Self-Love vs. Self-Improvement
February 14, 2011
By Kate Northrup
I have a tremendous need to get results out of anything I do. I started a pranayama practice in October as part of my yoga teacher training. I couldn’t seem to stick with it on a daily basis (which was a course requirement) because I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. Where exactly would I like to be getting? Self-improvement can become an addiction I think. It’s hard for me to justify doing something unless I think I’m going to somehow become a better person by doing it.
So many self-help books, programs and seminars prey upon the fact that we inherently disapprove of ourselves. If I’m into self-improvement work, I must feel like there’s something to be improved upon in me. I must feel that I am fundamentally flawed and that I need some spackling and sheetrock in order to rectify the situation. Yep, I would say that’s accurate. On the other hand, rather ironically, I’ve learned at Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts, at Sacred Center New York, from Louise Hay and from other teachers, that the key to solving practically any problem is loving myself.
So how am I supposed to love myself while still being obsessed with self-improvement? Are self-love and self-improvement mutually exclusive? I dunno. This one is going to require some unpacking. I once heard that you can’t hate yourself enough to feel better. It turns out that self-loathing isn’t a direct path to happiness. Wayne Dyer says, “There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.” It is the ultimate frustrating irony that I can’t disapprove of my stomach enough to make it flat and I can’t criticize my fine hair enough to make it thicker.
Our culture has taught us that the best way to get what we want is to push up against what we don’t want. We’re taught to fight for everything. We fight cancer, heart disease and AIDS. We raise money for the fight. We walk for the fight. We run for the fight. And when we’re trained and raised as fighters, we’re guaranteed to find something to fight against. I’m always surprised by the words chosen by organizations that fundamentally desire peace and health. Rather than choose words that are energetically aligned with their ultimate goal, they are stuck energizing the problem. We raise money to fight against things rather than raising money to promote our desired outcomes: peace, love, happiness, joy and health.
It’s no different in my own life. My desire is to be happy and free, and to feel loved and to love. My desire is for peace of mind. And yet at times I operate under the erroneous belief that the best way to get there is to pick myself apart. I have a wrinkle between my eyebrows that makes me look old; I said the wrong thing to that guy and now I’ll be alone my whole life; I’m a failure at life because I have some credit card debt; I’m a loser because sometimes I don’t get out of bed until 10 a.m.
Oh, I could go on, but I wouldn’t want to bore you. Plus, I’d rather you fill in the blanks with your favorite self-loathing statements. Air them out. If you articulate the negative, repetitive thoughts in your mind out loud, they actually may sound ridiculous. Get a sense of humor about the whole thing. See if you can love yourself for how mean and disapproving you can be. If you can’t, see if you can love yourself for not being able to love yourself or for disapproving of yourself.
When I get really, really upset, I usually call my mom. I’ve been trying to train myself out of that habit to make sure I have some other tried and true coping mechanisms, but she really often does know just the right thing to say. When I’m beating myself up for doing something wrong, she asks me if I can love myself for that behavior. And I get annoyed and then she asks me if I can love myself for that feeling. She urges me to find a glimmer – just one tiny sparkle – of self-love in that moment. Generally, if I dig deep enough, somewhere in my mascara-stained, snotty-nosed stupor, there’s a little bit of love. And then I can find myself adorable for the whole thing, at least a little bit.
I am the self-improvement queen. At my relatively young age, I have read the vast majority of the self-help section of Barnes and Noble and have taken countless seminars and courses. I once told some friends that I was “getting a Ph.D. in me.” Sound self-centered? Perhaps, but I do believe that by being the best people we can possibly be, we’re able to make the world the best place it can possibly be. I will never tell anyone to stop doing self-improvement work. I do it like it’s my job (which it sort of is), and I would recommend it to anyone.
But, what I will recommend is to come at it from a place of knowing that you’re perfect exactly as you are right now . See if you can open that book on how to find your soul mate while loving yourself and knowing that you’re great. Throw yourself an “I rock” party before you take your next weekend seminar on overcoming fear and playing full out. Put your attention on what you want (love, happiness, joy, self-acceptance and/or peace of mind) and then, and only then, get out the sandpaper and spackle and begin to buff up yourself. No, I don’t believe self-improvement and self-love are mutually exclusive, but I do think you’ll get a lot further if you love yourself first, right now, exactly as you are. Plus, you’ll have a lot more fun.
Photo credit: priscila_tonon