Self-improvement is embracing your messy, imperfect life
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It’s the time of year for reinventions – or, perhaps more accurately, preparing for reinventions. For buying the diet book, drawing up the new morning routine, bookmarking the therapists’ websites or purchasing the storage cabinets for the soon-to-be-perfectly-organised house. As with all attempts at personal transformation, at new year or otherwise, this is the fun part. You get to experience all the excitement of becoming an entirely different person, without having yet had to put in the effort – and without having failed. Like untrodden early morning snow, the vision of who you’ll become remains pristine. Usually, though, something inside you knows the truth: in a few days’ time, the whole thing will have turned into unpleasant grey slush.

Personal reinventions fail partly for the obvious reasons: you set your goals too high; or your existing obligations at work or home get in the way; or you find (who could have imagined it?) that the unimpressive level of self-discipline you’ve demonstrated for your entire life until this moment can’t magically be tripled overnight. But there’s also a deeper problem with quests for wholesale transformation, which explains why they rarely work as intended – and why, as 2022 begins, embracing the existing version of yourself, with all its messiness and imperfections, might be the most transformative thing you’ve ever done.

The core of the trouble is that schemes for constructing a New You – whether in every area of life, or just one major one, such as your relationship with your children, or your physical fitness – are always devised by the Old You, who by their own admission has some pretty glaring issues. (Otherwise why would you bother to envision a new one?) You’ve got no good reason to trust this dubious character’s thoughts about reinvention; indeed, it’s likely they’re using what looks like “reinvention” to reinforce old hang-ups instead.

And so, for example, your vow to become more productive this year might just stem from your old belief that you’re obliged to fulfil every demand made by those around you, when a better way forward might be to start strategically letting a few people down. Likewise, your intention to make this the year you find your soulmate might simply represent your conviction that you don’t have what it takes to cope on your own. Even if it works, the so-called reinvention will only end up entrenching the status quo.

“No one awakens in the morning, looks in the mirror and says, ‘I think I will repeat my mistakes today’ or, ‘I expect today I will do something stupid, repetitive, regressive and against my best interests,’” writes the Jungian psychoanalyst James Hollis. “But frequently, this replication of history is precisely what we do.”

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One consequence is that while you’ll fail to pull off a total transformation of your personality – that would entail the impossible feat of somehow jumping outside your own life – you probably will end up feeling worse about the life you have. “Focusing your mind on an imagined future where you’re someone different makes your now-self inevitably ‘less-than’,” says Jocelyn K Glei, host of the Hurry Slowly podcast, who recommends using the new year to take stock of the preceding year’s transformations instead.

The alternative to reinvention – making a wholehearted commitment to accepting who you already are – is liable to sound horribly cheesy, or at best like a matter of settling for a mediocre life. But as the celebrated psychologist Carl Rogers famously noted, the very opposite is the case: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” When you no longer imagine you must transform yourself, in order to justify your existence on the planet, you’re finally able to do so, in small ways and large. The stakes are lower, now that your self-worth no longer hangs in the balance.

“There’s a quiet power in forgiving our flaws, missteps and perceived shortcomings,” says Madeleine Dore, author of I Didn’t Do the Thing Today: Letting Go of Productivity Guilt, out this month. “Often when we accept ourselves, we’re more likely to get the best from ourselves, because we’re better placed to look at what we need to thrive, rather than change.”

The psychotherapist Bruce Tift suggests a thought experiment: imagine whatever issue you struggle with now – the trait in yourself you wish you didn’t possess, the behaviour in which you wish you didn’t engage – persisting to the very end of your days. What if you’ll always be something of a procrastinator? What if you never entirely lose your tendency to lash out at others when upset at yourself?

When I run this experiment on myself, I feel deflated at first. Hold on – you mean I’ll never get to the part of life that’s problem-free? But then comes a sense of a burden being lifted. What a relief: I get to drop that stupid fantasy and focus on the real world, which is where real changes can happen. The self-help writer Mark Manson describes how this might work in the context of social anxiety: “Paradoxically, accepting that you’re just not a confident person and you’re always going to feel a little off around other people will begin to make you feel more comfortable and less anxious around others. You won’t judge yourself, and then you’ll feel less judged by them as well.”

There’s a kind of defeat that needs accepting here: a willingness to concede that, by the perfectionistic standards to which you’ve been holding yourself, you have already failed. There’s no going back. You’ll never unwaste the time you tell yourself you’ve wasted, or undo the bad things you’ve done. Which is great, because it means you get to stop trying to evade the unavoidable mess of existence and get stuck in to a few worthwhile and pleasurable activities instead.

The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki nailed the matter when he told his students: “Each of you is perfect just as you are – and you could all use improvement.” Yes, it’s a paradox. You’ll just have to deal with that, too.

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2 Comments

  1. This article resonates with me, but I don't think it would have when I was in my twenties. It's the kind of thing you come to realize after longer years as an adult and you see patterns play out in radically different life contexts, and then you start to grok who you really are in ways that aren't available when you've been an adult for less time then you were a child.

    What I've learned about procrastination and escapism is that a lot of it is driven by neurotic feedback loops involving some meta-narrative I have about myself. But narratives are not reality, and while I'm busy overthinking those things I'm no use to myself or anyone else. Some of these tendencies are hard-wired in me, but by recognizing the pattern I can nudge myself back towards the present moment in which I am not perfect, but occasionally do good things.

  2. I wholeheartedly disagree with this defeatist attitude, which is supposed to magically lead to change more than actually planning and actioning chance itself.

    Nowhere in life change happens without trauma. Get good at trauma and you'll get good at life.

    I suggest to learn one's own limits through suffering and systematically repeated failure. It's the only way to build not only a map of current yourself, but also a trail towards your future self.

    Time is ticking, memento mori, the beatings will continue until morale improves.