Desiring to be better, to learn, improve and grow is a wonderful way to approach life and has proved to be good for your health. Having goals, self-awareness and purpose in life keeps your brain focused, allowing you to achieve great things and live a vibrant and full life.
When you are a striver you believe you have unfulfilled potential and are willing to work hard to become what you know you are capable of. However, in the quest to be the best version of yourself it’s easy to become fixated on all that is “wrong” and what needs to be “fixed”. Unfortunately, focusing on what needs to be changed is not always supportive of your wellbeing, confidence or health.
As a lover of self-development and a striver myself, I struggle with wanting to be “more” but also wanting to accept myself as I am. I want more for my life yet sometimes this constant awareness of not having achieved what I want to leaves me feeling tired and heavy. I notice that when my attention is on what I want to be different I am less content and grateful for who I have become and the wonderful things I have in my life.
Lately, I have been wondering:
Amidst all the striving, where do I find stillness?
Within all the goal setting, where is my gratitude and the contentment for who I am now?
In the push for improvement, where is the joy, the fun and the ability to simply enjoy the present moment?
While wanting to be “better”, where is my self-compassion and the belief that I am enough as I am?
With the push to be your best self and live your best life I have started to wonder when “average” became such a bad thing. Maybe a little less striving could be a good thing; maybe there is beauty and strength in imperfection.
Usually I spend a lot of time thinking about how to be “better” but, one day, sitting at a cafe journaling, I wondered what my “worst self” might look like. I had never contemplated this question before and at first, I admit, it felt a bit scary.
As I considered what my worst self would look like, I instantly thought, “I wouldn’t care so much about what other people thought of me and my decisions.” I didn’t realise I considered other people so much in the way I lived, so I decided to test out what it would feel like to spend the week striving to live my worst self — in complete contrast to how I normally live my life.
During that week I stopped apologising for my behaviour (unless I had actually done something wrong). I made decisions that were good for me and not just for those around me. I started to voice my opinions without worrying about what others might think.
At the end of the week I noticed that striving to be my worst self actually allowed me to be more confident, calmer, freer and happier, and I could see I was still a good person. I realised my worst self was not something I should fear but should embrace more.
This got me thinking that maybe healthy boundaries, happiness and confidence might come from a little less striving to be better and a little more willingness to live as we already are. Maybe we don’t need to change as much as we think we do.
Mind the gap
When you strive to become your best self you focus your attention and energy on the gap between who you are now and who you want to be. WellBeing writer Nikki Davies talks about this gap in her article When Should’s Not Good (issue 178) and says, “In psychology, the ‘real self’ and the ‘ideal self’ are terms used to describe parts of your personality. The real self is who you actually are and incorporates how you think, feel, look and behave day to day, while your ideal self represents who you want to be … Issues can arise when the difference between who you are and who you want to be is too great.”
When you look into the future to your ideal self you see what is lacking and all the work yet to be done. In this sense, looking forward can skew your sense of self. Striving to be your ideal self can keep you focused on what’s lacking and can make you think your current self is a lesser version of who you could be.
Personal branding expert Colette Werden says, “I’m not really a fan of this ‘best version of you’ trend that’s going on right now. We need not focus on ‘being the best version of ourselves’. That’s saying that the version we are today — no matter the work we have put in, the hardship we have endured,the victories we have won that have shaped who we are today — is still not enough.”
While looking forward too much can change how you view yourself, looking back can be grounding and self-affirming. What is behind you is evidence of your resilience, generosity, past happiness and achievements. Looking back allows you to reconnect with your strength and celebrate who you are today. The past allows you to find self-compassion, confidence and contentment.
When you look back you can see clearly how far you have come, reminding yourself that you might not be your best self yet but you are an incredible person who has already gone through so much growth and evolution.
Reflect less, live more
Is it time to live more and think less? Being a “striver” can mean you spend a lot of time assessing your thoughts and actions and reflecting on who you want to be and why you might not be there yet.
