Self-Improvement Shouldn’t Make You Miserable

I received a long, rather passionate email last week from a reader (let’s call her Q) who announced she was going to “quit saying I’m going to quit things… And be kind to myself instead.”

She went on to explain how the Quits she’s attempted in the past (smoking, eating badly, etc.) only left her feeling horrible when she didn’t manage to succeed at them, and she’s tired of beating herself up over that. For her, she explained, “vowing to quit and not following through is way worse on my soul than the thing I was trying to quit in the first place.”

My heart went out the instant I read her story. First, because beating yourself up and making yourself feel like shit is in direct conflict with the philosophy behind, and the point of, pursuing a Quit. And second, because I have a feeling she’s not the only person who’s felt this way after attempting a Quit or two of their own.

So, to her and to those of you who’ve ever felt like her, I wanted to respond with a few thoughts. Not because I’m some guru on a mountaintop who has all the answers or I feel the need to defend my blog’s central theme (if it’s not for you, then best wishes for your journey, wherever it leads you, and I mean that sincerely). But because I’m a human being who beats herself up plenty and I hate to see others making themselves miserable over things they don’t need to be making themselves miserable over.

I’m in the “let’s all make our lives awesomer” business, and in that spirit, I’m hoping this might help those of you who’ve ever felt like your attempts at self-improvement only made you feel worse about yourself.


Self-Improvement Should Be a Positive Thing

When you decide to Quit something, it should be because you’ve decided it isn’t a good thing to have in your life. That could mean a variety of things:

  • it’s inherently bad, like murder (definitely Quit murder if you’re into that)
  • it’s not good for your health (mental, physical or emotional)
  • it’s not good for your happiness (like a toxic relationship)
  • it’s a bad fit for your life and your priorities (it’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but it’s taking up time, energy or money you’d rather be spending on other things)

The act of Quitting — or resolving to remove something unwanted from your life — is an act of self-empowerment. It’s about freeing yourself, regaining control and clearing out space in your world for the things that do matter and that do make you happy. Quitting is meant to be a positive thing, not something that leaves you feeling punched in the gut.

The process of self-improvement, however you’re pursuing it, shouldn’t be one that involves self-loathing, blame or judgment; it should focus on celebrating forward progress, forgiving yourself for your missteps and reminding yourself that you’re striving for something (better health, more peace, etc.) rather than fighting against something. Fighting puts all your thoughts on the negative aspect of what you’re doing and drains your energy and your spirits, and ain’t nobody got the need for that.

That’s not to say that self-improvement — be it by Quitting, joining a CrossFit gym or whatever other method you choose — is easy. It’s not.

There will be times when it will suck, to be honest, because — as any good inspirational ‘80s movie montage has taught us — there’s no triumphant transformation without a bit of pain and sacrifice along the way. But overall, when you look back at your efforts from a “should I or shouldn’t I have?” viewpoint, the overwhelming answer should be, “I should have, and I’m glad I did. It was all so totally worth it.”

Self-improvement shouldn’t make you feel miserable. It should make you feel empowered, optimistic and excited. (Tweet!)

Taking that back to the level of Quits, your Quits are for you and your happiness, and their purpose is to make your life awesomer. A Quit that just makes you suffer needlessly is either a Quit you’re approaching the wrong way or a Quit you weren’t ready to commit to in the first place.


A #FAIL Does Not Equal Failure

In her email, Q talked about things like beating herself up every time she had a cookie when she was trying to stay away from junk food. No wonder she found it so hard to follow through on her goals. When you slip up — and you will slip up, because you are human — you can’t dwell on how much you suck and weak you must be, because that just escalates one unfortunate fail from the level of “Crap, that was a dumb mistake” to “Fuck me, I’m never going to get this right so I might as well give up now.”

Self-improvement isn’t an art form you master in an instant and then are perfect at forever after. It’s a messy, up-and-down journey of learning how to live differently than you’ve been living to date. There will be screwups. That’s inevitable. What matters isn’t that you screw up, but what do you when it happens.

While it’s helpful to examine your mistakes and learn how you can avoid making them again in the future, they don’t mean it’s Game Over for you. They don’t mean it’s time to pull the ripcord. Forgive yourself, resolve to do better, then shake it off and keep moving forward. Always focus on the forward.


Your Goal Must Come From Within

A particularly telling line in Q’s email was, “The oddest thing about my journey through life is that I have realized I am the biggest quitter of things that do not drive me even when they should.”

Bingo. She just landed on the key to why her efforts haven’t stuck. It’s not because she’s a “failure,” “lazy,” a “hot mess” or any of the other perjoratives she used to describe herself (and for which — if you’re reading this, Q — I virtually extend my hand through your computer screen and smack you, lovingly, upside the head).

The motivation for self-improvement needs to come from within. In the case of Quits, your Quits should be a statement of what you value in your life and what you no longer want to deal with, suffer from or be held back by. That’s where you find the strength to follow through on them even when things get rough. That’s where you find the motivation to push on and the determination to get up each time you stumble. That’s what makes them feel “worth it” to you.

If you vow to Quit something simply because you feel like you ought to, or someone else has told you that you should, it won’t stick. It can’t stick. Because change only happens when it’s something you’ve realized, deep down in your heart and your gut, has to happen. If you’re not feeling that, or if you don’t truly want it for yourself, then drop it like it’s hell-hot and redirect your energy towards something you do want.

Because that whole “self” part of self-improvement? It’s kind of an important keyword.


Speaking of Dropping It Like It’s Hot…

I am tickled friggin’ fuschia by the fact that this little personal experiment of mine has touched so many strangers and some now-friends. I’m constantly amazed and impressed by all the readers who’ve declared their own Quits over the years, and I’m humbled to think that a philosophy I developed to get myself through some tough challenges has turned into something that still has people emailing me to tell me how it’s impacted their lives (in whatever manner).

But Quitting is one of approximately 122 million* methods to improve your life. (*Total B.S. number. Actual number is closer to infinite.)

If you want to improve your health, you can take up spinning or give up cookies or devote yourself to the Paleo lifestyle. If you want to go farther in your career, you can take some online courses or hit up every networking event in the area or speak to your boss or HR team to see if they offer any staff training and management workshops you can attend. Or you can quit your job altogether. Or not. There is no One Right Way.

If framing things as Quits helps you rid yourself of some of the crap and nonsense in your life, then go forth and Quit like a motherfucker. If it doesn’t, go forth and rock whatever approach speaks to you. The same goes for every self-improvement book, webinar, speaker, coach and program that claims it has the answer to making your life better

If it helps you, then run with it. If it doesn’t, find what does.

Life is too short to chase a path that isn’t serving you. Find what serves you, and ditch everything else. Quits included.

Be honest: Are your efforts at self-improvement making you feel better, or worse? And if they’re making you feel worse, what can you do instead?

Image:  Trekking Rinjani / Flickr


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  • Melissa Zehner

    This is your best post yet! It’s something that needs to be said, but no one has actually been saying it. Self-improvement certainly should be a positive thing. I associate it with making changes that will make me happier and healthier. It’s a bummer that so many people instead associate it with the idea that they aren’t good enough or are somehow broken. Kudos to you for clarifying why we should embrace self-improvement.

    • Thanks, Melissa. I couldn’t have said it better myself: “It’s a bummer that so many people instead associate it with the idea that they aren’t good enough or are somehow broken.”