For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to the world of self-improvement and personal growth. Not only do I find it endlessly interesting, I believe that part of my purpose in this life is to become the best, most authentic version of myself, whoever she may be. I don’t know about you, but this internal drive of mine has been amplified as of late. It is as if the forced introversion of the quarantine has revved up my desire to learn and grow.
There is good in this, as I have had more time and energy to devote to studying and learning all that I can about life coaching, mindset work, positive psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy. But there is also an inherent, and often overlooked, risk. Let’s call it self-improvement shame. It might look and sound something like this: “I’ll be better when I: exercise every day, drink a green smoothie every morning, meditate before I go to bed, read about self-help, listen to inspirational podcasts, and so on and so forth.” See the problem?
There is a baked-in assumption at work here that practically ensures we’ll feel badly about ourselves. It’s the narrative of “I’ll be better/more worthy/more loveable” when some goal is attained. The premise is that we are doing the work in order to fix something that is wrong with us. Then, when we inevitably fail to live up to our own self-improvement standards, we feel worse. The growth path on which we embarked in order to feel better and more aligned with our highest values has the opposite effect – we feel like failures and even experience a sense of shame around who we are and what we’ve accomplished (or not).
We can easily avoid this trap when we remember one critical truism: we are already whole. Simply by virtue of being here – in this world, living this precious life – we are worthy and complete. This can seem counterintuitive, yes? If we’re already so darn wonderful, why would we try to grow in any way in the first place? The answer lies in the simple fact that as humans, we are wired to look for meaning and fulfillment. Not out of a sense of lacking, but out of a sense of curiosity and inherent intelligence.
So many of us look for meaning and fulfillment outside of ourselves, in the trappings of what modern society tells us “success” looks like: money, possessions, celebrity, physical attributes. But somewhere deep inside we know that these external adornments do not make us more worthy or loveable. We know this because each time we attain one, another benchmark pops up, alluring us with the same lie that we’ll be happy, complete, worthy or whole when we hit the next goal. It’s like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.
The antidote to the “I’ll be happy when” tournament – which always ends in our defeat – is simple, though far from easy. It is the practice of self-compassion. Compassion asks that we treat ourselves with kindness rather than judgment. It is a discipline that teaches us to have our own backs, just as we would a dear friend. Many of us, myself included from time to time, have an inner dialogue that is far harsher and more critical than the tone we would ever take with a loved one, or even an acquaintance for that matter. Self-compassion asks us to slow down, acknowledge our inherent worth, and accept ourselves in all of our humanness. It rewrites our inner narrative away from shame and blame, into love and acceptance.
This was the conclusion of a 2015 study by researchers Arimitsu & Hoffman, published in the Journal of Cognition and Emotion (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2015.1078292). The study, whose findings were consistent with those of Dr. Kristin Neff, widely considered to be one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion, concluded that cultivating self-compassion was an effective strategy for reducing negative emotions, including shame. Thus, when we approach our own growth from a compassionate vantage point, we feel good about ourselves and our place in the world. And this is the only place from which growth is possible.
Sindy Warren is a mindfulness and mindset coach. For her Mindfulness Meditation guide or to sign up for her blog, go to www.bluetree-coaching.com.