Recently, I attended a group call about self-improvement, journaling and habit building. In the beginning, we did a round to introduce ourselves. A young girl’s presentation immediately grabbed my attention.
As soon as she said her name, she started talking about her struggle with building habits. She said she already meditates, but would like to sit longer. She exercises and eats a healthy diet, but she’d like to add yoga on top of that.
‘But then, you know,’ she said, ‘I always procrastinate. I can’t seem to get myself to follow through with new habits. I’d like to find tools to help keep me accountable.’
Immediately, I felt empathy for her struggle — but at the same time, I couldn’t help thinking: ‘WTF? This girl is obviously very disciplined and great with habits. From her little speech, I already figured how much she’s doing to improve herself. And yet, she still sees herself as a procrastinator.’
This sparked a question that I can’t get out of my head:
Are we really procrastinating and slacking on our goals — or are we just being hard on ourselves?
Personal Growth As a Subtle Form of Self-Aggression
If you read self-improvement content regularly, you probably know what the main themes are.
How to beat procrastination. How to make sure your goals happen. How to adopt these five miraculous habits of successful people.
I could go on forever.
The problem is that this approach to personal growth is usually one-dimensional. Take procrastination, for example. Have you ever read about it as a useful mechanism of postponing the less important things to a later date?
I haven’t. The vast majority of articles about procrastination I came across talked about it as an indisputably bad thing. That is, if you procrastinate, it means you’re a lazy ass. You should, therefore, “beat” procrastination. Discipline yourself. Whatever you want to do, do it today.
This one-dimensional approach conveys a message that permeates our society. It tells us that we’re not good enough and that we need to fix ourselves. The thing is, when we try to improve from such a premise, our efforts easily turn into self-aggression.
There are reasons to believe that a low view of ourselves is a widespread cultural phenomenon in the West. When Sharon Salzberg asked Dalai Lama for advice on how to deal with self-hatred, at first, he didn’t understand. He went back and forth on this with his translator, trying to grasp the sense of her words.
Finally, he addressed Sharon directly, asking her in English:
‘Self-hatred? What is that?’
Other accounts confirm that Dalai Lama was shocked at the extent of self-hatred in Western culture. As someone who supposedly knew the workings of the human mind, he couldn’t wrap his head around this phenomenon.
But self-hatred or at least negative feelings towards oneself don’t sound foreign to me. I’m guessing you may also have experienced it to some extent. In a sense, the “not-good-enough” theme is a plague of our times.
I think that many people (myself included) could benefit from exploring this theme in therapy or another professional setting. Meanwhile, let’s be cautious not to drag it into our self-improvement efforts, too.
The Importance Of Recognizing Your Efforts
Whenever we want to improve our lives, we’re encouraged to set goals and then monitor the progress. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it” — this slogan by Peter Drucker became a popular mantra in the personal growth space.
All the tracking, accountability and support groups are meant to keep us from slacking off. Consistent effort is necessary if we want to see our goals manifest.
But what happens when we actually manage to achieve them? Do we even take the time to appreciate ourselves for it?
I recently discovered that I don’t necessarily.
In October, I decided to take my writing on Medium more seriously. I wanted to publish more often and, ultimately, build a solid income stream here. The first goal I set for myself was to reach 1,000 fans on my stories in November.
So I started publishing more — and I saw tangible growth indeed. On the 1st of December, I had 915 fans on my stories. This meant I didn’t hit 1,000 but I was close enough to consider it a success. Especially compared to the previous month which only saw 400 fans.
But guess what my mind did? It wanted to dismiss my growth since the Medium Partner Program changed and now we’re paid based on reading time, not fans. My mind told me that the metric I targeted was no longer relevant. In one moment, I was inclined to write all my efforts down as invalid — even though numbers were showing me that I did the work.
Luckily, I caught myself in the middle of this thought process and asked myself a crucial question: WTF?
Am I really dismissing the undeniable progress I made, instead of celebrating it? If this is my habitual reaction to success, then how am I supposed to ever feel accomplished? Am I going to dismiss it the same way when I reach much bigger goals?
And if so — is it even worth pursuing them?
In that moment, I realized that we really should appreciate ourselves for any effort we make to improve our lives. You can’t always control the outcomes of what you do. But as long as you’re giving it a genuine try?
That’s a valid reason to be fucking proud of yourself.
How To Balance Over-Improving and Slacking
Self -improvement seems to be a continuous strive for balance. You’re looking for the sweet spot between appreciating yourself for who you are — and then still making a small step towards growth every day.
But how do you ensure that you’re neither slacking nor being too hard on yourself?
There’s no easy answer to that. All I can tell you is that I’m constantly looking for this balance. I chase improvement passionately — and then, I realize I’ve been beating myself up. I slow down and postpone what I actually could do today. Then I know it’s time to increase the grit again.
I came to believe that balance isn’t a noun — it’s a verb. It’s always a work in progress, which means that we’ll always keep outweighing the scale, either way, all the time.
But whenever I catch myself slacking or overworking, there’s one remedy that always helps me. It’s called self-forgiveness.
Forgiving myself is the only sensible way to move past my mistakes. Any downfall that I don’t respond to with forgiveness only drags me down. It gets me entangled in the past, instead of looking into the future. It distorts my perspective and makes me waste energy on ruminating about what went wrong.
I can’t insure myself against failure or going off-track every now and then. What I can do is respond to these things with forgiveness — and with appreciation that, at least, I cared enough to try.
It may not always be easy to tell the difference between slacking and beating yourself up. But whenever you appreciate and forgive yourself, you’ll know that you’ll be fine no matter what. You can simply remember that you’re already good enough — and this thought alone can keep you sane.
From that standpoint, anything you do to improve yourself becomes a bonus — rather than a condition for you to feel worthy.