What If There’s Nothing Wrong With You?

What If There’s Nothing Wrong With You?

Written by Kristin Wong

Topics: Mental Health

It’s Mental Health Month here on Puttylike! During the month of November, we’re publishing articles and stories that explore anxiety and depression, ways we’ve reached for new perspectives around mental health, and strategies that helped us to rest and nurture our busy brains.

Here’s today’s mental health inspired article!

**

Last year, I went on a self-improvement ban. After years of feeding myself advice on how to develop a morning routine, streamline my tasks, and optimize my life in general, I’d had my fill. When you’re always focused on improving, it’s like you’re always living in the future. I felt like a freeway that’s perpetually under construction, but not really going anywhere. And I wondered what would happen if I took a break from optimization.

As an experiment, I vowed to stop listening to productivity podcasts, put down the self-improvement books, and step away from the never-ending supply of apps that promised to make my life better. Did I want an improved, streamlined, more efficient life? Sure, these things are great. And certainly there’s a place for self-improvement, but does it take a toll on our mental health to be a constant work in progress?  

When self-improvement becomes counterproductive

I’m not the only one with a self-help hangover. In a recent New York Times piece, writer Kate Carroway describes the limitations of self-improvement as we know it:

“So much of current, trendy self-help dovetails with business management and entrepreneurialism… But the self-consciously edgy formulas, and the even-cornier, prescriptive, top-down self-help books that engendered them, don’t necessarily wonder. They skip over the energy of empathy, warmth, tenderness and inclusion that is the best stuff of the millennial imagination.”

Carroway argues that there’s a whole new crop of self-improvement that’s more about self-care, self-compassion and self-acceptance than it is optimization. 

That’s not to say standard self-help can’t be, well, helpful. Debt, depression, decluttering, getting a promotion—some problems need straightforward solutions. But the definition of self-help gets murky, and amid those issues, there’s an entire sector built on convincing you that there’s something wrong with you, that any discomfort you feel is a fatal flaw that needs fixing.

Your flaws might not be flaws

A good example of this is imposter syndrome. Which is not actually a syndrome, but a term that psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes used to describe women they studied who, despite their ambitions and achievements, felt unqualified in their careers. Imposter syndrome is a catchy way to describe what it’s like to feel unsure of yourself in a new position. Maybe it’s okay to feel unsure of yourself sometimes. But in a culture that reveres and rewards confidence, extroversion, and assertiveness, this feels uncomfortable to say.

We’re taught to believe that questioning yourself is a weakness, which is perhaps why imposter syndrome is most attributed to women, despite the fact that men also experience it—toxic masculinity doesn’t allow for vulnerability. We think of vulnerability as a flaw because it feels uncomfortable and we’re wired to think discomfort is weak. But as Brene Brown says: 

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

On the other hand, you don’t want to let imposter syndrome keep you from making progress in your career. But confidence can do that, too. Confident people can overestimate their abilities, for example, falling for a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. That can be just as harmful as doubting yourself, yet we don’t call confidence a syndrome. 

Plus, questioning yourself serves a purpose. My own imposter syndrome can be annoying, but it also keeps me on my toes. As a writer, I feel like an imposter often, but the feeling was especially strong early in my career. In order to protect my ego, I didn’t take an editor’s markups too seriously—I told myself they were just being picky or they didn’t “get” my voice. But rejecting feedback is a bad move for a new writer. It’s proven to be much better for my career to consider their notes and look for ways I can improve. 

It’s also been shown that people who doubt their abilities are usually more competent and open-minded than people who claim to be the best at something. So if you feel like an imposter, you’re probably not—but maybe it’s okay to question yourself every now and then. (Of course, sometimes you’re made to feel like an imposter, and that’s a different story.)

What we lose to the lure of productivity

Control is a big part of all of this. Self-diagnosing ourselves with a problem, and then working on self-improvement, is a way to control a situation—which feels good. Sometimes we even convince ourselves we have a problem just so we have something to fix, because fixing feels productive—think of all the times you’ve written something on a to-do list just for the satisfaction of crossing it off. But sometimes magical things happen when you accept the situation and go with the flow. It’s like when you were in high school, struggling with a difficult math problem. You get up to do something else, then come back to the problem later, and the solution is right in front of you.

Sometimes our best insights and most meaningful moments happen when we’re not totally focused on the grind or getting the next thing checked off the list. Productivity feels good because it feeds our human desire for understanding things and fitting them in neat little boxes. But that desire—that aversion to messiness—can be overrated. Engaging with a project or piece of work should be allowed to leak into other parts of our lives, since that’s where the juicy intersections are.

Don’t throw away parts of yourself 

I don’t know about you, but it feels liberating to consider that maybe I don’t need fixing. Multipotentiality is another good example of a strength that’s been improperly branded as a flaw. If you’ve been told to specialize your entire life and stop being a “jack of all trades,” it probably felt liberating to discover there’s a whole community of people who have not just bucked that advice, but also learned to use their multipotentiality as a strength.

