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Leaving the cult of self-improvement

Image by Jose Antonio Alba from Pixabay

We live in a culture that idolizes self-improvement. This is true in our personal lives, where many of us have shelves of self-improvement books, set goals for improving ourselves through diet or exercise or study, and spend money on products and services on a regular basis that are designed to make us look better, feel better, and act better.

It’s also true in most of our jobs, which feature regular review processes to tell us how we are doing and where we need to improve. We get feedback from others about what we need to do better and set up improvement plans for how to address our inadequacies so that we can measure our progress the next time around.

All in all, it makes us a culture that is very hard on ourselves and very hard on others. We think we are doing people favors by letting them know all the ways that they don’t measure up. (After all, how will they know what to focus on improving if we don’t tell them where they are wrong?) We beat ourselves up with our self-criticism and our endless goals to try to improve. And it’s such a fundamental part of our cultural assumptions that we don’t even notice we are doing this most of the time. And if we do notice, we don’t think to question it.

In my last post, I mentioned several of the books that I have been reading lately, and the impact that these have had on me. Brennan Manning and Anita Moorjani both emphasize the fact that we are loved just as we are. When I read that, I focused on the idea of being of loved so unconditionally.

While I heard the part about the importance of just being myself, my mind automatically moved into self-improvement territory: “I need to figure out what my authentic self is so that I can develop ways to emphasize the strengths of my authentic self while still working to accept my faults (while still improving in those areas, of course) and eliminating any inauthentic parts of self that I’ve developed along the way.”

Did you notice what I did there? I couldn’t even think about being myself without turning it into a self-improvement plan.

But as I’ve been reading the many tributes to Brennan Manning in the wake of his death last Friday, something else caught my attention. In tribute after tribute, I read people talking about how he was just himself. In one I read about how he sometimes wore clothes that didn’t quite match and was not concerned by it. OK, so I can learn (and have learned to some degree) to live with my odd little quirks. Goodness knows, I’ve got plenty of them, but they don’t really hurt anyone, so learning to live them feels doable.

Many of the tributes talked about his openness in sharing his struggles with alcoholism and the damage this did to his marriage. I’ve got my own big struggles that I’ve learned to be more open about: my failed marriages, my struggles with depression, my struggles with faith. I can own these things and “accept” them, while still working really hard to change and improve in those areas, of course. In fact, the very telling of these struggles is a way to highlight my self-improvement efforts most of the time by showing how I’m still trying to be better.

But then I read the following in a tribute by Donald Miller and haven’t been able to get it out of my head: “We got together more than a few times. He could be warm and open for one meeting, then cold and crotchety for the next. He taught me I could be the same, that I could be myself.”

Whoa! This puts a whole new spin on the idea of being myself. I have that same tendency to be warm, generous, and open some days, and cold, crotchety, and critical on others. What if being myself means being ok with that? What if being myself means letting go of all of my self-improvement plans that aim toward being sweetness and light at every moment of day all the time?

I know I’m on to something important when everything in my being rebels against this idea. Even thinking about being ok with expressing my moods as they are kicks up all kinds of voices that want to limit that.

It can’t possibly be ok to be cranky now and then! I should always work harder at being kind and generous and thoughtful of other people’s feelings! It would be selfish to just be in whatever mood I’m in! I should work harder at always being grateful and mindful and calm and collected! Letting my moods show can’t possibly be ok! I know how flawed I am (and have lots of input from others to validate that), so I know that just being like I am is a problem! I should do better!

I’ve learned that the word “should” is always a place where I need to pay more attention, and there are an awful lot of “shoulds” in that self-talk. Those “shoulds” tell me that I’m still very caught up in the cult of self-improvement. The thought of not being on that endless treadmill of self-improvement sounds blasphemous, which means that’s exactly what I need to stop and look at.

The more I’ve pondered, the more I am becoming convinced that I’ve gotten the gospel wrong. I’m starting to think that the gospel is not about another way to self-improvement; it’s about a way of transformation. And I don’t think that those are the same thing. Self-improvement is never-ending hard work; transformation is a gift of grace.

