The Violent Nature of Self-Improvement

불면의 낮 / SLEEPLESS DAYS created by Daehyun Kim, Moonassi.

Addiction. When you hear that word, your mind instantly conjures up the image of alcohol or drugs. Or maybe money or toxic relationships. Perhaps even lying, or as an addict might call it, “the delicate art of stretching the truth”. We think of addiction as something destructive, an inner demon that leads to one’s demise. It’s a dark word that we hope will never be placed as a label on ourselves or anyone we love. After all, “too much of anything can be a bad thing”, said our parents. But what if that very demon we all run from was disguised as an angel? What if it took the face of something so innocent that we could never see the wrong in it?

Last weekend I went to a silent meditation retreat, in hopes of practicing mindfulness and honestly just to take a little break from the world. The whole weekend I worked to build my “meditation muscles” and improve upon a skill that I thought could help me be a better person. No phones, no talking, no books, not even any eye contact with those around me. At the end, I felt so proud of myself for following through and thought, “Wow, look how healthy I’ve become for choosing to spend my weekend this way.” When I went back to work the next day, however, I noticed a tiny bubble of anger float to the top of my mind. I couldn’t place it’s origin at first. I brushed it off and opened up my ClassPass app to signup for a yoga class, thinking that would be a healthy way to get rid of it. After all, I should keep up my streak of being sooo healthy. But as the week went on, the bubble grew and grew until everything else in my head was trapped within it. So of course I used my new mindfulness practices that I had learned at the retreat to determine where this intruder came from and what its intentions were. What good is a $400 meditation retreat if I can’t fix my problems with it, right?

As I sat down to meditate at the end of what had been a week filled with productive meetings, various yoga classes, and (relatively) clean eating, I began to feel the heaviness of…guilt? What an odd thing to discover, I thought, and tried to remember what wrongful deeds I had committed to feel that way. As the filing cabinet in my mind flipped through all of my conversations, actions, and thoughts from the previous week, I just became increasingly confused. I didn’t do anything wrong to anyone. I didn’t even think bad thoughts about anyone. Where was this slimy, sticky, stupid feeling coming from? Maybe if I had meditated more during the week like I promised, then my brain would be working correctly, I said to myself. Ugh, or gone to the gym more, that probably would’ve gotten my mind off of it, I say as I pick up a new self-help book that my mom got me for Christmas. Hmm, maybe I should start a new series of blog posts about this book, so that I can practice my writing while also helping others, since my yoga instructor said that we should all be thinking of ways we can improve the world. And I could definitely do a lot more to improve the world, I mean just look at my friend who went to Lebanon last year to work with refugee children, I think to myself. I cut my meditation short to open my laptop and type into Google “volunteer opportunities in SoCal”.

…I bet you see where I’m going with this, don’t you? I’m an addict. It’s quite unfortunate really, because I promised my parents I would never abuse drugs. But I did so much research before I started to do it, I swear! I would never intentionally do something to hurt my body, or even worse, my brain. Yet here I am, falling quietly and gracefully down the slippery slope of self-improvement.

That anger turned to guilt that I was trying to erase was a product of my disordered mindset which I’ve unconsciously and unknowingly taught to believe that nothing I do is ever enough. I could wake up early, work all day long, top if off with a yoga class, and still feel a sense of disappointment that I couldn’t fit in 15 minutes to meditate before bed. I mask this aggressive and hurtful thought process as self-improvement and my “dedication” to being better, which quite frankly has become an overrated word to me. The word “better” is a dangerous marker for growth. The lack of a concrete goal makes it easy to believe that you have never accomplished anything worthwhile, because it could always be better. The harsh reality is that I’ve simply cultivated an addiction to seeing just how much I’m capable of and then figuring out how I can increase that capacity, with no real end in sight. If I don’t hit that limit on any given day, I feel lazy, unproductive, entitled, and a slew of other terrible words that although I would never call someone else, I seem all too eager to call myself. At what point does self-improvement spill over and evolve into self-harm?

I’m writing this both as a reminder to myself and a wake up call to you to be aware of the violent nature of self-improvement. Society and the media makes it very easy to believe that in order to achieve the life we want, as shown to us by business moguls and Instagram influencers alike, we absolutely must work hard to constantly improve ourselves. Becoming a better person is a lifelong process, says the famous yogi posting pictures from the hillside of Nepal. We can’t ever stop learning and improving, reads the notification on my phone, prompting me to open that day’s featured Medium article. Everywhere you turn, someone is reminding you that you could be doing more. If I tweeted the simple truth, that I was addicted to bettering myself, it would solicit only positive responses, maybe even some messages of admiration, and it would certainly make someone out there feel bad that they weren’t an “addict”, too. The demon behind the addiction has done a superb job of disguising itself in this case, and consequently, all the self-help books and lifestyle influencers fail to mention the dangerous side effects of feeling like you constantly need to improve yourself. It is a serial serotonin killer that does it’s damage in silence, making it nearly impossible to determine why you feel so shitty when you’ve been doing so many “healthy” things. It is the equivalent of trying to drive your car across the nation without checking to see if there is enough gas first, and then berating yourself when you breakdown in the middle of nowhere.

It is of course important to believe that we can and should work to become better people, both for the sake of ourselves and others. I don’t discredit the articles and influencers who preach self-improvement, for they are often a helpful reminder of this. The problem, however, arises when we don’t stop to acknowledge how far we’ve already come and how much work we’ve done to get there, particularly in the absence of any comparison to the progress of others. Each of us has a unique, very necessary, and very human limit to the amount of pressure we should put on ourselves, which we have been made to feel is more of a goal to reach than a sign to stop. For the safety of our mental health, and that of others whom we may (un)knowingly influence, it is crucial that we recognize that limit and be kind enough to ourselves to respect it. The beauty in doing so is that we will regain the peace and happiness that we set out to achieve in the first place. The cliches of life are repeated for a reason, so trust that nobody is or will ever be perfect, no matter how their life may seem on the outside. As long as you are trying, whatever you are doing to improve yourself is enoughIn fact, I think we all deserve to give ourselves a break from self-improvement every once in a while to just be who we are in that moment, regardless of whether we currently like that person or not. By taking this pause, we can allow ourselves to appreciate the journey thus far and determine what can and should be done going forward. There is no minimum or maximum amount of improvement to conform to, and you will do yourself a favor to not let anyone tell you or make you feel otherwise. As a society, we have become addicts for the grass that always seems greener, especially when we are told that we can grow it ourselves if we just work hard enough. The trick to the most sustainable growth, however, is by maintaining a realistic and healthy image of yourself. Perhaps the healthiest habit of all is to learn to let ourselves be human every so often — good, bad, and ugly.

Full article on my Medium page.