Once upon a time, self-help hardbacks emblazoned with Hollywood smiles and positive affirmations promised the world they could rid themselves of the resistances that plagued them. Those toothy-grinned gurus led the way to the current culture of fetishising self-improvement – and social media has only compounded this perilous quest for perfection.
What began as self-examination has warped into self-loathing, fuelled by an industry that profits from telling its followers they’re not rich enough, thin enough, successful enough or productive enough. These woefully unrealistic expectations have bred a system of inadequacy, where personal development has taken on a sadomasochistic role of pushing too far and punishing yourself for mistakes barely made.
You’re not meant to jump out of bed at 5am, run a half-marathon, drink a superfood-packed green smoothie, read every disaster-filled corner of the news, power through an immeasurable to-do list with unwavering focus, come back to a home you own, meditate, follow a Korean 10-step skincare regime and sleep like a baby for eight hours before repeating it all again.
Not every flaw has to be eliminated; not every inefficiency exterminated. It’s not only healthy but essential to embrace the multifaceted nature of yourself as a fallible, imperfect and perhaps occasionally neurotic human being.
Cultivating such a rigid philosophy around perfectionism and constantly pursuing unachievable standards can lead to significant levels of stress and anxiety, which paradoxically lead to an underlying fear of never being good enough.
But in a world set on never-ending improvement, how do you break free of the endless optimisation cycle?
Chuck the quest for perfectionism and aim for 75 per cent
You may have an idea of what “destination perfection” looks like in your head but, actualised, it’s always one step ahead of you, just out of reach. The yearning to achieve more doesn’t allow for the celebration of goals met. Instead, it creates more boxes to tick off your mental checklist.
As such, perfectionism is equated with insufferable amounts of work, forcing you into a place where you’re driven not by the desire to achieve, but by the fear of what you haven’t achieved. Put simply, reaching “perfection” is entirely out of your control.
This is not to suggest you give up trying altogether. Striving for excellence – not perfection – is much more likely to galvanise you to achieve your ambitions. You’re not supposed to suffer daily in the name of your aspirations or be too afraid to start in fear of not reaching your impeccable standards; aiming for 75 per cent removes these compulsive and toxic thought patterns, replacing them with a more flexible, and achievable, model.
By reframing your standards, you’re much more likely to feel calmer and more confident, therefore able to perform without undue stress.
Chase success and joy
One of the main criticisms of self-help is that it doesn’t make the distinction between “getting better” and “feeling better”. Simply chasing something for a sense of achievement, or because the latest fad tells you it’s imperative, is not a good enough reason to tear your hair out. If it’s bringing burden, not benefit, get rid of it. Of course, everyone has commitments on their to-do list, but adding to them purely in the name of self-help is not helpful at all.
Wave goodbye to the life in which you “have it all” and can “do it all”; that life lives in the same realm as perfectionism. Instead, open the window to the freedom to do something simply because it feels good and brings you joy.
Take up a hobby you’re curious about, not because you want to turn it into a “side hustle”. Join a choir with your sub-par singing skills, knit a lopsided jumper, try something you’ve never done and might well be terrible at. Embrace your own mediocrity; in fact, revel in it!
Allow yourself “off” days
On top of taking up something simply for the hell of it, also allow yourself the freedom to do nothing at all.
Rest is an important component of being productive, so let go of the idea that your days can reach an apotheosis of efficiency and effectiveness. They can’t, and you’re not defined by what you achieve that day.
This is not to suggest you factor “downtime” into your regimented schedule. It’s to suggest that every now and then, throw the schedule out the window entirely. Step back from your to-do list; to hell with your standards for the day; be the most unproductive, idle version of yourself.
There’s no need to quit your job and live in your parents’ basement but the point is, you don’t need a self-help book by a sleep evangelist to switch off for eight hours or a reminder on a project-management board to stretch your legs for 10 minutes. Not every second of your life should be strategised, systemised, optimised and analysed for improvement.
Perhaps if you stop counting steps, logging sleep, wrestling with your diet and recording your thoughts, you might find that what you really need is as simple as doing nothing at all.
Embrace your flawed self, publicly and privately
One of self-help’s damaging components is in the name – helping yourself should not be a solo task.
When you feel an area of your life is lacking, talk honestly about your fears to those closest to you. Don’t allow your worries to simmer unseen or attempt to remedy the problem among a mountain of self-help books.
Remember, you are not a broken-down car with a manual stashed in the glove compartment. You do not need to be “fixed” simply because your life isn’t a string of enviable achievements. No part of yourself needs an upgrade. This is a lie pedaled to you by those able to make a lot of money from your fears of inadequacy.
Among the damaging temptations of face filters, the Instagram-born whispers of self-doubt and a US self-help industry worth 9.9 billion dollars, being content with yourself is a radical act. And today there is nothing more radical than surrendering yourself to the welcoming ease of imperfection.
There is no shortcut to success, no matter how glossy the cover or how expensive the seminar. The closest you can get to perfection is embracing who you are – inefficiencies, flaws, warts and all.
Helpful ways to help yourself
- Before embarking on any self-help quest, ask yourself: does this resonate with an honest desire to change a part of my life? The self-help industry hasn’t got to where it is today without clever marketing ploys, so be wary of the whims of capitalism and be true to what will create a more comfortable existence for yourself.
- Start with one manageable intention, not a full-on reinvention.
- Don’t be afraid of your flaws – celebrate them, they are a part of you. What if the only thing standing between you and a life lived to the full was accepting every part of who you are?