The beginning of a new calendar year for many is symbolic of fresh starts, renewed vision, and, or resolutions. Working in the wellness industry for over 20 years now, at the top of many peoples resolutions is self-improvement in the form of weight loss, quitting bad habits, getting in shape, improving diet, or mastering some other great feat of strength, endurance or skill etc. While I am a huge advocate of goal setting and self-improvement, I have also become increasingly aware of the ways in which these endeavours may lead to increased stress, disconnection and are easily exploited by our human need for acceptance, fitting-in and belonging.
Is our quest for “self-improvement” just self-hate in disguise?
Self-awareness and self-reflection practices are such an important pre-requisite when it comes to self-improvement and goal setting, without mindfulness we run the risk of chasing a goal that is motivated from a place of fear or lack instead of in alignment with our deeper intensions. Getting clear on your ‘why’ is the foundation of any goal-setting or self-improvement endeavour as it connects us to our deeper motivations and if these things we are chasing are truly what our heart desires or just another thing we are unconsciously chasing. Who we are being is also what we are becoming, and if we force self-improvement, or set goals with beliefs that we are: “not good enough”, “broken”, “worthy of love when…”, “I will feel better about myself if” then we are unconsciously feeding shame, inner-criticism and limiting narratives. Fear begets fear, lack fuels more lack and so like a hamster on a wheel we may spend our life chasing external forms of gratification yet true satisfaction, contentment, and fulfilment seems elusive. Many times in my life I have set goals that were unconsciously motivated from a place of ‘should’; a narrative I had bought into about success and happiness, or what “the good life” looks like. I have crushed many goals only to find myself questioning “what next?” or “is this it?”. Sometimes I can get so focused on checking off the boxes, scales and numbers that I completely disconnect with why and what I wanted in the first place. The scariest part is many times I had no idea what I was chasing.
Many industries also use fear and lack based marketing to motivate us to purchase and join the ‘club’. FOMO (fear of missing out) or FONBE (fear of not being enough) is the ‘new’ anxiety that motivates many to overextend themselves monetarily (through designer brands and memberships etc) commitments (social and otherwise) and energy, leaving many exhausted, uninspired and unfulfilled despite having and achieving more. When we approach our goals or self-improvement with this motivation we end up seeking external forms of gratification and like being hungry and wearing a meal, we may end up crushing our goals or checking off all the right boxes, yet still feeling empty and hungry.
How can we make our goals and resolutions about self-care instead of self-hate—honouring, nurturing and respecting rather than fixing, forcing and improving?
One of the biggest lessons I have learned personally and professionally is that self-care is about compassionately holding space for what you truly need. As humans we all have needs and our emotions are ‘energy in motion’ designed to fulfill these needs. Holding space for how we are truly feeling and what our needs are allows us to set wellness goals from a place of worthiness and contentment versus fear. Underneath many of our benchmarks we are trying to achieve are needs and feelings. When we focus on these instead of external accolades we may actually feel satisfied, fulfilled, and content. We may end up realizing that what we are chasing we don’t actually desire, or that that bad habit we are trying to kick is filling a need we were not even aware of. We can begin to take care of ourselves in a way that nourishes connection, contentment and safety instead of triggering survival/drive mode through self-criticism. We may begin to uncover who and how we were before we were covered in ‘should’ or told we were not good enough. We can excavate our hearts and reconnect with who and how we actually want to be in our life, despite popular opinin. Underneath the 20lbs many want to lose is often a narrative about worthiness or a very human need that is not being met. Ask your self what do I truly need and how do I want to feel. When we align our goals/visions (head) with our deeper intuition and intentions (heart/guts) we may create a trajectory with our actions and words towards a more inspired life (notice how these words begin with ‘IN’). It can become less about crushing goals and external accolades and more about going inwards; discovering who and how you really want to be in your life.
Another issue I have encountered is that not only are goals often set from a place of lack, but they are also focused in the future from some idealized and ‘shoulded-on’ version of the self. Having an idealized and ‘shoulded-on self’ are not necessarily bad things however expectations are often disappointments waiting to happen amplifying the ‘human doing’ mode. In this mode we are constantly comparing where we are at now with where or how we think we ‘should be’. While yes this provides re-calibration and extra motivation it has also been shown to increase stress and because we can’t control how everything in our life turns out we may experience additional friction, dissonance and anxiety as a result. In addition if there is too much of a gap between where we are now and were we want to be, fear, self-doubt and inner criticism often take over. Hold the vision/goal but trust the process, focus on small consistent steps versus leaping the grand canyon in a single bound. Before putting the blinders on and chasing the dangling carrot ask yourself; Is this carrot really what I need?
Remember satisfaction, contentment and pleasure can only happen in the moment when we are there to fully receive it. You cannot receive with clenched fists. Take off the blinders and start paying attention to how you feel right now and who you really want to be outside of the expectations and the panel of assholes (inner critics) in your head.
Self-compassion over self-improvement
Finally be gentle and kind to yourself, self-compassion is the new self-esteem whereby we recognize that we are humans first and nobody is perfect. Research has shown repeatedly that being compassionate towards our self versus beating ourselves up produces better results in the long run. It has also been shown that focus and discipline are like a muscle that needs to be strengthened but may also be exhausted. Rest, self-compassion and self-care allow us to feel restored, soothed and connect without needing to do or accomplish anything. In a recent study that explored self-compassion and motivation it was shown that the group of people who were taught to be compassionate and go-easy on themselves fell had more will power afterwards than a group that was self-critical. Both groups were encouraged to eat a donut. While one group that ate the donut was offered encouragement and self-compassion based coaching, in the other group calories and setbacks were emphasized. Afterwards both groups were placed alone in a room with a bowl full of candy and only the group that beat themselves up for eating the donut consumed most of the candy.
Once again if this years resolutions are actually about positive growth it is important to slow down and take some time to ask yourself what you truly need; What is your hearts deepest desire? As best you can align your goals and moment-to moment choices with this deeper intention so that your trajectory moves you closer towards who and how you want to be in your life versus unconsciously checking boxes. Get off the wheel and live for real.
Additional support and programming
I am also hosting a weekend retreat at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge called, The Great Thaw
. This retreat includes beautiful accommodations, delicious meals, yoga classes, yoga nidra, meditation, self-compassion and self-care workshops. Grab a couple friend or come solo. Spend some time in nature, un-clutter your heart and re-connect with who and how you want to be underneath all of the ‘shoulds’, scars and stress.
Wishing you a compassionate, healthy and resillient 2019 and beyond.
Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for additional information or support,