Self-Expression vs. Self-Improvement

by Lea Seigen Shinraku

Each January, it’s tempting to start thinking about resolutions and creating plans for how we’re going to become new and improved versions of ourselves. The means may vary ~ a change in exercise frequency, eating habits, finances, career ~ but the underlying assumption is often the same: There’s something wrong with the way we are right now. While the impulse for growth is an essential part of being alive, when we pursue it in a way that’s disconnected from a respect for who we are, it can feel oppressive instead of liberating.

Often, self-improvement plans spring from an idea of what the “normal ideal” is, and how we need to shape up so we can be perceived as more worthy of others’ respect, admiration, love and maybe even envy. In other words, an idea that is not so self-compassionate.

When I learned that David Bowie had died, just over a week into 2016, I was in New Orleans. This seemed somehow fitting. Bowie was an artist who was thoroughly unique, a being who did not try to fit in, but who consistently expressed his particular vision. During my visit to New Orleans, I saw that spirit, too. In everyday ways, and as people across the city got closer to being ready for the Mardi Gras parades, I saw a tolerance and friendliness that encouraged what might be labeled and scorned as “weird” in other places.

I felt very sad and moved to know that Bowie had died, and his passing also felt like an important reminder at that time of year. It can be tempting to get pulled into the idea of a resolution; the promise of a “new and improved” you. Perhaps there’s something uniquely American about this, too. Victor Frankl said, “It is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.”

Most advertising preys on our desire to comply with the command to be happy. The messaging typically goes something like “if only you have this new item, you will be a different person, and if you become a different person, then, finally, you will be happy.”

Of course, the reality is that this kind of happiness isn’t trustworthy, and happiness can’t actually be pursued. Doing so just keeps us hungry for another new item, or another new self-improvement program. And while David Bowie was known for reinvention, his reinvention wasn’t part of an effort to be what the mainstream media had held out as a “normal ideal.” Far from it.

Instead, Bowie’s reinvention seemed to come from an ability to discover and be true to who he was, some unchanging aspect of himself, and to find ever-evolving, ever-ripening ways of expressing it. Maybe that is our ongoing challenge, too.

Rilke wrote, “And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been.” I often see this quote in early January, and I usually feel encouraged by it. However, this year it seems to be missing something.  Whatever new things might happen in 2016, they will be an expression of something more than just newness. It feels truer to say: “And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never and always been.” Both.

If you struggle with self-improvement vs. self-expression, you’re not alone. We’re all bombarded regularly with messages about how we’re not enough, and how we need to change in order to be worthy or lovable. None of this is true, but it can be so very hard to remember.

Perhaps it helps to be reminded of the temptation. And, to be reminded of those who seemed to find a way to be steadfastly themselves ~ even (and maybe especially) when that meant being other than what is expected, “normal” or idealized.