The Problem with Self-Improvement Culture (and What To Do About It)

Inline_Self-developmentWe’re a little more than a month out from New Year’s, and most people have abandoned their resolution efforts. Gyms are emptying out; the squat rack is free again. Cars are piling up in the drive-thrus, the farmer’s markets are noticeably emptier. Was it all for naught? Are the grand visions, the big plans, the lofty resolutions really going to culminate in a sad sputter…a fizzle? Will one-time optimists resign themselves to just another personal failing, another reason to slink back into despair? If January is about hope and ambition, what’s the lesson for February?

I’m not surprised. It happens every time, and it’s caused by our dysfunctional relationship to self-improvement.

Wait, what? Isn’t self-improvement a good thing?

Sure. Improving your health, happiness, life purpose, fitness, body composition, business, and/or relationships is undeniably a good thing. And there are dozens of reputable sources of information to help you make right changes—and make them stick. There’s a lot of good advice and inspiration out there.

In fact, there are now so many life coaches, dietary gurus, lifestyle designers, and other self-improvement professionals that you could probably sign up for a free introductory half-hour coaching session every single day for the rest of your life and never run out.

How many of us are actually heeding the advice from the experts and applying it to our own lives, though? If self-improvement seems like such an obvious virtue, why isn’t everyone doing it all the time?

It’s hard, for one. It often involves discomfort and requires that we relinquish our grip on convenience.

It means placing our immediate desires on hold for future rewards. It’s declining the cake today for the visible abs next month.

But there are also two other more pernicious impediments to our self-improvement that you might not be aware of. If we want to make any real changes, we have to address them.

Imagine you’re scrolling your Twitter feed, “liking” every inspirational quote that hits you just so, redirecting every book recommendation from trusted personalities into an Amazon wish-list you’ll never actually buy anything from, emailing yourself a particularly poignant TEDx talk that, at the time, you swear will change the way you look at the world.

Or maybe you’re listening to the latest episode of a guru’s podcast and the guest discusses her daily morning routine. You’re touched, you’re moved, you text a quick summary to a friend, and you resolve to adopt elements of it yourself. You jot down the gist, shove it into your “Things to Ponder” Evernote notebook, and promptly forget it ever existed.

Most people treat self-improvement like a spectator sport. They enjoy the feeling of being energized and excited about the prospect of real change and real improvements. When they’re reading the books, listening to the podcasts, scrolling through the Twitter feeds, watching the TED talks, consuming the content, they feel like they’re taking the first step toward self-improvement. It feels like a victory, and whenever we feel like we won or achieved something, we get a hit of dopamine. Dopamine perpetuates the action that initially triggered its secretion, which is why we can get addicted to dopaminergic drugs like caffeine, tobacco, and cocaine. But if we never take the second, third, fourth, or fiftieth steps, we never go anywhere real.

Consuming self-improvement content sure does feel productive. It tricks you into thinking you’ve just accomplished something. You have to keep going. Most don’t.

It’s totally normal to fail at self-improvements. Setbacks happen. And they’re not very fun, especially compared to that initial burst of inspiration when the dopamine is flowing and you’re imagining all the improvements you’ll make, all the work you’ll get done, all the productivity barriers you’ll hurdle. For a moment, you’re in the promised land. You’re doing things. That feels good. When it’s gone, replaced by the harsh reality that you failed to take the next step, it feels extra bad. That’s why self-help books are so popular, and new ones keep being published: when people read one and it doesn’t work, they move on to the next one. And there’s always a next one.

Which brings me to the second major problem: they react poorly to their initial failure. They give up. Instead of using the setback as motivation to never let it happen again, they just get down on themselves—”I’m a failure, and I’ll never be anything else,” For Grok’s sake, how about showing some compassion for yourself?

This is called self-compassion. It sounds fluffy. New-agey. But it works.

  • In one recent study, scientists found that coaching subjects to accept, confront, and show compassion to themselves for their failures increased subsequent willingness to improve their weaknesses. Compared to students practicing self-esteem, subjects who practiced self-compassion were more compelled to make amends after moral transgressions, spend more time studying for a hard test they’d already failed, and improve upon their weaknesses.
  • Another study found that practicing self-compassion led people to make healthier food choices.
  • Self-compassion mitigated the stultifying effects of regret.
  • Self-compassion promoted more self-improvement. Self-esteem promoted less.

