Self-Improvement v. Excessive Self-Criticism/where do I draw the line?

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Self-Improvement v. Excessive Self-Criticism/where do I draw the line?

Post by DoubtfulGuest on Tue Aug 01, 2017 3:02 pm

I feel like someone who has the "basics" together, but is struggling to improve myself beyond that. I don't feel anxious or depressed as often as I have for most of my adult life (therapy and meeting goals works), but I still feel unfulfilled, which then leads to feelings of guilt about not making myself feel fulfilled. I've noticed I feel worse on my days off-during the week, I look forward to having days off, and then my days off come around (they're at the beginning of the week) and I don't know how to fill the time, and I feel guilty about not knowing how to fill my time and not making plans, especially when clichés like “only boring people are bored” start running through my head. Does that mean that since I feel bored at times, I'm boring? I don't want to be boring. Being bored and/or lonely has somehow gotten twisted inside my head as being somehow...immoral, because if you're bored or lonely, you're just NOT TRYING HARD ENOUGH, plus if I'm potentially “lacking” in some way, I need to be working to be better (constantly). I don't 100% believe these thoughts, but they are there.

Sometimes these thoughts can be a little absurd-like if I do nothing but watch Netflix and read after work, I feel guilty because I should be doing something to improve myself after work-working out, practicing an instrument, teaching myself a new language (knowing that other people watch TV after work, or describe their weekends as uneventful, helps, though, at the same time, many of them seem to have close friends or significant others to spend time with). I write and draw, but it takes me ages to get anything done, in part because it's so open ended (whereas I was able to get, say, college work done because I had a deadline), and I'm a perfectionist, meaning  writing and drawing often sucks up a lot of time and doesn't give me as much to do the active stuff I ought to be doing more of. I usually don't have too much trouble running errands and taking care of basic “adult” tasks (though I often procrastinate a little bit), but I don't ultimately feel fulfilled afterward, and it feels like that stuff is just...essential, basic stuff, and I need to be having an amazing, fascinating life on top of all that, where I live every day to the fullest (and so on), have a solid social circle, and have incredibly interesting hobbies (preferably skill-based, and practiced at an advanced level. This is one pattern of thinking that gets a little ridiculous to me-I have this feeling that what I do has to impress people, and they won't consider it valid unless I do it extremely well-like, if I play an instrument, I need to be very skilled for it to “count”, not a beginner. Sometimes I feel like people might see me as childlike because I may not be seen as having enough tangible, measurable skills that others will be impressed by).

My therapist and I agree my standards on how I'm “supposed” to be like are too high, especially since I don't hold others to that standard. At the same time, particularly when it comes to dating advice, I interpret a lot of the advice as telling me that I have to be amazing in order to qualify as “dateable”, and that I shouldn't think about dating unless I have my life together (and stop being self conscious or depressed, because I need to be unbelievably confident and smooth in order to attract someone else). I have been following that advice for almost six years, and while I have certainly come a long way, my life has yet to "come together", in terms of being amazing and stupendously fulfilling (for the record, my therapist doesn't think there's anything “wrong” with me or where I am in life other than my excessive overthinking. I also know that, realistically, people don't expect me to go rock climbing every weekend, because their lives probably aren't that interesting either. I usually agree with her, until I have a day off and begin to feel guilt over not having much to do that doesn't involve sitting, running errands, or spending money).

This sounds like self-absorbed navel-gazing, and I wonder if it'd be helpful to deal with some of these feelings by volunteering again, but I'm reluctant to commit to weekly volunteer work on one of my days off, because I know I get exhausted from dealing with people at work (my work is often emotionally taxing), and I need a break. I'd like to commit to one event a week that's more of a recreational thing that involves other people-like a trivia night, but there isn't one that works with my schedule. Probably the biggest thing I feel is lacking in my life right now is close friendship-all my close friends have moved away (some to different states) and are at different stages in their lives. I make time to attend some Meetups, but I'm lucky if one a week works with my schedule and sounds interesting to me. My understanding is that I “shouldn't” look into dating until I have a solid group of friends and am content with life.

I don't what sort of feedback I'm looking for. Reassurance that I'm probably "good enough" to reach out to other people (even romantically) while I'm in the process of self-improvement (instead of waiting until I'm near-perfect)? I don't know. Maybe something in my ramblings resonates with someone else.
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Re: Self-Improvement v. Excessive Self-Criticism/where do I draw the line?

