Why Self-Improvement is a Means to no End

Do you eat healthy foods? Do you exercise regularly, maybe even meditate or read self-help books too? Congratulations, because you probably have Orthorexia!

There is a growing trend amongst millennials who have an over-fixation on having a healthy lifestyle, which can cause broad consequences for our mental health and society’s health as a whole.

In this article, you will develop greater awareness of the activities you do regularly in the area of self-improvement.

Orthorexia was initially proposed in 1997 to describe somebody who had an obsessive focus on food choice, planning, and consumption. They only regarded food as a primary source of health rather than pleasure and exhibited disgust when in proximity to ‘bad foods.’

This term has since morphed to describe somebody who has an unhealthy fixation on having a healthy lifestyle and a relentless drive to find means of self-improvement.

It’s even possible to have Orthorexia in a Spiritual or Psychological sense. Chances are you know somebody who is on a spiritual path, and they’ve become obsessed with trying to become more self-aware or psychologically enlightened.

The problem is that a person in this state never allows themself to fully accept who they are in the moment. We may tell ourselves we have self-acceptance, yet there is something inside ourselves that causes us to book meditation retreat after retreat. Maybe one goes to Burning Man hoping to find themselves.

None of this behavior is wrong on its own, and I’m not advocating that one should not seek to improve themselves. Still, we should recognize the drive that causes us to seek ways to improve ourselves, implying that we have not yet found the level of enlightenment we’re seeking. One must ask themselves what level of spiritual or psychological enlightenment will be enough? Can you set goals without setting new ones after you reach them? Will there ever be an endpoint at which you can quiet this inner-drive that pulls you towards an idealized version of your future self?

Like many other over-achievers, I’ve set myself on a journey to uncover and fix the flaws inherited from my younger years. Am I feeling sad? Let’s read a book on how to be happy — feeling unproductive? Let’s read more books on Productivity!

One perspective I can understand, though, is not so much a personal problem as is my addition to social media; it is a societal problem. We have become so intertwined with technology to the point that it is not ludicrous to say that we are trying to transcend what it means to be human. Not only are we seeking more novel ways to experience pleasure, but we are exerting more effort towards reducing the pain, disappointment, bad decisions, and negative feelings than any other time in our existence.

For it is not death or pain that is to be feared, but the fear of pain or death. — Epictetus (Discourses, 108)

Author John Welwood uses the term “Spiritual bypassing” to say that spiritual practices can be a way to sidestep the emotionally unfinished business of our past, to sweep it under the rug.

“You start to expect that you’re supposed to be some superhuman,” Leath said. “And then we reject and cut off those parts of ourselves that are human, that is less desirable than the guru that we think we are supposed to be.”

I’ve personally come to find myself relying on the concept of personal development as a way to not only improve myself but as a method to seek relief from my own traumatic and bruised past.

I began idealizing myself to become the next Tim Ferris or Elon Musk, and the more I departed from realizing that potential, the greater my obsession with personal development grew.

In their book, “Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement”, authors Andre Spicer and Carl Cederstrom spent 12 months improving themselves on a variety of fronts from Productivity, bodies, and brains, money, relationships, happiness, and spirituality.

At the end of the book, they conclude that, while not all the time, dipping our toes in areas like Productivity, meditation, life-hacks, bullet-journaling, sound baths can be a way to avoid meaningfully engaging in any of them. One could classify it as Neurosis, which is all about avoidance behavior.

It becomes a way of dealing with our problems by not sitting with emotions. We might take up meditation to cope with our anxious thoughts or lost focus without uncovering the circumstance, which led to those anxious thoughts in the first place. We might go on a decade’s long-journey of meditation retreats, life coaches, books, podcasts, and more. We might uncover some greater wisdom along the way, but eventually, we exhaust all our options.

In a 2018 BBC article, the author found that many people working in high-pressure careers could be categorized as “insecure over-achievers,” in that they compensate for their low self-esteem with greater output. If these insecure over-achievers try to reduce their stress and work, they often focus instead on personal development.

Society has conditioned us to believe the problems we face are, in fact, our problems. We are taught at an early age that money equates to happiness and fulfillment, yet one only has to look at the recent death of Tony Hseish to see that is not the case. Tony was a celebrated young billionaire obsessed with happiness, yet he was so profoundly miserable that he spent his days trying to numb himself.

As a person, we can’t possibly understand all the undo forces and influences technology and society has upon our understanding of the world, leading us towards things we can control, like our own body and mind.

We all know driving is more dangerous than flying, yet many more people are afraid of flying than driving. The idea of giving up control induces stress….Creating this black void, this divide between our actions and the feeling that we are in control of our lives.

Paradoxically, the increasing focus on the self also serves as a distraction to our age’s larger societal and environmental problems. The book “We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy — And the World’s Getting Worse” arguably points out that the increasing focus on the self has been at the expense of the greater good.

Mindfulness and other therapies are increasingly sought after not just as a means to make us feel better but to make us more productive. Silicon Valley has evangelized the idea of “Dopamine Fasting,” and an increasing number of discussions around the benefits of Boredom all seek to validate our idealized selves.

As a kid, anytime I achieved success in something or showed excitement towards a new hobby, my grandfather always said, “Remember, no matter how good you think you are, there will always be somebody better than you.” Oddly, this kind of narrative is one we’ve instilled upon ourselves, and it’s created an entire generation competing against each other to see who is more spiritually or emotionally enlightened.

In the end, the best way to view any self-development work should be with a feeling of acceptance that “we are good enough.” We must come to terms with ourselves by idealizing our present, not future self.

This is not to say we shouldn’t seek ways to resolve past trauma through methods like EMDR, CBT or Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy but must refrain from seeing any one method as a Panacea.

“You work so hard to fix yourself, but maybe what you need isn’t another tactic, another book, another five-step plan. Maybe, you don’t need to be fixed. Maybe, what’s really holding you back is the idea that you need to be fixed.” — Veronica Tugaleva

Founder of $12m SupportNinja, Author of From Foster Care to Millionaire book, Host of MindHack.com Podcast