Self-improvement can be super cheesy. Things like daily affirmations (cue Stuart Smalley), “The Secret,” smile therapy, and trying to be positive 24/7 are not my jam.
I have two major problems with these methods. For one thing, the common thread here is that you deny your actual experience, and thereby yourself, in order to adopt a phony stance that not only separates you from those you love, but also from yourself. This is where two people tend to have an exchange that goes something like this:
Person A: “I’ve had such a shitty day.”
Positivity practicing person: “Well at least you have your health!”
The Positive Practicing Person (PPP) just makes matters worse. Person A could use connection, which would help to brighten their day—not a platitude, and certainly not one that makes them feel worse about not being more grateful. What usually happens is Person A goes home and kvetches about the PPP. If Person A is a chronic victim of shitty days, well, keep reading.
The second problem I have is that the aforementioned methods assume that happiness is something we have an inherent right to feel—that if we are not ecstatic during every waking moment, something is wrong with us. But what if happiness is overrated? What if happiness is just as fleeting an emotion as the acute stab of pain one feels when stubbing their toe? What if there is something more important and more valuable than happiness? Things like being honest, and living with integrity. Things like overcoming obstacles and raising thoughtful children who can make this world a better place?
This is where cheesiness can take a hike and real self-improvement can begin.
At its most basic, self-improvement begins with improving the physical body. After all, a healthier physical body is better able to handle stress, more mentally resilient and less anxious and depressed. When exercising becomes a habit, it is more likely that the exerciser will start to gravitate toward healthier food choices—things like protein, vegetables, water, and away from food choices that make them cranky, tired and agitated—things like candy, chips and alcohol.
But then there are the people who believe that exercise is a luxury they don't have time for.
They might blame a hectic schedule—the job, the kids, or the unsupportive spouse. But in the end who is left with the unwanted pounds, and lack of strength and conditioning?
If the frazzled and overworked person were to prioritize her training over her perceived shackles, she'd become fierce and protect her training time. People would get the drift and leave her to it. They might even become supportive.
We all have twenty-four hours in a day. If we really want it, we'll make sure we do it.
When it comes to our diets, things get more tangled. We blame our overindulgences on things like a lack of control. We call ourselves "emotional eaters." We become stuck with a body we are ashamed of. We wear loose clothing and walk into group fitness classes with a chip on our shoulders, victimized by a stance we’ve engineered, even though we believe with all our hearts that we are the victim. We are the first to make fun of the workout or rue our hangover with a sly joke. But the truth is, you’re only an emotional eater because you’ve closed the door on the alternative, which is to get real, grow up, and stop undermining your own power and potential to be the best version of you. Okay that does sound cheesy.
Put it this way—you’ve had a horrible day. Everything is stacked against you. By the time you get home you’re starving. (Part of the problem is that you didn’t eat anything all day, or anything more nutritious than a cinnamon bun and five cups of coffee.) You say, "Fuck the world," and slam down a bag of Doritos chased by a pint of ice cream.
Then you feel terrible. Physically, emotionally. The shame, the guilt, the judgment, the belief that you are screwed beyond belief and things will never get better because life just keeps coming at you. Why me, no one else has probems like this, and so forth. But what if you ate something healthy during the day so that the impulse to cram junk food lessened just enough for you to take a breath and reach for something slightly different, or eat less, or stop yourself sooner? Or what if you arrived home with all the same pieces in place only to get a call that someone you loved has died? Would your very first thought be, “I have to eat?” Or perhaps would food be the last thing on your mind?
If this rings true, what was truly shitty about your day in the first place, if actual terrible news removed your impulse to eat? To me it makes more sense that every choice you made from the time you woke up until the time you stuffed your face was carefully orchestrated to culminate in a particular negative outcome and thereby keep you trapped in a loop that was entirely your construction. You've success-proofed yourself. Now you can sit back and judge with contempt, jealousy and resentment until the day you die. Way to go, champ.
Here's the dance, more or less:
You go to bed late the night before. Perhaps you’d had too many glasses of wine, or stayed up binge-watching Netflix. The morning comes and you’re already wiped. Every obligation you have was sent by the devil. You drink an extra cup of coffee. Your cupboards are bare so you can’t make yourself eggs. Making eggs would be a luxury anyway since you’re running late. So you grab a granola bar. By ten AM you’re on your fourth cup of coffee and you’re starving, so you eat cookies that someone left in the staff room. Or something equally convenient and nutrient-free. Tiny things go wrong throughout the day but instead of being calm and able to handle them, you’re wired, agitated, exhausted and starving for real nourishment, so you feel like the world is against you. There's a goddamned conspiracy. By the time five o’clock rolls around you think the universe owes you for your suffering, and yet you are the engineer of your suffering. And when you eat the Doritos and ice cream, you perpetuate your hell so that it’s all ready to go down the shitter the following day.
This is what people mean when they say, “Get out of your own way.”
It’s not the world’s fault. It’s not bad karma. It’s not the universe trying to tell you something. It’s you sabotaging yourself from reaching your potential. There’s nothing magical or new-agey about it and there is certainly no conspiracy.
All it is is fear. Fear of moving forward, of being accountable. Of mattering. And it's the opportunity for real self-improvement at its least cheesy.
Now if you truly don't care, then there's no victimization. You're making unhealthy choices and they're aligned with your most fundamental belief system. In which case you're not reading this blog post anyway. But if you recognize yourself, answer this—
Do you have the courage to treat yourself with respect and kindness? Start there, see what happens.