The Cult of Self Improvement In America Sending the Message Being You is Never Good Enough

Maybe it started with the age old traditions of New Years resolutions and spring cleaning, or maybe it began with the first self help books and motivational speakers to capture the public’s attention. Whatever the case self help and self improvement is an industry worth billions of dollars in books, DVD’s, workbooks, exercise equipment, do it yourself kits for protecting your identity, safety kits for your kids, organizing, digitizing yours and your family’s medical records, financial information, important papers. Seminars on spirituality, motivation, social challenges facing youth, men women, all age brackets, all shapes and sizes. Technology has even joined the self improvement bandwagon offering apps that count calories, provide you with restaurants offering lower calorie choices, pedometers that tell you how many steps you have taken in a day, send you daily affirmations and a host of other things based on your goals for becoming a better you, all positive and worthwhile endeavors. But underneath is something darker implying you have to be better, more sophisticated, increasingly driven or you are incomplete, unworthy of acceptance, validation or a place in this ultra competitive society.

On the surface it sounds good right, ways to get organized, simple ways to lose weight, manage your time, deal with stress, land a promotion, higher paying job, handle your finances, connect with your kids, your wife, your boyfriend, ward off depression, anxiety, dementia. A popular slogan is do you want to live to be 100, how to live to be 100. However one of the hidden, subconscious messages of all this self improvement, all these ways to better yourself, invent, create a new, enhanced you, is that the original isn’t good enough. Top experts say at least some of the keys to being happy lie in playing to your strengths not always trying to bolster your weaknesses and accepting the things you cannot change, i.e. making peace with yourself that you’ll never be a size 2. Yet every tidbit of advice given is about things to do or not to do, more productive uses of your time, more efficient uses of your money, eat this not that, the benefits of certain foods, certain kinds of exercise, study tips, college essay tips, presentation tips, conversation help, dating/flirting cues. Further in society today people are looked down upon as lacking character, slovenly if they aren’t striving to lose weight, quit smoking, haven’t joined a gym, cut out red meat, don’t envision themselves as climbing the career ladder, saving for a dream house, getting out of debt in record time, oh and if they’re not attempting every one of those things at the same time.

Books like The Other Eight Hours and 168 hours claim its not what we do at work but what we do outside of it that determines so much, hints the other eight hours, and that we all have the same 168 hours in a week it’s how we manage it that produces marked differences, nuggets transmitted via talk shows segments, radio shows. Pitting a busy mother of 6 against the rest of us, the author of the latter boasts owning her own business, coaching soccer, reading to her kids, going for hikes, catching her favorite shows in reruns and getting at least 7 hours of sleep per night. But before we all grow green with envy, before we feel worthless in comparison, have to pick our jaws up off the floor, lets look at how she likely did it. First, a big advantage over everyone else is owning her own business, indicating she can set her own hours; assuming all her kids are school age, she can work roughly 8:30 to 300 still put in a 45 minute workout with her trainer before heading off to coach soccer. Lets say she gets home around 6:30 from soccer detail, she can help that child with homework while preparing or finishing preparations for dinner, probably enlisting her husband to begin dinner, help the other 5 kids with homework, ensure chores are completed or retrieving them from extracurricular activities. Dinners on the table between 7:00 and 7:30, over between 8:00 or 8:30, younger ones head off for baths older ones to finish homework, complete chores, watch TV, whatever’s necessary to keep them occupied. By 9:00 or 9:30 she’s read to her kids; 10:00 to 10:30 her older kids are in bed and she has time with her husband before the 11:00 news. If she’s in bed by 11:30, getting that golden 7 hours means a 6:30 wake up call; hiking tabled for the weekends while kids are at friends houses, on play dates, band or sports practice.

