Ahh, self-improvement you old bastard. One quality hit and you can get addicted.
Anyone who’s embraced the self-improvement lifestyle knows what I’m talking about. It makes you feel in control of your life. It can even make you feel ‘better’ than other people – like you’re doing ‘more’ than everyone else is…
Yet often it fails to sustain you. It often leaves you feeling like you’re not enough as you currently are. Like you need to hit that next milestone in order to truly be ‘successful’.
This is the phenomenon I want to explore in this article: why does self-improvement often feel like you’re taking 3 steps backwards for every 1 step forward? How can something so positive make you feel so damn frustrated?
Note: By self-improvement I mean dedicating yourself to improving any aspect of your life. This often means improving your body through fitness, taking your career to the next level, starting your own business, trying to learn a new skill, building more self-esteem, or anything else for that matter.
Reason #1: You’ve Become Addicted to Growth
You know you’re addicted to self-improvement when anything but rapid progress seems like stagnation.
The fact of the matter is that we are all motivated – at least to some degree – by our inherent egotistical nature. And self-improvement feeds that natural inclination… oftentimes in massive increments.
For example, take an overweight guy with low self-esteem who commits himself to taking control of his diet and exercise routine. After a few months he’s shed 20-30 pounds, and he’s starting to see himself as somebody different. No longer is he a worthless piece of shit (not that he ever was, but let’s assume that he used to beat himself up a lot about his physical appearance). Next he starts redefining his fashion and clearing out his wardrobe full of gamer hoodies and baggy jeans.
Before you know it, this guy is getting eyed-down by women everywhere he goes. He still hasn’t grown into his full potential, but he feels like he’s on top of the world.
Okay, that’s an extreme example, but you get the point: self-improvement can be a powerful drug. And like any drug – or anything else in life – there are diminishing marginal returns. This means that you make the biggest strides of progress at the beginning of your journey… assuming you have the discipline to do the work and take the right steps.
The point is that after you experience this initial ‘high’, you want to keep it going. And this is a good thing because it tends to motivate you to put in more and more work and grow further and further. It’s a double edged sword, however, so when you begin to face the inevitable diminishing returns, it’s easy to feel like you’re stagnating…
You’re no longer building noticeable muscle mass every month. You’re no longer learning a ‘groundbreaking’ hack or habit each and every day. You no longer see a crystal clear next step to take in your journey… and this can be very frustrating.
Reason #2: Inflated Standards & Expectations
As you grow and improve, you naturally will compare yourself to better and better people.
When you get started trying to improve any given area of your life, you’re likely to compare yourself to your friends, coworkers, and family members. And honestly, most people are average in most areas of their lives (hence the meaning of the word average).
As you begin to outgrow these people, you start to compare yourself to the next tier of people. No longer are you the most jacked bro among your circle of friends, but now you’re only the 10th ‘biggest’ guy at your gym. No longer are you the smooth casanova compared to all your friends, but now you’re meeting guys who seem to be far more successful with women than you previously could have even imagined. No longer are you a successful entrepreneur who managed to quit his 9-5 job, but now you’re just another ‘solopreneur’ struggling to take your business to the next level and make the ‘big bucks’.
On one hand this is very motivating: the hunger to compete with the next tier of competition provides the pressure you need to put in the extra work and push your body, your business, and your skills to the next level. But it can also be quite depressing and make you feel like shit about yourself. You’re no longer the big fish in a little pond, now you’re just another little fish in the big sea.
This is another natural phenomenon. Our inherent egotistical nature will continue to drive us to compare ourselves to other people. And that’s ok. It’s just important to remind yourself that you don’t need to ‘beat’ anyone in order to be happy. There will always be more people to ‘beat’ after this round of competitors. This is not to say you should relinquish your competitive spirit altogether – it’s still a positive thing that has the potential to drive you forward.
Reason #3: You Never Give Your Inner-Warrior Permission to Chill Out
We naturally go through cycles of growth and rest, and resisting the down cycles will only cause pain and frustration.
The same way the seasons change, the stock markets boom and bust, and we need to sleep every night – we also need to give ourselves the chance to take a break from pushing ourselves every so often.
This inner-warrior that drives us forward is an amazing gift. Hell, many people don’t ever even get in touch with their own inner-warrior. So you should embrace it with all your heart – it will lead you to more and more growth and success…
But do NOT over-identify with it.
We all need to rest and chill out from time to time. So, if you’ve had a solid run of productive months where you made great progress, but now you feel like every little task is a burden or a chore – realize that it might be time to take a week off. Maybe not completely off, but at least a week to focus on the basics: eat well, sleep a lot, exercise, get the little items off of your plate, etc.
These time periods are crucial. They allow you to fill your tank back up, and get back that beastly sense of motivation and determination that got you here in the first place.
And that’s been one of my biggest realizations over the past few years. Being gentle with yourself at times can make all the difference. It allows you to sidestep a lot of pain and frustration. And it ensures that your long term progress never dies down, even if you have to let up for a little in the short term.