Studies have found that spending too much time reflecting and asking “Why?” may not actually be beneficial to your health or happiness. Organisational psychologist Tasha Eurich conducted a study looking at the link between self-reflection and outcomes such as stress, job satisfaction and happiness and found, “The people who scored high on self-reflection were more stressed, depressed and anxious, less satisfied with their jobs and relationships, more self-absorbed, and they felt less in control of their lives. What’s more, these negative consequences seemed to increase the more they reflected.”
In her TED article The Right Way to Be Introspective, Tasha explains that how you reflect matters. Sheen courages people to move away from asking why things are as they are and to begin asking what is happening in any given situation. For example, instead of asking, “Why am I feeling this way?” she suggests you ask, “What am I feeling?”
Tasha says, “Why questions can draw us to our limitations; what questions help us see our potential. Why questions stir up negative emotions; what questions keep us curious. Why questions trap us in our past; what questions help us create a better future.
“In addition to helping us gain insight, asking what instead of why can be used to help us better understand and manage our emotions.”
Being too intently focused on why things are not as you would like them to be wires your brain to stay focused on what is missing in your life. While asking what-based questions keeps you focused on solutions and positive action, spending less time reflecting can also be surprisingly freeing. Spending too much time focused on lack can heighten your stress levels while also impacting on your self-confidence and health.
Take a load off
It’s often the strivers who push the limits, skimping on sleep, exercise, hobbies, a good diet and fun as they seek to learn, grow, achieve goals and push themselves to the next exciting milestone. Our bodies and brains, however, aren’t designed to be pushed constantly.
I’ve always been someone to push myself to the limits but this approach to life has come at a cost. After graduating from university where I pushed myself very hard to graduate with first-class honours, I ended up with chronic fatigue syndrome.
It took me seven years to recover and regain my health and it taught me a valuable lesson about the cost of always pushing to be “more”. I used to think I could tell my body what it needed to do but I discovered that, if I didn’t rest and look after my body, my body would simply stop working.
If you are a striver, you would know how hard it can be to sit back, rest, relax and switch off your busy mind. This “go, go, go” approach to life and the internal pressure you place on yourself to always be better can increase your stress levels, which over time can be detrimental to your health.
In Healthy Brain, Happy Life, neuroscientist Dr Wendy Suzuki says that chronic long-term stress has been linked to a weakened immune system, heart disease, depression, cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
Suzuki also says the brain changes when exposed to significant stress: “The three major brain areas affected by long-term stress are the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, which are the centres for memory, executive function and managing emotion.”
Being stressed, overworked and dealing with the internal pressure to be “more” can compromise the health and longevity of your body and your brain. So, in your quest to be your best self and live your best life, how can you also stay healthy, happy, grateful and grounded?
4 steps to find balance, ease and self-compassion
Perspective: Strive to improve and become your ideal self but look back and appreciate what you have been through to become who you are today. Know that you are seeking to improve what is already great — you are enough already.
Celebrate: Take time to stop and celebrate your small and big achievements before rushing to the next challenge or goal. Consider having times during the year when you are not working towards a goal and just enjoying life as it unfolds.
Lighten up: Let go of your need to always be productive and ambitious. Give your brain a break by doing things purely for fun. Pick up a novel and let your mind unwind, watch a trashy TV show that makes you laugh, go for a walk without listening to a podcast, take a course that would be fun rather than educational, take a holiday/break and leave your computer and work at home.
Acceptance: Desiring to be a better version of yourself is a sign that you care about living a rich and full life. To strive for improvement while also accepting yourself requires you to accommodate two opposing yet true statements: “I want to be different” and “I am fine as I am.”
In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown speaks beautifully about self-compassion when she talks about wholehearted living.
She writes, “Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It’s about cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed and thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”
Language is powerful. The language you use about yourself matters.When you use the term “best self” you are making a comparison to something lesser and that something lesser is who you are today. While seeing yourself as a lesser version of who you could be might be motivating, it does still carry a subtle message of not being good enough right now, which is not true.
Letting go of always striving to be your “best self” is not about giving up on your ambitions or on growth; it is, however, about creating space for acceptance, gratitude and celebration of all you have been through and the amazing person you are today.
First published on wellbeing.com.au