The new year has arrived, and it’s time to be a better you!
Every January, we’re fed the same line by advertisements for gyms, beauty products, clothes and self-help books. The underlying message is something like this: you are unhappy now, and that is because you are not good enough, but if you acquire or achieve this or that, you will become good enough and therefore, finally, you will be happy. This logic is great for business, but bad for mental health. Fortunately, it’s also total bullshit.
In fact, not only does the idea of self-improvement as a means to happiness fail to deliver on its promises, it’s actually a large part of what keeps us miserable.
To understand why, let’s take a quick look at the root of unhappiness, and, for that matter, mental illness. As Freud observed, there are aspects of the self that we unconsciously deem to be too painful or anxiety-producing to acknowledge: a traumatic memory, a profound insecurity, a debilitating fear. Maybe some part of us feels ugly, stupid or weak no matter what we achieve or become. And maybe we think that the fact that we feel that way represents some shameful failure on our part. Understandably, then, we want to get rid of these painful aspects of ourselves, and so we repress, avoid, bury, project, whatever. As long as the shame is gone and not hurting us anymore.
This is a very understandable response to the immense pain of being human. “If only I can eliminate what is weak, vulnerable, and fragile in myself,” we imagine, “then I will be okay.” According to this logic, happiness is attained by changing inner or outer circumstances: if the problem is that you think you’re ugly, get a better haircut and go to the gym more regularly; if you fear abandonment and act like a doormat for the people you love, go see a counsellor and become confident like Beyoncé or Ryan Gosling; and if you feel stupid or incompetent, then go to graduate school and change careers. Your fears and insecurities will disappear like a tumour deftly removed by a surgeon, and you will finally be happy. Quite easily done.
The only problem is that it doesn’t work. Why?
The root of unhappiness lies not in the fact that there are aspects of ourselves that are vulnerable and painful, but in our very tendency to judge and disown these aspects of ourselves. In other words, the problem is not the content of our psyche (the insecurity about the number on the scale, the fear of abandonment, or whatever), but the underlying psychological process of judging, rejecting, and dis-integrating certain aspects of our psyche. As long as that underlying psychological process is in place, then becoming a supermodel or a CEO isn’t going to change much. The best we can hope for is to climb to the top of the ladder only to find that it’s against the wrong wall. Some people live their whole lives like that, caught in a game of psychological whack-a-mole, except instead of it being a fun 45 second game, this version saps you of all joy and keeps going until one day you just die.
So if judging and trying to eliminate the vulnerable, painful and shameful aspects of ourselves is the problem, then the solution is acceptance and integration of the self. As Carl Jung said, “acceptance of one’s self is the essence of the moral problem and the acid test of one’s whole outlook on life.” And if you start looking at the world’s enduring psychological and spiritual teachings, you’ll notice the same theme popping up again and again with different metaphors: Jung called it integrating the shadow; Thich Nhat Hanh calls it mindfulness and likens the process to a mother embracing a wounded child; and contemporary, evidence-based psychotherapies like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction begin and end with acceptance. In every approach, the underlying theory is the same: judgment and avoidance lead to unhappiness and mental illness, while acceptance and integration of the most painful aspects of the self lead paradoxically to wholeness and joy.
So if the quest for self-improvement is the psychological equivalent of whack-a-mole, then self-acceptance is the equivalent of walking away from the game and living your life. In other words, self-acceptance is the change that changes everything. It is the key to a happiness that is deep enough to contain the imperfections of yourself and the world.
Maybe this January it’s time to stop playing the game; maybe it’s time for a truly happy new year.
John Roche is a therapist who practices in Waterloo.