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How “Bettering” Myself Made Me Worse

As an adolescent, flying under the radar truly becomes achievement for many young adults.

Photo credit Bodybuilding.com

As an adolescent, flying under the radar truly becomes achievement for many young adults. “I don’t belong here” is easily the most commonly uttered under-the-breath statement for those between the ages of 12–16. It certainly was for me.

Everyone around me seemed so sure of themselves. I, like most young people, just wanted to fit right in. I wasn’t out to cause any problems. I wasn’t looking for attention, validation, or any sort of praise. I just wasn’t happy with myself and I couldn’t bear anyone actually knowing that. I knew that something needed to be done, I just didn’t know what. Reinvention was imminent but by what means, I didn’t have a clue. A craft, hobby, or “thing” of mine surely would throw the scent somewhat off of the trail, I told myself.

Unfortunately for me, the trial and error process yielded much of what that process is about: errors. I had made it a decade past that 16-year old cutoff I gave myself and still, no answers. I yearned for purpose, meaning, significance, anything to show me there was more to life for me than simply being half-decent at sales or run-of-the-mill management.


We all want our lives to have meaning. We want to make an impact and leave our mark on the world in some positive fashion. At the time, I felt that how others viewed me was at the source of real meaning. If I could only show people I’m becoming better, then they might accept me; need me, rather.

Enter personal development.

In psychology, there’s something called the “progress principle” which basically states the fundamental need for progress in a human being’s life. If a person makes progress, everything from their mood to their level of life satisfaction is elevated. Personal development, as I found out, is centered around stretching, growing, and advancing. It seemed so perfect. Not only will others appreciate me for getting invested in such a good cause, but it will keep me from getting depressed because I’ll always make progress. I had finally found my “thing”.

This “thing” was going to solve two problems for me: 1) social acceptance and 2) self-acceptance. These were big problems of mine, indeed but not nearly as big as the problems I ended up creating for myself as a result of embarking on a journey down this road. I had no idea what constant reading, listening, watching, attending, etc. was really going to do for me. What I found was far nastier than I could have ever imagined.

I misinterpreted what personal development was really about. It wasn’t about me pushing myself beyond my limits, acquiring vast knowledge to share or even become a better human being so that I could help others do the same. And it damn sure wasn’t about me “finding myself”. It wasn’t about any of that at all. What was supposed to bring me fulfillment, meaning and freedom ended up bringing me the opposite: judgment, confusion and imprisonment.

I would judge others for participating in activities that I felt yielded no purposeful return while I locked myself in my room to read a book I didn’t want to read and to this day, probably don’t remember. My guidance system that was aimed to become clearer and clearer by the day was become foggier by the hour. Finally, I had so distinctly defined myself by taking ownership of this “thing” that I couldn’t step out of it. I mean, I could but what was I going to do now? Everyone has seen me embody this sense of betterment and human potential. I can’t let them see me balk now. In a word, I was trapped.

What was at the root of all this, though? What was I not getting?

I dropped the ball by thinking “personal” development meant “me” development. All this self-inflicted pain, suffering and sacrifice I was creating on a daily basis was only to advance myself. What a flat ending to such a culminating story arc. I preached servant leadership and focusing on others almost daily but all I did was preach. I didn’t practice.

Why?

Because practicing serving others meant exposing myself to potential harm and the very element of rejection I was gravely attempting to avoid. The thought never crossed the prefrontal cortex of my brain. All my decisions were based around how I would be protected and served.

It was then where I came across a quote by Viktor Frankl that summed up how horribly inaccurate the charting of my course was:

“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”

All this time I had been pursuing this so sought-after happiness. I was so wrapped up in the result, so focused on what I was getting that I missed the entire purpose of reinventing myself. If necessity is the mother of invention, then I needed to change for the greater good. I was self-serving and self-absorbed, staying in my head all day long focused on my crap. My crap, and nothing else.

Contrary to Will Smith’s movie, I don’t believe you can deliberately pursue happiness. The feeling that’s experienced through whatever goal or achievement one aims for is temporary. As Frankl says, happiness is a by-product. What does last however, is change. Change in understanding, beliefs, and character development. When we grow in maturity, decision-making, consistency and overall strength, lasting growth takes place. I had to shift the focus for what it was. I had been working in the sewers but immune to the smell.

Take it from someone that had to find out the hard way. Humanity needs you. Humanity needs me. We need each other. Whether you focus on yourself or not, you will be just fine. In fact, I’ve found the less you focus on yourself, the better off you ultimately are. Everyone reading this right now has the capability to move, touch and inspire anyone at any given moment.

Identifying your “self” as an individual will yield individual-level results.

Identify yourself as a cause, a movement, the world — well, why don’t we found out?

Originally published at medium.com

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