Post by Werel on Tue Aug 01, 2017 5:16 pm

DoubtfulGuest wrote:I also know that, realistically, people don't expect me to go rock climbing every weekend, because their lives probably aren't that interesting either.
Yep! And even if they are incredibly interesting from an outside perspective, they probably have the same internal monologue about being boring. My life has facets which many people would probably consider super interesting, but my self-conception still pretty much revolves around the nights I’m sitting at home watching Deep Space 9 and eating a frozen dinner, being boring as hell. (And even if you do have a romantic partner, that often just means you’re being boring together. Razz)

DoubtfulGuest wrote:My understanding is that I “shouldn't” look into dating until I have a solid group of friends and am content with life… I don't what sort of feedback I'm looking for. Reassurance that I'm probably "good enough" to reach out to other people (even romantically) while I'm in the process of self-improvement (instead of waiting until I'm near-perfect)?
Here’s a reassurance about that, then. There’s no finish line to self-improvement, no “good enough” cutoff for all partners, and no “near-perfect” for anyone. Reach out to people! Even romantically! Do it now (unless there’s some trait or baggage which is going to make you act shitty or hurt people, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case)! The very act of trying will make you more interesting through accumulation of experience.

Also, it sounds like you may have a little bit of self-improvement-culture poisoning*. The idea that you should always be working your ass off to be Better Faster Stronger is… I mean, I guess it’s not without merit, but it’s also taken to ludicrous extremes really often (particularly in America, if that’s where you live). It’s not immoral to be bored. It’s not shameful to use some of your free time on pleasure instead of self-improvement. It’s not childish to not have maestro-level skills in multiple areas. You’re not failing at life if you’re not constantly becoming “better” in prescribed ways. Pick some things that matter to you, that feel legitimately fulfilling (like you say), and run with those, even if they’re not about socially sanctioned self-improvement.

*Don’t get me started on how much of self-improvement culture/mindset is generated and sustained by people who want to sell you shit, either.
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Re: Self-Improvement v. Excessive Self-Criticism/where do I draw the line?

Post by Hirundo Bos on Wed Aug 02, 2017 7:09 am

Hi. Although I'm better now, for the first half of the summer, I was dealing with quite a bit of self-improvement fatigue, so you have one person with whom your post resonated, at least. After years of reading the DNL blog and posting in this place, I started to feel as if not a whole lot of things had changed... although they really had, but mostly inside. It's my feelings, reactions, perspectives that have changed. But I'm still quite sociall inactive, quite isolated emotionally, and nowhere near the kind of sexual and romantic life I vaguely imagine I'd like to have.

As my fatigue grew, all the ideas of things I could change turned into a mental loop of things I was doing wrong. If I could only do this, and I need to do that, and while I don't know how, I absolutely have to do that thing over there. All the things I'd actually tried felt like false starts, and when I took it further, it felt like acts of procrastination. As if I was picking away at these small things in my life, as an excuse not do go head to head with the big ones... and every call I heard to stop making excuses, stop being lazy, do the required work - meant to encourage the general reader, I suppose - was received as a message for me personally, and as a lot more condemnation than encouragement. The work I'm supposed to have to do is so hard, especially when dealing with self-improvement fatigue.

Like Werel, I also have mixed feelings about self-improvement culture. I don't live in the US, but you get a bit of it in Scandinavia too. While self-improvement and self-acceptance don't have to be mutually exclusive, a good balance can be hard to find.

I remember reading, quite a while back, an article about two different choice stragegies: Optimizing and satisficing. With optimizing, you gather all the information, search through all the alternatives, and choose the one (you believe) is the very best. With satisficing, you decide on some criteria in advance, and then pick the first satisfactory option. You may not get the very best, but what you get will be good enough. And you're saved from the trouble of looking through all the remaining options... and the nagging doubt that you may have chosen wrong.

A word you mentioned, fulfilment, has been a keyword for me as well... I have this desire for all my days to be fulfilling, so whenever I have some free time, I tend employ an optimizing strategy. I strain my mind to find the one activity that's absolutely perfect for this particular time, and when I can't come up with enough options, I get frustrated, and certain that the right option is out there somewhere, at the edge of consciousness, just out of reach. It's exhausting. I usually end up choosing some minimally engaging activity instead, I just don't have the brain power for anything else. And over time, I start to fear having free time on my hands. It's not the boredom that I fear, in my case, it's the process of choosing and probably choosing wrong. It borders on being a phobia.

In fact, lately, I've experimented with treating it like a phobia - that is, with controlled exposure. I sometimes make an effort now to pick the wrong activity on purpose. To chase down that searing sense of frustration, the experience of not feeling fulfilled. I don't know yet, but maybe unfulfilment is something we can learn to tolerate, with practice...

