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The Self-Improvement Trap and How to Avoid It

We live in a culture where personal development and self-improvement is encouraged, applauded, and even expected.

But here’s a question. With all of the time, money, and energy that we spend on improving ourselves, shouldn’t we be one of the happiest and most content groups of people on the planet?  

The great irony, though, is that for many people, the intense focus on all of this personal development, self-improvement, and unattainable perfection that has become so much a part of our culture creates more suffering, not less.

Our brains are wired to see the negative

A big part of the problem is that our brains have an inherent negativity bias. We are wired to pay attention to and remember things the negative rather than the positive. This helped us survive as a species, but it can work against us when what we are noticing and remembering are our own perceived imperfections and failings.

Our brains also have what is known as a “default network” that is active when we are not engaged in a task. In this mode, our brains comment on everything and compare ourselves to others. And because of our negativity bias, all the commenting and comparing usually goes no place good and the more we do, the more habitual it becomes.

And you can thank the neurochemical cortisol for this.

When we are self-critical, it fires the same parts of the brain that fire when we feel punished or threatened. When we are faced with a threat – physical or emotional, external or internally generated – we release cortisol.

Cortisol makes us feel bad, but that is by design. The fear, worry, unease, or dread that it causes us to feel is meant to get us to take action. In this case, the action many of us take is to try and figure out what is wrong with us and how we can fix it.

The more we focus on the imperfections and the more self-criticism we engage in, the more threatened we feel, the more cortisol we release, and the more deeply entrenched our self-narratives of imperfection become. (See Anxiety – A Neurochemical Feedback Loop for more on this)

Self-improvement can become a vicious cycle

You know those spring-loaded stacks of plates in the cafeteria line, the ones where you take a plate off the top and the next one rises to the top? Working to eliminate our perceived faults and failings is a lot like that stack of plates. As soon as we think we have one habit or belief or way of interacting mastered, another one (or two or three) pops up.

This endless cycle of self-improvement can be addicting and exhausting, often worsening the very thing we are trying to accomplish – feeling better about ourselves. The more we analyze our imperfections the more we go looking for the products, tools, and techniques to fix them so we can finally feel good about ourselves. Often, though, the more work we do and the more awareness we gain, the more imperfections we find and the more “evidence” we have that they are true, and the harder we feel we must work.

And if all the awareness, analysis, and practices don’t make us feel better, often our deepest fears are confirmed: that we have a deep and fatal flaw that can never be fixed, because surely, if it could be fixed, it would have happened by now.

The advertising, self-help, and social media industries take full advantage of this. They are more than happy to highlight our imperfections and capitalize on our desire to fix them so we can feel happier. They make a lot of money and we get stuck in a trap.

A nervous system solution to breaking the cycle

The reason the plates keep popping up no matter how many ways we try to “fix” them is that it is not really about the plates themselves. It is about the feeling - the nervous system response - that we experience when we notice or think about our perceived faults and failings. And unless we can change our underlying nervous system responses, whatever we solve is likely to pop up somewhere else in a slightly different form. And the work can feel endless.

The bottom line is it is not about getting rid of the plates. It is about changing our relationship to them. Once we do, our perceived faults and failings become less emotionally charged. If we can see our less-than-perfect moments as opportunities for reflection and growth, then the plates are well, just plates. We have more choices and we can decide what we want to do with them rather than having the emotional reactivity run out lives.

And how to we solve the problem of emotional reactivity? By shifting the focus from what is going on in our heads to what is going on in our nervous systems. By learning concrete skills to interrupt the emotional responses and repattern our habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and reacting.

Here are a few techniques that can help get out of the self-improvement trap. They may seem simple, but practiced consistently, they can have a profound effect on well-being.

Shift your neurochemistry

When you are noticing a perceived imperfection, fault, or failing:

  • Place your hands on the center of your chest, one on top of the other and imagine giving your heart a hug.
  • Inhale to the count of 5 and exhale to the count of five. This breathing pattern is called coherent or resonant breathing and has been shown to calm the stress response and to create a harmonizing effect in the body.
  • Remember a time when you felt the opposite or when you were successful. Breathe that feeling into your heart as fully as you can.

When you fire up the neural pathways associated with a time when you had a positive experience, you interrupt the cortisol response and trigger the same feel-good neurochemicals that you felt when you had the experience in the first place.

What does your heart say?

One of the benefits of coherent breathing is that it can turn down the volume of the voice in your head so that you can hear the voice of your heart.

  • Place your hands on the center of your chest, one on top of the other and imagine giving your heart a hug.
  • Inhale and exhale to the count of 5
  • Once the mental chatter has calmed, ask yourself, “What does my heart say about this?” and then quietly listen for the answer.

How do you know when you are hearing the voice in your heart? The heart does not always speak in words. Sometimes it is a felt-sense awareness or just an inner knowing. And if it does speak in words, it is often just one or two, not a paragraph. It is not always easy to discern at first, but the more you practice the easier it gets.

Redefine Success

Each morning, think about your day ahead. What will it mean to be successful personally or professionally? Does it have to be doing everything perfectly 100% of the time? Or could it be doing well 80% of the time? What would your expectations be of someone else? And if you feel like doing well 80% of the time would be a reasonable bar to hit, then if something doesn’t go as well as you want, it can go into the 20% bucket. Notice how it feels to give yourself permission to do well 80% of the time.