The Problem with Self-Improvement.

 
 
 

Truth be told, I am not a fan of the idea of self-improvement. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that striving for personal growth is a bad thing. It is most definitely not. In fact, striving for growth is what fills our lives with hope founded in possibility. To know that there is always more to come, untouched avenues of ourselves to explore, and endless opportunities to expand, is the fuel of life. It propels us forward, and inspires a sense of personal contentment grounded in the prospect of the sweet unknown.

The problem then, does not lie in the notion itself, but in the language we use around the concept personal development. Here’s why: to “improve oneself” implies that there is something that needs to be fixed. It implies a movement away from wholeness and into fragmentation. It implies lack, and can perpetuate thoughts like “I am not good enough until I ______________.” As a result, we can become easily transfixed by how far we still have to go. Feelings of disempowerment manifest, because the space between who we are, and who we want to be appears as far too vast and thus, impossible to cross.

Welcome self-judgment and criticism. Welcome hopelessness. Welcome perceived limitations. In other words, welcome all the things that keep us stagnant, and prevent us from going where we desire to be. You see, the problem with framing our personal growth as an act of “improvement” is that it places us behind the eight ball, because we start our journeys from a place of disadvantage.

Clearly then, the process of personal evolution requires a compassionate reframe- a movement from a mindset of lack and fragmentation to one of abundance and wholeness.

So, the question becomes: how can we engage in the process of personal growth more effectively?

By recognizing how far we’ve already come. By noting our successes and strengths. By celebrating our individual uniqueness. Ultimately, by recognizing that as human beings we are already whole, and perfectly imperfect, and that this perfect imperfection is enough.

Plain and simple: There is nothing about anyone us that requires improvement.

When we really and truly resonate with this notion- that we all start our personal journey as whole, and perfectly imperfect beings- pursuits of personal growth resound more deeply. We are better able to wrestle with and contemplate the various lessons available to us, because when we are starting from a foundation of personal empowerment, we are better able to weave these lessons into the patterns of our lives so that they effectively align with who we desire to be.

More simply put, our personal authenticity flourishes when we recognize that our job is to not improve but to evolve.

Self-evolution is not a timed process. It occurs naturally- when you’re ready to truly feel and absorb the lessons available to you. The pressure comes off.

Welcome self-compassion, kindness, and unconditional self-acceptance. Welcome graceful forward movement. Welcome contentment and fulfillment.

Welcome your best life.

When Gratitude is Detrimental.

Gratitude. I am all about it. For me, it is an intentional, daily practice. On those not so great days, it takes me out of the negative spiral that often manifests, and helps me to reframe and refocus. It allows me to stand back from the “negative” happenings in my life and extract the lessons and insights. Gratitude helps me to evolve, expand, and move ever closer to the person I want to be in this life.

Gratitude is the foundation of clarity.

Intentional gratitude is incredibly powerful and transformative, and lies at the crux of authentic wellbeing, if appropriately timed.

The transformative power of gratitude can only take root if correctly placed on your path of self-evolution.

If misused, gratitude can be hugely detrimental to your growth. It can block you and keep you in an insincere self-space. The problem with gratitude arises when it is used to mask the impacts of painful life events.

Something utterly devastating has just happened to you. You feel like your world is falling apart. You’re hurt, overwhelmed, and in pain, and it’s terrifying. You don’t know what to do with your feelings. You don’t want to tell anyone for fear of appearing weak. You don’t want people’s pity, so if you do reach out, you skim the surface of what you’re experiencing, and slap it with a “I should be grateful though, it could be worse”, severely downplaying your current internal reality. And so, gratitude becomes the new name of avoidance, resistance, denial, self-betrayal, and self-criticism.

This “gratitude” promotes a hierarchy of suffering, and fuels the notion that human suffering and pain is to be classified. We use it to measure our worthiness of receiving love and compassion from others, isolating ourselves as a result, often deepening our pain.

As powerful as gratitude is, it needs to come after giving yourself the permission to simply be with your internal reality, because it is calling to be seen, heard, and deeply felt. There is no such thing as a hierarchy of suffering. Your pain is worthy of attention because it is real for you- it doesn’t come with conditions.

Give yourself permission to surrender to what is, and gratitude will unfold naturally, for authentic gratitude is a by-product of a healing heart.

Living Outside of the Assumption Box.

 

Life with a disability. Something I wouldn’t change even if I was given the choice. I have said it time and time again, my disability (if we really have to call it that) has been the birth place of numerous insights and reflections for me. It has opened the doors to a sense of personal liberation that has come as a result of the embrace of the imperfection that is this body I live in. It consistently pushes me to examine my priorities, and dig deep within myself to figure out who I am and who I want to be.

That’s the thing about living outside of the realm of “normal”- you often get put into a box built of labels and assumptions. It’s safe that way, because the labels and assumptions give other people a road map. It gives them a vague understanding of the rules of interaction- what to say, what not to say, what to do, and what not to do. Or at least, that’s the intention of the labels and assumptions- they are supposed to be helpful, and keep everything in the realm of the non-offensive.

