Unimproving Part 1: Original Sin

Imagine you’re holding a newborn baby.  You’re looking down into its unblinking eyes.  You smell that unmistakeable baby freshness.  Unless you’re psychologically damaged goods, you’d be having feelings of love, if not awe, for this new human being.  

What you wouldn’t be doing is withholding your love until the baby did something to warrant it:  like reciting Wordsworth, solving an equation or telling a really funny joke.  That would be nuts, but we apply this withholding of love, without a second thought, to ourselves, not loving ourselves unless we do something better, unless we improve ourselves.  Even worse, we may actively dislike and castigate ourselves for not being ‘good enough’.

So, our theme today is unimproving, getting off the self-improvement bandwagon.  This will be in two parts: Part 1 will lay out the problems with self-improvement; Part 2 will suggest some practical antidotes.

Our everyday intuition around my babe-in-arms example is that of course the baby just IS lovable.  Very few people these days give credence to the superstition called ‘original sin’.  We naturally and intelligently avoid the category mistake of confusing a baby’s being with their doing. But we don’t seem to apply the same rules to ourselves.  How come?  What’s the stain within us, the ‘original sin’ so to speak?

Well, no doubt with respect to babies there are Evolutionary ‘triggers’ designed around baby features (in humans, puppies, kittens etc) to reliably evoke awe, altruistic feelings and love.  And these wear off as we become, it has to be said, less cute.

What else happens as we get older? Do we become less lovable?  Has our essence changed, our fundamental humanity? No of course not.  This unconditional loving tapers off to be replaced by a calculus of achievement and comparison.  This has been hugely exaggerated in recent decades by neoliberalism, emphasising endless personal productivity and competition.

An additional cause is that we are aware from an early age of our complete dependence on others for our survival.  This pertains especially to our parents who literally keep us alive.  If these giants frown at us, yell in our vicinity, look angry or just fail to show up when we want them… terror is a common response as toddlers. Of course, this is inevitable as parents cannot possibly always be available and always be happy. 

And what is the child to do?  It seeks to improve its behaviour or appearance in order to get your attention and love. That’s both wise and practical.  So maybe the child learns to cry less – or perhaps more. They may try being oppositional or being compliant.  It all depends on their personality, the context and the results of their experiments. Which ‘improvement’ works best? 

But, in any case, the lie is thereby swallowed: there is something unlovable, some original sin, at the centre of our being … that we need this kind of fundamental improvement in order to garner esteem from others and thereby prosper.  Therein begins a life of improvement and fundamental insecurity.  It is what I call the grand delusion. We are pretty sure there is something ugly within that if others were to see it, they would be repulsed. 

It’s not only our immediate caregivers of course; it’s from the whole ‘village’ that we require esteem.  Our dependency doesn’t go away as we age: as George Kelly, the author of Personal Construct Psychology, put it: as we age, we ‘disperse our dependencies’ much like a diversified portfolio in the stock market. This is a kind of ongoing insurance we take out to increase the likelihood we will survive and hopefully thrive. So, we are deeply wired and indeed must play this game in some form.

This brings out the worst of us, however, on social media.  Images are obsessively filtered and airbrushed, unrealistic standards become ‘normal; influencers promote deeply curated myths about their lives; we strive to emulate the impossible and so feel chronically deficient.

We put on faces to meet the faces that we meet – to slightly misquote T.S. Eliot.  We are on the self-improvement roundabout. One of the terrible ironies of this is that it’s these curated presentations of self that may stop people getting close to us and prevent us from relaxing into simple, authentic being.  They actually make us less attractive!

I’m no Freudian, but it is these ‘defences’ that become ugly… think of the person who brags, or who projects their neuroses onto others, whose stress stresses others, and so on and so on.

This universal insecurity about self feeds a massive Self-Help industry that both promotes and capitalises on these wired-in and socially amplified imperatives.  While there are the occasional gems in the rough, much of the self-help industry is based on two basic mistakes: 1. that there is a fundamental flaw in all of us and 2. there is a self in there that need’s improving. 

The pursuit of this mirage causes untold suffering.  As the gap widens between our honest self-appraisal and our projected, perfected self, so does our vulnerability and distress deepen.  As with obsessive hand washing to ward off feared bacteria and germs, each successful improvement temporarily reduces our anxiety but locks us ever more deeply into compulsive self-improvement.

So, what can be done? We’ll come back to this in our next blog where we’ll explore antidotes to this endless life on stage, this acting out of an impossible idealised self.  But I’ll give you the sense of the solution: it’s by being far more realistic about who we are and doing things for enjoyment not for esteem.