After my ban, I realized that the self-help content I consumed had encouraged me to throw away parts of myself that were unique, interesting and, ironically, useful.  Don’t get me wrong, I still like the occasional productivity tip. There are days I crave efficiency and it feels good to get through my to-do list because I’ve successfully implemented batching or finished some “deep work” because the Pomodoro technique really does help. But maybe the ultimate way to improve yourself is learning to be okay with who you are, even if you’re not a fully optimized human. 

Your Turn

How do you feel about self-improvement? Has it ever felt counterproductive to you, and what advice would you give someone else for finding a healthy balance between self-improvement and self-acceptance?

**

Could you use some multipotentialite-friendly support as the holidays approach?

This time of year can be really stressful and difficult for people. It’s common to feel depressed or anxious around the holidays. We also often end up spending time with family members who might not be 100% supportive of our multipotentiality… So we’re doing something special in the Puttytribe to help. It’s called Slow Down December: a month of collaborative self-care.

Throughout the month, we’ll be running workshops and discussions on topics like anxiety, art/creativity therapy, and mindfulness, all from a multipotentialite perspective. There will also be weekly check-ins in the forum, live group meditations and light activities like making our own comfort boxes. Slow Down December is an invitation to, well, slow down and care for yourself—and to do it alongside your multipotentialite family.

To take part in Slow Down December, sign up for the Puttytribe waitlist, and join us when we open the doors on December 1 (or if you’re already a Puttytribe member, just show up!):

neil_2017_2Kristin Wong has written for the New York Times, The Cut, NBC News, and Glamour magazine. She’s the author of Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford. Kristin is a writer, but she’s also an amateur photographer, speaker, podcaster, and recovering workaholic. You can find her on Twitter or Instagram @thewildwong.

17 Comments

  1. Patrick says:

    Hi Kristin
    Thank you for your article. I didn’t know and it is a relieve to hear that it happens to many people to overdose from self improvement methods. I think especially for multipods it is difficult to use the popular self improvement or managing tools and methods. That is because most of them base on the do-only-one-thing-and-be-focused-and-specialized mind. To find your golden nugget out of these tools and advices is kind of hard for multipods. What is easier for us multipods is to find the communalities and over arching helpful wisdom out of all the self help and self improvement tools.
    As you said there is helpful advice implied in all these methods but you need to put it into the right context. That is true for everybody I guess but crucial for us multipotentialites. And the good thing is that we are specialized in seeing the big picture and context and do the extra translation and stripping down of the tools and methods to get useful. Some tools get stripped down of everything;)
    Cheers Patrick

  2. Jana says:

    Hi, interesting article. I would consider myself a pre-multipotentialite. I’m halfway through a PhD but started feeling increasingly trapped in what has so far been a fairly linear path (school, uni, grad school). I was able to take some time out due to health reasons recently which gave me a chance to step back and assess what I actually wanted. I picked up “how to be everything” and it matched who I wanted to be. There are so many skills I wanted to learn but could not fit in around my studies due to a lack of time/motivation/discipline. The imposter syndrome came more from a lack of progress compared to my peers than a general feeling of being unqualified.

    I have to admit, picking up some self-help tips about organizing and time planning has helped me categorize learning these future skills and allocate time slots where I sit down to do so. They also helped me solidify habits like morning pages and meditation. So I guess it fits in with the kind, self-care approach to self-help that you described.

    My point is I was drifting through life before I sat down and learnt how to direct my energies and build towards a)figuring out what I wanted and b) learning the skills to get there.

    • Kristin says:

      I can totally relate to this, especially your take on imposter syndrome. Maybe the key is to take what you need before being convinced that you need a complete overhaul.

  3. Lynn Young says:

    I am learning to stop. When getting to a point in a project where I hit a wall, I used to push through, as taught, and as such usually produced crap. The new self-talk is: It is ok, I am…, fill in the blank. If I do something in this diminished state, I will produce crap or if I do get something half good there is a chance I will not remember what I did or how to reproduce it come tomorrow. So stop, shift gears to something completely unrelated to what you are trying to do.

    Multipotential gear engaged. I have started this year with the refusal to specialize. The new mantra is to start something new often. Finish something old at least half as much of the time as new things started and put the other half in an idea file for stimulation time. It is not a Cardinal Sin to not finish everything!

    One item is the new website, https://www.heartwardbound.com/.

    • Kristin says:

      That’s something I’m slowly learning, too. I’m tired of feeling like everything I want to do is a race against time. That kind of sucks all the fun right out of everything.

  4. Julia says:

    I feel like self-improvement was in the initial stages a helpful tool, however I think most of it has been consumed by a capitalist society, where you should use every single minute of your life “productively”. I saw a horrible advice about making every single part of your day a way to improve your life, it said you will suffer for some years but in a few years all the work will be worth it and your own brand will be established. Then I wonder, do I really want to be a brand? Not a person anymore? I think self-improvement has been quiet misunderstood through this lense, because it’s about filtering away all negative connotated emotions and flaws and turn them into happy and positive ones. At one point I am just sick of following every trend that will make my life happier, it never did so far (except for meditation). I think it makes my life even more exhausting, since even my down time is controlled by what I should do (yoga, reading, journalling, meditation, learning new stuff) and not what I want to do. Not to say that any of those activities are bad! Not at all, but if they are guided by a constant need to improve myself and never be happy with myself, how can I accept my current state of mind?

