Recently, I have been introduced to the phenomenon of toxic self-improvement. It might not be so hard to see this pan out in the workaholic, the fitness freak that teeters on extremism, or the parent who relentlessly pushes their kid to be better and better. What might be harder to recognize is the constant nagging we might feel to become better or how we’ve normalized this voice inside our head.
Here is how toxic self-improvement has manifested in my own life.
There is a critical voice as a mom that harps on my struggle with household tasks like finishing laundry and cleaning the cobwebs. It manifests as a wife when I feel unavailable or irritated, knowing the effort I put into my marriage is minimal. It manifests as a friend when I forget to text back or cancel plans. I know in all of these situations that I could be trying harder and that there is room for improvement. I also know that I have the capability to do better and that I know better. When I fail to meet these standards, I am essentially shamed into trying harder, and not enjoying the moment and the blessings and circumstances of where I am at.
I don’t want to totally write off the idea of self-improvement. However, it’s so important for me and my own functionality and happiness to understand just how saturated this concept is in our culture. Policies are built on this idea. It perpetuates systemic racism, can reward “getting ahead” over character and essentially reinforces the idea that some people are intrinsically lazy, instead of recognizing humanity. This is where self-improvement becomes toxic.
Self-improvement, when paramount, also disregards one of the most important things we need as humans – connection. It wasn’t too long ago that villages and communities really could not function without the coming together of their people. The collective work of people quickly surpasses the improvement of one person on their own. When we are so stuck on our own improvement, we miss out on the collective forward movement that we are meant to experience. We find ourselves lacking when we expect ourselves to do it all.
Social media furthers the idea that we need to be better, or more, or constantly improving to have value.
By seeing snippets of a perfect home, make-up or kids, we are disillusioned with reality. Even when we know social media paints an inaccurate picture of people’s lives, there are still feelings of shame or the idea that we need to work on “arriving” in certain areas. We are degrading our value to performance and productivity. The real kicker is that we will never arrive.
So, what is one to do when realizing that toxic self-improvement has become an issue in their life? Great question.
I’ve been chewing on this idea for quite some time and here are some things I’ve processed to help me reframe my thoughts:
1. Do something just for fun, and for no other reason. For me, it’s working with my plants and when they die, oh well. My value is not in being a perfect, all-knowing-plant person. Let yourself fail, and be okay with it.
2. Talk to yourself like you would talk to your own kids or yourself as a child. Use kindness. I recently heard the phrase, “Be all the way kind to yourself,” and it’s been a mantra of mine in those anxiety-ridden, performance-based, moments.
3. Make connection with others a priority. We so often feel alone in our self-improvement hustle that we forget our and others’ humanity. Humanity is full of success, failure, joy and despair. Ride the wave, and let others come with you.
4. Log off of social media. Take breaks. Slow Down. Be content with doing nothing.
If this concept doesn’t seem to resonate with you, that’s great. I am not trying to create issues in people who do not struggle with them. For those who do, know that you aren’t alone. Know that the constant need to better oneself robs us of the moments we could enjoy.