The whole experience though got me pondering about the notion of self-improvement and if, in fact, it serves any real purpose other than being just another stick with which to beat ourselves. Self-improvement, it seems to me, is the idea of being able to close the gap between the sense of ourselves we have in our heads and the one who is actually out there. The problem with this is there are an abundance of areas in our lives which are indisputable facts and to want to fix them, no matter how willing we may be to try, is a long hard road to nowhere.
In my head, I’m twenty three. The problem is my birth certificate states that I’m going to be 52 in August and, short of some sort of Back to the Future style invention, that’s a discrepancy that’s only going to get bigger. Likewise, in my head I’m a size 10 but, in the harsh reality of House of Fraser’s changing rooms, it would seem I’m a size 14. Hold on, I hear you cry, you can do something about that and, yes were I to stop eating cake, I’m sure I could. The reality is though, I’m never going to be Cindy Crawford cavorting around on a beach in a bikini with my flawless, cellulite-free body on show for all to see, so what would I really be hoping to achieve? I’m healthy, my body still works and does all the things it’s designed for, so is it not better to just count my blessings and forget about super abs and skinny thighs?
There’s a whole host of self-improvement that I have no time for and believe is nothing more than a euphemism for self-hatred but, that’s not to say I think it’s all a load of twaddle. On the contrary, I think there are aspects of ourselves that can always use a bit of improvement. We can never, for instance, read enough books. It’s my belief that if you don’t have a book on the go then you deserve a swift kick up the jacksie until you do. Reading is a bit like exercising though and, if you do the same thing over and over again, it ceases to have any impact. We all have a favourite genre – mine’s crime with a bit of romance. You know, the kind of that is perfect when you’re head’s scrambled after a hard day and you just want to read in the bath. Enjoyable as that is though surely it’s also important to read books that are a bit more challenging, either because they challenge how you think or they are not your usual ‘comfort read’. After all, your brain adheres to the same rule as your muscles – use it or lose it.
It’s my opinion that there are two main areas that can always benefit from a bit of self-improvement and the first of those is confidence. A lack of confidence is surely the bane of all our lives and we all struggle with it in some shape or form. It’s a well known assertion that a crisis of confidence is usually born out of fear and the only way to vanquish fear is to meet it head on. It doesn’t matter who we are, we all experience that stomach churning anxiety when we have to do something new. Public speaking is a big thing for a lot of us and, believe me I’m as inarticulate as the next person, but the more we avoid that which we fear and allow it to control us the more it saps our confidence.
Let me offer up a cautionary tale, I learned to drive and passed my driving test many years ago. I found driving to be the hardest thing I have ever attempted to do and I doubt I would have ever been a natural. By the end though, my driving instructor was happy with my ability to safely control a moving vehicle and, as he congratulated me on passing my test, urged me to get straight out there and just do it. Maybe if I’d followed his advice things might have been different but I didn’t. I put it off and, eventually the few subsequent attempts I had, simply solidified driving in my mind as something I couldn’t do. I allowed my fear of driving to get the better of me; it was easier to be a non-driver. The downside of this though is I can’t now think of driving without experiencing a slight stab of shame that I failed, that I can’t do it and my confidence becomes a little bit more eroded every time I have to explain to somebody why I take the bus.
Hand in hand with lack of confidence goes a lack of resilience. Our young people are constantly castigated by everyone, from the government down, for a lack of resilience but they are not given a chance to develop any. Most kids these days are educated in exam factories with the emphasis very much on passing exams rather than developing any of the skills that a meaningful education might provide. Top of these skills, for me, would be resilience. The idea of picking yourself up and having another go seems to be an alien concept for the majority of our nation. People fail once and that becomes their default setting making them unable to shrug off the disappointment of not getting what they want first time around.
It’s not just young people either. I’ve met people of all ages who seem to have been rendered paralysed by the disappointment of say a failed relationship or the loss of a job and so on. We live in tough times, there’s no doubt about that, but we can either sit at home bleating about it or make the most of what we have. The problem with this lack of resilience is that it corrodes our confidence like nothing else, passed down from generation to generation, crippling young people before they’ve even had a chance.
Working in schools, it often strikes me that the biggest handicap a child can have is his or her own parents. Not through a lack of love or care but because the parent’s sense of reality, shaped by a lack of resilience, also becomes the child’s. I can’t tell you the number of times I have sat across from a parent who states – of course junior hates school because he/she is just like me and I always hated school. It’s almost as if for their child to function successfully their own inadequacies would have to be acknowledged and they aren’t able to do that.
Bullying is another grey area for me. Obviously, anyone in their right mind knows that bullying is abhorrent but it’s the definition of bullying that I sometimes find hard to accept. Children are cruel as we all know from our own school days. Let’s face it, I’m sure we’ve all experienced our own version of The Lord of the Flies at the local comp but, is this school yard tyranny bullying? I’ve had to deal with situations that I’m sure have been made infinitely worse by the intervention of adults. Parents demand action because their child is feeling left out or someone has given them a look or laughed at their shoes. But isn’t that just life? My friends laugh at my fashion faux pas all the time, just as they mock my ‘brilliant ideas’ and pour scorn on my philosophies of the universe and, frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Who wants to be some sort of pampered princess who people only ever agree with and praise for fear of hurting her feelings?
For me, self-improvement should be limited to helping us become better versions of ourselves rather than trying to change who we fundamentally are and making us feel worse. Forget the 5:2 diet or the 30 day abs challenge because none of that really matters. What does matter is developing the confidence to live the life we want to live and the resilience to take it on the chin when life doesn’t always go our way.