I recently came across a brilliant quote by the rocker, David Lee Roth. He said, “The problem with self-improvement is knowing when to quit.” It connects to another favorite phrase of mine which is “the violence of self-improvement.” It is a poignant phrase because it combines two things we rarely associate with one another—violence and improvement. Most of us believe that anything we can do to improve ourselves is a good thing, and we forget that violence can live at the extremes of anything, including the quest for improving one’s self.
For me, the violence of self-improvement shows up most clearly in the myriad of soul-searching, spiritually angsty, 100-ways-to-master-your-life-books I have delivered to my door on an embarrassingly regular basis. It only takes a moment of reading the titles, and you can safely deduce that I am searching for the magic key that will unlock the door to the hidden room of self-satisfaction. In fact, a brief internet search puts self-help products in the range of a $10 billion-dollar industry.
Clearly, I am not alone in my pursuit.
Take a moment to reflect on how your quest for self-improvement may be veering toward an unhelpful extreme. Do you buy more self-help books than you’ll ever be able to read in a lifetime? Do you download every “10-steps to happiness” list you come across in your news feed? Are you always on the hunt for the latest natural health remedy or meditation technique?
The violence of self-improvement begins when we become convinced that the solution to what ails us must be OUT THERE SOMEWHERE, and we find ourselves in a losing game of cat and mouse. Unfortunately, our frantic chasing easily dissolves into a feeling of shame—especially when we’ve tried a variety of solutions and find ourselves still feeling broken and imperfect.
As a meditation teacher and a therapist, I do self-improvement for a living. However, as much as I love the techniques I practice and teach, I know that nothing can save me or you from the pain of being human. The truth of the matter is there is nothing wrong with you when you are hurting, and there is no simple solution that is going to take away the pain.
So what are we to do?
This may sound like a contradiction, but I want you to continue on your path of self-improvement. It is a noble path, and it has brought much peace and healing to the world. But I also want you to begin to recognize the signs of when self-improvement shifts from being an act of self-love to an act of self-violence. The tipping point into self-violence looks different for each person, but ongoing tension, restlessness, self-critical thoughts, and shame are all indicators that you may need to ease up on your quest for self-improvement.
When you notice the violence of self-improvement creeping in, take some time to step into the warm and soothing bath of self-acceptance. The brilliant psychologist Carl Rogers once said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Let his words wash over you. Let your hungry heart soak them up. Let his words become a gentle mantra for your mind.
JUST AS I AM. JUST AS I AM. JUST AS I AM.
At the end of the day, self-acceptance must be the foundation for sustainable self-improvement. You cannot change what you are not first willing to accept, and this self-acceptance is always available in the simple choice to stop, notice, and embrace the whole of who you are—one moment at a time.
This post was originally published in February 2017.