People often come into our sex and relationship coaching offices with the desire to improve themselves. They might want to be better lovers, figure out a way to stop making the same relationship mistakes, or find ways to last longer in bed. They look at themselves as lacking or failing in some way – and they want “advice” on how to change. But is that just self-improvement – or the definition of personal growth? What’s the difference, really?
As sex and relationship coaches, it is our job to help our clients understand the difference between personal growth and self-improvement. Here is how we generally frame it: Self-improvement is an external approach to change. You’re trying to strategize how to fix a problem or enforce a new regime on yourself. Personal growth, on the other hand, is an internal approach.
One of the most classic self-improvement industries is dieting. Research shows that dieting doesn’t work; in fact, the opposite is often the result. Those who diet actually gain weight in the long-run — more weight than those who never attempted a diet. While the research shows that diets don’t work, those papers usually don’t talk about the why.
The Painful Loop of Self Improvement
Meanwhile, in our practice, we have consistently found that those who try to self-improve with an externally enforced program go through a painful loop.
There is always initial energy and excitement. It’s almost as though succeeding in this particular goal (whatever it may be) 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, however, 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 view themselves as a failure. They feel they will never achieve their self-improvement goals.
The Shame Cycle
This shame cycle can lead to self-critical thinking such as “I’m so lazy”, or “I’m pathetic! I can’t do anything”. It can also lead to self-abuse and self-soothing. We put self-abuse and self-soothing in the same category because they are often just the same behaviors, only with different attitudes.
For example, someone might smoke or get drunk. They think “I don’t deserve to live. I hope this kills me.” Or they do it with the attitude of “Nothing’s going to work, but at least I can temporarily feel better.”
Being stuck in that 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.
Conflict Around Acceptance
Another reason why self-improvement approaches don’t work: they hit a core conflict around acceptance.
When people try to follow external programs, they often end up feeling that they need to be different to be loved. Since people’s deepest relationship need is to be loved for who they are, self-improvement crusades are never sustainable. The desire for acceptance always eventually wins out.
As coaches, we want to help you see that you are not the problem. The attempt to force yourself to do something without looking at the underlying feelings, needs, fears, and motives is not very likely to result in meaningful 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. This gives us 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). We are lovable – even in the midst of the fact that we have habits that challenge our ability to experience intimacy and erotic connection.
Personal Growth – A Gentler Approach
In contrast – the definition of personal growth includes a much gentler approach to change than self improvement. Keep in mind that the motivation for most people to want to change is to get something they want: love, sex, or success.
As coaches, we start the transformation with the simple premise that NOBODY IS PERFECT. It stands to reason that imperfect people experience love, 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.
One big obstacle we often face: people’s fear to accept themselves in their “currently-flawed condition”. They are afraid it will de-motivate them to make positive improvements in their life. However, we have found quite the opposite to be true. The more a client felt loved and accepted, the more they are able to laugh at the ridiculously un-meetable requirements of life. The more we vulnerably share our own challenges and struggles, the more our clients come to love and accept themselves. In turn, they also spend less time frozen in shame cycles.
Celebrating Incremental Change
As we teach people to recognize what they need, how to listen, and share boundaries, we celebrate each incremental change heartily.
If you are someone who gets easily triggered by their partner, you perhaps react by attacking and yelling mean things. Teaching you to self-soothing tools such as breathing or holding your inner child is crucial. So the next time you feel triggered, you are able to react differently. As coaches, we then give you a high-five festival – a “you-didn’t-just-follow-your-first-reactive-response!” party. Complete with hugs and party hats.
As you deepen your self-love, we continue to share how incremental and slow our own changes have been. And we love you, even (wait, no, especially) when you mess up. We remind you that personal growth and change is not a direct arrow upwards. It comes in fits and starts — two steps forward, one step back. We laugh and cry with you, and we share our humanness so you can accept your own.
Offering unconditional love, acceptance, and honesty is the job of a sex and relationship coach. If you’d like to see how the Somatica Method can help you on your journey of personal growth, join us for a free Somatica certification Q&A session or check out the Somatica Training.