I’m the kind of person that puts too much thought into trying to be a better version of who I am. I was thinking about this last night, while driving to the store, because driving’s an excellent time for pondering life’s mysteries, including the mystery of why people so hard on themselves. Why am I?
What I realize is that, while self-improvement is not a bad thing, it’s the wrong focus. The focus is on what we are not. The focus is on what we are not doing. The focus is on something we have yet to reach. I practice this more than I practice appreciating who I already am, what I already do. The result: I judge myself harshly thoughout the day, which doesn’t actually help me improve at all. If anything, it probably makes me do worse.
The times where I have succeeded in life with whatever I have done have not come from self-criticism. The best achievements have been paired with positivity, often with a simple act of abandoning myself to the moment in a peaceful way. Writing a chapter that I feel deeply connected to, that made me actually laugh or made me want to cry in the way that I know means I wrote it well, this happened because I surrendered to the moment instead of second-guessing every sentence. Getting married to the best woman I’ve ever known, this happened because I surrendered to how we felt about each other rather than second-guessing my own personality.
Focusing on what we don’t want is not a good way to live.
Instead of feeling bad about not yet finishing the 4th part of Secret Signs, I can be happy I wrote the first 3 and look forward to seeing how it all ends. I am not obligated to anyone to finish it on a specific schedule, not even myself. It will be done when I am inspired enough.
Instead of feeling bad about not doing much visual art these days, I can appreciate that I’m still creating art through writing. I can also enjoy the drawings and paintings of the past without judging myself for not doing any this weekend. Perhaps another phase will come. Perhaps it won’t. Either way, I can be creative.
Instead of wishing that I was better with money and that we actually had any savings, which we don’t, I can be grateful that I’m able to pay our bills (mostly on time). If I am a few days late, I don’t need to feel lousy about it, wishing I was better. I can appreciate that I at least try. I can feel good about being someone who believes in paying for what I asked to have, whether it’s a mortgage, a bill for a new dishwasher, or last year’s Christmas presents. (Yeah, I’m still paying for them.)
Instead of feeling bad about saying no to doing something with my kids after a long day at work, I can focus on the fact that they get so much attention from me after I’ve recharged for a bit. I can focus on the truth that I am a dad that loves his kids and makes sure to tell them that every day. I don’t need to feel bad about not playing Monopoly for the 100th time.
Instead of thinking that this post isn’t as good as I’d like it to be, I can appreciate that I even wrote anything this morning.
And here’s a big one: instead of feeling bad about not yet finishing the sequel to my first novel, I can focus on the fact that I still love my first book even after all these years and I think the second one is coming along great. It’s going to be even better. Actually, it already is. And it WILL be finished. I’d rather enjoy writing it, even if it takes me years, than to rush through it with stress and second-guessing.
Like most people, I could keep adding to this list. There’s plenty that I focus on that is self-critical, to the point that I’m ignoring all the good.
It’s not that self-improvement is inherently bad and that we shouldn’t strive to develop good practices of every kind, but if we make that our focus too often, I think it is damaging to our self-esteem.
Perhaps the one self-improvement practice that’s more important than any other is the practice of noticing all the things that are good about you that you don’t need to improve. Not that you can’t improve, but that you don’t need to. You already have so much good in you, you just have to find it and acknowledge it, just as I do.