    • Genesis says:

      i just had a waiting to exhale moment with your response
      At one point I am just sick of following every trend that will make my life happier, it never did so far (except for meditation). I think it makes my life even more exhausting, since even my down time is controlled by what I should do (yoga, reading, journalling, meditation, learning new stuff) and not what I want to do.

      This is me although i’ve slowly been realizing this and trying to do better lol. It’s like we’ve started to feel guilty about downtime. THANK YOU for your insight and to the original poster thank you as well.

    • Kristin says:

      Agree. The methods and strategies can be super helpful and usually exist for a reason. It’s the constant consumption that leaves us feeling perpetually unsatisfied.

  5. Antonio says:

    Salve Emilie, bellissimo il blog e anche il libro “DIVENTA CHI SEI”, anch’io come tanti altri posso dire di avere conosciuto in prima persona la depressione, che e durata ben 9 anni, ne sono uscito da poco grazie all’ attività fisica e alla meditazione yoga. E una crescita personale è stato grazie a uno spreaker radiofonico che fece un’ intervista a un psicologo del rock, che tra l’ altro è una registrazione che ho scaricato sulla mia app mp3 music del mio smartphone. Durata di 34 minuti Gennaro Romagnoli-Psicologia 264-“Musica per la tua crescita personale”…intervista allo “psicologo del rock”! Lo consiglio a tutti.

  6. Karen Joslin says:

    Kristen, I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment about self-help feeling like you’re doing something productive. I’ve found that for me sometimes it’s a means of procrastination that I can justify by telling myself “but this will help me.” At this point, I only engage in self-help stuff if there’s a really good reason – like I have a very specific issue that I need to address.

    And I agree that constantly focusing on “improving” can be detrimental because you’re constantly sending yourself the message that you’re not good enough. I know a lot of women who regularly go to self-help/improvement workshops. Once, when a woman asked me if I was going to a particular workshop, I said, “No, I’m good.” She raised her eyebrows and said skeptically, “You’re good?” as if no one could ever really be good enough to stop going to self-improvement workshops. No one is perfect, and no one will ever be perfect. Sometimes “good” is good enough.

  7. Marie-Louise Penny says:

    Thank you Kristin. I felt like you were talking directly to me then. I will now have a word with myself to stop searching for answers. It’s as if I’m frightened of missing something that’s going to enhance my life if I stop searching. Thank you for your insight.

  8. Gina says:

    There could not have been a better time for me to read this article. I was just talking with a friend yesterday about the newest “problem” I’ve self-diagnosed myself with, and after listening to my rant, he basically told me, “Look…I think you’re very smart and very self aware…but I literally don’t think anything is wrong with you.” And it made me cry…because it’s like I’ve never even considered that I might be okay exactly the way I am. I’m always so focused on some “better” version of me just out of reach…but I think that prevents be from ever allowing myself to just BE, and let that be enough. Looks like the perfect time for me to begin my own self-improvement ban! Thank you for this. <3

    • Kristin says:

      Thank you for reading :) Wow, I had a very similar experience with a friend recently. I was trying to analyze a habit and why I kept doing it and she said, “I think it’s just that you’re human and you’re not perfect and that’s okay.” So simple but so liberating.

  9. Robin says:

    Something I recently realized is that I’ve been using “self-improvement” as a justification for being mean to myself. My inner critic has always been a terrible tyrant, and constantly questioning and correcting myself gives it free rein to tear me down and castigate myself for being a “bad person”. The truth is, I’m not a bad person (but even just writing that makes me feel somehow vain and wrong). Yes, I could probably use some better habits. Who couldn’t? But trying to develop them seems to be keeping me stuck in self-deprecation mode, and that hurts. I’m not saying everyone misuses self-help in this way, but for those of us who do, maybe it’s time to stop. Maybe for some of us there’s more help to be found in letting go of the “I’m broken and I need to be fixed” mindset. I appreciate your article because it came at a time when I needed, I don’t know, confirmation or validation or something, that it’s okay to say, “Maybe I’m not so broken after all.”

  10. Andre says:

    I believe we as multipods have a real challenge with this. On the one hand, we always want to improve (both ourselves and the things we are currently involved with) but on the other hand, we also constantly look for new opportunities.

    The “secret” behind most self-improvement techniques is consistency…and that’s one thing we’re not really good at.

    So, at least for me, what happens is I start some kind of self-improvement drill, and often get good initial results, but then jump on the next thing…and the next…

    But, and here’s the good part…I don’t think this is a bad thing.

    Instead, by doing this, I have learned a multitude of different techniques, exercises, productivity hacks, etc. that I can use in both my life and in my business.

    I agree that if the search for self-improvement becomes destructive, one should take a break…but for the most part, reading and studying about how to grow as a person is a good thing.

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