The Trap of Self-Improvement
For years I put my focus on improving myself. I was so aware of what I considered to be my multitudinous flaws and shortcomings that it seemed the only reasonable thing to do was to was work all the time to eradicate those qualities. And work I did: therapy, meditation, moving into an ashram for three years, and, of course, reading, reading, reading. And while I firmly believe all that effort wasn’t wasted, I also believe I was ultimately not focusing on the most powerful thing.
I now believe that one of the most powerful, meaningful things we can do in our quest to be the best person we can, to live life in alignment with our deepest values, is to focus on our strengths and what we have to offer. We tend to naturally do this with other people, perhaps our spouse, best friend, child, or colleague. We’ll say, “Sure, you might not be the best __________ but you’re so good at _________. That’s what really matters.”
We look for their strengths, their abilities, and talents—and we speak to those qualities. Somehow, when it’s someone else, it just seems natural to address their strongest qualities and abilities. This doesn’t mean we are blind to their shortcomings or the places they could improve; we just don’t focus on those. We take a broader view and see all of who they are.
But with ourselves, yikes, it is a completely different story. We will beat ourselves bloody, ignore every accomplishment, and focus on the one piece we never seem to fix to our satisfaction. We obsess about being too fat, too thin, too critical, to passive, too, too, too. We relentlessly compare ourselves to others and are always falling short.
What if, instead of treating ourselves so harshly, we decided that we would focus on our strengths? What if, instead of constantly telling ourselves that we are broken and in need of repair, we put our attention on what we want to contribute?
Imagine how different our day-to-day experience would be if our focus went outward towards what we can do rather than turning inward towards what we can’t. Or at least can’t do well enough to satisfy our impossible quest for personal perfection.
And in case you think that letting go of the relentless pursuit of self-improvement means giving up, eating pints of ice cream and watching endless reruns of Jersey Shore, let me say that I flatly reject that notion. It’s one thing to want to quit smoking, lose the weight your doctor keeps telling you to lose, or stop being on Twitter all day long. There are objective benefits to those things. It’s one thing to be curious and explore subjects of interest and different ways of doing things. It’s another thing entirely to decide that who you are isn’t enough—or that you are so deeply flawed that only unceasing effort will get you to the very low bar of “acceptable.”
Much of Western society tells us that we need to be better and have more. But that eternal search for better and more often keeps us from making the contribution that we could make if we would just stop thinking of ourselves as slackers or in dire need of improvement. Instead, when we do what we can, do what we’re good at, and offer our strengths, we gain perspective. The perspective to recognize that it’s when we are being who we are and doing what we can, rather than worrying about who we aren’t and all that we can’t do, that we can make a positive difference.
So the next time you find yourself thinking that you need to improve this or that about yourself, reconsider. Maybe this is the moment to figure out what you, with all your flaws and foibles, have to offer right from where you are. Maybe the point of life is to be generous and to add our unique gifts to the gifts of others. Maybe the tapestry created from all our offerings is exactly what the world needs now.
Omkari Williams is a writer and life and creativity coach who specializes in helping people design meaningful lives. She began her professional life as an actor and worked coaching Fortune 500 executives and politicians on presentation skills before beginning her own coaching practice. She is a firm believer in the power of story to heal the world by building the bridges that connect us to each other. A native of New York City, she now lives in Savannah, GA. You can connect with her at omkariwilliams.com.