Why Self Improvement Never Works
Self-help and self-improvement books dominate non-fiction best-seller lists today. Self-improvement is a really big thing! Even those of us who wouldn’t be seen dead in the self-improvement sections of our local book store still look to improve ourselves in more traditional ways – our level of success, education, wealth, respect, career, our bodies.
The desire to improve one’s self has become so ingrained as part of our culture that to actually question the benefit, use or even reality of “self-improvement” seems silly or maybe even sacrilegious. Of course you would want to improve yourself wouldn’t you? That’s what it means to be a human being right? It’s important that I make something of my self and my life. Everyone wants to make themselves a better person don’t they? Isn’t that what we are all doing here?
Is this really the case though? Is self-improvement the goal of life? If so – who said so? Where is the empirical evidence? Where is the proof? Is the dominant ideology that a continuing refinement of me as a person is a worthy pursuit an inherited belief, story or myth or is it a truth?
Is it enough to be on autopilot assuming an ideology or story about life and being human to be true or is it more important to investigate for oneself what it actually means to be human, what living actually is?
I know for me, discovering the truth of what it is to live a fully human life is deeply compelling. I also know that this discovery relies on a ruthless self-enquiry determining what is real and what is illusion, with an attraction to the real.
It seems one of the biggest illusions in my life is the assumption that self improvement is a good thing, is necessary or indeed that you can actually be ‘improved upon’.
The whole self improvement enterprise is built on shaky foundations, untested assumptions. Namely…
a) That I am not OK right now, that somehow I require improving or rectifying
b) that it is actually possible for their to be improvement of my self
c) That self improvement is a wise ‘use’ of my life
d) More controversially (but equally up for investigation and testing), that there actually is a self to improve
The myth of the need for improvement:How often do you receive messages similar to the following?
- It is important to make something of your life
- It is important to achieve success in life
- It is important to work on yourself
- Self improvement is the best thing you can do as a human being
How often do you say similar things to yourself? The hidden unspoken assumption in these phrases is that there is actually something wrong (and therefore needing improving) in the first place. If everything was hunky dory, where would the need be to improve?
These phrases imply that there is some dilemma going on here that requires your attention. Life and you at the moment are not quite right. You have to improve yourself and your life – make something of your life you to make something of it and yourself. There is some benchmark in the future that you are meant to attain.
Often there is more than one benchmark and changes over time. It may be the benchmark of a ‘happy relationship’. It may be the benchmark of a ‘successful business’. It may be the benchmark of being a ‘kind person’ or a ‘becoming enlightened’. At various times I have managed to latch on to and chase all of these benchmarks as well as many, many others. I still do.
The benchmark prison:
These benchmarks can also be referred to as ideals, aspirations or goals. As soon as they are, they become sacred cows. Having goals, aspirations and ideals is surely a good thing! To question this is to risk being labelled a ‘loser’ , a ‘quitter’ or a ‘failure’.
But, is this really true and who defines whether I lose, quit or fail? And what do I quit, lose or fail at? Life? How is it actually possible to fail at life?
Surely that every one of us was actually born would suggest we have all succeeded at life? Do trees fail at life? Do birds fail at life? Does the sun fail at life? Surely we are as much a creation of nature as the rest of nature.
In and of themselves there is nothing actually wrong with ideals, aspirations and goals. It is when they become a ‘cure’ for our present unhappiness or a way of ‘becoming happy’ that they form a bind and a prison. They subtly reinforce the present state of life and ourselves as somehow lacking.How ideals and goals can rob us of our life
Believing in the benchmarks – that they are actually necessary even as ideals or goals robs us of genuinely enjoying and appreciating life (and ourselves) right now. They overlay an ideology that makes us sleepy and stops us feeling the miracle of moment to moment existence and the awe and wonder of Life itself as it lives us.
They reinforce the unspoken assumption that we are somehow broken, in need of repair, needing to be ‘worked on’. Instead of simply being, existing, appreciating and genuinely living moment to moment, we become a project. And when we become a project we divorce ourselves from life.
