In our current era of non-stop technological innovation, wishful thinking has yielded to the hard doctrine of personal optimization. There is an abundance of ‘self-help’ gurus and it’s no longer enough to imagine our way to a better state of body or mind. We must now count our steps, log our sleep rhythms, tweak our diets, record our negative thoughts—then analyze the data, recalibrate, and repeat. Now more than ever, with a worldwide quarantine in place, technology has eroded the boundary between work and private life; we are expected to be constantly on call, to do more and do it better with little regard for the content or the meaning of what we are doing. Where success can be measured with increasing accuracy, so can failure. Not only do the impending pressures of self-improvement give rise to feelings of inadequacy, but also fraudulence on the internet. This is constantly increasing a perceived gap between our actual selves and our ideal selves.
Another aspect of this trend of self-improvement during the quarantine period is the illusion of endless free time. We must realise that while our lives are void of the literal hustling and bustling, there is still work to do whether it’s office work, school work or household chores. As we get caught up in this online frenzy, we fail to realise that every individual is in a different situation during this time. Some are managing working from home and household chores by themselves. Some have to balance that with taking care of their children; While several people are juggling all of this without any domestic help due to the lockdown. On the other hand, some are fortunate enough to have full time domestic help or have relatively more free time in the light of cancelled exams or paid leaves. Hence, in a time where certain individuals are struggling to find time to take a breather, the pressure of constant productivity may be counterproductive and lead to extreme burnout.
Perfection is the ultimate goal and people are crumbling under stress to become this ideal self whose definition is often not their own. This may be detrimental to our mental health as feelings of inadequacy may lead to low self-esteem and its persistence may lead to depressive symptoms. Focusing excessively on productivity tends to narrow our view. This can be demotivating for several reasons. A productivity-above-all lens tends to put our attention on the details and nitty-gritty parts of our task, rather than the big picture. It can also be detrimental because it adds pressure that can be extremely paralyzing and anxiety inducing. When something feels too big, too much, or just generally unreachable, we’re less likely to try to accomplish it, leading to further feelings of failure.
We must realise that the unprecedented nature of this global pandemic poses serious health and economic consequences as well as uncertainty, making it an extremely stressful time and one must shift their focus on relieving that stress and accepting things as they are, adjusting to the new norms. We are on a unique journey where we are grieving different things, whether it’s a missed milestone or a loved one. Often, it is important and more helpful to find contentment in just being.
If it is our environment that is causing us to feel inferior, this is what we can change; our daily activities, the people we’re sharing them with, the media we expose ourselves to. In our enthusiasm, we might have signed up for a variety of online newsletters and followed a variety of self-enhancement pages on social media that are now becoming an overwhelming burden. The good news is, you can opt out as easily as you opted in; unsubscribe, unfollow and keep whatever is constructive and resonates with you as an individual. Changing every aspect of your environment, however, may be daunting. Hence, it is also imperative to undergo some mental redecoration; redefine what self-improvement means to you and how it applies to your life. Be selective; step away from the self-help buffet. Go for the a la carte option instead; the list is endless so take your pick and stick with it before you pick another one. Make sure to make conscious choices and check with yourself and your motives. Are you learning from a place of self-love for the purpose of personal growth? Or are you learning from a place of constantly undermining yourself. Accept yourself, your needs and your wants as they are. When you embrace yourself, you redefine your strengths and weaknesses. It’s okay to embrace pessimism, be pragmatic and set realistic goals. Completing smaller, short-term goals will prove to be more efficient and less stressful. Take a break-doing nothing – relaxing and relieving stress is part of self-improvement. Practising gratitude is another way in which we can shift our focus to the positive things and attain contentment in solely being. Sometimes the best form of self-help and improvement is realising you don’t need it.
Editor’s note: Check out our booklet on how to stay well during difficult times