The Dark Side of Self Improvement

Two common pitfalls and how to overcome them.

Self-improvement is the name of the game in the 21st century. Almost all stories we hear involve some form of inspiration for self-improvement. Through the cliche rags-to-riches story or bad-employee-to-successful-entrepreneur story, we’re sold the dream of self-improvement.

Yet, rather than inspiring us, these stories make us believe there’s something wrong with us. That we should also be having a side-hustle or taking freelancing clients aside from our day jobs. That we should have multiple streams of income and should squeeze every moment of our day ‘hustle’.

This feeling gives rise to a strong impulse to “fix” whatever is wrong to consider ourselves as worthy of success of any kind. Most self-improvement stems, therefore, from a place of unworthiness. And this feeling of inadequacy is crippling and debilitating.

Back in college, before even considering starting my own business, I was bombarded by quotes like “Do you have what it takes?” or “The real failure is to be average.” This culture instilled in me self-doubt from the get-go.

In order to prove to myself that I too can be successful, I started working as much as I could in a day. If I was dead tired at the end of the day and completed everything on my list, I would call that day a success. (Of course, that never happened).

Even though I made steady progress on my goals, I doubted myself every step of the way. “Will I make it?” was a constant thought at the back of my mind.

More than a year into this life, I realized I’d stepped into the dark side of self-improvement as Suzanne Eder describes in her TED talk.

After managing to come into the light, I saw many others around me caught in the darkness. I realized that the problems Eder talks about are not easily spotted when you’re still in a state of desperation.

This is an attempt to throw some light on those problems and snap you out of the dark side of self-improvement.

Problem #1: The Wrong Direction of Searchlight

Whenever we find a problem in our life that we believe needs to be fixed, we tend to look outside for solutions. In college, I knew traditional education and corporate jobs wouldn’t give me what I’m looking for.

On looking outside, I realized that there was another glamorous option of entrepreneurship, which people put on a pedestal. Other startup founders were treated with respect, especially if a young one made it big. I wasn’t chasing the money and fame. Yet this does not change the fact that the goal was not my own to start with.

Similarly, once we spot a hole in our soul, it’s natural to look around us to know how to fill it. This is why you often see people taking the profession of their parents or elders only to realize years or decades later that it isn’t the right path for them.

In this process, we adopt a path foreign to our inner longings while still believing that it’s our own. Following someone else’s path feels hollow and disempowering. Many of us ignore that feeling of hollowness because we’re not in tune with our feelings and intuitions.

So, even though we want to improve ourselves, we instead put a cloak of others’ goals, dress them up as our own, and aim to achieve them in a set period of time. No wonder we feel unhappy or apathetic going down that road.

Problem #2: Obsession With the Goal

Once we embrace a goal not suited to our own being, we make our life all about that goal. It can be getting a new job, earning a certain amount of money, getting into a university, and so on.

Bit by bit, we start obsessing over our goal every waking moment. As long as we’ve not achieved it, we feel inadequate. Like an incomplete puzzle that we hope to complete post achievement.

Invariably, we compare ourselves to the endpoint. More often than not, the comparison is morbid and makes us feel we’re not moving fast enough.

In other words, we give our goals power over our happiness. We block ourselves of satisfaction and happiness until we reach the goal. The journey becomes an endless array of disappointment, hopes, fears, and doubts.

An even tougher pill to swallow is the fact that reaching the goal will also not give you the happiness you seek. For as long as you’re on the dark side of self-improvement, there’s always something to “fix.”

This turns us into achievement-hungry zombies who have lost all touch with themselves, blindly going with what the world feels is right for them.

There’s a Way Out

For almost two years, I dabbled with the idea of having my own startup. No, I wasn’t sitting in my room making business plans on a whiteboard. I actually went out and built multiple SaaS products out of which one took off.

A few months after that, when a particular funding deal didn’t materialize we were back to the struggling phase. And the advent of Covid-19 cut off whatever limited hopes we had.

This was the time for me to look within. To 1) Reverse the direction of my searchlights, and 2) To explore, be satisfied with what I’d done, and not beat myself up for not achieving a goal incongruent with my desires.

Using practices like meditation, I learned to notice my feelings and use them as information to decide what I wanted to do. This led me to write online which I’d given up in favor of other projects in my life.

I discovered what kind of life would be right for me. In hindsight, the moment I stopped confining myself with superficial goals, things started to flow.

I got the opportunity to work with startups where I could apply my skills and still pursue writing and other projects in life. I was much happier, accomplished more, and worked less than I did before. I was no longer killing myself trying to achieve an arbitrary goal.

So if you’re seeking self-improvement here’s what you should do to not fall on the dark side:

  1. Look inside: Take time to see what you really want. Don’t jump from project to project in life without questioning where you’re going. Pause, reflect, and redirect regularly.
  2. Be happy now: Don’t wait for something to happen to be happy, because it never will. Either you’re happy right now or not. It doesn’t depend on anything outside of yourself.
  3. Lead with self-love instead of self-judgment: Stop thinking that there’s something wrong with you. A bud doesn’t think it needs to “fix” something for not being as good as the flower. It just takes its time and flourishes to its full potential.

There’s nothing wrong with us to fix.

Slow down, listen to your inner guidance, and don’t box yourself in others’ way of doing things. Of course, you can learn from others, but you don’t have to copy their plan and throw your feelings and intuition out of the window.

Don’t try self-improvement if you think you lack something. Do it because you want to grow and become the best version of yourself not of someone else.

Finally, remember — we all have what it takes because we all are what it takes.

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Written on May 20, 2021