Unimproving Part 2: The Antidote
I wonder if you’ve ever had this experience. You have a good friend who is depressed. You love them dearly. You’re mystified: You see clearly that they are a wonderful human being. You really esteem them. But they think they are worthless, a burden to others. You tell them how great they are. They are wrong about themselves etc. But the person clings to their self-disgust. They think you are either being overly kind and exaggerating their virtues or you lack insight into how they really are … or both!
In Part 1 of Unimproving we took aim at the self-improvement industry, especially where it is founded on a deep category mistake: confusing our Being with our Doing. We saw that our being or inherent nature cannot be improved and our skills, achievements and appearances – though very important, can’t be the foundation of lasting happiness and self-regard.
So, our self-castigating friend most likely has become confused: they have conflated their inherent being or worth with what they perceive as failures in their doing. What do I mean by this? Most depressions I’ve seen are about perceived failures in important life domains: intimate relationships, friendships, work, health, community reputation and so on. The person has evidence they are failing in these and conclude there is something fundamentally wrong with them. Someone they love leaves them; they conclude they are unlovable. They have a major setback at work; ‘I’m useless’. They become quite overweight; ‘I’m weak and ugly’. In the worst depths of depression, they believe their ‘self’ is beyond repair.
In a functional account of depression, however, the pain serves the purpose of motivating us to take action to remedy the problems in our life. Rumination is designed for problem-solving and directing subsequent goal-focussed action. In other words, non-clinical depression is adaptive. But when it is misunderstood, when it is trapped within this mistaking our being for our doing, it runs rampant in the mind and the body. The grand delusion turns something potentially helpful into something terribly destructive.
So how do we deal with this disabling negative self-esteem? We take the self out of it!
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with improving knowledge and skills. In fact, I’d highly recommend it! Mastering skills and garnering knowledge is inherently exciting and satisfying. It provides joy when done for the right reason and when done in the right way. Watching kids master walking, their tricycle and eventually their bicycle indicates the natural joy of mastery. Learning new things is a lifelong priority for happiness. Becoming fit, losing excess weight, mastering a hobby are all laudable.
But one should not pursue mastery in order to feel better about oneself, to bolster one’s reputation or raise one’s self esteem. All of these things happen naturally when we do the opposite: when we forget ourselves! When we reduce self-consciousness and self-concern. So, what I’m saying is that knowledge of the distinction between being and doing is enormously liberating when we apply it in the midst of setbacks and failures.
That’s the foundation for my tips that follow because knowledge helps! Insights can liberate. Part 1 of Unimproving was all about taking the blindfold off and seeing reality as it is. We already are good enough to be loved – by others and by ourselves. Our being will admit of no improvement. But our doing, that is another matter.
So, given this critical insight, what are some practical antidotes to self-improvement? What can we do in order to get better at simply being ourselves? There are many practices:
- We’ll start with self-compassion practices. We can counteract the inherent negativity of the grand delusion by persistently practising kindness and appreciation of our own essential being. This may include gratitude journals, logging one’s achievements and improvements and seriously prioritising self-care activities, such as massages, catching up with friends, listening to music and so on.
- We can look to operate more and more with Intrinsic Motivation: doing tasks for the sake of it rather than some extrinsic reward. Then we don’t have to motivate ourselves to do what we ‘should’ do… we do what already motivates us. This is crucial as we might, if we’re not vigilant, even turn activities we love into anxious opportunities for being exposed as deficient.
- We can develop a stronger growth mindset. Carol Dweck’s useful distinction between a fixed and growth mindset is compatible with what I’m calling ‘the grand delusion’ – the belief there is something fundamentally wrong inside our self. People who think they have fixed attributes, skills and abilities become either desperate to improve or desperate to avoid activities that risk failure, thus exposure. They undoubtedly feel they need fundamental improvements. Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, are more interested in engagement and learning rather than trying to improve perceived self-deficits. They are interested in process; details of action and they seek and act on objective feedback so their performance continually improves. It’s driven by curiosity, not be fear.
- It also helps to frequently take altruistic action. There is a plethora of research that indicates this kind of non-self-concerned action liberates the giver. We are hard-wired via natural selection as reciprocal altruists. This means it feels inherently pleasurable to help others and liberates us for a while from a sense of deficit driven by self-concern.
- One should measure self-performance against one’s own benchmarks. I’d recommend James Clear’s wonderful book Atomic Habits that describes what are called marginal gains – daily 1 % improvements measured against one’s own performance. This is truly liberating and satisfying as it works like compound interest to give us a growing sense of mastery and healthy pride.
- We ought to dedicate time and effort to aesthetic appreciation, contemplation of nature and of beauty. This takes us ‘out of self’ and ironically enhances our sense of interconnectedness and value. We’ve all had the experience of feeling tiny gazing upon a starry night sky or walking through an ancient forest. There is something liberating and renewing about this shrinking of our egoistic universe.
- Finally, come to understand your personality and then really accept it. Do a Big 5 personality inventory and then do three things: select environments that suit your personality (as your personality will not change) and then further curate that environment to even better suit you! Thirdly, use neuroplasticity to gradually wire in adaptations to your environment to accommodate the inevitable mismatches between you and the circumstances that confront you.
In summary, I think genuine happiness derives from the relative lack of self-concern. The one thing I suggest you do in order to be happier, is to improve your unimproving!