Is self-improvement damaging your mental health?
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Originally Posted On: https://www.hansschumann.com/2021/12/is-self-improvement-damaging-your-mental-health/
Six popular personal growth strategies that are potentially harmful
Should we all work harder to become better versions of ourselves? London Life Coach Hans Schumann advocates caution when applying certain popular self-development approaches. Some cliché mantras from self-proclaimed personal growth gurus can backfire and create mental health issues if we are not careful how we apply them.
The personal growth industry is booming. Whether you see this as a temporary fad or a natural progression of human evolution, the number of people who want to take charge of their life and improve their personal effectiveness is growing. It’s hard to avoid the calls we are bombarded with every day from TV shows, books, social media, friends or colleagues that prompt us to better ourselves, whether that’s about being more productive, more successful, more beautiful, wealthier or slimmer.
As a life coach I naturally advocate working on ourselves, but when does too much of the good become counterproductive? In this article, I will discuss six popular self-development approaches that can backfire if you overdo or misunderstand them. None of them are intrinsically wrong or bad, but we need to understand what drives them and how they can affect our wellbeing.
1. Obsession with high performance
There are many coaches who call themselves high-performance coaches. They offer to help you perform better in your career, life and business. The sales promise is about getting closer to that ideal of a super human who has full control over all aspects of their life and excels at whatever they turn their hand to.
I’ve always felt ambiguous about the term “high performance” when used in the coaching context. It sounds as if we are talking about ourselves as machines that are measured by productivity and performance; machines that need to be improved to squeeze out a higher output.
Whilst improving our performance can be beneficial for sure, I also know too many people who have managed to become high performers at the cost of neglecting other areas in their life. Typical examples are:
- The CEO who suffers from burnout or anxiety attacks
- The successful business owner who has lost his family because he was too focused on his work
- The artist who suffers from the pressure of constantly delivering creativity and innovation
- The ambitious social climber who compensates for her lack of self-worth by maintaining a false image of success.
If you are aiming for high performance in your life too, what is it all for?
I prefer working with the concept of personal effectiveness rather than high performance. The difference is that personal effectiveness is not necessarily about maximising performance. It starts by gaining clarity about what you really want from life, in terms of external success but also emotional wellbeing. With this approach we can avoid running ever faster in a hamster wheel without achieving what we crave at a deeper level.
Improving your personal effectiveness can indeed involve increasing your performance, for example by being more disciplined or more productive; but often something very different is required. Research studies have shown that external achievements have very little to do with the way we feel about our life. If we are after love and fulfilment, the solution may be less about higher performance and more about human connections, acceptance and emotional balance.
The distinction between high performance and personal effectiveness is more than just semantics. The words we use have a powerful impact on our wellbeing. If we talk about ourselves as if we were machines that have to be running on ever-higher levels of performance, it’s a very different life experience to treating ourselves as a human beings, acknowledging our emotions, flaws and vulnerabilities, and learning to work on them from a place of self-compassion.
2. Trying to be positive all the time
Positive thinking is a fashionable personal growth strategy. The notion is that we can remove barriers to growth if we remove negative thoughts. I agree that that this approach can be useful, yet some advocates of positive thinking can take this to an extreme. You may have heard people preaching that you should eradicate all negative thoughts and that you can achieve whatever you like if you just believe in it.
Examples of associated messages are:
- “Everything is gonna be fine; you just need to believe it.”
- “Why dwell on the negatives, when you can focus on the positives?”
- “If you can believe it, you can achieve it!”
I think these statements oversimplify the complexity of the human mind and deny the existence of certain realities. One-sided positive thinking is just as harmful as one-sided negative thinking. If we constantly reframe negatives in our life to make them positive, we are at the risk of sweeping issues under the carpet rather than dealing with them. We may even become delusional. We then either end up living in a fantasy world or suffer from frustration and possibly self-rejection when we realise that reality does not match our expectations.
Negative thinking has its place in life. It is useful in navigating the world and protecting us against risks. Imagine you’re on a date with a wonderful man or woman who seems to be perfect. You feel infatuated and ignore all warning signs. You allow them to move in after the second date and hand over your bank account details because you just know that they are the one.
Here it would be more prudent to stop yourself and let the critical part of your brain challenge the situation constructively. What do you really know about this person and what could go wrong? Rather than switching from negative thinking to one-sided positive thinking, I advocate a healthy balance where we can see positives and negatives in equal measures.
I believe that it is also unrealistic to expect that we can always be positive. How can happiness exist without the contrast of sadness? Both are part of life and have an important function. When my clients experience negative beliefs, I encourage them to explore them first rather than pushing them away immediately. Find the meaning or the underlying issues and then address them.
3. Fixation with winning
If you are a highly competitive person, you may love the concept of winning. You may even feel an urge to win in each and every life situation. There are a few potential issues with this motivational drive. First of all, it implies that there always needs to be a winner and a loser; that life is a constant competition where you need to prove yourself over and over again. A healthy degree of competitiveness can be beneficial, but be aware when it takes over too much of your attention.
People who are highly competitive often have a subconscious belief that they only have value if they are a winner. The underlying assumption is that you are not enough the way you are. You constantly need to prove that you’re a winner to deserve other people’s love or recognition. If that’s you, then giving into the addiction to winning will feed this pattern and it will become even stronger. The anecdotes of athletes with serious mental health issues show us where this addiction can lead to.
