Then please, consider this with me.
How in the name of logic did we even get ourselves into this mess? How on earth could we ever come to believe it is not only acceptable, but the norm, to be assholes to ourselves?
For the better part of my life, I’ve regarded self-improvement as a sort of binary: are we there — or are we not there. A set of fixed destinations, rather than a journey. Something with an endgame.
This sounds incredibly naive spelled out like that. I’m aware.
Yet I’m also aware of a lot of other people who make the same error in judgement, time and time again:
In theory, I know that self-improvement is a lifelong journey. Something to be enjoyed for the trip itself, rather than the destination, because the destination of a lifelong journey is, ideally, well, death.
When I look at self-improvement through my loved ones, friends, annoying acquaintances, my boss, basically anyone else, I assess their progress in terms of their evolution over time.
I compliment and celebrate with my friends, I shamefully and secretly envy my annoying acquaintances one particularly depression-struck Sunday afternoon, I inspirationally appreciate my boss, I evaluate basically anyone else other than myself based on their evolution over time. I am benevolent, sensitive to their circumstances, realistic, true to the nature of the human condition.
Even when it comes to observing the self-improvement in my annoying acquaintances while sitting anxiously in a corner at one of the few social obligations I manage to attend, desperately hoping to avoid actually having to talk to anyone.
Even they get leniency and compassion. And I’m probably on my second glass of wine trying to avoid eye contact so they don’t approach me, while I’m assessing their progress. I’m in no lenient mood here.
By contrast, when I look at my own self-improvement, it suddenly becomes both a lifelong journey and a set of fixed self-imposed milestones I have to achieve by certain ages. And I always emotionally weigh in on my own progress taking into account the latter, while regarding the former as an obligatory default duty akin to showering or doing the dishes.
Nobody else, not even those annoying acquaintances, get their progress assessed in your head via invisible milestones. Not even the one who is an NLP expert based on this one book they read and insists on telling you all about their superior perception of other fellow humans.
This cruelty and blatant disregard of logic and the human condition that is holding yourself accountable for invisible milestones, is reserved exclusively for yourself. Only you get the self-imposed standards with the sole power of deciding whether you’re making progress on yourself. Everyone else gets their self-improvement congratulated based on their progress over time.
When it comes to self-improvement, you compare other people to themselves — and compare yourself to an imaginary ideal.
To count as achieving self-improvement, other people have to get better than they were in the past. To count, you have to get better than a fictional, idealized version of your future self.
First step: we choose our milestones.
I know I’m not the only one falling for this. I see it everywhere around me. While that can be easily brushed aside as the empirical observations of an introvert with social anxiety aren’t exactly the valid premises of a peer reviewed social study, I also read the Internet, thank you very much. Imaginary milestones are still very much a thing.
Also, if you don’t believe me, try being a 30-year-old female with 8 cats who doesn’t want to birth another human being, and in recent history has managed to find another adult to partner her life with who is miraculously willingly and enthusiastically on board with all of that. The amount of unsolicited advice and opinion-giving thrown at this one introvert with social anxiety alone are enough to prove that we still have a lot of socially-driven invisible milestones in our lives. And I’m pretty sure you also make up your own on top of those, for an added personalised feel to your emotional self-torture.
Ultimately, all milestones are self-imposed. You get to accept some or all of society’s, you get to learn some from your family, and you get to make up your very own special standards. But in the end, you’re always the one doing the imposing of the milestones.
I have missed my share of those self-imposed milestones, throughout my modest 30 years of life.
I survived. I’m sure I will successfully survive plenty more of the same throughout my life in the future, provided I don’t die on my way to work next Tuesday. You will, too, by the way, in case you’re wondering. But more on that later. For now, consider the absurdity of the situation:
Looking at Sarah over the past year, she gets compliments and a cupcake for getting out of that codependently unhealthy relationship, going to therapy, and nailing a new job that forwards her career.
In other words, Sarah gets congratulated for being a better, mentally healthier version of last year’s Sarah.
You get angry stares in the mirror for eating a cupcake and a whip to your ass to get moving towards that imaginary-you who is retired by the seaside living off her worldwide-successful, life-changing, philosophy-spewing novels, with a strong daily gym routine and killer public speaking skills.
In other words, you get punished for not having become a fictional version of yourself within the last year.
It’s so easy to fall for this particular bit of logical fallacy. After all, you only have last year’s Sarah for reference when deciding whether Sarah is working on herself or maybe needs you to be there as a friend through a tough time. But when you decide whether you’ve improved, you also have hypothetical future-you to call on for reference. Which is way more tempting a concept that boring ol’ last-year-you. Regardless of what else boring ol’ last-year-you may have had to live through in the meantime.
Then, we deploy the techniques for imposing our milestones upon ourselves.
We don’t learn how to self-impose standards from the best, we learn how to do so from those we love throughout our life, primarily our childhood. If they knew how to healthily hold themselves accountable for their own goals, while not being an asshole to themselves, then there’s a good change you do, too. However, if they had no idea themselves, then you may have simply never acquired the skill.
If you can relate to the notion of being an asshole to yourself in your own head, you’ve probably been taught to behave like this by someone you love and trust who didn’t know any better for themselves.
For me, it was my Dad. He, in turn, learned this from his mother.
My Dad is now 58 years old. He is an engineer working for himself. Yet to this day, his mother will criticise her own son in fucking public for having not managed to become her fictional ideal of him, which he never wanted to become in the first place. In. Bloody. Public. Scold him loudly in a public place, in his late 50s, for not working in academia. I think she once used you won’t be able to put down Dr. on your tombstone as an actual argument.
So naturally, my father thinks treating someone like this means caring about them. To my Dad, scolding someone in public for their perceived failures, is love. He’s doing way better than his own mother is, but he’s still a subscriber to that delightful ‘tough love’, aka the only kind of love he’s ever known.
