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Don't get caught in the self-improvement trap

It seems like everywhere we look, we’re bombarded with messages to better ourselves, create our best life, and find happiness after we "fix" something. But this actually leads many of us to fall into a self-improvement trap. Self-improvement isn’t a bad thing. That's how we mature, grow, and get more skilled at navigating life. But how do we find our healthier, happier selves without fixating on the future and criticizing the present?

By turning our attention to the present moment and present self, we’re able to look at our habits, patterns, and behaviors more effectively. Using mindfulness to practice this perspective shift can ultimately allow us to be more accepting of who we are right now, flaws and all, while still making room to develop with awareness and compassion.

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Key takeaways:

  • Our focus on the future is what catches us up in the self-improvement trap

  • Meditation can draw us back to the present and even increase our happiness

  • Try 9 meditations for self-help


What is a self-improvement trap?

Many of us are drawn to the idea of self-help when our inner critic tells us we aren’t good enough. If we buy into this negative self-talk, it can quickly turn into a story in our mind that we believe. Once this happens, we’re no longer involved in simply trying to understand who we are. Instead, we’ve fallen into a trap created by our insecurities.

It’s the difference between “I’d like to grow as a person” and “I’m not worthy.” Or “I can be a more active person” and “I’m unhealthy.” Also “I can be a more supportive partner” and “I don’t deserve this relationship.”

We’ve now stepped into a mindset where something’s wrong with us that needs “fixing.” And we react by leaping into action to find a solution. This is where the self-improvement trap might lead us to feel unworthy of how we are right now, which of course, isn’t true.

While a search for self-improvement may seem exciting or productive at first, it can create a sticky cycle of striving for impossible perfection and damage our self-worth in the process. But we can always call upon mindfulness to help break that cycle. That’s because the ability to step away from an overthinking, overanalytical mind and be fully present in the moment can teach us how we might better view and tackle our perceived shortcomings.

“Growth, by nature, is an evolving process. It is not something static that we ‘master’ once and for all,” says Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe. “The future grows out of the present, so it’s to the present that we need to look first.”


How meditation and mindfulness can lead to self-acceptance

Sitting in stillness and letting thoughts come and go is likely the opposite of what many action-oriented, self-help teachings preach. But that doesn’t mean we stop planning ahead or give up our goals when we meditate. Think of meditation as a way to help us be kind to our minds when we might otherwise focus too much on fixing our future selves.

With regular practice, we learn mindfulness — the ability to be fully present in the moment. This skill helps us refocus our aim away from who we wish to be and toward being okay with who and where we are today. With our attention placed on what we can do to benefit ourselves now, we start to understand that we’re worthy and enough no matter what.

This might be easier said than done, but all it takes is practice. If we’re able to embrace a more mindful approach to personal growth, science suggests that we can feel the benefits pretty quickly. Studies show that something as simple as a 10-minute guided meditation can lead to a 16-percent increase in happiness in 10 days. With more focus on the present moment, we can learn to deepen our self-awareness without letting our inner critic get the best of us. With this new mindset, it’s easier for us to more skillfully choose how to engage with our personal growth goals and let go of the methods that don’t serve us.


Try 9 meditations for self-help

Looking for more meditations for personal growth? The Headspace app offers members several courses, single meditations, and insights to make life a little easier, including:

  • Acceptance course. Learn to let go of resistance and find acceptance.

  • Illusion of Self guidance. By letting go of thoughts and feelings in meditation, we can start to have more balance outside of our practice.

  • Self-Esteem course. Move toward a less judgmental inner life by creating some space in your mind to observe negative and self-critical thinking.

  • Self-Love meditation. Learn to use self-love as a resource that can help you show up better in your daily life.

  • Kindness course. Foster feelings of compassion towards yourself and learn to judge others less harshly, too.

  • Reflecting on Your Needs meditation. Create a sense of awareness in the mind and body by asking yourself “What do I need most right now?” Sit with and honor the feelings that arise.

  • Midday Check-in meditation. Take this moment to check in with yourself, accepting whatever comes up.

  • Appreciation course. Discover a renewed sense of gratefulness for life.

  • Happiness course. Develop a more playful attitude towards life.

Trying to chase our better selves or future self is exhausting and (maybe surprisingly) unproductive. There’s never anything wrong with who we are, but sometimes we might get stuck in habits or routines that don't serve us. A more mindful (and happier) approach to self-improvement is to think of it as bettering our habits, routines, actions, and reactions — and has nothing to do with our inherent worth.

Meditation can help us redirect our efforts from getting caught up in a self-improvement trap. With our attention tuned into the present, we can find the clarity, compassion, and confidence to accept ourselves as we are while setting goals that support our sense of self-worth.

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