I came across an interesting post about exercise and self improvement by someone on an internet forum, who wrote:
I feel there is nothing wrong with my body, I am fit and healthy and I don’t feel the need to look like a chiseled greek god. Yet self improvement is always associated with looking like that. I am confused as I feel I am changing my identity by over exercising.
While the post was about exercise, it really got me thinking about what is meant by self-improvement and why the concept is so important to achieving success in life.
What immediately struck me about the statement is that the person was defining self improvement in terms of external motivation, which goes against the word “self”! Self improvement is about achieving our goals and dreams in life. Those goals and dreams give purpose and meaning to our lives. Because we are social creatures, it can be easy to let society or those around us to dictate those goals and our path. Eventually, however, the effort to live up to others’ expectations may cause negative stress, unhappiness and possibly depression.
Why living up to others expectations can be so negative
Our family and friends seem to have good intentions (sometimes!) when they criticize. The advice we are bombarded with daily through various media to get thin, get moving, get rich even, seems great. You may think some of what you hear is good (or you may not), but how do you decide which advice is best, what you will focus on, where your energy should go? Even if you agreed with every external message out there, why does trying to live up to it so often end in such failure?
Because real goal-setting starts with defining our own values. We each have to assess what is really important to us in life, and you may be surprised. We really all have different needs. When you get out a pen and paper and start jotting down to yourself what you would really do if you had a block of free time (with no pressure for your answer to make you ‘look good’ in the eyes of others), you might be surprised at your own answer. I was recently in a class recently on setting relaxation goals (yes, it is important to have goals for relaxing as well!) The instructor asked us all to prioritize our leisure activities and share them with the group.
Almost everyone had a different answer. For some,
leisure is about socializing, visiting family and friends. For others leisure is reading, or doing a creative activity alone. For others it is doing absolutely nothing and laying on the couch. And for others it might be taking a class to learn something new and so forth. All of our goals were fine. So many different approaches to leisure because each of our values is different. Moreoever, it felt good to recognize and connect with what was important to me and to distinghish between what I really like to do and what I do out of a sense of obligation.
Once you are in tune with your values and what is really important to you, your dreams and goals will naturally reveal themselves. That will give you both the initial spark and long-term motivation to make those positive changes (self improvement) you discover are necessary to achieve your goals.
Now, motivation is one thing, then you have to actually do goal-setting the right way, as a series of actionable chunks defined in short and immediate steps (e.g. from where you want to be in 6 months, to what small changes or steps you will tackle this week or tomorrow, when you will do them, and for how long.) It’s the specificity in our immediate and short term objectives that help us reach our long term goals.
But no effort for self improvement will work if it is not in line with our own values.
So, what things are most important to you in life? Why? If you need some help thinking about this, we have a handy step by step approach to personal transformation.
What do you think about the term self improvement?