For the sake of familiarity, let me ask you, what kind of images, words and associations do the words “disabled” and “disability” conjure up for you?

If you immediately thought of things like weak, incapable, to be pitied, unhappy, flawed, helpless, powerless, no social life, victim, unfair, unsuccessful,  no prospect of living close to the realm of “normality” etc., let me assure you that you are not alone. Many of us have been conditioned to think this way. It’s almost natural, and to some degree it is a faultless act. It almost seems harmless, except it’s not.

Labels and their associated assumptions can have severely detrimental impacts on one’s fundamental sense of self, for these labels often become internalized, and subsequently impact one’s thoughts, emotions and behaviours. For example, if a person with a disability is implicitly and repeatedly told they are incapable, through the nature of the interactions they have with those around them, it is likely that they will begin to think thoughts like “I can’t do it, so there’s no point in trying,” “I’m going to fail,” “I am powerless,” “I am a victim of my circumstances,” “There is something wrong with me,” “I’ll never be successful” and so forth. Consequently, that person may begin to experience feelings of helplessness, doubt, hopelessness, shame, defeat, inferiority, and frustration, which then directly impact their willingness to take action. As such, that person will likely begin to act in alignment with their thoughts and feelings by rarely or never taking risks or trying new things, isolating themselves, and so on, thereby never allowing themselves the opportunity to accumulate experiences to counter their thoughts and feelings. And so, a self-fulfilling prophecy ensues.

And here’s the thing, I used the example of disability here because I know it- I have seen this pattern play out within myself and with others. But, even for those of us who are not living outside of the realm of “normal” these patterns still manifest. We all carry beliefs that have resulted from the interactions we have had with others and the assumptions they have placed upon us, either knowingly or unknowingly. And, if we’re not careful, these beliefs can begin to rule us, robbing us of our sense of freedom, and rendering us fearful. Fearful of expressing our authentic selves. And so, we become confined to a prison of our own creation.

So, the question becomes, how can we get back to freedom?

  • Examine your thoughts.

Write down the thoughts that tend to dominate your mind. Ask yourself, when did these thoughts originate? From whom did they originate?

  • Recognize that these thoughts aren’t facts.

As difficult as it may be to believe (because we have been attached to them for so long) our thoughts are not facts. They are in fact, changeable.

  • Be willing to recognize humanness.

Once you have determined where and from whom your most dominating thoughts originate, ask yourself why you are giving them the power to define you. What makes their word and perception more accurate than yours? After all, they too are just human. Any power they may have is a result of your decision to give them that power. We are all equal.

  • Choose to live by your definition of you, for that is freedom.

Your definition of you is just as valid as the definition that others attempt to place upon you. Choose to live in the space of authenticity, remembering that you can choose whether or not you buy into other people’s perceptions of you. For example, just because a person is disabled does not mean they are incapable. Aligning with the assumption of “incapable” is their choice. So I encourage you to ask yourself:

  • In the absence of the limiting thoughts which hold me, who do I know myself to be?

Are you compassionate, outgoing, passionate, spontaneous, loving, hilarious, kind, adventurous, quirky, fun, bold, strong, hardworking, witty, etc.?

Choose to make your definition of you the lens through which you see yourself, and welcome freedom.

Some Words on Inspiration.

“You’re an inspiration.”
 
A phrase I have heard countless times throughout my life, and one that I have truthfully, come to dislike. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that when people tell me they find me inspiring it is coming from a well-intentioned place. That it is likely coming from a desire to connect with me. I do truly appreciate it. But the phrase has always made me uncomfortable, and it wasn’t until recently that I put some time and thought into figuring out why.
 
I realized that for me, the word “inspiration” carries the connotation of elevation and disconnection. For me, it signifies that one is different from the rest. Images of looking up and pedestals come to mind. Inaccessible. Not relatable.  
 
The notion of “us” (to be inspired) and “them” (the holders of inspiration). Self-judgement. Striving. Reaching. The feeling of not good enough yet. Not good enough until. Aspiring to be better.
 
Missing your innate greatness in the process.
 
We are all inspiring, because we are all human, and we all have stories to tell. We all have stories of triumph. Stories of failing. Stories of mistake-making. Stories of overcoming. Stories of radical insight. Stories of change. Stories of transformation. Stories of transcendence.  Stories of imperfection. Stories of vulnerability and courage. Stories of generosity and gratitude. Stories of pure love.

We all have unique stories that carry the power to connect us to our neighbour, our co-worker, that guy walking down the street, that girl in the coffee shop, that person sitting next to us on the bus, that person behind us in line at the grocery store etc.
 
Each of our stories is innately unique, but through each story is a thread which connects to the larger human experience. We are all holding it, and it is through our grasp of this thread that empathy is cultivated.

