Why I quit on self-improvement projects.
A little better every day. A little more efficient, more profitable, a little smarter? I’ve accepted the “Better Every Day” dogma - it is just obvious, because, what is the alternative? A little worse?
Unapologetic motivational speakers can energize a room with thousands of people with words of self-improvement. And gosh, they are good. I get out of there with an inflated sense of being better, of doing the right thing. What’s is wrong — you may ask — with harvesting from this energy to improve myself?
Here is where self-improvement goes wrong
Self-improvement in our western culture, is heavily influenced with this industrialized notion of continuous improvement. As an Industrial Engineer, I deeply respect the work of the XIX century thinkers like Goldratt, Deming, Taylor. While these currents of knowledge work splendidly well in lean manufacturing environments, they don’t work in our spiritual journey of being fully (not better) humans. I am NOT a factory.
More so, self-improvement is sold as a shortcut from suffering. “You feel bad? There is something wrong with you that needs to be improved.” And we immediately take action at the slightest glimpse of discomfort. We rush out of unpleasant feelings trying to put ourselves together and get some solid ground on where to resume the construction of the “Me Project." I am NOT a project.
Self-improvement is tainted with blame. The sense that there is something about me that needs to be fixed, that needs to be corrected, is extremely critical. In other words, self-improvement is married to self-critic. The inner-critic is the one dictating what to improve. And while this internal judge has fair intentions — it wants us to be accepted member of our society — its tools are not nearly as fair. The judge blames and the judge rejects the parts it doesn’t like. The judge’s handbook of law was written during our socialization years. I now wonder, how much of my self-improvement projects are coming from fear? I am NOT my inner-critic.
What I’ve chosen instead of self-improvement
“Yeah.. I hear you, but without self-improvement. We will just be stagnant in our habitual patterns. I want to overcome the things holding me back from my full potential.”
Here is what I’ve come to realize. I’m done making a project out of myself. Instead, I want to befriend myself. To get to know me without judgement. To become aware of my ways of being, my habitual patterns, defaults and reactions. Here is the main difference: I will not make a project to get rid of the things I don’t like.
I’ll simply observe them. And if possible, offer my kindness to my demons. I’ll sit in peace with discomfort without trying to get solid ground under me. And then, with an open heart, I’ll have the courage to listen and honor my shadow.
During my first therapy session, I told my therapist, “I am here because I am done with the way I’ve been doing things. I am ready to bury the parts of me that no longer serve me.” Her response was, “Hugo, we don’t bury them. We integrate them.”
This compassionate approach is gentle and subtle but is the most powerful and courageous thing I’ve done. Blame is an invitation to pause and relax with discomfort.
In her book, Radical Compassion, Tara Brach, a beloved Psychologist and Buddhist Teacher, introduced a very practical technique to befriend strong emotions called RAIN. In a nutshell:
- Recognize what is happening
- Allow the experience to be there, just as it is
- Investigate with interest and care
- Nurture with self-compassion
My invitation is to avoid making a project out of yourself, catch your self-improvement being rooted in fear as opposed to love, relax into the wisdom of your heart and your inherent goodness. Befriend your demons. I leave you with a poem I wrote titled “To my demons.”
Running in the wilderness as fast as I can.
Not looking back. I’m being chased.
The branches are thick, I can’t see the light.
It’s cold in here but I know the sun shines.
You run next to me, pointing mirrors to my face.
This feels familiar, you are still yet to learn.
I grasp the illusion of redemption In your arms
But I pass through you and hit my head to the ground.
The sky opens up and the light burns my skin.
I see my flesh bleeding, brutally raw and thin.
It hurts like never before. Oh boy, it hurts so much.
“I surrender.” I scream “Fill up with my flesh”
In a cathartic encounter, my demons arrive.
With fierce devotion, they rip me apart.
Without any resistance they eat me alive.
I scream, I cry, I laugh as I look in their eyes.
They love me so much. Can I love them back?