Before I step on my soap box I want to go on the record here: I’m totally in support of the ambitious pursuit of self-betterment. I’ve devoted my career to it, and I’m pretty sure I single-handedly supported the treatment industry through the course of my twenties. I feel strongly that the cultural surge in our hunger for wokeness, mindfulness, meditation and healing is an unquestionably Good Thing. Okay, now that that’s been established, allow me to begin my rant.
I’ve got some beef with all the self-improvement noise flying around these days – I have about 14 Meditation podcasts stacked up in my library, and a disproportionate amount of guilt about the fact that I haven’t gotten around to listening to any of them. Eighty percent of my instagram feed is reminding me to be grateful, mindful, present or brave in every waking moment! In the quarantine, we’ve been pummeled with “inspirational reminders” of how we could take advantage of this downtime to learn a language, write a novel, pivot careers or take up the bassoon, but personal growth simply isn’t an authentic, realistic or even appropriate response to pandemic circumstances for everyone. We are positively saturated in content that gently reminds that we could be using this moment to grow — it’s a veritable swell of self-betterment! So…why aren’t we feeling better? I have a theory, but it requires a cliffs notes recap on psycho-emotional development. Bear with me here.
Whether we chalk it up to the myth of original sin or just some questionable parenting, many of us grew up feeling like we had something to apologize for. I was that kid (and am sometimes still that adult) who says “I’m sorry” constantly, unnecessarily, almost reflexively, as though an apology might neutralize whatever judgment could be hurtling my way. I lived in constant doubt of my worthiness. These days, I know to call that “shame.”
I was also that kid (and am frequently still that adult) with type-A tendencies, which I quickly discovered could be harnessed to compensate for that mysterious feeling of brokenness that gnawed away at me — after all, perfectionism is just another form of apology. Bake that in the pressure-cooker of adolescence and the result is a highly functional adult with a mental health combo-platter of shame-based perfectionism! Give me an “Amen!” if this sounds familiar.
This template is actually quite common for Westerners, and it primes us to be gullible consumers of the (highly marketable) lie that the stain of our human condition can be cured with the latest anti-aging serum, or by excluding whatever food group is being blamed for our “stubborn belly fat” this week. Thankfully, most of us have wisened up and we’re all pretty much on board with the idea that you can’t solve an internal problem with an external solution. We’ve all read enough Brene, meditated on enough Eckhart, and agreed with the Four Agreements enough to be clear that the only necessary ingredient for growth is our own internal work. However that shame-based perfectionistic drive to achieve is still calling the shots.
For many of us, “doing the work” has become a barometer for our goodness or badness, our worthiness or unworthiness, and in some cases our whole identities. We have become positively compulsive about striving for self-improvement!
I’m currently the mother of a newborn, and like many new moms, I have to get on the breast pump for fifteen minutes at a time about seven times a day. I usually use this time to clean out my inbox, but a quick perusal of a few online mommy forums alerted me to the fact that I’m apparently squandering a perfectly good opportunity to learn Italian, or coding, or stock trading in fifteen minute increments! There’s even a Breastfeeding Book Club where women read classic literature while pumping, and a meditation group for those that want to devote pumping time to mindfulness practices. That’s right, one can even over-achieve while lactating! As a new mom, I’m so tired that if I just manage to floss in that fifteen minutes I feel I deserve a parade. But my brain has asked me to consider the possibility that maybe I’m just being lazy. (Thanks brain!)
I’m not suggesting that our culture and messaging is getting too healthy, as though it’s a problem. Being gently pummeled with suggestions for positive self-talk or reminders to cultivate gratitude is certainly preferable to being inundated with advertisements that actively try to capitalize on our deepest fears of our unlovability and worthlessness, the problem is how we’re responding to it: somehow our minds can transform the former into the latter. Let’s not forget that our self-shaming brains are capable of weaponizing just about anything, including un-listened-to meditation podcasts, and the opportunity to associate sore nipples with Anna Karenena. Our cultural narrative that we must be milking every opportunity for self-betterment can trigger the shame-based achiever into anxious over-drive!
So here’s my take: I’m all for rigor in the area of personal development, however I’m also of the opinion that the ritual of checking out is part of a healthy relationship with “doing the work.” Besides, if we’re looking to erode the shame-based perfectionism we’re going to have to knock off the achieving for a bit anyway. Let’s spend some time not trying to learn, build or transcend anything, shall we? There’s therapeutic merit in a hard re-boot that involves zero self-betterment; committing to the couch for two full seasons of America’s Next Top Model challenges our perfectionism, making the experience an absolute sacrament! Will your over-achieving brain likely make some noise about the time you’re wasting? Without question. But unless we challenge this compulsive, perfectionist-driven mentality we are destined to blindly respond to it.
Our societal commitment to personal growth and evolution is admirable, but we have permission to take a break from pursuing it as a solution to our brokenness. Are you dreading that daily 3 minute meditation you assigned yourself when you were feeling ambitiously woke one afternoon? If you’re the shame-based perfectionist, you have plenty of experience beating yourself up for your dread, and kicking your own ass into keeping your commitment. But for brains like ours, striving isn’t heroic. Meditating simply to avoid the shame of not meditating defeats the purpose of meditating in the first place! For the shame-based perfectionist, tapping out can be an act of courage.
Courage is what’s required to challenge our fear of unworthiness, and while a rigorous silent meditation retreat is one opportunity to practice unraveling that belief system, I maintain that so is getting a little stoned, listening to a true crime podcast and eating four popsicles without ever once wondering whether you’re operating from your highest self!
Striving is taxing. Shame-based striving is abusive. We are allowed to dismiss the instinct to “do the work” when we suspect it’s merely showing up as an ambassador of shame. If we’re committed to transforming that shame, challenging our perfectionism and welcoming ourselves as we are, then taking intentional time off from the evolutionary pursuit is also part of the curriculum.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a date with my breast pump. The Bachelor is on.