Getting my Fix

Posted on October 3, 2013

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goldfish jumping off to new fishtank

One of my friends posted an article on Facebook called, “How to Get Flat Abs, Have Amazing Sex and Rule the World in 8 Easy Steps.”

I knew it was a trap as soon as I saw the title. And by ‘trap’ I mean, not a real self-help article but one of those Let’s just all accept ourselves as we are and stop trying so hard feel-good-type things.

I read it anyway.  It wasn’t inspiring or motivating.  It didn’t leave me with the anticipation that accompanies the beginning of a new plan of self-improvement action.

It was just as I suspected: a piece on how we all buy into the promises on the covers of magazines because we want to be happy. We believe that once we get flat abs, we’ll be happy. Once we have amazing sex, then we’ll be happy. Once we learn how to rule the world, then we’ll be happy.  And, the author basically said, all of that is bullshit. Because by tying our happiness to an outcome in the future, we’re denying ourselves happiness in the present.

I didn’t find this maxim to be particularly original or insightful, as I’ve heard variations of it all over the place. People post quotes like this online all the time and if you live on the west coast, you’re guaranteed to be reminded of it by a bumper sticker.

Everyone knows this already, right?

Here’s the thing, though- I don’t really believe it.

I am a self-help addict. I am a fix-it junkie. I am completely determined to get flat abs and have amazing sex and I don’t think it has anything to do with postponing my happiness. I’m pretty sure that self-acceptance and happiness are a bit more complicated than the author of that article made it out to be.

Last year, I got a call from T, a woman who was interested in relationship coaching. During the consultation, I asked her what she had already done to improve her dating situation. This is a standard question I ask because it gives me a sense of where the client is and what she’s ready for when we begin.

Most clients have tried some stuff before they decide to hire me but T. was different. T. had already tried just about everything for everlasting love.

She listed tons of relationship books that she had already read, cited several articles from some of my favorite dating  experts and told me about all of the dating sites she was currently on (some of which I had never even heard of).  T. had attended relationship workshops, singles’ retreats, speed dating groups and had already hired a matchmaker. She had seen a hypnotherapist and a psychotherapist and then decided relationship coaching may be the missing link in her quest.

“I told my best friend I was calling you, ” she said. “And she wasn’t happy about it. She told me, ‘T! This is just another example of you trying to fix yourself. You are always trying to fix yourself! When are you just going to accept who you are?”

This unnerved me a little.  T., with all of her self-help initiatives, sounded a lot like me.

Several years ago, after a devastating personal tragedy, I started seeing a therapist named Dr. O. Dr. O was pretty insightful and specialized in the shit I had just been through and for the whole year that I saw her, she forbid me to read any self-help books or articles.

I think you believe that there’s something wrong with you,” she said. “That the bad things that have happened in your life are somehow your fault and you have to fix it and all of this self-help stuff only reinforces that negative belief.

I thought (and still think) this is one of the most profound things I have ever been told. So I did what Dr. O advised. I stopped reading the advice books.  I reluctantly shelved my Psychology Today magazines before I had a chance to even open them. I resisted the gravitational pull towards the self-help section at Barnes and Noble. I stopped watching Oprah.

None of this was easy.  Well, let me be more honest; actually, this was incredibly fucking difficult. In fact, of everything I’ve ever done in my life, this definitely ranked up there as one of the hardest.

And you know what? Something really interesting and unexpected happened in the year of no self-help.

I felt relieved. I was off of the hook! There was nothing to do! I could relax.

I spent my free time reading fiction and doing my morning pages and grieving all that I had lost. I started eating a lot of chocolate.  I started going on vacation and taking up creative projects. It was fun there, for a few months.

And then I got bored. I felt lost and disoriented. There were no goals. There were no action plans. There was nothing to strive for.  I started to get anxious because I felt like my very precious time was just slipping away. I had no agendas. I wasn’t working towards anything.

I began meditating more often, because in meditation we learn that striving is bad and that just accepting is good. So I tried that, to do what I was supposed to do. But it still didn’t work.  With each passing day, I felt more and more despondent.

My therapy ended and I had completed my mission. I had spent a year devoid of any kind of self-improvement.

But as soon as it was done, the self-help floodgates burst open.

That afternoon, I went right to my Kindle and downloaded a self-help book about running a successful small business. Then I took some classes on how to create coaching programs and read articles on improving my time management skills.

I started making goal sheets and charts. I outlined my ten-year and five-year plans. I listed my resolutions. I began to notice when I talked too much. I tried to be a better listener. I began taking yoga again.  I started instating spiritual principals into my life. I started responding to others with active listening and empathy.  I checked my ego.

And you know what happened? I felt alive.

I began waking up each day inspired about all there was left to accomplish. I was excited about my personal progress and looking forward to the next challenge. I was savoring the whole journey of making myself into the best human being I could possibly be. And, I felt very, very happy.

After healing what I needed to heal, the pull towards self-improvement wasn’t so much about fixing myself as much it was about getting a fix for my ambition.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Dr. O was definitely right: Approaching self-improvement with a negative belief that you’re flawed or trying to fix yourself because you don’t believe you’re worthy of love (like T) is self-destructive.

But for some, this self-improvement stuff is a source of inspiration; it ignites a sense of purpose. Goals and self-improvement plans can bring about profound feelings of achievement. Progress often equates to pride.

The article I mentioned above oversimplified our human motivations. Just because someone’s trying to get a six-pack doesn’t mean they lack self-acceptance.  It is completely possible to be happy and to be striving for something better at the same time.

I just finished Laura Vanderkam’s mini self-help book What the Most Successful People do on the Weekends. I am way more excited for this upcoming weekend than I have been for a weekend in a long time.  We are going to transform the way we do our free time! We are going to have more fun by planning stuff in advance!  We are going to maximize our days off!

I’ve finally decided to accept who I truly am: someone who loves self-improvement.

Just because you’re striving for something doesn’t mean that you’re postponing your happiness. It doesn’t mean that something’s wrong with you. Every successful person I know is on some kind of path towards a better self.

If you’re making a plan for personal change, check your intentions. And if you’re out to carve a better life out of self-love, then do your thing and do it with a happy heart.

The whole journey towards something better is a pretty awesome one to take.

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Posted in: Change