This makes perfect sense. You accept your mistakes and move forward, because where else can you go? Self-esteem meanwhile feels artificial and forced, probably because it is. Esteem should emerge from estimable acts and successes, not be tacked on to failures.

According to the researcher who discovered the power of self-compassion, we’re really dealing with three main points:

  • Self-kindness: Being as nice and understanding to yourself as you would to someone else.
  • Common humanity: We’re all in this together, and everyone else either is hurting or has been hurt. You’re not alone.
  • Mindfulness: Observing reality without judgement.

In other words, talk to yourself the way you’d talk to any friend, loved one, or child who was also hurting. What would you say—literally? Say it to yourself, too.

Self-compassion isn’t about lulling us into stagnancy. It allows us to continually come at life—and our goals—from a place of intactness. Why give energy to a denigrating voice? It only divides you against yourself—a waste if you ask me. Self-compassion reintegrates us. We’re stronger, more solid, and more patient as a result.

Then we’re able to bring real resilience to our self-development aims. We’re not dependent on the string of motivational fixes from outside sources. We’re not moved to abandon an effort when we lose our footing. We accept the process insomuch as we accept ourselves in it. And that’s the real starting point for success.

Thanks for reading, everybody. Share your thoughts, and have a great day.

TAGS:  Motivation

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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46 thoughts on “The Problem with Self-Improvement Culture (and What To Do About It)”

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  1. Mark, Blood Pressure Meds. So many of my contemporaries are on BP meds, and I just got advised by my doc to start. I’ve been Primal for 4-5 years and read all your posts, but don’t recall anything on this widespread problem/question. Please advise. Bill

    1. Bill, be sure your “high” blood pressure isn’t just White Coat Syndrome. Get a good BP cuff and learn to check it yourself at home when you’re relaxed and not stressed out or ill since blood pressure is designed by nature to go up and down according to varying situations. I think Mark once said (here on MDA) that a single BP reading is like one note in a tune (or something to that effect) and doesn’t tell the whole story. Also be aware that BP meds can create other problems.

    2. I don’t know if Mark has dedicated a whole article to blood pressure but he has certainly mentioned the importance of getting enough potassium, magnesium, walking, de-stressing, etc. all of which help balance blood pressure. Try beet juice, like this for instance Beets stimulate the release of nitric oxide which allows the blood vessels to dilate which will in turn lower BP. Also, what I am about to say is opinionated, but I think doctors keep lowering the “normal” when it comes to blood pressure. A few years ago they use to say 120/80 is normal now they’re saying 110/70 is normal. There’s absolutely no evidence to suggest people with 110/70 live any longer then people with 120/80. They keep lowering the standard to keep handing out BP meds. Of course that’s my opinion. Keep in mind even a healthy individual will have spikes in their blood pressure throughout the day, it’s normal.

  2. Wonderful advice, Mark! Spot-on for this time of year.
    Pointing out the difference between self esteem and self compassion is incredibly useful because it makes the distinction between the ultimate goal (self esteem) and the way to achieve it (self compassion).
    This is a lesson I’m just starting to learn, hoping to make it more of a habit and less of a stretch!

  3. I was brought up in a military family, my 3 brothers and i all served, we were taught “just do it!” And failure was not an option, we had no choices to make, no self doubting but to keep going until we took that hill. Thats great if your a robot and doesn’t have emotions and a body that sends messages of “why are you doing this to me?! Lol.In the end, what is meaningful and of true value to yourself and those around you? Sometimes weighing out the values of what one wants to do will prevent us from even starting another path to another failure.

    1. I like what you’ve said re “what is meaningful and of true value to yourself”, I think I sometimes fall into the trap of self improvement of some aspect of myself due to what I think other people think I should do/be/improve … I agree, if we weighed the values of what we actually want, often we would set different self improvement goals to begin with (ones that we would probably follow through on).

  4. I like the one about self-compassion. For many people there’s either 100 percent success or 100 percent failure. Strictly black and white with no grey in the middle at all. (I have to be careful or I tend to fall into this trap.) We aren’t perfect beings, not by a long shot. Remembering this and “aiming for the grey”, versus insisting on perfection, goes a long way toward a less stressful existence..

