Thursday, January 24, 2013

Pursuing Self-Improvement, at the Risk of Self-Acceptance

Interesting article I found using my Super Better app. Originally posted in the New York Times.

Pursuing Self-Improvement, at the Risk of Self-Acceptance
Published: November 4, 2011

Self-improvement is a deeply embedded American trait, something other cultures find both admirable and amusing. The notion that we can constantly make ourselves better is, in theory, a great idea.

But when does it become too much?

“There’s a tendency to seek and seek and seek and never find,” said Kristen Moeller, creator of the Web site (The motto? “Stop Waiting. Start Living.”) “It becomes one more addiction.”

It’s not that trying to find ways to improve ourselves is a bad thing — not at all. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” the poet Robert Browning wrote. But when we’re constantly reaching rather than occasionally being satisfied with what we have in front of us, that’s a recipe for perpetual dissatisfaction.

“We grew up with the idea that we can do anything,” said Hollee Schwartz Temple, a professor of law at West Virginia University and co-author of “Good Enough Is the New Perfect” (Harlequin, 2011). “But we took that to mean that we have to do everything. And many women took it as you have to do everything perfectly.”

Ms. Temple and her co-author, Becky Beaupre Gillespie, a former journalist, surveyed about 1,000 mothers in their 30s and 40s nationwide and interviewed about 100 for their book. They found that the women broadly fell into two categories: “never enoughs” and “good enoughs.”

Never-enough women felt they had to be the best at everything and often agreed with the sentiment that “I need to be a superstar even if it kills me,” Ms. Temple said.

Those in the good-enough category were, as is self-evident, fine with not being the best as long as they felt they were doing pretty well. But more important than how these women described themselves was how they described their lives.

“The never-enoughs more often described their marriages as poor, or even a disaster,” Ms. Temple said. “The good-enoughs were more satisfied and happier in their marriages. And they were just as likely to advance in their careers as the never-enoughs.”

None of this may seem particularly new. You can’t have it all. Perfection is the enemy of the good. But the struggle to find the balance between stagnation and stress — sinking into a rut or racing on the hamster wheel — resonates even more now in these economically down times, when even your best efforts don’t seem to be reaping the rewards you expected.

“In our culture, there are so many different messages about being successful, and we try to implement all of them,” Ms. Gillespie said. “We need the courage to choose which definition of success we want.”

And the courage to realize that we may explore and seek, but there are often no answers — or not the ones we want, said Ms. Moeller, who wrote the book “Waiting for Jack” (Morgan James Publishing, 2010) about her attempts to get in contact with Jack Canfield, author of “Chicken Soup for the Soul” (Heath Communications Inc., 1993). The book’s title and theme refer to her realization that she, like so many people, was waiting for someone to provide the answers instead of looking inside herself.

“It’s natural for a lot of people to search for something more,” Ms. Moeller said. “Or something happens and they want to make sense of it.”

But we can’t go around with the idea that “one day I’ll arrive; one day I’ll be whole,” she said. “It’s an illusion that one day I’ll be fixed.”

Such constant searching, she said, leads to a sense that you’re waiting to live your life rather than living it. Or you’ll feel that you’re always falling short, because rarely is the road to self-improvement easy or straightforward, and it’s certainly not the same for everyone.

On her blog, Ms. Moeller listed, somewhat tongue in cheek, the signs of a self-help junkie, including these:

¶ “You could own a small island in the Caribbean for the amount of money you have spent on seminars, retreats, coaches, workshops and books, and yet you are still not satisfied.”

¶ “After each course you take, you claim that you now know that you are perfect just as you are, but then you hear about this new course that really sounds perfect and you secretly think, maybe this one will be IT.”

Trying to figure out ways to make ourselves better is nothing new. Dale Carnegie’s seminal “How to Win Friends & Influence People,” was first published in 1936. The first 12-step program, Alcoholics Anonymous, began a year before that in 1935.

This striving for self-improvement and the belief that we can all achieve success if we just work hard enough and figure out the right path, has political, not just personal, ramifications.

David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, wrote in a 2003 Op-Ed page column that Americans “always had a sense that the great opportunities lie just over the horizon, in the next valley, with the next job or the next big thing,” adding, “None of us is really poor; we’re just pre-rich.”

That idea that we can all potentially occupy the executive suite is one of the reasons that Americans have been less ready than some other cultures to protest income inequality, said Daniel Letwin, an associate professor of history at Pennsylvania State University.

But Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots may indicate a sea change.

“Clearly, throughout U.S. history there’s been two competing streaks among Americans — acceptance of, even admiration for the wealthy, when people buy into notions of fluid mobility and equal opportunity, and indignation when the inequalities of wealth and power become too grotesque, when the prospects for ordinary people stall no matter how hard they’re trying, and the system seems rigged,” Professor Letwin said.

Occupy Wall Street can be seen both as a rebellion and as an acknowledgment that most of us won’t ever reach the pinnacles of power — and perhaps don’t even want to, Ms. Temple said.

The reality, she said, is “a lot of people are finding that ‘I don’t want to aspire to what I always thought I wanted to aspire to.’ ”

Of course, I still hope one day to grow the beautiful tomatoes and tasty zucchini and cook up lovely meals with my homegrown bounty. It’s not an impossible dream. But I’ll put aside the composting for now and leave the television where it is. After all, as we’ve learned, there’s no point in pushing this self-improvement thing too far.

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