We forget the deep sensations of being fully conscious, the ups, the downs, the profound bliss, joy, intimacy, vulnerability, sadness, anger, appreciation. The wild, uncontrollable forces that govern all aspects of nature, including us.
Instead of throwing up our arms and shouting in wonder, surrender and joy at the storm of life; the lightning flashing in the sky and the rain on our faces, enjoying the raw, wild, vivid and aliveness of nature as it is, we bunker down in a burrow with our teaspoon trying to dig a hole that will get us to somewhere else, that we imagine as nirvana and that will hopefully, one day in the future keep us safe.
We narrow down to an imaginary blueprint of ‘our lives’ and get more and more neurotic and unhappy trying to force the mystery and wonder and volatility of a living force in to our plan for our self image. To improve “me”.
The wonder of childhood – can you remember it?
You know this though! As children the veil of illusion is not fully covering us. This is when we are far more aware of the actual preciousness of even being alive, of the freshness of the experience of the mystery of it all. The ‘world’ of expectation, of striving, of good and mad and ‘making something of our lives’ has not impinged yet. Try and tell a 7 year old that they ‘have to make something of themselves’ and see how they react – do they even know what you are talking about? Hopefully not, they will just want to play.
The famous psychologist Carl Jung had children’s toys in his consultation room. he noticed he kept on getting attracted to them. He decided to stop all his clients for a period of time (it was literally months) and just play with the toys. It seems there was something in playing, in being able to enjoy oneself freely and create and destroy as a child does that was tremendously appealing to him.
We all long for the innocence and wonder we experience as a child. We can think that this childhood wonder and innocence gets lost forever and that it is somehow time bound to being a child. Is that the case though? What if that innocence and wonder is still present, just waiting to be felt, just waiting to be acknowledged? What if this was imply our natural state (without needing anything ,made of it)?
Your life is not a philosophy
The miracle of existence, of being, of awareness sand conciousness are not a ‘philosophy’, they are not an ‘ideology; or something to be thought about, debated, considered or agreed with.
The miracle of life is not a fridge magnet. The miracle of existence is not time bound and didn’t just happen at birth, it is present right now as you. It can be felt and intuited as a tacit, fully subjective an undeniably real, awe inspiring realisation. The miracle of life doesn’t rely on any improvement, self or otherwise. It is simply our natural state.
The realisation that the miracle of existence, of life can be felt moment to moment, without requiring anything added on to them is always enough. Nothing needs to be fixed, added or ‘made’ of it. “Making” something of “your” life simply discloses the tragic alienation and disconnection that occurs in not feeling and turning away from the miracle of life already as you are.
Your life is not your own!
None of us chose to be born. How amazing is that? I, me, you…all of us, in fact every living creature apparently just appears. Obviously there is biology behind this, yet in the most profound way we as conscious beings are born in to the world as a matter of pure grace.
Our lives are not ours, we didn’t create them and they end of their own accord as well. I don’t ‘own’ my life any more than I ‘own’ the air I am breathing, own the sun or the wind. So believing that anyone needs to make something of their life is to actually deny that life makes itself, in and of itself in its own way. We are just here along for the ride!
Of course this can be very confronting to our need to control, to our delusion that we will live forever and that things will always (or at least should) go our way. After all its MY life right! I have a right to have things go MY way! How dare circumstances (old age, sickness and death) interfere with this!
There are a myriad of ways to numb ourselves to the reality that life is at is its and does its own thing. A ‘secure’ job, my ‘own’ house a ‘solid’ relationship and ‘stable’ income are great ways to insulate myself form the impermanence of life (at least for a period of time).
The greatest insulation though is to build up my self image in to the ideal fortress I so desire. Where I am perfect (or at least complete) in every way. The perfect relationship, job, house, holiday etc. Ahhh – the thrill of that! Imagine…..And so I begin the striving. Seeking out ways and means to achieve this.