What if there is no battle to win? What if everybody can be a winner? Maybe it could even be okay to enjoy seeing other people win.
When we can enjoy shining in our own right without reference to other people, it’s better for our emotional wellbeing and helps make us spiritually more mature.
4. Striving to be exceptional
Striving to be exceptional, unique or special is similar to the competitive pattern. It’s also extremely popular in our modern societies which promote the ideal of individualism. Yet if we think that we need to be exceptional, there’s often a rejection of who we are right now. We constantly compare ourselves with others and this comparison can become another potentially harmful game. Social media has shown us how badly it can affect our mental health. We only feel good about ourselves if the comparison is favourable. I’m only worthy if I’m exceptional.
I suggest an alternative approach where we enjoy working on ourselves, not out of self-rejection but out of love for ourselves and the subject matter that we want to excel in. For example, if you are an actor, you might constantly compare yourself with other actors; and because you’re not yet as successful as they are, you may feel bad about yourself. You might come to the conclusion that you are not good enough as a person. When this happens, it creates stress and self-rejection. It may even adversely affect your performance because you’re too much in your head, comparing yourself or judging yourself rather than being really connected to your craft.
A more wholesome approach would be to find joy and inspiration in the success of others. Look at them as role models and work on improving your craft out of the love for it, not for fear of being less valuable. You would then focus on the enjoyment of acting and improving your acting skills, rather than self-rejection and the almost desperate desire to be exceptional.
5. Escaping into spirituality
Many personal growth practitioners believe that we need to work at a spiritual level if we want to create deep transformation. I too see spirituality as a crucial element of personal growth. It can become problematic though if we use spirituality to bypass psychological work or escape into a world of fantasy.
I used to run a social group of spiritually interested gay men and was surprised to see how many of the attendees used spiritual approaches to avoid dealing with issues in their life. Out of frustration about the here and now, they looked for solutions in the spiritual realm.
For example, some followers of New Age teaching of the Law of Attraction claim that you can tap into the powers of the universe and manifest whatever you wish for in your life by simply focusing on the object of your desire. It’s almost as if they see the universe as a cosmic mail order service. I believe that life is more complex than this. We are not just consciousness or spirit. We are also human beings with primal instincts and complex patterns of thoughts and emotions. I believe those patterns need to be addressed for us to be effective in creating the life outcomes we want.
For example, if you have closed your heart to love because of a traumatic experience in your life, positive affirmations alone will not be enough to manifest the dream relationship you desire. You need to heal your heart and become brave enough to connect to love again.
Some spiritual seekers have even become so immersed with their ideals that they have lost touch with reality and neglect taking care of very basic existential needs, such as food, money and relationships. I believe that it’s important to be grounded in the here and now alongside our spiritual work, maintaining a balanced approach where we pursue mastery at all levels: the body, the heart, the mind and indeed the spirit.
6. Pushing away feelings
Few personal growth experts would ever recommend pushing away feelings. Sometimes it’s implied in their approach, though, when it’s too biased towards cognitive solutions. Indeed, each of the popular strategies that I discussed above can have the effect of avoiding dealing with emotions in a healthy way. Cognitive work is also at the core of my own coaching practice, for example managing our thoughts, beliefs and life stories; but we need to be aware when we push aside emotions to press on with a purely rational agenda.
We need to deal with our emotions to achieve lasting change and maintain wellbeing. Emotions don’t just go away because we tell them to. As much as we sometimes wish we could, trying to control them with the power of our mind is a losing battle. Maybe we manage to pump ourselves up through positive self-talk in the short term, but if we repress negative emotions such as anger or sadness, they will just become stronger. They will continue to affect us subconsciously.
Emotions deserve our attention. Whilst they are often based on one-sided perceptions or even wrong assumptions, they always carry important information about what needs to be addressed in our life. Sometimes this is as basic as needing to be heard rather than fixing the issue with logic and action.
I believe that all deep growth work benefits from a holistic approach that engages three centres of intelligence in our body: the brain, the heart and the gut. Sometimes these three centres are referred to as the three brains in our body, because each has its own independent network or neural pathways. I encourage my clients to listen to the wants and fears of each centre. Rather than allowing one of them to rule the others, find a way they can work together. This way we fully leverage the whole potential that these three centres offer to us.
I’ve devoted my life to a journey of personal growth because I’m fascinated by the human mind. During this journey I have learned that personal growth is not always about fixing yourself, others or the world around you. It’s about connecting to who you really are and feeling deep compassion for both your positive and negative traits.
We don’t need to be high performing, winning or perfect to find happiness and fulfilment. I believe we already have everything we need for that. At the same time we can still enjoy growing and creating more. Indeed I believe that we have an innate desire to do so, like a plant that has an instinctual drive to grow from a seed to produce flowers, fruit and seeds for the next generation. The question is whether you want grow out of fear and self-rejection or out of curiosity, love and passion. Both can work to fire you up, but each creates a very different life experience.
What’s it going to be for you?
Curious about learning more about yourself, your strengths and any development areas that may be holding you back from living the life you want? Let’s talk! You can book a free 20-minute call with me here.