Here is the full text of author Suzanne Eder’s talk titled “The Dark Side of Self Improvement” at TEDxWilmington conference.
Suzanne Eder is a world-class teacher, facilitator and mentor. Suzanne currently authors an award-winning monthly column in Living Well Magazine.
Suzanne Eder – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
Please, raise your hand if you’ve – thank you, wow, that was easy, OK – if you’ve ever tried to improve something about yourself or your life. Maybe… Yes. Thank you. Keep it up. No. Keep your hand up, please. Just for a moment.
So, I want you to focus now on one particular thing that you may have tried to improve, and think about the actual process that you went through: the time and the energy that you spent going from where you were to where you wanted to be.
So think about that, and if that process for you was maybe frustrating or difficult or it seemed to be taking too long, keep your hand up just a little bit longer. Just a little bit longer, I promise. OK.
Now, focus on the outcome. Focus on the outcome of your self-improvement process. If you are a little disappointed with the results, keep your hand up just a few more seconds. If you feel like you really succeeded, got where you wanted to go, you can go ahead and drop your hand. If your hand is still up, you may have been lured to the dark side of self-improvement. It’s tiring, isn’t it?
I have been lured to the dark side, as have many of my clients, and perhaps you have. The dark side exists because deep within many of us – at any level of skill or accomplishment – is an ancient belief that there’s something wrong with us. We may not be fully conscious of it, but it’s there, and it affects us. It’s a painful belief to hold. It’s also a false belief.
But until we know it’s false, we’re in the dark about who we are and what’s possible in our lives. When we think there’s something wrong with us, we have a strong impulse to fix it because if we can fix it, then we can prove to ourselves that we are okay, that we are worthy, that we have what it takes.
But nothing needs to be proven. A fix isn’t necessary. We’re not broken. We’re whole. We’re whole and learning. We’re whole and growing. The bud is not less whole than the blossom; it’s just at a different stage of development. We are not less whole when we feel unfulfilled in a certain area; we’re just at a stage of development that’s calling us to greater fulfillment.
We are growing. So we don’t need to prove we have what it takes. Of course we have what it takes. We have what it takes to grow. It is innate.
But when we harbor this belief that there’s something wrong with us and we initiate an improvement process from that point, we’re on what I call the dark side of self-improvement because we’re literally in the dark.
And in the dark, a whole colony of self-negating experiences can flourish, and I want to shine the light on two of those.
First, when we think there’s something wrong with us, we look outside of ourselves for answers and solutions. We abandon our own inner wisdom, our inspired impulses, our genuine longings, and instead, we place all of our trust in the advice of others. We abide by common knowledge rather than the uncommon wisdom of our heart.
And in fact, we just give our power away, and as we do that, we start to feel hollow; we’re taking the steps towards improvement, but because we’ve abandoned ourselves, we’re not fully alive. So it’s difficult, and it doesn’t work particularly well.
We disempower ourselves when we follow someone else’s path and not our own. So disempowerment is one of those self-negating experiences we can have on the dark side.
Another is a lack of fulfillment. When we think there’s something wrong with us that needs to be fixed, the improvement process becomes about the fix, the endpoint, the goal.
So we strive to get to that point because we only experience satisfaction when we reach the goal, which means we’re depriving ourselves of satisfaction in the here and now. And because of that same false belief, we have a tendency to judge ourselves each step of the way because we’re comparing ourselves unfavorably to that goal we haven’t yet reached. This is the dark side of self-improvement.
When we secretly believe there’s something wrong with us, we will keep creating experiences that reinforce that belief. It’s depleting and diminishing.
But there is another way I want to tell you about a client of mine whom I’ll call Darla. When I first met Darla, she was extremely unhappy in her job and she was frustrated with herself for being stuck. In other words, she felt there was something wrong with her.
She assumed that if she could find work with a company whose mission was more aligned with what really mattered to her, that would be more fulfilling.
