September is “Self-Improvement Month.” But modern self-improvement has become a form of medieval self-flagellation, a clever way of allowing us to shame ourselves without actually feeling shame, says Emily Rapp.
If I had known September was “Self-Improvement Month” when I was 16, I would have been elated, although it’s possible that this is a moniker that post-dates the early ’90s when I was a teenager. At the time I was deeply committed to the process of change (and what about change is NOT self-improvement? Quip the magazines and pseudo-psychological analysis of talk shows) on a daily basis: I reduced my body until it hovered around 90 pounds, I wrote in my “Jesus” journal, in the hopes that this would render morality a more graspable and achievable concept, I did my homework early. I was a so-called modern girl “improving” myself into a popular 18th century notion of what a woman should be: small, “good,” obedient.
Of course, self-improvement has a much different ring to it these days. Now we have exercises, versus the quizzes in the women’s magazines of the ’80s, at the end of which you could determine “what kind of friend are you?,” and “are you ready to be a good girlfriend?” I’ve tried some of these in an effort to improve myself, boost my self-esteem, set goals (life, work, love, etc.).
Some of these pull-out pieces involved making a big circle in the center of the page (that’s you!), and then drawing interlocking circles of people, connections, interests, desires. Lots of bubbles of potential, waiting for you to reach out and grab them! In others, you made several lists of goals that you wished to achieve and then a reward (not food related! Never!) you would give yourself if you met this goal. Others suggested that you write weight-loss goals (with encouraging words following on a separate line), and taped these to your bathroom mirror, where you would be reminded every day of what you might look like when you had improved.
Self-improvement is clearly exhausting in a world where just about everything else is as well. And yet this trajectory of meeting one’s potential is as old as the world. Aristotle believed that life was actually about potential itself; that the point of living was to transition and evolve from the acorn to the tree.
But modern self-improvement has become a form of medieval self-flagellation, a clever way of allowing us to shame ourselves without feeling…shame. Shame, of course, being the only learned emotion. It is not primal; it is not “natural.” It is part of interacting with and surviving (hopefully) in a brutal world. I’ve spent so many hours of my life stumbling through these life exercises, doing butt lifts for a better butt (part of improving oneself in the pursuit of being a “good girlfriend,” of course), but I am no longer gripped by this concept of self-improvement, or convinced of its benevolent gifts.
No doubt, there are benefits to efforts to improve one’s life. People maintain better health through changing particular habits, they strengthen their relationships, they find greater fulfillment. But this is not what’s being marketed in magazine exercises and quizzes and cultural parlance; it’s something else. A kind of promise that improvement=safety.
How could anything horrible happen to someone with slim, toned thighs, a financial and romantic plan for the future (written in pencil, of course, just in case changes need to be made, because part of improving oneself is maintaining fluid flexibility), a super-organized social and recreational calendar, and a rocking love connection where you always kissed your partner for the length of time it takes to wash your hands because this releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin and improves the likelihood that you’ll stay together? How dare the world target someone who has been so disciplined to improve herself!
Of course we know this is false. Tragedy strikes everywhere, and randomly, and there is no bulwark of deeds or exercises or boxes checked off on a list to protect anyone from this fact.
Years ago, I was sitting in my writing professor’s office, prattling on about how oh my God, I totally wanted to work on my novel but like, I also felt all this pressure, you know, to like hang out and be social? Like with other writers? And so I didn’t feel like I had time to do everything. She looked at me and said, “No is a complete sentence.” I’ll never forget that. It’s a version of what I hear from my spiritual teacher all the time, and have been hearing (and occasionally ignoring at my peril) for the last two plus years as my son Ronan was dying: GET CLEAR.
Getting clear is about prioritizing what feels right to you on a daily basis, in a given moment. With whom do you want to spend your time? How do you want to fill your days? What stories about who you are no longer serve you? I learned how to get clear through the process of grief, when all the plans you make for the day often end up in a pile on the floor anyway, and you find yourself with a cheap bottle of something or other, parked in front of endless episodes of Law and Order, ignoring plaintive voice messages from friends asking, “Uh, dude, weren’t you meeting me at this party? Are you OK?”
Last September, during self-improvement month, I was standing in a field in Santa Fe, watching a larger than life puppet (who was groaning) being burned to the ground in an annual city ritual to clear away the previous year’s “doom.” My son was still alive, but I knew it was a matter of months, I had a contact high from the crowd, and I was already trying to figure out how I would explain my overly emotional, tear-crazy reaction (“Can’t they just save the puppet? It’s too sad!”) to the man I had just begun dating without sounding totally nutballs.
Meanwhile, throughout the period when Ronan was dying, people continued to tell me that it would “make me a better person,” and “encourage me to try harder to reach my goals.” This was not true, and I’d heard it before, because people love to imagine people with disabilities as heroic, overcoming any obstacles by sheer force of will. (“Having that artificial leg has sure made you a tough cookie,” was a line I heard often as a child. Tough cookie! Awesome! Thanks so much!) But watching your child die robs you of will, and it doesn’t make you a better person. It makes you sad and broken. It makes you harden your heart a bit, just to survive, but it also makes you weep when a puppet is burned to the ground because any moment of any kind of death, even of an inanimate object, reminds you of what you will be facing with your son.
Get clear. It sounds simple, but it isn’t. But put into practice—and it does require practice—it’s a lot more effective than so-called self-improvement efforts at living a peaceful, fulfilling life, which is the one goal I still maintain. Here’s what I learned in the process of getting clear that helped me more than any effort to “improve” myself or “be good”: which friends I wanted to spend time with, and which friends I did not; who I loved, and what I was willing to examine (not fix) within myself (fears, darkness, stories) that would make it possible for us to have a life together; how and what I wanted to spend my time writing.
My previous attempts at self-improvement unwisely bought into the notion that the outcome of my efforts would insulate me from sadness or disaster. That they would make me safe. Now I know that I will never be safe, but it has not stopped me from feeling, what I thought, a few short years ago, was forever beyond me: happiness.
I don’t want to worry about self-improvement, self-esteem, or self-acceptance. I don’t want to be judged for speaking the truth, but I’m OK with the fact that this may be the result of clarity. I don’t want to make apologies for not being good enough, as if such a state existed. I don’t want to be improved. I want to be real.
Emily Rapp, a regular contributor to Role/Reboot, is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.