When Self-Improvement Fails to Improve

Self-portrait exercise–looking at myself in different ways.

Sometimes, people do not improve.  That’s a hard thing for me to recognize because I’m an idealist, and I’d really love to think that people who embark on self-improvement–and most people at least say they’re trying to better themselves–actually make a little bit of headway.

I guess the bottom line is that most people don’t change until they’re forced to.  And even dire circumstances aren’t always enough to make a person change.  Once the tension eases ever so slightly, they’re right back to their old tricks.

Years ago, a teacher pulled me aside and told me that no matter what a particular person who was, by all appearances, repentant told me about making changes in his life, that I should not be so quick to believe.  He’d seen this person make promises before.  And he was right.  Half a decade has passed and the person I wanted to believe was bettering himself has only recently made even miniscule steps toward improvement. He is still, mostly, as troubled and lonely as he was years ago before he promised me he’d get help. He had to hit rock bottom first.  The awful thing is, I saw him hit what I thought was rock-bottom several times, even worse than the one before.  I’m still not sure he’s found the bottom of the well or if he’ll ever lift himself up.  It no longer matters to me, except as an observation.  I long ago tired of his refusal to deal with his demons and moved on.

For most people, hopping on the self-improvement bandwagon is somewhere between fashionable and a Band-Aid to please people who are ready to walk out in the door in despair.  They announce their plans, maybe even see a therapist once or twice.  But once the pressure is off, it’s back to the same old patterns.  Sometimes it’s not that the external pressure is off but that the internal pressure to avoid facing one’s own demons is greater.  It’s hard to admit your darknesses.  Much easier to look away, ignore them, or–if need be–blame them on someone or something else.  The hardest part of all is shining the light on them and dispelling them, and to keep shining that light to make sure they never come back.

There are always inspiring stories of men and women who go forward to make huge improvements in their lives.  They become a better version of their old selves, as I often joke about being Lorna 2.0 or maybe even Lorna 5.0, depending on how many improvements I’ve made and stuck with.  But sometimes people don’t improve.  Sometimes they even regress.  That’s why success stories are so inspiring–they’re still uncommon.

But as I said, I’m an idealist, and I like to be inspired.

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