Naturally, I learned that this is, then, an acceptable way to treat oneself. Though I no longer think it’s also an acceptable or fair way to be treated by others, to show my Daddy just how much I love him and value his opinions deep down in my subconscious despite what arguments we may have during Sunday dinners at my parents’, I treat myself like that every fucking day.
Maybe, if I’m an asshole to myself privately in my own head just like he taught me, my Daddy will finally tell me he loves me. As in to my face, in those exact words. Except he doesn’t know how I treat myself in my head and he’s probably never even said those words out loud to his own wife save for maybe that one time he proposed, and also I no longer as an adult believe one’s love hinges on verbal proclamations. So that’s a pretty futile strategy for obtaining something I no longer require as an adult that I’ve got going on there.
Regardless of where you’ve learned to treat yourself like that, I’m fairly certain it’s doing nothing for you, either.
My mum says we motivate others by encouraging them and motivate us by criticising ourselves, while expecting the same results.
Imagine saying some of the shit you say to yourself out loud to another human being.
After that, we learn how to survive life after our own milestones.
The good news is, you get older.
It doesn’t even have to be by much. You just have to get old enough. To miss your first major imaginary and statistically improbable self-imposed milestone.
I’m talking major one, as in officially become too old to be something you’d always assumed you’d be come that time.
For me — warning disarming honesty about to ensue — it was becoming some sort of genius in a creative field. It didn’t even matter what, I just wanted to be an artist. I was willing to try anything. Once or twice, anyway. A couple of shit stuck. I got pretty decent at it. No genius though.
Turns out what I’m most passionate about isn’t exactly creative at all, it’s talking about logic and the human mind — I just happen to use a creative outlet to get the debate going. It’s what I’m good at. It’s what I love: being a bullshit artist. In other words, a philosopher. Sans degree or formal education in the field. It’s not exactly become-a-worldwide-famous-special-genius material.
Everyone in my family tried to motivate my then-undiagnosed, depressed and anxious and possibly borderline child-self by telling me that I was special. I had the smartz. Some sort of magical unearned quality of this one would really become something, if only they weren’t so lazy. It took about 15 more years for my family and I alike to realise I was living with mental illness and also not a genius, though quite eloquent in writing and even verbally after a glass of wine.
I turned out to be just a particularly good bullshit artist. That’s it. No genius. And I’ve had to survive both my own and a few other people’s assumptions to the contrary.
A dropout in virtually everything, with a particularly good flair for spewing longform at people. Please, hold the ovation.
This might sound like a very first-world problem to survive — and that’s because it is. But when you’ve been told your entire life that you have everything it takes to be brilliant in a field except your willingness to do so, you kind of grow up thinking you owe the world some sort of brilliance, or else you’ve wasted your potential and failed miserably. Replace owing the world brilliance with owing the world anything:
A certain size in your jeans, a degree in something, a certain figure in your bank account, a human child, a certain way of living. It doesn’t matter what you think you owe the world; you don’t. You don’t owe the world anything about your body or your own private life and career.
The only person truly holding you accountable for your own self-improvement is you. So it makes sense to compare yourself to you, instead of an idealised, improbable, hyper-super-version-of-yourself-from-a-parallel-universe.
Granted, this observation isn’t a neat how-to-instantly-stop-X. This isn’t a solution, so much as it is a problem, and my Creative Director would rightfully have me go back to my computer and think about one, because you don’t just point to a problem and not offer a solution, that’s counterproductive. Yet in this case, I dare argue the solution is the problem. As in, becoming aware of it, the problem. That’s the solution. The only one I know, anyway. Just gradually trying to work on not being an asshole to yourself once you’ve figured out that you are one.
Some of you may, too, notice that to be particularly difficult in practice, not being an asshole to yourself. You may notice being an asshole to yourself comes lightyears more naturally than being nice to yourself.
Being nice to yourself doesn’t mean you stop holding yourself accountable for shit. It just means you track your progress by comparing yourself to yourself, not your ideal-self. With kindness and regard for the basic nature of your human condition.
Easier said than done, nerd. This still isn’t a solution.
Yes, I know, okay? I am painfully aware, every day, that this isn’t a solution in its rightful sense and therefore this essay risks being borderline depressive. But it is giving you the right to make mistakes. To have sick days. To get tired, irritated, acknowledge that you’re in pain, eat without guilt. To have compassion for your condition as a human being.
#IdealYou is not a human being — it’s a hypothetical, idealised version of a human being. It’s a theoretical human being. #RealLifeYou is a living, breathing human.
If you do your best to catch yourself as often as you can when falling back into holding yourself accountable for not being ideal-you while in the body, brain, and circumstances of real-life-you, in time, it will become more natural than your current preferred alternative of being an asshole to yourself.
In the end, awareness is always a solution, within itself — it’s just not an overnight fix.
And that’s okay. Because we’re human. We’re an ape with the unlikely ability to reflect upon itself, which in itself is brilliant enough. You don’t need any more superpowers than that. Just being human is superpower enough.
The rest just takes a little fucking time. Be aware, but not judgemental. And try to be patient. Look at how far you’ve already come. Admire the view as you travel. Chill. This isn’t a race. It’s just life.
Try to accept that it takes time and stop tolerating bullying behaviour from yourself. Eventually, doing so will become your new norm, maybe. That doesn’t matter right now. Simply enjoy the ride of being a little kinder to yourself every time you notice your inner voice being a bully.
I still haven’t gotten there, either. It doesn’t even matter if I ever do. At least, now I’m on my way.
Thank you for taking the time to consider my perspective on this intimate, somewhat taboo subject of struggling with self-care.
And as ever, until our next debate, stay safe, nerds.