Contrastingly people who work set hours, typically 8-5, retrieve kids from after school activities, go home, cook dinner, help kids with homework, put them to bed to clean house, do laundry, pay bills collapse into bed getting up to do it all again tomorrow. Said scenario based on the huge assumption work ends at 5:00, when many times people are actually answering work related e-mails, texts well into the evening, so much so courts plan to decide if answering e-mails counts as overtime. Homework isn’t just for kids; individuals in high octain careers, going to an office everyday, find themselves at home pouring over expense accounts, finishing that big presentation. Somewhat incendiary are additional expert assertions it’s silly to blame your job when you choose your job, considering this was disseminated in 2010, when many were still looking for work, 99 weekers were a top news story maxing out benefits, unable to land a job; those who were employed not choosing their hours, something largely found in giant corporations or white collar fields. Forgotten about too are commuters who can spend up to 2 hours or more on the road each way to and from work everyday, like the father of 4 living in Pennsylvania commuting to his job New York because it was cheaper to raise his family there. Another scenario a mother of 2 teens who lost her dream job, getting two more to make ends meet, not getting home till 10:00 pm. Also to be challenged the second tip accompanying this idea in a radio segment, figuring out what you do best pointing out our shining example super mom did her best nurturing family, self and business, eliminating all else. Yet it doesn’t really matter what you do best in an economy such as this one where you have a job for an income, where you’re doing what youre doing to get by.

Potentially grating are questions generated about life and how we spend our time Dr. Phil’s top questions, is what your doing working for you are you in a slump staying in a job, relationship too long, when people may continue in their stable job in order to support their family, to keep health insurance for everyone. If both spouses are working, they may keep their job for the better benefits over his or her employer’s offerings; there is a reason dream careers, hobbies turned into jobs tend to come after retirement, once people have a nest egg, have paid their mortgage, because that’s when they have the freedom financially, socially, time wise to pursue whatever it is. One piece of advice tells us to throw out our TV to boost happiness, reduce stress citing the news, that is routinely negative, stresses us out, we can save money on our cable bill, and spend more time with family and friends, get healthier too, as we go for walks, hikes play with our kids in the yard, avoiding TV that, according to studies, alters brain chemistry causing metabolism to slow down worse than sitting, just staring at a wall. Next a different expert will say to think faster play video games, to solve problems surf the web, to improve concentration watch complex shows like CSI and House. 6 months later on the same talk or radio show they’ll mention the woman with cancer who bought all kinds of funny DVD’s watched anything that made her laugh actions that aided her in beating the disease, something equally hard to do if we throw our TV’s away, leading to confusion, hair pulling and more stress.

Neither is such thinking reserved for busy moms or the career driven as presented in the tips from The Other Eight Hours saying if you chose wisely what you eat outside of work, if you chose to workout it shows. Stating you may have met your wife boyfriend or significant other at work, but it was after work you turned it into a meaningful relationship. Going so far as to say your financial health my suffer if you are the kind of person to shop or watch TV when not at work as opposed to individuals who take a class, learn new skills. Both books coupled with experts two cents giving off the impression it’s the uber people vs. the rest of us, telling already stressed out, over taxed Americans you always have to be on, either to get ahead or just be a good person it’s never ok to relax, never ok to just be, you must be reaching for a goal, striving for conditions other than what you have now even if they’re positive, comfortable. If you’re not seeking to be more enlightened intellectually emotionally, there is something wrong with you; if you’re not trying to be super person, doing several things at once, on a personal level, then you must not want you’re goals very much, you must need motivation, you must be a slacker, disregarding people who are more at ease with small changes, achieve more reaching for one goal at a time.

Ideals ignoring factors of reality that either will never change, along the lines of death and taxes, or things we cannot change overnight. For instance married, in a committed relationship, living together, dating, completely single, bachelor or bachelorete, people still have to run errands, pay bills, clean house; people just starting out may not have cars therefore are spending lots of “wasted” time on a bus, translating into not a lot of time in front of the boob tube. Some economize by taking public transit, such as Chicago’s L train, to work, meaning you could spend an hour or 2 on a bus just like commuters. We’ll assume the kind of shopping mentioned falls under retail therapy that hand bag or pair of shoes you just had to have and not the groceries, toiletries, household items or small appliance replacements you needed. Exposing another point, what you eat outside of work depends a lot on how much you earn at work, as fresh fruits, vegetables and healthy foods cost more. Whether you work out or not before or after work depends on what you do for wok; people who do manual labor for a living feel like they’ve put in a workout during the work day, needing relaxation, remedies for sore, over used muscles. And there is nothing wrong with, after working all day, watching a little TV, especially for single people not burdened by the pressures of family.

