2. Abandon the illusion that ticked boxes are linked to your self-worth.
Society fosters individuals who feel the need for acknowledgment and validation of everything they have accomplished “correctly” (according to some obscure societal standard, anyway). This often involves pursuing higher education, securing employment, establishing a romantic relationship, purchasing a property, and starting a family.
But continuously needing to verify life boxes for the sake of merely verifying boxes — particularly if these society-selected actions are not necessarily tasks that ignite you — can be risky, asserts Charese L. Josie, L.C.S.W., women’s leadership mentor and creator of CJ Counseling and Consulting Services.
Val Jones, presenter and licensed life coach
“When you completely attach yourself to ticking off objectives, you will find yourself in a position where you will question ‘what comes next?’ and it will never be sufficient.”
— Val Jones, presenter and licensed life coach
“When this takes place, your self-esteem is tied into your work and aspirations,” explains Josie. “This is perilous because you become under the false impression that you control your fate and, when you comprehend that life will happen to all of us in one way or another, you’re not prepared. It’s then that people feel they have failed in some manner,” she says.
Jones — who’s a self-proclaimed list-maker — cautions that, while she adores setting goals for herself and ticking them off, you shouldn’t become attached to those lists. “When you attach yourself entirely to checking off goals, you will find yourself in a position where you will question ‘what comes next?’ and it will never be sufficient,” she points out.
Instead, give yourself permission to not adhere to all of the rules and routines to which you’ve subscribed. Explore what feels right for you, and celebrate all of your distinctive triumphs along the way. This means “freeing yourself and your mind from the expectations of others,” says Hendrickson. Including all those boxes you feel compelled and pressured to check.
“Self-improvement is often too fixated on piling on new things: new goals, new skills, new certifications,” adds Chris Lee, a mindset coach and writer of Less Is the New More. “The most potent self-growth comes from stripping things away: other people’s expectations, self-limiting barriers, and assumptions that don’t serve you,” he remarks.
3. Repetition leads to advancement, not flawlessness.
Self-improvement is about enhancing yourself, not perfecting yourself; there’s no such thing as flawless. “I like to think of self-growth as self-consciousness and lucidity work; it’s discovering and uncovering who you are in the present,” says Tiffany Lanier, a public speaker on change and wellbeing, lucidity coach, and the founder of The Morning Shift Co. “Taking stock of outdated narratives, habits, and behaviors that need to be unlearned and acknowledging the ones that need to be embraced. As you do this self-consciousness and lucidity work, you also keep an eye on the vision of who you’re looking to become,” she explains.
4. Release shame.
To bring about change, you must come from a position of self-mercy. “Too often, individuals strive to eliminate aspects they detest, leaving scars on their spirits, or they contort themselves into someone they are not — but it does not need to be this way,” suggests psychotherapist and ADHD coach Rebecca Tolbert, L.I.C.S.W..
“When you commence with unconditional affection for yourself, you can recognize your ‘negative patterns’ and ‘flaws’ for what they are: coping mechanisms. You were doing your utmost to cope with what unfolded in your life. And now you are prepared to cope with things in a more adaptable manner,” states Tolbert. Instead of descending into shame and self-hatred, it is crucial to “elevate self-love” to higher levels of functioning, she emphasizes. “You do not need to force yourself into specific conduct,” Tolbert adds.
Rebecca Tolbert, LICSW
Trying to shame yourself into change will never result in a fulfilling life.
— Rebecca Tolbert, LICSW
Besides, the errors you inevitably made along the way present opportunities for personal growth.
“Present-day developmental psychologists regard healthy relationships as being founded on the dynamics of rupture and repair — as opposed to flawless or perfectionistic — and when you view each mistake (rupture) as an opening for growth (repair), you are embracing grace, self-forgiveness, and compassion into your heart, mind, and life,” explains Mark Borg, Ph.D., a psychologist and author.
Moreover, much of what you understand about yourself (as well as love and hate, accept and reject) is learned — from society, from others, from culture — about yourself, Borg adds. “A significant portion of your knowledge arises from the initial, ongoing, and consistently reflected evaluations that you receive, absorb, and utilize in forming your relationship not only with the world but also with yourself,” he remarks.
5. Direct your focus inward rather than outward for growth opportunities.
It can be tempting to embrace the notion that specific actions or habits will enable you to evolve into a better, more enlightened version of yourself.
But it’s not about the podcasts you listen to, the publications you read, or the things you record in a diary. Personal development begins with tuning into yourself, declares physician Azadeh Khatibi, M.D., M.S., M.P.H.
[Self-improvement] entails comprehending your distinct neuro-psychological profile, and comprehending how your genetics, childhood, and past experiences have ‘programmed’ you into who you are,” states Dr. Khatibi. (Take, for instance, attachment styles, which develop when you’re under a year old, or the intricacies of intergenerational trauma.)
Ultimately, a significant portion of this work “requires listening to your heart, being gentle with yourself and your imperfect ‘programs’ — a consequence of being human,” continues Dr. Khatibi. “It’s a lifelong, never-ending process of peeling back the layers of the onion of life,” she asserts.
That’s why your thoughts and emotions are so crucial during self-improvement — arguably even more so than whether or not you’re achieving those difficult goals. “It’s crucial to not simply concentrate on your conduct (what you’re doing or not doing and the outcomes you’re obtaining or not obtaining),” says Annalicia Niemela, a certified holistic health coach and leader of the Exercise180 Movement. “It’s also crucial to concentrate on what you’re thinking, who you’re being, and, ultimately, how you’re feeling,” she adds.
A shift in attitude precedes a change in behavior. “A natural byproduct of thinking better is doing better,” says Niemela. “When you start to think better, you won’t have to compel yourself to do better; it will happen organically and will be sustained naturally. Appreciating life’s ‘intangibles’ is absolutely essential to discovering that sweet spot where success, sustainability, and peace of mind all converge,” she remarks.