How to Avoid the Trap of Self-Improvement

Recognize the inner critic who wants nothing to do with compassion.

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In the healing work of self-compassion, it’s important to avoid the trap of getting caught up in self-improvement. When you have a pervasive sense of unworthiness, this can be tricky. The identity of unworthiness is formed of self-blame and a deluge of self-judgments offered by an inner critic who wants nothing to do with self-compassion. It’s far more interested in masochistic endeavors like self-improvement projects that it’s never satisfied with. But this just gets you more stuck in feeling deficient for several reasons, the foremost being the very idea that there’s a faulty and unworthy self that needs to be improved.

Although it’s important to seek therapy and health promoting modalities when you need support. You can also be filled at times with the belief, that you can fix your unworthy self through more workshops, new therapies, or a better diet or exercise program. In many ways it’s no different from always striving for more money or more things. It’s just another variation on eternally wanting something more or better.

Here’s how the trap works: Setting a goal of a better self calls forth wanting. Wanting calls forth striving. Striving calls forth judging. And judging becomes a way of life that brings a critical orientation to everything: “Oh, I like that! Oh, I don’t like that! Oh, that’s good! Oh, that’s bad!” It never stops, and while the mind is thus engaged, it isn’t in the here and now; it’s preoccupied with getting somewhere else. This craving to be somehow better can fill up a lifetime yet never be fulfilled.

The mind that’s perennially striving for a better place or condition creates suffering by leaving the present moment, which is the only place we can experience love, peace, or happiness.

Remember, this moment truly is the time of your life, and what’s important is to be here for it, to actually live in the here and now. There is no other moment to live in. The mind that’s perennially striving for a better place or condition creates suffering by leaving the present moment, which is the only place we can experience love, peace, or happiness. When you are somewhere other than now, you can miss the most precious experiences of your life. This can be akin to searching for your camera to preserve an experience that you end up missing because you’re searching for the camera. A mind that is extended toward the future is focused on some goal, and even if this goal is reached, the striving mind will then measure how the new condition compares with the past, thus ensuring that you remain perennially preoccupied with the past and future and rarely, if ever, actually live in the here and now.

Living in the present moment doesn’t mean that you discard your goals, whether that means having a nice car that’s paid for, moving your family to a better home or safer neighborhood, or losing weight. It means remaining oriented to the here and now as you work towards your aspirations.

The judging mind can always find something that isn’t quite right, particularly when it’s looking from this nebulous thing called “self.” We tend to get the standards by which we judge ourselves by looking around and comparing ourselves to others. But if you consider how many billions of people there are on this planet, you can see that this is a no-win proposition. There will always be someone thinner, fitter, nicer, more accomplished, more attractive, more popular—whatever.

Noticing what you do with your mind and these comparisons can help you see how much suffering is caused by this endless stream of judgments and the violence of self-criticism. You may hate your potbelly and want to get rid of it, or you may despise the way you chicken out and fail to say what you really think. But hating and criticizing things about yourself only creates more suffering. This is like a military strategy based on the idea that war can create peace—that if you can blast the inadequate self to smithereens, or maybe just threaten to do so, you will finally feel okay and have peace. This way of thinking just etches the neurological pathways of suffering more deeply into your brain and colors your thoughts with narratives about what’s wrong with you and how you need to improve.

As you grow in mindfulness and compassion, you may begin to realize that contentment is the greatest of wealth and that no money or things can buy it. Being content with who you are is the greatest of treasures. The way to peace is never through war, and the way to happiness is never through hatred. Peace is the way to peace, and happiness comes from happiness. If you want compassion to grow in your life, practice compassion. If you want criticism to grow in your life, practice criticism. It’s simple, really: Your attitude is the water of your life. You can promote feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness by pouring on self- blame and criticism, or you can promote feelings of happiness and well-being by pouring on self-compassion.

The quality of your attitude is influenced by many things, but especially by your mood and your orientation to life itself. If you have a critical orientation, you’ll find unlimited things to criticize and may find yourself caught in the trap of self-improvement for much of your life. If you have a compassionate orientation, you’ll find many opportunities for compassion and may discover freedom and happiness in your life right now. The attitude of self-compassion can grow even as you’re attending to your pain and woundedness, or even as you reflect on mistakes you’ve made that hurt you or others. You grow self-compassion by practicing self-compassion, just like a pianist becomes more skilled by practicing the piano. Small errors, such as forgetting something at the store, or large errors, like forgetting your wedding anniversary, can become opportunities for you to grow a little more in self-kindness and self-compassion.

