My bookshelves are full of titles like “Present Over Perfect,” “The Way of the Happy Woman,” “The Happiness Project,” and “Rising Strong.” I’ve read and loved them all. Most are filled with underlines and highlights of key points and phrases that resonated with me at the time. But it struck me recently that, over the last decade or so, my love of reading has slowly morphed into only reading self-help. Which is indicative of where my focus has been for that time – on fixing myself.
I love a good project and goal. I love having a puzzle to solve or an issue to research. As a trained reporter; investigating a topic to death brings me joy. But somewhere along the line, the problem to solve became me. I was picking apart various aspects of my personality and habits and body, searching for the right program, book, or mentor to finally fix me once and for all. And I am not comfortable with that anymore.
Who am I if I am not fixing myself?
Now, don’t get me wrong: Self-reflection and personal investigation are extremely important. I don’t trust people who aren’t willing to go deep and look at their own motivations, flaws, and shortcomings to work. But one can take it too far – and that’s where I found myself. After 20 years of focusing on the things about me I deemed flawed, I decided to shelve those self-help books and concentrate on simply living my day-to-day life.
There was just one problem with this. I wasn’t sure who I was or what to do with myself if I wasn’t focused on fixing myself. What do people do with their time if they’re not working toward a goal or solving a problem? What is the purpose of life if not trying to figure it all out?
Expanding my Focus
After spending a few days feeling a bit lost at sea, I decided to put my investigative self to work. I started by examining those who do a better job of simply living their lives exactly as they are. A few commonalities bubbled to the surface: staying present, regularly expressing gratitude, and connecting with others.
Staying present: If you’ve done any exploring in the world of self-help, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “what you focus on grows.” So it makes sense that focusing on my flaws – even if the intention was to better myself – exacerbated that flaw. For example, when I swore off being critical of other drivers, I found myself hyper-aware of the cars around me. It just made me more anxious behind the wheel.
While it’s natural for humans to strive for things, the problem with living in a constant state of striving is that it’s a road without an end. No one ever read a self-help book, closed it after finishing the last page, and exclaimed, “I have arrived! I am the best me there ever will be!” When we’re constantly looking ahead for the next better version of ourselves, we don’t see that we are already okay just as we are. We are valuable and have meaning because we are here. Striving to be more or different all the time takes that gift away from us.
Gratitude: For full transparency’s sake, hearing anyone spout off about the benefits of writing gratitudes makes me want to barf. Ever since Oprah introduced the idea of gratitude journals in the 90s, giving thanks to a few things a day has been on the top of every self-help guru’s list. But there’s actual science that shows it helps us redirect our tendencies of focusing on the negative. I don’t go as far as to write down my gratitudes every day. But I do spend a few moments at night mentally listing a handful of things I’m happy about. And lo and behold, it takes me out of myself for just enough time to shake off any self-obsessive thoughts I might have playing in the background.
Connection through helping others: To put it bluntly, it’s incredibly self-absorbed to live in a constant state of self-betterment – even if the motivation is pure. It’s easy to make that connection when the “self-betterment” is focused on appearance, like too much plastic surgery. It’s harder to detect the narcissism when the obsession is on fixing the insides. But it’s a similar affliction. And Americans have this in spades. Doing something meaningful for someone else opens our eyes to the bounty of beauty that’s right in front of us.
Re-finding my Internal Compass
There’s a danger in constantly looking outside ourselves for the answer to anything, especially the answer to who we are inherently. Relying too much on the guidance and approval of others weakens our internal compass. I know it did mine. It’s taken some practice to redirect my focus outside myself. But I already feel a sense of freedom I haven’t known since I was a child. Turns out the only thing I really needed to recover from was the obsession with fixing myself.
My bookshelves are slowly starting to fill back up with a range of fun fiction, historical novels, and inspirational memoirs. I have much more time to devote to enjoying life instead of trying to solve it. I’m not one of those happy-all-the-time people. But when I do feel happy and content, it’s a much truer version now. Perhaps I should put that on my gratitude list!