Other consequences of the self improvement craze are that while we’re brushing our teeth and doing house chores with our non dominate hand to boost brain function, doing crosswords, learning an instrument, cooking new recipes to ward off Alzheimer’s, taking classes to get ahead at work, keep our minds active, wandering down food aisles looking for Greek yogurt, feta cheese, visiting the health food store for omega 3 supplements, we ignore signs we’re worn out from all this bettering. A- it takes longer to do simple things, increases frustration, not just synaptic pathways, fumbling through things using our opposite hand and B- we’re doing so much, value, meaning are lost. We get so caught up in things that are supposed to make us other than what we currently are, in the good sense, we lose sight of the number of extra hours spent roaming our grocery store for things we normally don’t buy thus don’t know where they are, added money spent buying fresh, organic veggies, free range meats, the specialized dairy mentioned above, home work out systems, Body Gospel, P90X, books on how to be more assertive, how to manage anger, computer classes, guitar lessons, thinking it’s an investment in who we want to be. Having thrown out our TV, ditched our morning lattè to get out of debt, buy a house, rent a better apartment, go on our dream vacation, we forget to live in the meantime, we can’t make one splurge on an out fit, a concert. Always living like that, always pursuing some goal to the extreme translates to never splurging on anything at all possibly missing joyful experiences because we thought we couldn’t afford it, when instead of purchasing a self improvement tool, we should have gotten on the highway with the windows down for a while, go out with friends to dinner, take a day trip to a place we’ve wanted to see since childhood. Unfortunately what we’re really investing in is burn out, not to mention possibly being broke, spending on the wrong things for us as unique human beings.

Likewise ignored are the results yes you may get that promotion, job, a thinner waste line, better grades, accepted into your dream college, but like anything in life there are no guarantees, and at what self cost, making yourself miserable because you can’t eat anything you want, have no real time for hobbies, that promotion means much more work than you thought? Following these models, implementing this advice means rather than following the whims we enjoy in our free time such as a peaceful Saturday with a warm drink and a favorite book, we’re on an exercise mat turning ourselves into a pretzel attempting yoga or tai chi poses more apt to land us in the ER sporting a pulled muscle than anything else. Speaking of reading, instead of reading a favorite sci fi, romance, mystery we spend it reading The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Bob Greens l’atest book on weight loss, Suzie Orman’s latest financial tips all in 200 something pages, books on the powers of positive thinking. Fighting our occasional craving for pizza, Mexican food, we try to cook complicated healthy dishes ending up burned, inedible probably ruining a few pieces of cookware in the process, reaching for the takeout menu anyway, as opposed to sticking to what we know how to do and do well. Pealing back our emotional layers and looking for ah ha moments, practicing forgiveness ala Oprah could only drudge up old wounds, cause emotional distress, scattered thinking, as opposed to feeling how you feel about something, moving on with your life, not letting how you feel about an issue dominate your life negatively.

The cult of self-improvement, turning everything into a competition belying other concepts often presented in the same books, presented in different books on identical topics, presented on the same talk show, radio show, news segment at separate times. Because you can’t be present with your kids, in your life, savoring a moment if you’re running around keeping a food diary, a gratitude journal, a daily to do list and a long term goal list, spending the hours after a trying workday driving yourself crazy with instrument lessons, pushing yourself to learn a new language, get on top of the latest computer software, electronic gadgetry, when what you really need is a warm bath, soothing music or a laugh along with your favorite sitcom. You can’t find time to enjoy something everyday or relax if on weekends between catching up on laundry, cleaning, errands your also chasing all these other ideas, rather than sleeping in, recharging your batteries, lounging around the house in your pajamas, tickling your kids on the couch, talking about baseball, their favorite subject.

None of the examples cover what happens when you get sick, have to slow down for health reasons or need to simplify life by not engaging in some sort of self improvement, every kind of self improvement available, they don’t cover the concept of what if you’ve been in your job so long because you love it, you’ve found your niche and you don’t want anything else? Nor do they cover anything about people who know who they are and are happy with themselves, are happy to be a little “dysfunctional,” happy not to be CEO of where they work, happy with their TV, video games or gadgets, happy with their not perfect midsection and don’t want to live to be 100, or at least don’t treat it like training for the Olypics. We should sincerely ask ourselves what’s wrong with that, because the answer should be nothing.

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About Natasha Sapp

Proclaiming an edgy voice of reason to America,while bringing back the common sense to social issues.

Comments

  1. Julia on May 1, 2012 at 5:16 am said:

    Completely, utterly spot-on!

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