Wellness

The Dark Side of Self-Improvement

As a company and as people, we spend a lot of time and energy exploring ways we can be better, feel healthier, and act more consciously—a worthy endeavor, at least at the outset. But is there an internalized message in the drive to constantly self-improve—one that says we can be never be good enough?

LA-based psychotherapist Shira Myrow sees a fine line between the drive for personal growth (healthy) and what she calls unconscious self-aggression (i.e. your destructive, judgmental inner critic). She uses mindfulness-based practices to help clients come to terms with their perfectionist tendencies, and approach their personal development (be it focused on physical health, relationships, career, etc.) from a place of self-compassion and self-acceptance.

The emphasis, for Myrow, is on self-care rather than self-improvement; this focus permeates her new meditation-focused platform and app, Evenflow. Drawing on a growing collective of mindfulness teachers with varied backgrounds (from psychotherapists to yoga teachers), and broken into practical content verticals, with meditations around eating, sleep, breakups, emergency situations like traffic—it’s almost akin to therapy on the go.

We talked to Myrow about the fact that there is no finish line in life, and asked her about the push-pull of accepting who we are while simultaneously driving toward the best versions of ourselves (without driving ourselves to compulsion or exhaustion). Her wise advice follows.

A Q&A with Shira Myrow

Q

Is the concept of self-improvement innately at odds with the idea of self-acceptance?

A

Yes and no. From a spiritual perspective—i.e. with an understanding that our essential being isn’t separate from the rest of the universe—you could argue yes. Pema Chodron, the great Buddhist teacher, speaks about self-improvement as a form of self-aggression—and by that, she means you fall prey to an inner critic who says you’re not intrinsically whole or complete in the present moment. Chodron asserts there is no need to “improve” oneself.

And yet, there is the day-to-day to contend with—our imperfect bodies and minds and messy lives that need attention and tending. All the limitations and issues we feel driven to change and improve upon are precisely the catalysts we need for growth and personal evolution; they invite us into a more conscious relationship with ourselves.

There is tension inherent in this paradox: The spiritual concept of wholeness and intrinsic completeness compared to the very human imperative to adapt, improve, and evolve. Ideally you have the capacity to hold this tension, or duality. I don’t see the two ideas in direct conflict; they can be complementary if we anchor our effort to improve in an intentional foundation of compassion.

When we stay true to that intention and keep it at the center of our endeavors, it’s easier to channel positive energy and go about change mindfully. If you care about your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being, listening to your inner critic isn’t a viable or healthy way to stay motivated in the long run. Wouldn’t it be better to be motivated to improve from a place of positive intention, like doing incredibly meaningful work or practices that give you joy? It’s moving from the value of self-improvement to the ethic of self-care.

“There is tension inherent in this paradox: The spiritual concept of wholeness and intrinsic completeness compared to the very human imperative to adapt, improve, and evolve.”

That said, I don’t think we come into that understanding of the paradox easily, and certainly not as young adults. The development into adult consciousness allows us to better tolerate the ambiguities and ambivalence we come up against when holding two opposite concepts in our minds. We learn to face our imperfections and limitations while still maintaining our spiritual identity: This is where true self-acceptance emerges from.

Q

Can you talk more about self-aggression? Can the inner critic be a motivating force for good?

A

Unconscious self-aggression can take the shape of the inner critic, the anxious mind, or the perfectionist. It can also express itself as self-hatred or self-loathing, especially in women. Essentially, it’s exerting a form of psychic violence towards yourself. If you can instead recognize critical thoughts like: “I feel so fat,” or “I’m so ugly,” or “I’m not enough,” as self-aggression or psychic violence, you can really see their punitive nature.

When we are young and undifferentiated, the inner critic can often motivate us through shame or guilt. Later, when we develop a stronger sense of self, we can start to identify the inner critic or perfectionist talking. But we can’t actually work with it until we have the ego strength to acknowledge the voice without letting it completely take over. Then we have a real choice in what we do.

“A healthy, conscious lifestyle is incredibly seductive on many levels, but the pursuit of it can foster a sense of rigidity, intolerance, and control.”

Q

What would motivate you to improve or change if you felt completely at ease and accepting of yourself and the status quo?

A

The quality and the intention in your motivation would shift. You would not be bringing a cruel, judgmental energy to your goals. “Self-improvement” wouldn’t be driving you to change as much as a commitment to “self-care” practices that anchor, nurture, and truly support you.

Q

When does self-improvement go too far as to be unhealthy or hopeless?

A

When you find yourself relentlessly chasing an idealized self or some kind of unattainable life. You’ll know because, for example, your mindset around exercise or eating takes on an obsessive quality. You may find yourself constantly comparing and judging yourself; and that energy can snowball into depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorders, and chronic low self-esteem.

Q

How do we avoid the illusion and pitfall of perfection, or the feeling that we can never be “healthy enough”?