Yes, there tears to cry, as well as embarrassing errors and sometimes shameful choices to take responsibility for, but even as you’re shaken to the core by difficult emotions that flood through you, you can attend to your wounded heart with acknowldgement and self-compassion. In this way you can enhance the values you would like to grow in yourself, even as you attend to suffering with friendly and kind attention. In time, suffering subsides, just like a child’s tears subside after she’s been rocked and sung to enough. As the pain is lifted, her face changes and becomes beautiful with the calm after the storm. Know that for you too there will come a time when you have cried yourself to the end of your tears and a feeling of peace may surround and embrace you. This is one of the greatest treasures of mindfulness and self-compassion.

Mindfulness Practice: Self-Compassion Meditation

Self-compassion allows you to be with and care for your own woundedness and pain and live with your heart wide open. The moment you embrace the disowned and wounded parts of yourself, the husks of your old narrative-based self can fall away.

All of us sometimes act unskillfully and make poor choices that hurt others, and we are all sometimes hurt by the actions of others. Rather than pushing thoughts and feelings about these things away, and rather than trying to correct anything or anyone, simply be with the thoughts and feelings that come up for you with curiosity and acknowledgement and let them be . As you practice self-compassion meditation, the intention is to be open to all of your thoughts, emotions, and sensations, to let all the streams of perception flow through you unfettered. It’s a practice of being with yourself just as you are.

Give yourself at least twenty to thirty minutes for this practice. Choose a place to practice where you feel safe and at ease. If you like, place some objects that are special and comforting to you on a shelf nearby, or light a candle or arrange some flowers in this space that you create for yourself. Know that you’re giving yourself a gift of love.

  • Breathe: Begin by practicing mindfulness of breathing for ten minutes, returning to the breath with self-compassion every time you leave it. Let your thoughts and emotions come and go. Being present…
  • Recall and notice: Staying in touch with your breath, recall an emotion that came up for you during the ten minutes of mindful breathing. Please be wise in picking an emotion that feels workable to you—you don’t have to choose 10. How about a 5 or 6? If no prominent emotions came up for you, simply recall a recent experience of one. Notice what happens in your body as you feel into this emotion and acknowledge any parts of your body that are affected. Be open to and present with any other emotions that may come up. Perhaps shame feels like a rope wrapped around your chest that keeps getting tighter and makes it hard to breathe. What does the emotion you’re having feel like? By feeling more deeply into it, you may discover other thoughts and emotions—perhaps self-hatred that reaches into your gut, where it churns and twists and hurts. Keep paying attention. Feel more deeply into what’s happening and stay present in your body. Let whatever happens in your mind and body happen. Notice if old unwanted memories that have lain hidden arise. If they do, let them come, and notice how they feel in the body.
  • Be kind to yourself. Let everything be in this unrestricted kind of attention; don’t block anything out. Don’t let the trance of unworthiness swallow your heart. Stay near the pain with compassion. It’s the awakened heart that stays with and heals. It’s all happening right here and now, where your body is. Stay with everything you’re experiencing, and remember that this practice is about offering compassion to yourself and feeling that compassion. It’s not about figuring anything out or fixing or getting rid of anything. Remember, it all comes down to love, including love for yourself. It all comes down to what you’re doing in this moment. Use the breath as your way to remain anchored in the present moment, letting it come and go as it will.
  • Let your emotions come and go. In the same way that you allow your breath to come and go freely, allow your emotions to come and go freely. Notice any judgments that come up for you as you allow strong or unwanted emotions to arise. Notice how the judgments affect your emotions, perhaps blocking them or washing them out, perhaps calling forth other emotions. Welcome all of your emotions as you observe and acknowledge the judgments without indulging them.
  • Stay with compassion. Be with whatever emotions come up for you with compassion. Welcome each with kindness and meet all of them with gentleness and tenderness. Hold yourself in the arms of self-compassion and be present with what you feel. Stay with this practice and your emotions for as long as you like.
  • Breathe. When you’re ready to end this practice, return to practicing mindfulness of the breath for ten minutes.
  • Be grateful. Offer a measure of gratitude to yourself for taking the time to care for yourself in this way.

Take a little time to write in your journal about what came up for you in this practice. Write about any emotions you noticed being attached to one another, such as helplessness bringing up fear, or fear evoking anger. Write about all of the emotions that came up for you here and whether or how they changed when you held them with self-compassion.

As you continue to practice self-compassion, you may notice more and more things about the self you’ve created with all of your old stories. Perhaps you tried to