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No Improvement Necessary

I started formally improving myself when I was in high school. A friend and I created a Self-Improvement Program and immediately began listing the ways that we would make our lives and our selves better. The lists contained all of the typical things—like losing weight, working harder, and being nicer—and I can’t even say for sure if we succeeded at any of them. I know it gave me a goal and a plan for a few weeks, but it also set in place the notion that I wasn’t good enough and that, to be truly happy, I needed to fix myself.

In one form or another, I have continued these efforts, always focused on the fact that I would feel happier when I was a better person. Of course, I didn’t word it that way in my head, because even I know it sounds ridiculous. But I’ve spent so many years “working on myself” that it almost qualifies as my hobby—but that would mean that it’s fun. And it only takes a moment to know that if we are unhappy with ourselves to the point of wishing we were somehow or someone different, it is not fun at all.

Now my eye is on being this person that I am—getting to know her better, loving who she is, and letting her take her own brave steps out into the world without my critical voice urging her back.

My mother was continually working on herself, too, so I come by this naturally. She even told me once when I was an adult that she had always felt unacceptable in the world. To prevent us from that same self-hatred, she said, she tried to tell me and my brothers what we needed to do to feel acceptable. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s and she was in her 70s that it occurred to her how damaging this probably was to everyone involved. And when I think of the abundance of advertising we grew up with—now replaced by enviable Instagram posts—it’s a surprise that anyone ever grows up just feeling good about being who they are.

As I wander around in my retirement exploration, thinking about what I’d like to focus on and how I want to spend my time, it’s amazing how quickly my mind goes to activities somehow related to being a “better” person than I am. Whether it’s my weight, or my accomplishments, or my lived commitment to social and/or political causes, it’s so easy to fall short on this mental chart I keep in my head. I also realize that this “not good enough as-is” feeling is very hard to change when I’ve been reinforcing it for more than 50 years. When I consider the energy I've devoted to this, it leaves me feeling like I just got off the Tilt-a-Whirl—queasy at the thought of that many years of inherent self-dislike.

I’m also beginning to realize that it’s weirdly easier to have a lengthy to-do list than it is to just be in the world. If I have my head down, focused on being a better person, then I have meaning, a job, a purpose. If I’m just enjoying the sunshine and a long walk through the greenbelt, or a leisurely afternoon reading about some subject that interests me, it seems a little self-indulgent and lazy. I get the craziness of that way of thinking, and I also understand how the world of work keeps our eyes on the prize. But it’s an abrupt change when we retire and our aim is on enjoying life.

None of this is to say that we can’t all be a little better at something, or more attentive to an area of our lives we’d like to brush up a bit, but it’s a shame so many of us spend so much time wishing we were different. I can’t help but think that if I’d spent my teenage and early adult years really liking myself and being glad to be who I was, that I might have enjoyed so much more freedom and courage going forward. If I’d been on my own team as much as I was a cheerleader for my students and my friends, I can’t imagine what risks I might have let myself take. But it’s definitely not too late. My goal now is not to improve, or change, or be better. Now my eye is on being this person that I am—getting to know her better, loving who she is, and letting her take her own brave steps out into the world without my critical voice urging her back.


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