Monday, August 15, 2011

The Problem With Self-Improvement

Sometimes it seems that all the 'self-help' advice out there isn't really self-help at all. It seems as though it's designed to make the reader feel as though self-improvement of the specific type offered on the page they're reading is not just an option, it's imperative to their very self-worth.

Being an avid reader and interested in what others think, I often read the newspapers. I try to avoid the magazine and lifestyle supplements but when I do flick through I often feel my hackles rising. I have to remind myself that just because a journalist has written it, doesn't make it a fact. Sometimes I come across a well-written piece that gives me pause for thought. But often the push to continually improve ourselves (in the specific way described by the journalist) seems to be all-incompassing in our media as to be very difficult to avoid, even for the casual observer. I am quite tired of being told sugar is poisoning me, caffeine is bad, caffeine is good, I must eat 5 veg and 2 fruit every day (and that most people don't), I must drink 8 glasses of water, I must do yoga and some other form of aerobic exercise 3 times a week. I am tired of being told how to get 'bikini ready' on one page while reading 'tips to boost my self-esteem' on the other. The former usually involves the latest celebrity du jour exalting over how the weight 'just fell off' or advocating a punishingly unrealistic workout/diet combination. The latter usually involves 'slowing down', 'stopping to smell the roses' and re-prioritising my life. Then there are the tips on how de-cluttering is good for the soul, or you should shake things up and go against your inclination, make your bed, don't make your bed, try to be deliberately whimsical. And my favourite clanger: how to 'have less stuff' while the next page peddles the latest in designer goods.

The problem with all of the above is that it seems to be written with one mythical 'reader' in mind. And that person does not exist. It is certainly not me. It all comes down to tone. If I feel that I am being sold 'tips and tricks' which are basically designed to make me feel like whatever I am currently doing is falling short of the mark, I don't want to know. On the other hand, I do enjoy reading personal stories and finding out how others have made positive (or negative) changes in their own lives. I'm happy to read about what worked for them, and why. Who knows, maybe with my exemplary deductive powers I may even be able to glean a lesson in there for me, or apply one or all of what that person learnt to something to do with my own situation. But please do not talk to me as if I am 'everywoman', as though we are all stressed, we are all too busy, we are all one thing or another. Don't pretend to talk to me, or that you know who I am. I really can't stand those kinds of sweeping assumptions. I prefer the particular to the general.

One study says you need to 'de-clutter' your living space, another says that messy desks are a sign of creativity. Guess what? People have different personalities. Some are compelled to clear all spaces of junk, others are happy to let it sit there. Neither is morally superior. Personally, I let a certain amount of detritus build up and then one day I can't stand it, so I do a mass clean-up. Depending on what day you catch me, I'm either an anally-retentive neat-freak or a disorganised mess. Why the implication that one or the other will make you a better person?

I can't stand bandwagons. I try to avoid jumping on them wherever possible. The sugar-free bandwagon - I've read about it, seen how it changes people's lives. Good on them. But I've got a enough to worry about without being anxious that the Tim Tam I just had for morning tea is somehow poisoning me. All the articles I've read about people giving up sugar are ones where the person giving up was a former sugar overloader. The guy who wrote the book went from drinking some ridiculous number of litres of Coke a day to quitting outright. No surprise that he lost weight and felt better. But I prefer moderation, so don't call it poison please!

Some old chestnuts have been around forever - the drink 8 glasses of water a day theory for one. I was overjoyed to read an article today dispelling this as a myth. This journalist actually quoted more than one medical professor to back up her claims. It turns out that the body is designed to tell you when you need to drink water - you get thirsty! How marvellous. I no longer need to do a mental calculation halfway through the day and force down another glass of water that I don't feel like (or alternatively, feel mildly guilty for not doing so).

My husband, an eminently sensible man, has always eaten and drunk according to how hungry and thirsty he is. He has exercised just exactly as much as he wants to. He is one of the fittest and healthiest people I know. He doesn't care about the recommended daily intake of anything. He loves riding, so he cycles up to 200km a week. This is not my cup of tea - I can do 30km (on the very odd occasion) in a stretch and that's about it. But I feel good. I run around with the kids. I like to read. Quite a bit more than my husband. But he doesn't give me 'tips' on what I need to do to improve my fitness and I don't give him 'tips' on how he really should be reading more to improve his brain. We each leave it to each other to decide whether, when and what we would like to improve about ourselves. We support each other's capacity to do so, but we don't dictate what that should be. Unlike the media. Perhaps if we had more media that focussed on sharing information and stories to support the community's capacity for self-improvement, and leave the whether, when and what to individual choice, we would have healthier and happier citizens. When it comes down to it, we're all on our own journey, there is always something we could each improve on, but it's up to us to figure that out. I don't need to be told by a magazine that I don't measure up.

It seems to me that people are different. Some are naturally physically active, others are more bookish. Some are creative, others are more practical. We don't have to be one or the other, we can be elements of both. I think there is definitely value in pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones - so if I know that exercise doesn't come easily to me, it would be prudent, in order for me to be a well-rounded, healthy individual, to push myself to do a bit of exercise now and again to maintain good health. If I have a particular sweet tooth, every so often I might want to remind myself to lay off the chocolates. But if I never read a book, it would be useful to exercise my mind a bit too, or if I am emotionally less intelligent, I might want to explore that side of myself that helps me relate to others. We all have things that come easily and things that don't. Body policing and assigning a higher value on physical fitness than mental health comes at a cost for the entire community. That is not to say physical fitness is not valuable, but to me, it is equally as valuable to be a good person, kind, intelligent. Some things you can change, others you can't. Shaming those who are different (which, HELLO, is every one, to some extent), is not the way to enable a healthy society.

I would so love to see more articles being written that research into the facts, quote people who really are educated not just self-proclaimed 'experts', and tell personal stories that allow the reader to make up their own mind rather than showing or telling them what they must be. Is it too much to ask?


  1. Oh. My. Gosh. Do you live nearby.. you are my person!! Thankyou for finally saying in print what others have thought and buried. The media is a powerful beast. But I am not like everyone else. or anyone else. I am me with my own mix of OCD and drama. I don't want advice on being Bikini ready in 2 weeks unless the author has personally inspected my do they know how big they are- trust me, no-one wants to see these thighs in a bikini in 2 wks.. NO-ONE.. Tell me how I am doing an awesome job, that my choices are ok, that dysfunctional is the new black..

  2. Thanks for the comment Lisa! I would go a step further and say it's none of their business to even say what a bikini-ready body looks like! And you know what, your choices are OK, because they are YOUR choices. Dysfunctional is totally the new black (I love that!). Show me a completely functional person and I'll show you a liar.