In times when I feel loved, valued, and like I’m making a genuine difference in the world, I tend to naturally act kinder, more generous, more loving toward others because I am filled enough for good things to overflow. When I feel criticized (by self or others), inferior, and defective, I tend toward cranky, impatient, critical, and unkind behaviors toward others.

Ironically, all of my self-improvement efforts tend to focus on my faults, leading me toward the latter feelings and behaviors. I think that what Manning is trying to tell me is that letting go of all those self-improvement efforts and letting myself feel loved and accepted just as I am is going to fill up my cup so that it naturally overflows with good things for others.

Does that mean that we should never work on improvement or that we can do whatever we want? No, practice of virtue is always good. Just like practicing my writing makes me a better writer, so practicing good behavior makes it come more naturally to me.

Self-control still matters. Treating others the way we would want to be treated still matters.

But I think that perhaps I do need to dethrone self-improvement as my ultimate goal and focus and spend more time relaxing into God’s love for me as I am (even on my cold, cranky, and critical days … or maybe especially on those days).

There’s a big difference between a desire for ongoing growth from a place of self-acceptance and never-ending self-improvement efforts at making myself “good enough.”

I’m beginning to think that maybe being myself is not so much about finding anything, improving anything, changing anything, trying to be anything … but instead about letting all of that self-improvement mindset go. Maybe it’s less about all the trying and striving, and more about releasing into love.

What do you think? What role does self-improvement play in your life?

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  1. David Youngs

    I would just like to add a couple of comments to this interesting commentary. You’re right on many fronts; we are continually ‘coached’ to identify weaknesses and to improve on these. But, I’ve recently seen/heard (sorry, don’t remember exactly who/when) that perhaps we should look to leverage on our strengths. Identify what you are good at doing and/or things that you find rewarding. Look to use those for the enhancement of mankind.
    You also mentioned that it’s important to have realized that you/we are loved ‘just as we are’. That is indeed true, especially when we (as I have recently) realize that God’s loving grace is open and available to everyone all the time. We only need to allow our human ‘self-will’ to accept this wonderful grace. When we do that, we know that we can be ourselves all the time.

    1. Thanks, David, for the comment! I have seen some of the strength-based programs, and I think that’s a great step in a positive direction. I know that I would do well to focus more on developing my strengths rather than my current focus, which is all too often on my faults and weaknesses.

      Isn’t it funny how hard it is to allow ourselves to accept God’s wonderful loving grace for us? I suspect that as I learn to trust that it is true, I will find it easier to accept myself as I am. I’m still struggling to fully believe it thus far. It seems to good to be true and goes against prior conditioning. But I’m learning!

  2. Hi Kenetha, a great post that poses many questions, your depth of understanding is quite deep in this area. I can see you have pondered over it for some time. I think the word weakness should be removed from out language and replaced with
    “Undeveloped Strength” are language is just far too judgmental.

    1. Thank you so much, Athena! You are very kind! I like your suggestion of “undeveloped strength” – what a great substitution!

  3. “I know I’m on to something important when everything in my being rebels against this idea” – awesome reflection, in general, Kenetha!

    And on this matter, specifically, I DO have to say that being with wonderful people who have their cranky days is actually very reassuring to me. It’s as if it gives me permission to be cranky, too. One of my current experiments is to see how far I can go in wiping out “should” from my spoken vocabulary. I don’t always remember to sensor it, but still – the effort is an interesting experiment to see when I am most tempted to use the word.

    Thanks for the always-thought-provoking reflections!

    1. Thank you! :) I must say, dear Callie, that I have never seen you manage to display even the slightest hint of crankiness, but if my crankiness gives you permission to be cranky too, then I’m very happy that I can help!!

      I’m also trying to eliminate the word “should” from my vocabulary, but it’s still a challenge. It pops up more often than I’d like in my self-talk that flies just under the radar …

      Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting!

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