It soon becomes obvious though that no amount of work, no amount of striving, no amount of changes actually seem to alter the fundamental dilemma. Somehow or in someway, things are not quite right how they are. I have been lead to believe this is the case. That there is a place to get to, that somehow right here (how I am) and right now are not good enough.
Conventional culture fuels this belief everywhere I look. The perfect solution to my dilemma is just around the corner. One more purchase away, one more experience away, one more new book away. Whatever. Many people (myself included) start realise that any of these commodities cannot satisfy the discontent, my longing.
The self improvement racket
Unfortunately many people (myself included) then embark on a ‘journey’ of self improvement. Rather than seek in gross consumerism or pleasures, the seeking tends to take the form of seeking happiness through positive thinking, therapy, coaching, and spiritual practices (such as meditation).
On one level there is tremendous benefit in starting to seek out happiness through these mechanisms as they do tend to improve our ability to ‘function’ in the world and also provide a level of consolation where we may not be in quite so much pain.
They can also trigger off an increase in introspection or self-awareness which can be vital to short-circuiting the imagined dilemma in the first place. It is a razors edge though. Very easily the quest for self-improvement even through coaching, therapy and spiritual practices can mask or cover up what is really going on here and now.
They become either another ‘numbing out’ tool designed to alleviate pain through the promise of a future better than now or simply because experientially they alleviate pain for a period of time (meditation, talking to someone who is genuinely listening feels good after all).
The conceit: Why self improvement can never work
The conceit in all of this seeking is this… What we seek to improve is not who we are.
What we take to be ourselves – our ego, our personality is a psychological construct, conditioned by nature and nurture. The ego (the sense of me) is formed over time. At 6 months a baby has no or very little sense of me, where were you then at that age? It appears as we grow that there is an identification with this psychological construct that we pass off as ‘me’, an individual self.
This individual self is constructed on a remembered history and imagined future. None of it really exists (if it did – where is it right now?), we just make it up. We make it up and then believe it to be real. Then we try and make our made up self ‘better’.
You don’t actually exist as an individual personality, you just think you do. From a logical point of view this can easily be tested and proven. Can you reflect on your personality (I am this type of person e.g. I am a happy person, sad person, fragile person -whatever)? This reflection necessarily implies a subject and an object. The object of the exercise is your ‘personality’. You can be aware of it. If this is the case, what is the subject? Who is the ‘I’ that can be conscious and observe the personality? Who is actually aware? Clearly it is not your personality as the subject is aware OF the personality. We could even go so far as to say any thing you thin yourself to be must necessarily be a lie. It is just that a thought!
Putting logic aside there are many occasions the individual personal construct of ‘me’ gets revealed as the lie it is. Many, many people attest to peak or mystical experiences where the sense of individuality – the seeming solidity of the personal construct of ‘who I take myself to be’ either frays around the edges or is completely obliterated.
People who experience this are often profoundly affected and report it being a sensation of truth and reality that far exceeds that which we would conventionally experience. These are glimpses or tastes of a Truth and Reality that is always available, in fact a Truth or Reality that we are. So the personal construct – my past, my future, my life, my career, the idea that I have a history, a story, that there is something in these tales and self-conceptions that is somehow ‘me’ as a solid entity is false. There simply is no solid self. And because there is no self, any attempt at self-improvement will always fail.
Waking up from the dream – why you don’t require improvement
As US teacher Adyashanti says I could well succeed at creating a better dream through self-improvement. I could groom and tweak my image of a separate self in the dream, but is that what I REALLY want or do I want to to wake up from the dream? To be disillusioned and disenchanted and actually start to feel, see and taste the truth?
The truth that I am, you are, we all are inherently OK, as we are, right now. You and your life are not, never have been and never can be a problem. There is an inherent perfection in Life and it is possible to realise this. The question is if this is understood, accepted, felt and realised, what now?
Can I simply be? Can I just make Love? Can I stop right here? Can I release the need to improve, to control? Can I simply be aware? Listen, smell, feel, play. Be a child, be a lover, be a poet, be a mystic, be anything I like and most of all – be as I am REALLY, right here, right now?