The Subtle Aggression of Self-Improvement

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Being human guarantees there will be self-improvement-worthy behaviors and characteristics surfacing in us almost from the moment we are born. As we come of age, with all the cultural encouragement to be our best selves, it’s easy to get caught up in the quest for ultimate self-optimization. It even feels like the honorable thing to do and so some of us approach self-improvement with righteous gusto.
That was me. There have been so many self-improvement projects I’ve taken on over the years driven by the exciting prospect of fixing everything wrong with me. In fact, I once bragged to a therapist that “project” was how I related to myself. I was proud of my can-do ethic in the service of transcending my lower self. But I’ll never forget the concern in her voice when she said, “But you’re not a project. You’re a person.” She sounded so protective of me, as if I had been telling her I was being bullied on the playground. After that I was surprised by how often I heard her sweet voice in my head saying, “But you are a person.
This drive to optimize is what Bob Sharples, a therapist, meditation teacher and former lawyer, dubs “the subtle aggression of self-improvement.” The problem with self-improvement? So often embedded in the quest to improve ourselves is the belief that there is something inherently wrong or insufficient about us. It’s like we’ve entered an agreement with reality about not being good enough as is. The problem with not being good enough as is? It calls into question our worth and what are we worthy of. With a belief of unworthiness on board, now we have to upgrade in order to be worthy of love, respect and belonging.
No. Don’t do that, Sharples advises. “Don’t meditate [or diet or exercise or whatever we are doing] to fix yourself, to heal yourself, to improve yourself, to redeem yourself. Rather do it as an act of love, of deep warm friendship to yourself. In this way there is no longer any need for the subtle aggression of self-improvement, for the endless guilt of not doing enough. This offers the possibility of an end to the ceaseless round of trying so hard that wraps so many people’s lives in a knot.”
What a very different internal environment we would inhabit if we engaged in self-care as an act of deep warm friendship and love. In that high quality environment, we would probably feel more like a person than a project. But here’s what I notice:
It still hurts to be imperfect, which I count as one of the great wounds of being human. It leaves us short of 100% whole. No wonder we so desperately want to close that gap via self-improvement. Not being whole feels precarious.
As I tried to resolve this situation of imperfection it occurred to me that closing the gap is what Sharples advice allows us to do: it allows us to close the gap with love. Love is what makes us whole. An enhancement made out of love and great friendship with the person within takes care of the gap.
And so when the urge to buckle down and fix ourselves rises up and we feel that great surge of energy to get the job done, there are two questions we might ask ourselves:
Is this a loving decision?
How would I go about it in a loving and friendly way?
It’s a good double check.