  5. What a great post! I have definitely been guilty in the past of treating self improvement as a spectator sport. Love to read about it and talk about it, don’t always do something. Now, when I start reading a new book, or get a great idea from a podcast, I take the time to implement it. In a book, I actually do the exercise…yes, I write in my books! I used to feel like I would get in trouble, then I remembered I’m not in middle school anymore…these are my books! I also try to find really small things that I can be consistent with, instead of biting off more than I can chew. And I try to find some immediate reward, even if it’s just a minute to think about how good I feel after doing my bosu workout, since I can’t actually see any visual results right away. And I love the idea of self compassion…I look at it as being already whole and complete, yet still being capable of positive growth and change.

    1. Ha! I’ve started doing the same, I always felt like I was ‘wrecking’ the book if I marked it at all.

  6. This is a much needed discussion – so helpful. Reading self-improvement books can be as addictive as gambling. There’s a great book called ‘Mindset’ by Carol Dwerk that addresses the harmful ‘fixed mindset’ which focuses on perfectionism and inevitable failure vs the open mindset. Thank you for an interesting perspective.

    1. Oh, yes – perfectionism is a killer! I like the phrase “good enough is good enough.”

        1. that is a great sentence! tailormade for me – thanks for that!!

    2. I love that book “Mindset” and try to use those phrases that show a growth mindset to my son. Like “we are a work in progress” “ok, now you know that you have to practice that more” “if you are getting bored with the math, ask for something that is more challenging so you can grow”. My son is mostly a fixed mind set person by nature so he’s moving towards the growth mindset now more and more, thankfully.

  7. Thanks Mark, for being there! Your book The New Primal Blueprint has been integral to improving my life, and so has your Daily Apple blog and the example behind all your words. I’m 7 months into my lifelong commitment to health and happiness and so glad I made your example a big part of my ongoing education and –yes– ACTION!

  8. Hi Mark. I first “discovered” self-compassion many years ago, when I was 28, and on a whim took my first yoga class. I was SHOCKED to discover the concept of “letting myself off the hook” for things that I couldn’t do, or couldn’t do yet. I had always been so driven and so internally MEAN to myself! I had had some problems with depression and no doubt it was partly because I was secretly living in jail, with myself as an unforgiving, insulting, perfectionist warden. I’m sharing this because I find that yoga is very much in alignment with self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. So I consider it one of the doorways that can be used to get closer to self-compassion. Not every class and every teacher will do it for every student- it can take a few tries to find the right situation.

    1. Agreed! I have some problematic habits of mind that Ashtanga yoga Mysore practice (and the excellent instructors!) is helping me change. I’ve been at it for four months with some time-outs. I tend to be paralyzed by perfectionism. Ashtanga meets me where I am. Most mornings I love it: the challenges, the changes. This morning some old habits kicked in: I’m not very good at this, I’m naturally weak, etc. Even though I had done it! Just a habit of “who do you think you are?”. Habits can be changed and I’m determined to wear a new groove. As I walked down the stairs from the studio I glumly repeated, “My goal is the practice. The practice is my goal. I just practiced. I achieved my goal.” The feeling of failure is present but I’m working to not buy into it. I am proud of myself for showing up for practice three days a week and THAT is worth buying into!

    2. Very very nice
      Yoga helped me to truly assimilate the books I read about compassion, mindfulness

  9. So I guess my next self-help book should be on self-compassion…. Thanks for a thoughtful article, Mark.

    1. The researcher Mark linked to Kristin Neff, and her book “Self-Compassion” is terrific.

  10. Great post, Mark, thank you. Being nice to ourselves often comes way down the list, and I think not enough people are nice to themselves – because I see them not being nice to other people, which I think is a clue. A bigly clue. But as for not always getting down to self improvement, if taking up the Primal/ketogenic lifestyle in the blink of an eye counts as self improvement, can I have a little boast here, please? And I’ve never looked back. Still procrastinating over lots of other stuff, though!

  11. I flew up to Oregon for a job interview this week and I took public transportation to the airport. (The bus left me on the wrong side of airport on Sunday and I had to run 3 miles with 2 carry-on’s, followed by a sprint to the gate to make my flight!) The bus riders are low income-type folks and the airplane passengers are mid-to high income people. Both groups share some common traits, 1) obesity is prevalent and 2) both groups mesmerized by computer devices! The addiction to sugar/refined carbs and constant entertainment seems to be especially challenging to confront. In wealthy nations like the US, people are conditioned to a sense of entitlement. Their lives are taking place within their minds, their bodies are going along for the ride! The concept of modern “self-improvement” is another form of entertainment, not a meaningful acceptance of facts and logical thought. they are completely afraid to be left alone with their own thoughts and meditate on meaningful change. Maybe in the past I might have read some stuff from the “self-help” shelf. Today I do not! Lifestyle changes take time, it is a gradual process, the key is to always move in the right direction, which is the opposite direction most folks are heading!