A

A healthy, conscious lifestyle is incredibly seductive on many levels, but the pursuit of it can foster a sense of rigidity, intolerance, and control. The aspiration to live an enlightened life often triggers our inner perfectionist and drives us in ways that may not be in alignment with our real values. We may conflate the healthy desire for personal growth and development with a compulsive, relentless need to improve every aspect of our lives—whether it’s fitness and diet, relationships and career, or our spiritual and psychological growth. There is an internalized message in directives to be healthier and more conscious—in particular, one that is ever-present in advertising: We’re never doing or being or buying quite enough. That triggers the anxious, comparing mind. That’s where you need to be able to separate the chatter of the outside world from what you know to be true.

One of the easiest ways to separate the chatter is practicing mindfulness. Many of us have heard the term without really understanding what it is: A simple definition of mindfulness is the practice of bringing your attention to the present moment as you observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgment. It’s a very particular way of paying attention that allows space for not only more awareness to arise but insight as well. So, instead of immediately attaching to the chatter and identifying with it, you can take a pause to anchor yourself in the present moment, become curious, and then consciously decide how much validity to give something. Over time, you can learn to quiet down the chatter that isn’t useful or in line with what you value.

“There is an internalized message in directives to be healthier and more conscious—in particular, one that is ever-present in advertising: We’re never doing or being or buying quite enough.”

A conscious life isn’t one without suffering, conflicts, or problems. It just means we are present with ourselves. That’s the great shadow in this—we don’t eradicate our reactivity just because we’re on the path.

When we feel the tug of those perfectionistic tendencies arise within us, we need to be in conversation with it. For example, if we’re stuck at the airport and realize that there are no healthy food choices available, your inner health nut may be debating between eating something unhealthy or going hungry. That’s when you know the rigid, controlling aspect is in the driver’s seat and it’s time to step back and reflect.

Q

How does self-actualization relate to self-improvement?

A

Self-improvement can be more narrowly defined to encompass specific personal, often material goals. Self-actualization refers to the realization of one’s individual potential. Anything can be a doorway into it: the desire for self-awareness, purpose, meaning, spirituality, creativity, overcoming traumas and healing from the past. The great psychologist Carl Jung coined the term individuation, which is the transformational process of integrating all the different and often disparate aspects of the Self. I would add that this process can be a lifelong journey of self-discovery that includes self-improvement practices. The movement in individuation is not towards a perfectly evolved self that no longer has flaws and paradoxes, but towards a more expansive self-concept that allows for you to be as complex as you are, and to embrace your imperfections.

Q

What are a few things we could all be doing to practice more self-acceptance and self-care?

A

Every time you feel tempted to compare yourself with others or beat yourself up, that is the moment to bring some mindful awareness and loving kindness to yourself. In the beginning, if this is new to you, it will likely feel counterintuitive and even inauthentic. For many of us, self-compassion is not easy to cultivate. It may actually stir up feelings of deep unworthiness and vulnerability. So, it’s important to be patient, gentle, and curious with the process. Self-acceptance isn’t something that is borne out of force or will power. It emerges over time, very much like the process of planting seeds. Setting some time aside each day for mediation can greatly help to reinforce your intentions.

Self-care is very intentional, directed gestures of kindness and care that help us comfort and connect with ourselves. Self-care can also feel unnatural at first, especially if feelings of guilt, shame, and deficiency are what typically drive us to “take care of ourselves.” I love psychologist Tara Brach’s beautiful idea of “radical acceptance”: The “trance of unworthiness” that many of us are in is what hinders us from recognizing our innate value and worthiness. Radical acceptance of ourselves just as we are can pierce through it, and from there we can create conscious practices of caring for ourselves.

“Self-care can also feel unnatural at first, especially if feelings of guilt, shame, and deficiency are what typically drive us to ‘take care of ourselves.'”

Self-care practices can include a broad range of activity depending on what feels good to you when you are attuned to yourself. They can be restorative or dynamic, nurturing or relaxing. Walks and yin yoga are great for many. They can include experiences that take us outside of our daily routines, or practices that anchor and energize us. However, self-care isn’t a compulsive shopping spree or some form of escapism. Think deeply about what you need in the present moment.

Q

Any last advice for those of us with perfectionist friends?

A

Perfectionism can be its own form of tyranny and perfectionists tend to be incredibly rigid and hard on themselves as well as others. You need strong boundaries with perfectionists, but also compassion and understanding. That may feel challenging if you feel you can never measure up to them, or you think they’re judging you. If you feel judged or triggered—remind yourself that they are imposing their value system onto you; it’s not yours. You don’t necessarily have to revert to feelings of insufficiency or comparison. Also, pay attention if you have a tendency to be self-sacrificing or overly placating. Women in particular are heavily conditioned to do this and can find themselves agreeing to things without honoring their limits. Despite your good intentions and grand ambitions, sometimes, it’s better to say no in the spirit of accepting your limits.

Shira Myrow is a mindfulness-based marriage and family therapist and meditation teacher. Myrow is the founder of the LA-based Yale Street Therapy Group and curriculum director for Evenflow, a meditation platform and app.

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