It’s Time to Stop the Self-Improvement Project and Start to Grow Instead!

As you might imagine, people often come into our offices with a desire to improve themselves and perhaps you have this desire as well. You might want to be a better lover, figure out a way to stop making the same relationship mistakes, find ways to last longer, etc. Most people look at themselves as lacking or failing in some way and they want “advice” on how to change.

As coaches, it is our job to help our clients understand the difference between personal growth and self-improvement. In our minds, self-improvement is an external approach to change, one where people try to strategize about how to fix a problem or enforce a new regime on themselves. One of the biggest self-improvement industries is dieting. Recent research shows that dieting doesn’t work; in fact, the opposite result often comes from an attempt at dieting to lose weight. Those who diet generally gain weight in the long-run—more weight than those who did not ever diet to begin with. While the research shows that diets don’t work, they usually do not talk about why.

In our experience working with clients around transformation and growth, we have found that those who try to self-improve with some sort of externally enforced program generally go through a painful loop. There is initial energy and excitement as though succeeding in this particular goal (whatever it is) is the answer to changing their life. They start off with a bang—counting calories, running 7 days a week, going out to try to meet people. Pretty quickly, both the enthusiasm and the new regime go out the window; the client eventually goes back to their habitual behavior. The worst part of this self-improvement cycle is the next step, shame. Shame arises when people feel like they have failed and that they will never achieve their self-improvement goals.

The shame cycle can lead to critical thoughts such as, “I’m so lazy” or “I’m pathetic! I can’t do anything”. It can also lead to self-abuse/self-soothing. We put self-abuse and self-soothing in the same category because they are often just the same behaviors with different attitudes. For example, someone might smoke or get drunk thinking, “I don’t deserve to live. I hope this fucking kills me” or they might do it with the attitude, “Nothing is going to work, but at least I can temporarily feel better.” Being stuck in a shame cycle is perhaps the least motivated, inspired, or transformative place a person can be. It is a place of frozenness, where people hide away, disconnect, and don’t want to move or be seen.

Another reason why self-improvement approaches don’t work is that they hit a core conflict around acceptance. When people try to follow external programs, they often end up feeling that they need to be some way other than the way they are in order to be loved. Since people’s deepest relationships need is to be loved for who they are, self-improvement crusades are generally not sustainable. The desire for acceptance eventually wins out.

As coaches, we want to help you and our clients see that they are not the problem. The attempt to force yourself to do something without looking at any underlying feelings, needs, fears, and motives is not very likely to result in change. We are creatures of habit out of necessity. Habits help us move through day-to-day life without having to question every action or decision so that we have enough bandwidth to face uncertainties and challenges when they arise. Habits can be slow to change, and are sometimes intractable. At the very least, change is generally incremental (as opposed to immediate) and we are lovable even in the midst of the fact that we all have habits that challenge our ability to experience intimacy and erotic connection.

Personal growth is a much different and gentler approach to change than self-improvement. In guiding people in their personal growth, we must keep in mind that the reason most people want to change is that they think it will get them something that they want, like love, sex, or success. As coaches we start with the premise that NO ONE IS PERFECT, so it stands to reason that imperfect people experience loving connection, sexual fulfillment, and success all the time. We help people get off the hamster wheel of self-improvement by beginning with self-acceptance and the acceptance of others. Many people fear that if they accept themselves in their “currently-flawed condition”, it will demotivate them to make positive improvements in their life.

We have found that the truth is quite the opposite. The more a client feels loved and accepted, the more we can help them laugh at the ridiculously unmeetable requirements parents, society, and their projections of other’s perfection put on them; the more we vulnerably share our own challenges and struggles; and the more they come to love and accept themselves as a result, the less time they spend frozen in shame cycles. In addition to helping them accept themselves, we also help people accept that change is often slow and incremental.

As we teach people how to know what they need, how to listen, and how to share boundaries, we celebrate each incremental change heartily. For example, we might work with a client who, when triggered by their partner, reacts by attacking and yelling mean things. We can help by teaching self-soothing tools such as breathing or holding their inner child. The next time the client feels triggered and is able to react differently when as their blood is boiling, we, as coaches are giving them a high-five festival, a “you-didn’t-just-follow-your-first-reactive-response!” party, complete with hugs and party hats. As they grow, we continue to share how incremental and slow our own changes have been, and we love our clients even (wait, no, especially) when they fuck up. We help them remember that change is not a direct arrow upwards. It comes in fits and starts— two steps forward and one step back. We laugh and cry with them, and we share our humanness so that they can accept their own. Offering unconditional love, acceptance, and honesty is the job of a coach who wants to truly help their client grow. If you’d like to see how the Somatica Method can help you and your clients on a journey of personal growth, join us for a Free Somatica Intro Day or check out the Core Training.

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