  12. Could not have said it better, Mark. Great post.

    These ideas about the difference between self-esteem and self compassion are things that, in my opinion, are confusing points to some people. I think that many people, as they get older, begin to notice that all the self help books are basically repeating the same message. It is only with hindsight, and thus the wisdom of older age that we see how we could be kinder to ourselves and accept that we really all just do the best we can with what we have and that not everything is under our control, even with the best of intentions and motivation

    It is very freeing to realize that one failure doesn’t mean the end of all success. Life can and does get better. Thanks for the (real) encouragement.

  13. Great post, Mark–I needed to hear this. I know that self-compassion is far more powerful than self-criticism–in fact, yelling at myself never gets me anywhere good and usually backfires. Yet I struggle to actually feel self-compassion. It’s a practice like anything else, and your post helps me remember to keep practicing.

  14. Not long ago I wrote myself a reminder; Action+Compassion: Begin. Even so, it’s hard to do. I’ve had too many failures. But a kind friend would lift me up, and that is what I need to do too. Cynicism is wounded optimism.

  15. Always been compassionate with others. Thanks for realization that I need self compassion too.

  16. This article is on point – it is easy to read endlessly about health, lifestyle and fitness then step away from the computer go grab a donut and weirdly feel good. And when the belly-bomb hits a few minutes later, then starts the in-your-head tear down for making such a horrible choice and being an all-around looser. I understand it is up to me to implement any and all changes. I need reminders and support to do so. I’ve come a long way – with a lot of self compassion instead of self-loathing – and recognize I have a ways to go. The thing is, the deeper I get into wanting to be healthy and feel good, I find roadblocks that must be overcome like negative emotions, toxic relationships and other self-sabatoging behavior. Some of that stuff takes time to work through. I wish I could simply set my mind to being an accomplished (fill-in-the-blank) and consider it “done,” but life is more nuanced than that. **Still Standing – Still Trying**

  17. Mark, this is THE BEST blog post you have ever written – EVER! It speaks to me in areas of my brain that were, up until now, impermeable. I literally heard myself in an audible sigh of, “ahhh….!”. Thank you; you just changed my life.

  18. Hi my comment on this line:

    ” the squat rack is free again”

    In my gym at work we never had that problem: it was free before and it is free now

  19. The uniiverse is trying to tell me something…I’ve run across similar information in a book I’m currently reading (Rick Hanson’s Just One Thing) and a workshop by Tara Brach…

  20. Best self-help advice I ever read. I’d like to add that I think that the negative voice in our heads probably comes from our upbringing. I think the very best thing we can do for our children is to implant a kind voice in their heads which is hard if we didn’t grow up with one ourselves and if we are responsible and bring them up right. But if we can teach them that failures are just learning experiences that everybody goes through and that success is not what makes them a worthy person, it will equip them for a good life. I think parents often see their role as motivating kids to be successful, but that can up being paralyzing

  21. A teacher of mine often said you never get it (whatever “it” you’re talking about) done, and you can’t get it wrong. You can’t get it wrong, because it’s never done. So that leaves doing the next thing, then doing the next thing, then doing the next thing…and they’re all good.

  22. Hi Mark, I think you hint at one key factor, but never address it. There’s so much “self-improvement” advice out there, how do you identify what to do? It’s easy to see all the recommendations, not know which course of action is best, and then simply not choose out of decision fatigue. I’d love to hear your thoughts on evaluating all the advice and choosing what to follow.

  23. Great timing on the post Mark! I came to the revelation not too long ago that consuming self improvement knowledge is entertainment, like someone who watches Fox “news” or CNNot. I think that this information is going to make me a better per but really it just a way to pass time. Know how refugees are being mistreated is no different than knowing the three best ways to increase your productivity. I have to do apply that knowledge to my life. I don usually comment on these articles but this is a good way to connect with ther article so I can apply it later.