You can’t improve yourself

Just hear me out

This is the type of post that if I read it years ago I might’ve succumbed to my depression. Or at best, I just wouldn’t understand it and still be worried about my future.

The year 2008 was ending on a very scary note. I was moving from my childhood home because my parents couldn’t afford the rent anymore. My band put out a song that got a few bad reviews and my confidence plummeted. My grades as a psychology student were… meh. There went my dream of being touted the lovechild of Chino Moreno and Carl Jung. And I knew that the clouds that I was trying to outrun had caught up with me and began a hurricane of emotion that would cause me to want to leave the world.

I did not find a solution, but I remained alive.

What I found was something like Vicks VapoRub. It alleviated a symptom in a pungent way that wouldn’t cause me to sleep and still didn’t solve the underlying problem, and then when I wanted to go to sleep I tried to wash it off but it was so damn persistent that it lingered and there was nothing I could do about it.

What I found was self-help.

I don’t mean to crap all over self-help — maybe just on its thigh. To be fair, good and rational self-help saved me from myopic and incomplete self-help. But the myopic and incomplete self-help is the perfect remedy for a mind that cannot yet fathom or value the Good ‘n Rational brand.

I have an article about that but this post is a different spin.

The fact is, I needed half-truths to get me by when I was in bad shape in 2008. No offense to the religious, but it was a lot like religion and at the time I still was religious. I wouldn’t need verifiable facts, just something different than what the Bible was telling me but would inspire a stronger credulity. My friend recommended The Secret and it saved me, until it enslaved me. Then I had to find the full-truths.

The enslavement that it caused was that I was on a constant search to improve myself. Initially, I couldn’t see that to be on this search implied that I was not good enough. Actually, no. I definitely thought that I wasn’t good enough. My life wasn’t good enough. I needed things to make me feel worthy of love. I needed the external symbols of success.

I sort of, kind of got some of them!

And then I lost them.

Then I got some more! Better ones, in fact.

And then I lost them.

And then things got really dark and I had to stay with my parents for a while.

But in that sabbatical the answers came, as did the realization that my chase for external things was never-ending; that even if I got what I wanted, I would just continue to chase because the game is to chase. The game is not to be fulfilled where you are right now.

Alan Watts once said, “There is the obvious difficulty that if I am in need of improvement, the person that is going to do the improving is the one who needs to be improved. And there immediately we have a vicious circle.”

What Watts is saying here is that if you, Flawed Person, is trying to be better, how would you, Flawed Person, know how to do that? Even if you got Life Coachman to help you, why would you take their advice? Would you even understand what they’re saying? Could you put your self to the side and somehow do what they’re telling you to do?

As someone who is often asked for advice, the answer is no. As someone who has scoured close to one hundred self-improvement books to improve himself, the answer is no. Why? Because…

The reason you want to be better is the reason why you aren’t. — Alan Watts

You have judged yourself to be inferior, and so you experience yourself as such. Any advice that could be used to change things in your life will be ignored or misunderstood.

Now, what one might think is, “Hold on a second. So if I want to improve my finances and have great relationships, that’s a bad thing?”

No, it’s not. But if you could, you would. What I’m saying is that your attempts to improve whatever in life will be in vain if you think you’re flawed. And let’s face it, if you think you’re flawed, you’re going to do things that flawed people do. Please don’t think that you could somehow navigate through life with a low self-image and make it into the big time.

Because even if you did, you’d sabotage it anyway.

Take this notion that we have to teach morality to robots. Can you imagine such a hilarious thing? Parents can barely teach morality to their children, governments can’t use the greatest weapon in the world, fear, to regulate the behaviour of its citizens. But hey, let’s teach R2D2 not to murder. Well, except if it’s a bad guy. Then yeah, kill the son of a gun.

(Yeah, yeah, I know that technically we’d have to program them to not do certain things at all. The point is that we struggle with doing the right thing all the time, so it’s ironic.)

Please don’t kill me.

As I said, if you wanted to improve yourself, you’d just do it. But you haven’t and it’s because you don’t know how to. This is why books that I read at 19, didn’t make sense until I was 25, and concepts I heard at 18 didn’t make sense until last week Wednesday.

But note well, it wasn’t through effort that I became enlightened to these things.

Now, if you get what I was saying above and you realize that you can’t improve yourself, two things happen:

1. You start to relax. No more chasing an idealized you that is based on the machinations of someone who doesn’t yet know what they’re talking about.

2. You just do what you have to do and what you want to do.

Watts says that once you get out of your own way, your own nature will begin to take care of itself. But I’m going to be honest with you. This is the very last thing I would want to hear. I don’t want to put my trust in “my nature”. What does that even mean? And yet, when life bitch slaps me to the floor and I have no choice but to trust in something, I keep quiet and I wait. The door opens and the answer walks towards me and licks my face.

So here’s the thing: You can change, but you can’t change yourself. Efforts to change yourself are born out of a prior thought that you are flawed. And if that is the case, how can you as a flawed person, somehow not do a flawed act or give the flawed response? You circumvent it not through trying to do something, not through not trying to do something but by just existing.

Like I said earlier, I didn’t learn what I learnt and gain a better understanding of these things through effort. As a matter of fact, that stuff that I got, I didn’t get those things through some concerted effort either. “My nature”, which I guess could mean my flaws, my virtues, my interests and my intentions were what led me to the knowledge and the stuff.

It would seem that these things were granted to me not because of any idea that I deserved them or even through my desiring them, because there were a lot of things that I learnt that revealed that my understanding of things was completely backwards.

But apparently these things were granted to me because they were always here. When my friends ask for advice, I know exactly what to tell them. They might not do it. Similarly, I was given the information, but I did not always understand it or do it. But you can’t make yourself get it, can you? You live your life and then one day it just clicks. Suddenly, you get it. You get it because you had an intention in your life. When that’s done, then the information flows in.

The knowledge can get blocked when you try to change yourself. How? When you are focused on your flaws, you cannot simultaneously focus on a solution. Trying to change is about as sensible as trying to make your hair grow. Your hair grows on its own, you don’t need to force it to.

So why can be so relaxed about our hair growing or the seasons changing but strain to make ourselves change?

Because you don’t think life would mould you into what you want to be. It’s too fantastic a thought to think that life or God or the Universe could give you what you desire. Could life really be so benevolent as to give you the answers and morph you into the person who can actually get and maintain their desires?

But the only reason you’d think to ask that is because you think life is out to get you.

Maybe you should consider the opposite, but you won’t (unless you can).

Written by

Former Edu. Psychologist | Current Writer | Constant Learner | “By your stumbling the world is perfected.”

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store