, etc. It’s when personal development becomes a method of fighting for self-acceptance that we get into trouble.
When our goals become milestones for self-respect—that’s when our self-improvement efforts become dangerous.
Our self-sabotaging behaviours thrive inside that self-hating vacuum where we wait to be good enough, wait to be perfect..
Let me illustrate the difference with two hypothetical women.
Sandra: Self-Hating and Suffering
She knows she has a few extra pounds on her. In fact, she’s hyper-aware of it. Every day, Sandra looks at herself in the mirror and takes a mental inventory of her flaws, feeling increasingly more horrible each time. She thinks, what if my husband leaves me for a thinner woman? What if I never look any better? What if I die looking like this?
New Year’s time comes and, as a resolution, Sandra decides to join a gym and go on a diet. She thinks about calories every hour of the day and drags herself to exercise after work. Each time she returns home from the gym, she checks the mirror again. “Nope,” she thinks, “Not good enough yet.” And on she goes. Over the coming weeks, Sandra loses some weight while also losing some of her sanity. She feels better about herself on some days but hates herself again on others.
She begins to crave foods that aren’t allowed on her new diet. She can’t help but fall into those compulsions. It’s like she’s being tempted by the devil. She eats cake. Then she hates herself for eating cake.
As time goes on, Sandra feels more and more like there’s something wrong with her, something inherently flawed that keeps her from the body she wants. In the interim, her husband feels ignored and unloved as she obsesses about herself. He distances away from her. She thinks he’s distant because of her weight. Sandra’s life continues to struggle between forced self-improvement and blind self-destruction.
Tina: Self-Accepting and Thriving
Tina knows she has a few extra pounds on her. Lately, she’s been slacking on eating well and exercising. She admits that her life has been hectic lately. She knows that, when she gets overloaded, she tends to neglect her health.
Tina decides to declutter her life. She knows that she will be compelled to be good to herself if she clears some space around her. Tina trusts that her natural state is to be kind to her body and that her self-neglect is a signal of something else going wrong.
Tina rearranges some of her work priorities, asks her husband for help, and reaches out to her friends. She joins a Pilates studio because that’s a kind of exercise she enjoys. She searches Pinterest for healthier recipes of foods she loves. She doesn’t push anything away from herself, and she doesn’t force herself to do anything. Every step along the way, she checks in with how she feels about the changes she’s making.
With her new routines, Tina feels more energetic after each Pilates class and each meal. She listens to her body and allows herself to skip classes when she’s not feeling great. If she craves cake, she eats it. After all, she thinks, you only live once.
After a while, Tina finds that she isn’t craving cake anymore. In her new healthy body and her new healthy mind, she craves fruit, water, inspiration, and connecting with people. Tina lives a life of self-respect and self-acceptance that naturally allows for gradual and persistent self-improvement.
Which of the two are you?
From dancing both of those tangos, I know there is only one, simple difference between those states and that is: trust. If I trust that, in my natural state, I am already compelled to be healthy and good to myself, then I’ll accept myself as I am. I’ll listen to myself and give myself what I need.
When I trust myself, self-improvement is just self-discovery.
If I don’t trust that I am naturally healthy and instead assume that I’m made to be unhealthy and any attempts at health will have to be forced, then I’ll force every step. Of course, my body will resist me the whole way. Then, my self-improvement becomes self-mutilation. No wonder it so quickly turns to self-destruction—it is the same thing!
As it says in The Love Mindset, “Self-improvement without self-love is like building a house upon quicksand. You can build and build, but it will always sink.”
Remember this when you’re setting your resolutions this year, and remember this when you’re feeling guilty about taking that extra piece of cake. It’s not about the cake. It’s about why you want the cake. To change your impulses, you must re-arrange your environment to better meet your emotional needs. Until you find comfort inside you, you’ll keep searching for it on the outside.
Seek to accept yourself more instead of always seeking to improve yourself. Then, improvement will come naturally, automatically, and consistently.
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How will you honour yourself this year and seek to make changes in a healthy, self-loving way?