Creative Child

Forever Striving for Better - Avoiding the Self-Improvement Trap

by Rebecca Eanes

In my first book, Positive Parenting, I wrote about an experience I had in 2010. I said, “During the times I have struggled most in my parenting, an honest look has always revealed that I was one off course, and my children were simply following their leader.” I noticed at that time that whenever my patience had been thin or my words unkind, it was nearly always reflected back to me in the behavior of my children. In the book, I recalled one particularly trying time when both of my children were being “difficult.” I couldn’t understand why they were behaving so poorly until one night, after I’d gotten them both to sleep, I stared at my two-year-old’s sweet face and had an epiphany. During this stressed season of my life, I realized I hadn’t exactly been my highest and best self, and so of course my children were picking up and reflecting that stress back to me. It occurred to me that I couldn’t expect them to be better if I didn’t also expect myself to be better, and thus started a deep-dive into self-improvement that never had an end.


There’s an ugly side of self-improvement and it’s shame. Self-improvement too often goes hand in hand with self-rejection or even self-loathing, and that’s when our transformational practices become problematic. If we are motivated to self-improvement by shame, what we’re really doing is striving for self-worth and a lessening of the guilt that batters us daily. For example, many parents have set a “goal” to spend less time on their phones and to be present with their kids. That is a great goal, but what’s the root? For many, it’s not really about being present with their kids. It’s about lessening the guilt they feel for being on their phones too much. Where does that guilt come from? Oftentimes, the goal isn’t even what we set out to achieve; the real goal is the emotional relief that comes from thinking more positive thoughts about ourselves while we are working toward that “goal.” When we’re actively working toward self-improvement, we are usually a little kinder to ourselves mentally. So, for that window of time in which we are “bettering ourselves,” we can give ourselves a little break, and that feels good. But it’s temporary, because at some point, because no one is a perfect human being, we will slip, and then the shame gremlins in our heads will double down. 


Shame researcher Brene Brown says, “You either walk inside your story and own it, or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.” The phrase “hustle for worthiness” hit me hard. I believe in the decade since I began a journey to improve myself as a mother, and in the decades before that when I was always trying to improve myself in some area, I’ve really just been hustling for worthiness. I’ve been desperate to prove to myself that I’m okay, that I’m good enough, and that I’m lovable. That’s where the trap is. No matter how far I’ve come, there’s always further to go. Fixed the yelling habit? Well, I could definitely spend more quality time. Spending tons of quality time? Great, but I still feel unworthy. I think I could certainly improve my communication skills.  What I’m finally just now realizing is that no amount of hustle will fix shame or guilt or low self-esteem.

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