If you could spend a year working mainly on self improvement, would you do it? I am currently loving the book, Help Me: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Your Lifeby Marianne Power. It’s about the experiment one women embarked up to focus on one self-help book per month for a year to see if her life would really be improved. I’m about half-way through this very entertaining and intriguing book and so far, the answer is both yes and no.
I highly recommend the book, but this isn’t about that. Instead, inspired by one of the ideas emerging from the book, I want to look at how when we focus on self-improvement, it sometimes leads to a hyperawareness of our own behaviors that may or may not be useful. It’s a bit like once you are shopping for a particular make and model of car, you seem to notice them everywhere.
Self-Awareness is Useful
Awareness is useful and actually critical when we want to make improvements in our life. We need to identify and understand what needs to be changed in order to change it. You can’t overcome procrastination or perfectionism without being able to see the symptoms in your own life. However, when that awareness clicks into overdrive, it can lead to being overly critical of our own behaviors. This is counterproductive, leading to feeling overwhelmed and possibly giving up attempts at new behaviors before ever giving them a chance to take hold.
A friend of mine who took a course on overcoming procrastination found herself on the precipice of this hyperawareness. She’d been going through an incredible amount of stress at home while still trying to work on personal goals. She’d not been putting as much energy into her goals as she’d planned and wondered if she was just procrastinating. Was she using her personal stress as a way to procrastinate making progress on her goals?
She asked for my opinion and I immediately told her procrastination was not the problem. She had so much to cope with at home, both physically and emotionally, that she really needed to give herself a break. It was difficult for her to see that though because she so much wanted to move beyond her unproductive habits and replace them with healthier ones.
Often people turn to self-help when they are feeling low, discouraged and disappointed with themselves. Maybe they’ve realized there are a lot of areas of their life that aren’t living up to their expectations — career, relationships, money, recreational pursuits..etc. They set about improving things, but the focus is too wide. Looking at many aspects of your behaviors at once when you’re already feeling low isn’t a way to feel better, it’s quite possibly a way to feel worse.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Instead, it’s important to choose one or two areas at a time to work on. Be aware that change takes time. Bad habits take time to form and your new better habits will also take time. Not every day will be perfect. It’s like learning a sport — you have to start slowly and build your skill level up over time.
It is wonderful to notice your behaviors as you begin trying to improve something in your life — like noticing where you are spending money irresponsibly, or not speaking up for yourself when you want to, or turning on the TV when you truly would rather be practicing guitar chords. It’s not wonderful to obsess about what you see as your faults or to constantly berate yourself. (For more, see Psychology Today article: The Hazards of Self-Criticism.) Decide on a few tasks you will focus on involving the behavior you want to change and work on those before adding new ones.
Be compassionate with yourself. Scientific research has shown that self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation. When your life is extremely hectic or you are physically or mentally exhausted, give yourself a break. It’s OK to take a small break in your weight-lifting regimen, your writing word count for the day, or your meditation practice. In the long run, it’s actually more productive to take a day or two off for self-care. Put a pause on your goals, rest, and when you return to them, you are likely to get more high-quality work done than if you’d continued to struggle.
Once my friend asked me if I thought she was procrastinating, I realized that this was really a question of balance. Learning to balance work and personal life is a common way to think about balance, but just as important is a balance between self-improvement and self-care. Self-improvement is work. It can be stressful. It requires a certain amount of vigilance. When we focus too much on it, it can feel like we are reinforcing our weaknesses rather than building new strengths. This is where self-care comes in.
We need to be gentle with ourselves when trying to overcome old habits and build new ones. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of our positive traits and take some time to relax with our inner self. Taking time for self-care while tending to self-improvement is important.
Self-care could mean a long bath with a good book, or a quiet walk in the woods with your dog, binging a series on Netflix, or some time spent exercising or playing your favorite sport. Remind yourself that you deserve to be treated well even though you are not yet the person you want to become. You don’t expect perfection from your friends, so why would you insist on it for yourself?
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