When it comes to optimizing your entire life, it can be fun to want to excel in one or two particulary skills, (for my part, I choose to optimize my writing), but going for much more than that is likely to be as impossible as it is exhausting. When I was in my slope of fatigue, I almost forgot all the things about me that was good enough.
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Re: Self-Improvement v. Excessive Self-Criticism/where do I draw the line?

Post by DoubtfulGuest on Fri Aug 04, 2017 1:28 am

Thanks for the responses, both of you. I got a little sidetracked-I had a beloved pet die on the 1st, so I've been either...missing him or at work.

I'm an American, and self-improvement culture is definitely a Thing. I'm not sure why it gets to me so much-my parents were not pushy, overachiever types, and I've never had unrealistically high standards for other people-it was more like, at some point in my early teens, I felt like I was constantly lacking something, that I desperately had to catch up to my peers, and that that was a bad thing...but I didn't want anyone to see me struggle, so I just ended up not doing stuff I was bad at, if I could avoid it. That's not the case now, but some of those thought patterns are still there, in a reduced form (if that makes sense).

I don't think I have traits or baggage that would sabotage a relationship (I think I did, at one point, but not anymore), it's more of this assumption that I'll be rejected.
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Re: Self-Improvement v. Excessive Self-Criticism/where do I draw the line?

Post by Werel on Sun Aug 06, 2017 12:53 pm

Belatedly: I'm really sorry about your pet.

I can certainly identify with not wanting anyone to see you struggle or fail, and not doing things you're bad at as a result. I think I identify with it too much to be able to give any useful feedback on overcoming it. Let me know if you figure that one out, yeah? Wink
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Re: Self-Improvement v. Excessive Self-Criticism/where do I draw the line?

Post by DoubtfulGuest on Mon Aug 07, 2017 7:54 pm

Werel wrote:Belatedly: I'm really sorry about your pet.

I can certainly identify with not wanting anyone to see you struggle or fail, and not doing things you're bad at as a result. I think I identify with it too much to be able to give any useful feedback on overcoming it. Let me know if you figure that one out, yeah? Wink

For sure. Yeah, I mean...I'm not wild about the phrase "fake it 'til you make it". Part of that's my problem-associating confidence with extroversion and boldness, and assuming that that's what everyone else prefers (for way too long, I told myself that the majority of people had this idea in their heads of the right way to be a human, and that that right way centered around extroversion. There's probably some truth there, probably, at least in my culture, but I took it way too far). Unfortunately, I've found that just doing stuff even if I'm not sure about it, and pretending I 100 percent know what I'm doing, rather than only 60-something percent know what I'm doing (or, at least, not telling people my insecurities about what I'm doing) often works. So, yeah, I guess that is "faking it 'til I make it"-the way I think about it is not so much that I'm pretending to be confident, more that I'm pretending to not be not-confident. Does that make sense? That, along with realizing other people generally aren't very interested in evaluating me (it's like they have their own priorities and interests, rather than spend the bulk of their time focusing on what I'm doing. Mind-blowing insight, right?), has actually been quite helpful for me in terms of pushing through the overthinking I'm prone to. I mean, obviously, overconfidence is dangerous, too, but I'm so far from being overconfident that it's really not a major concern for me.

And thanks (regarding my pet dying). My cat was my buddy for years, and I wasn't ready for him to go (but we never are). The downside of having cats and dogs is them tending not to live too long, but at least he was still doing the stuff he liked to do (looking at birds, wandering around outside) before he went. It's still very strange to not see him around.
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Re: Self-Improvement v. Excessive Self-Criticism/where do I draw the line?

Post by Enail on Mon Aug 07, 2017 8:34 pm

I think the pretending to not be not-confident thing makes sense; I actually tend to take it a step further and see it more as "my unconfidence is none of their business." My feelings, including my nervousness, are my own to share or not share, and there's no need for random observers to know about it.

Sorry about your cat.
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Re: Self-Improvement v. Excessive Self-Criticism/where do I draw the line?

Post by DoubtfulGuest on Tue Aug 08, 2017 12:40 pm

Enail wrote:I think the pretending to not be not-confident thing makes sense; I actually tend to take it a step further and see it more as "my unconfidence is none of their business." My feelings, including my nervousness, are my own to share or not share, and there's no need for random observers to know about it.