Inspiration is founded in the willingness to be real, transparent, raw, and relatable. It is found on the platform of equal ground. Heart-to-heart connections. It is found in the realization that to be inspiring is an inherent state of being. It is not reserved for a select few.
 
Inspiration is about authenticity. A fearless devotion to yourself- your passions, your likes, your dislikes, your mistakes, your dreams, your missteps, your successes, your strengths, your hopes, your excitement, and an unabashed willingness to share all that makes you, you. Inspiration is about openness.
 
Inspiration is about a commitment to embracing your individuality while recognizing your connection to the collective.
 
Individuality connects. Embracing who you are without hesitation, gives others the permission to do the same. Permission to be raw, radically shifting the nature of human interaction on a fundamental level as a result. No more masks and quickly stated “I’m fines.” Rather, more “I am fantastic! How are you?!” More “Life is amazing, I am so grateful to be alive.” More “I’m actually feeling pretty crappy right now.” More “I need a hug.” More “It’s SO great to see you!”

Commit to the expression of what’s real for you.
 
Reveal yourself without hesitation.
 
Revel in all that makes you, you. Revel in your greatness. Revel in your struggles. Revel in your individuality. Revel in your imperfection. Revel in your inherent awesomeness.
 
 Share it.
 
You’re an inspiration.
 

 

Remember Your Humanness.

 




I’m a bit of a compassion junkie. If you have read anything that I have written, you likely have figured out that for me, compassion is my core guiding value. I want my life to be a reflection of it, infused in all that I do and  in all that I say. For me, the practice of compassion is transcendent. It allows me to feel connected to life in an inexpiable way, and functions as a constant reaffirmation of my connection to a greater source. As I have developed as a therapist over the last few years, my relationship to, and interest in the study of compassion has only grown stronger. I have piles of books dedicated to the subject sitting next to my bed, and read nightly to end my day with a little burst of inspiration. Most of the literature I have read speaks about compassion as a deep desire to alleviate the suffering of others, and it is my best guess that this is the definition that most people hold in their minds- compassion is a trait to be focused outward. This is the definition I subscribed to for many years as well, until I read a book titled Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff. This book radically changed the way I relate to the concept of compassion. In her book, Neff asserts that while compassion is to be focused outward, it is also to be focused inward, toward ourselves.
 
Radical right?!
 
At first thought, the notion of directing compassion toward ourselves may seem and feel a bit uncomfortable- after all, the critic within each of us can give us a multitude of reasons why we don’t deserve it. It may tell us that the things we’ve done are far too shameful to warrant compassion- that although compassion is all well and good for those around us, we are the exception. That somehow, we should have known better. That we are disconnected, and separate from the rest. Welcome that all too familiar shame spiral born of self-judgement. Consequently, we often begin to believe that we must engage in self-judgement and self-criticism as a way to keep us from doing that (those) all too shameful thing(s) again. We become increasingly unhappy, fearful and emotionally paralyzed. We condemn ourselves to a life of discontentment because we begin to believe that that is all we are worthy of.
 
And so, here are my questions for you:
 
  •          What really makes you so different from everyone else?
  •          Have we not all made mistakes and done things we are not proud of?
  •          Could it be that you were doing the best that you could in that given moment?
  •          Could it be that you were simply trying to fill some underlying need or void? (i.e. a              need for belonging, acceptance, love, connection etc.)
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that self-compassion is a way to let yourself “off the hook.” Rather, I am saying that, yes, although you may have made mistakes, they do not define you. Imperfection is a part of being human, and past mistakes do not change your worth. Worthiness is to be claimed, not earned. It is a gift that comes with being human. It is unchangeable and constant. You are worthy of love, belonging, unconditional acceptance, compassion, happiness, connection etc. regardless of the things you have done or have not done. It is an irrefutable fact.
 
Self-compassion is a commitment to your long-term well-being, not short-term gratification.
 
The practice of self-compassion asks you to begin to relate to yourself with self-kindness when you have failed, made a mistake, feel inadequate and so on. It asks you to recognize imperfection and begin to speak to yourself more kindly.

Imagine a close friend of yours is going through the same thing you are. This friend has made a mistake, has failed at something, and is right in the depths of a shame spiral. 
 
  •          How would you speak to this friend?
  •          What would you say to this friend to comfort him or her?
Turn those words away from your friend and toward yourself, remembering that at your core, you are no different from your friend.
The practice of self-compassion also asks you to recognize the interconnectedness of all human beings. It operates on the core premise that we are fundamentally the same. Underneath all appearances, abilities and perceived differences, we are all looking for the same things in this life. We really are on this ride together. 
 
Finally, the practice of self-compassion asks you to be mindful of your feelings related to the various experiences you have had. It asks you to practice unconditional acceptance toward whatever feelings are coming up for you- even the ones that are immensely difficult and painful to feel, for it is in facing them that we allow them to dissipate.
 
 
How do you think your life would change if you were to treat yourself more compassionately?