Self-Improvement Sickness

After the rather serious nature of last week’s blog post, Erica and I determined our next would be about, to use her words, “kitten butts and puddles”. This isn’t about kitten butts and puddles, sadly, but it is a very tongue-in-cheek rant about the business of self-improvement. We’d love to hear about the practices you’ve abandoned, the self-help books you never read, the diet you said “screw it” to, in the Comments!

~ Nicole


“Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked”.  – Jane Austen, Letters


Is anyone else sick to death of self-improvement?

Lately I’ve begun eating Little Debbie snack cakes again. Nutty Bars and Swiss Cake Rolls were minor obsessions when I was in college, born of a certain deep drawer in one of my childhood kitchens. You know the drawer I’m talking about it…it’s dark, it’s delicious, and it’s strictly verboten. That drawer held crisps and Drake’s Cakes, primarily. I individuated by switching brands, but have no doubt the carnivorous manner in which I eat my little twin-packs of synthetic deliciousness is due entirely to the fact that the contents of that drawer were held before me, and withheld from me, throughout my youth (To see Will Ferrell as the new face of Little Debbie, click here).

Once I left undergrad, however, I embarked upon this course of Mental Health and Wellness which continued for one long, grueling decade.  You know what I mean:  the kind of course touted by celebrities and celebrity-gurus; by everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Rodney Yee. I became a green-tea drinker. I flirted with yoga and meditation. I did “exercises” which involved imagery and writing dialogues with my “Train Wreck Self”.  And I stopped eating snack cakes.

The goal was to become one of those shiny happy people on a magazine cover, standing on a mountain of Fair Trade, organic dark chocolate, a bunch of kale in one hand and a pair of hiking boots in the other.

“Let it be known by all these present here that I am a fully-actualized human being”.

And then I got sick. In a way which no program of Mental Health and Wellness can cure. For a long time this flummoxed me. I downloaded apps and filled them with a ten-item daily to-do list, which included reading both a fiction and non-fiction book as well as the requisite yoga, meditation, and morning pages. And none of it helped. I was reduced to a coil on a chair, reading interior design magazines and dreaming that my life was as clean, and bright, and shiny-happy as those pages. About a year and a half into this, I found myself sobbing in my therapist’s office (of course I see a therapist). These weren’t the uncontrollable sobs of hysteria; they were the long, moderate sobs of sheer exhaustion. My therapist told me I needed to take time off work. And then he said something else. Something he’d said before, but which I hadn’t listened to. “We’re going to nix the meditation”.

“Say what?”

Isn’t meditation a requirement in this scenario? Finding the “blue sky behind the storm clouds” and all that shit?

My therapist reminded me that I experienced debilitating flashbacks every time I meditated; not so much finding blue sky as gathering together all the storm clouds of the past. But doesn’t this mean I need to push on through these, hiking till my feet are bloody, surviving on raw kale until I collapse on the peak of that great big dark chocolate mountain of Mental Health and Wellness?

You know the therapist “look”? If you’ve ever been for long enough to receive one, you’ve got the image in your head right now. If not, it’s the fraternal twin of the teacher “look”: the one which says, without words, “If you’d read the syllabus you’d know the answer to that question”.  Well that’s what I got. I also got this transformative maxim: “If it’s not working for you, stop doing it”.

Let’s ponder that for a second. This is a licensed therapist, with a PhD and everything. There’s a zen garden in his office. His calendar has a quotation from the Tao Te Ching for every month. He told me to buy a Buddha Board. And now he’s telling me to stop meditating?

Because it’s not working for me. In fact, it’s actively harming my Mental Health and Wellness. Just like the app, which “killed” my avatar whenever I failed to check enough items off my To-Do list. And the FitBit, which made me obsessed with counting calories and glowed an angry orange whenever I ended the day just shy of my goal. And those shiny happy people in those shiny happy magazine pages who were eternally questing for the next superfood, debating the levels of antioxidants in raspberries versus blueberries. Who puts berries in competition with each other? Aren’t they all delicious? Why should I stop eating sunflower seeds just because pumpkin seeds have more of some magical chemical that will make me live forever, wrinkle-free? Kale may move my bowels, but I know a guy who drank a leafy-green, homemade organic smoothie every morning and then shit. For hours. Painfully.

That’s not my idea of Mental Health and Wellness.

For those of you worried about the bowels of that guy, rest assured my husband told him the human body is not meant to digest that much kale in one go, and to just stop. Just stop with the smoothies. Have a bowl of cereal. That’s my vegan husband, folks.

I stopped too. The meditation, that is. I’d like to do yoga more than once in a blue moon, but it just isn’t gelling for me right now.  I’m too busy writing: morning pages, this blog, a book. The app sits on my phone and the Fitbit on my nightstand, both unused. I still see my therapist, because he helps keep me sane, and I still drink green tea, with local honey, because it’s delicious, healthy, and helps ease my hayfever.  Erica and I are going on a hike soon because it’s autumn in New England, and few views are more satisfying than from the top of our mountains when the foliage is turning. I also eat the occasional snack cake: only two a week, because I’m still not keen on stuffing my face with synthetic food; but you know, I just love those little cream-filled rolls, and the crunch of a Nutty Bar is a satisfying stress-reliever after a long class.

Some people might call this “balance”. Others might call it giving up, or giving in to the seduction of shelf-stable sponge cake. I call it living.

I’ve no advice for you, dear reader, because I’m sick of giving and receiving advice. But if you want a take-away from this article to make the time spent here seem more “worthwhile”, it’s this:

Eating the fucking snack cake.

5 thoughts on “Self-Improvement Sickness

  1. This was a great follow-up to your last blog! Forgiveness and self-help go vary nicely hand in hand. As Lily Tomlin once said, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” That little quote gives you permission to do a lot – like stop meditation, don’t fall for the latest trend, never eat kale, and yes, eat the cake! Kudos to you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Life and Times of a Badass | The Recovering Academic

  3. The wife and I really love this blog and appreciate the creativity and inspiration you provide. If you decide to take this blog to the next level by offering a Mobile App version my company Zenlight could provide service for an extremely low price, we appreciate the hard work you have put into this blog and wish you all future success in business and in life.

    Thank you for your time, it is the most precious thing we all possess.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your kind comments. It’s so rewarding to hear that our blog is having this kind of impact. I’ve forwarded your information on to Erica, my Recovering Academic partner. so we can discuss your offer and email you directly. Thank you again for reaching out; we certainly wish you all the best. ~ Nicole

      Liked by 1 person

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