I like this. I like that there's this acknowledgement that it's okay to not feel confident in something-it's not something to feel ashamed over, and then there's this bit about feeling strengthened by asserting personal boundaries (this is more or less what you mean? I feel like I get it, but I can't quite articulate it). I don't know, I get this impression from some Internet advice stuff that Confidence is all about never feeling insecure about anything, because you always know how Awesome you are, and you just sort of strut around everywhere being Awesome while you live the most astounding, self-actualized life imaginable-which you, too, could be living if you just tried harder and went to the gym more often (now, of course, I don't have a link to cite. In the past, I've had a tendency to distort advice that's intended to be positive and give it the most pessimistic spin imaginable. What I wrote is more of how I've interpreted advice about confidence than it is about any actual article-and I'm also aware that online, there are reasons to communicate a message in a way that doesn't acknowledge a ton of nuance and comes across as hyperbolic).

Enail wrote:Sorry about your cat.

Thanks
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Re: Self-Improvement v. Excessive Self-Criticism/where do I draw the line?

Post by Enail on Tue Aug 08, 2017 1:05 pm

Yeah, that sounds like what I mean.

And I definitely get you on the confidence=constant awesomeness messages. Honestly, I think some of self-improvement talk's focus on confidence might be a case of looking at the finger instead of what it's pointing at? Like, does it really matter if you're confident, or is it just that you need to be able to not be dripping whatever unconfidence you are feeling all over everything, and to do the things confidence would make it easier to do?
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Re: Self-Improvement v. Excessive Self-Criticism/where do I draw the line?

Post by DoubtfulGuest on Tue Aug 08, 2017 8:34 pm

Enail wrote:Yeah, that sounds like what I mean.

And I definitely get you on the confidence=constant awesomeness messages. Honestly, I think some of self-improvement talk's focus on confidence might be a case of looking at the finger instead of what it's pointing at? Like, does it really matter if you're confident, or is it just that you need to be able to not be dripping whatever unconfidence you are feeling all over everything, and to do the things confidence would make it easier to do?

Exactly! Some of us are just probably going to be a little more prone to anxiety and a little more socially awkward (in the sense of not being "smooth", but not socially awkward in terms of acting in ways that can lead to being perceived as creepy or abrasive) than other people, and as one of those people, I kind of have to be able to make that work for me. To me, that's a more realistic goal than "be the most charming person in the room". I just don't think I have it in me to be The Most Charming Man in the Room (unless it's a small room filled with a select crowd of particularly non-charming individuals), but that's okay, I have other strengths.

It actually helps me to know that other people experience the same feelings I do, and to acknowledge that, obviously, most people are not these brilliant, magnetic figures that everyone else is dazzled by. Most people are self-conscious and/or insecure about something about themselves. That's not...good, exactly, but it is normal, and despite not being totally confident, confident, confident all the time, most people are probably perfectly fine as people. This idea that everyone needs to be completely confident about every aspect of their lives is an unrealistic standard to hold people to-even public figures who are widely admired doubt themselves, and so on.

Now, in terms of feeling "dateable".... I really do doubt that many people would find me attractive, and I feel like there would be an even smaller amount of people in that group who I would also find attractive (I have no proof of any of this. This is just assumptions based on some of my traits). At the same time, the majority of people, I'm pretty sure, are able to enter relationships at some point in their lives (if that's what they're into), and I'm not sure I'm that unusually unattractive. I feel like I would have figured that out by now (not to mention that people who are considered unattractive by society in general seem to be able to enter relationships, many of whom deal with many more challenges in their lives than I do). So, while I think acting like I'm likely to encounter many interested partners is unrealistic, at the same time, utter hopelessness seems even more unrealistic-"I may not be interesting to most people, but that doesn't mean I'm doomed or a failure as a person" seems like a reasonable attitude to have. I mean, plenty of people don't look or act the way society as a whole generally seems to agree is "attractive", and many of those people struggle with that, but at the same time, they enter relationships and I don't think they're "unworthy" of companionship just because they don't feel 100% confident about themselves.

Now, my assumptions about what people I'm attracted to are going to be attracted to are also probably crummy and not based on genuine human feelings. There's this point where selling yourself short turns into telling others how they should feel ("I don't think I'm attractive, and you shouldn't either") and who am I to do that? I'm thinking of a couple of vaguely recent times when I met a woman at a party or some other event and I kind of felt like we had good rapport, but I wasn't sure, and I didn't want to make her uncomfortable, so I didn't express interest directly and never saw her again (I have done this many, many times). Often I'll still catch myself thinking "she's too attractive (for me), so I shouldn't ask her out". Really, that's such a crappy thing to think about someone, honestly-like what does that mean? Am I saying just because I feel like she's more attractive than I am, she's shallow? It's actually extremely patronizing, and it comes close to this idea of "ranking" people that is just...monumentally offensive. This illustrates a way in which self-doubt can accidentally lead to underestimating the decency of others-assuming they hold you to the same strict standards you do. I think I'm better than this, so I do question this line of thinking whenever it comes up.
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