So she started a job-change process, doing all the things people commonly agree should be done, things like updating her resume, signing up for websites where jobs are posted, contacting all her former colleagues to let them know she was looking, and of course, going to networking events.
Now, Darla is an introvert. She hates networking events. As a fellow introvert, I know how she feels. Honestly, I’d rather go to the dentist than to a networking event. And so would Darla.
In fact, there wasn’t much in the job-change process that she felt good about, but she kept plodding along because she’d set a goal to find a new job by a certain date, and she wanted to reach that goal.
By the time she contacted me for support, she felt overwhelmed. She had become so immersed in finding and analyzing job prospects and submitting resumes that she got lost in those tasks, which meant she lost connection with herself. She lost connection with her own genuine longings.
She lost connection with the present moment. She was so worried about the future and what kind of job she might or might not be able to find. So we suspended the job search to give Darla time to pause and go deeply within and to reconnect with herself.
And as she did that, she discovered a few essential things.
First, she realized that what she wanted deeply at that time was to support her parents in the final stages of their lives. She remembered that she used to love training and development work and decided she wanted to do more of that.
And most importantly, she became aware of how hard she was on herself. Darla would doubt, would judge herself at almost every turn, thinking she should be doing things better or doing better things.
So I let her in on the secret that I’ll share with you right here. Self-judgment will never, ever get you where you want to go – ever.
So we focused on shifting that relationship with herself first and foremost, and in that process, Darla learned to listen to herself, to respect herself, to trust herself. She learned how to translate her feelings into information she could use.
She learned that our habits of constant doubt and self-judgment were just that, habits, and they were not serving her. She also learned to sense what was right for her, one step at a time, rather than forcing herself to adhere to a rigid formula for finding a job.
In essence, Darla learned how to stop pushing herself forward and, instead, how to love herself forward.
And to make a long story short – it worked. Darla is now at peace and genuinely happy. She spends quality time with her parents, and she’s had moments with them that are profoundly healing. She followed one of her own inspired impulses to start writing about those experiences, and her writing is very satisfying to her. She’s even thinking about writing a book, which she had never considered before.
And because she’s so much more present and aware, she recognized an opportunity to take on training and development work in her current job. So now she’s doing that regularly, and she loves it.
Darla discovered there was nothing wrong with her that needed to be fixed. She only needed to slow down and listen to her own inner guidance – and to stop forcing herself to go to those networking events.
On the dark side, Darla thought that a new job would fix things, and she thought she had to do what everyone else does to find one.
But in the dark, she couldn’t see clearly. She kept judging herself as lacking, and perceiving her progress as slow.
In the light of truth, Darla recognized how talented and passionate she actually is. She connected with a pure longing for greater self-expression, and she realized that fulfillment goes well beyond her job. Darla learned that her best guide to fulfillment is herself.
Darla is the expert and authority on her own life. Each one of us is the expert and authority on our own lives. Your path to fulfillment is unique to you, just as mine is unique to me. This doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from others who have succeeded where we want to succeed – of course we can. We thrive when we connect with each other and open to someone else’s wisdom.
But there’s a crucial difference between learning from someone and giving our power away to another person’s formula: one comes from a sense of self-worth, the other comes from a sense of lack. We give our power away when we judge ourselves as lacking.
Remember, self-judgment will never, ever get you where you want to go if where you want to go is fulfillment. So the next time you think there might be something to improve about yourself, pause. Go within.
Rather than asking, What do I need to fix? ask, What do I need to create? What do I want to create or experience? How do I want to grow? When you’re growth oriented rather than goal oriented, you can experience fulfillment each step of the way because you’re growing more and more into your magnificence.
And as you take those steps, trust your inner sense of what’s right for you and what isn’t. Listen to what your inner voice is telling you about what you really want, as Darla did. And promise to keep listening to yourself. Learn to love yourself forward into the light of truth.
You have what it takes to succeed because you are what it takes.