A fixation on being the peak versions of ourselves—emotionally, physically, spiritually—is now an ingrained part of daily life. What would happen if you stopped?
By Shayla Love
This was Leath’s entry point into the world of personal development, a niche of like-minded people and consumer products dedicated to inner work, psychological and spiritual insight, and self-improvement. A few months after The Secret, she read Truth, Triumph and Transformation by Sandra Anne Taylor, followed by Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones. She hired a life coach to figure out how to change her career, got a divorce, and began to recover from her eating disorder.
A talk by Reverend Deborah Johnson at a telesummit “cracked me wide open,” said Leath, who is now 52 and living in Southern California where she works as a food psychology coach. “That was the moment I knew I had to let go of the shame around my eating disorder and use coaching to help other women heal. I signed up for coach training shortly after that.”
After nearly a decade rooted deeply in growth, however, her commitment to personal development had taken on a different meaning. It happened slowly. After her first couple of years of epiphanies and insights, her focus on “bettering” was no longer coming from a desire to live the most fulfilling life possible, she realized, but rather, a more obsessive need to keep “fixing” herself—with no end in sight.
“Before I’ve even finished one personal growth book, I’ve already discovered another aspect of myself potentially in need of healing or fine-tuning and ordered three more books on that topic,” she wrote in a 2017 blog post. “Quite honestly, it’s exhausting.”
“It was coming from the feeling that there was something wrong,” Leath said. The same year she wrote the blog post, she made what in our modern betterment-fixated world could be considered a radical decision: She quit working on herself. “Let myself be where I am at and be okay with that,” she said.
Among those of us privileged enough to spend time on it, dedication to being the best versions of ourselves is now an ingrained part of daily life. From productivity hacking, where optimizing the self brings about limitless creativity or work ethic, to the more spiritual side of personal development, which examines one’s inner world to understand the way we react and feel, the desire to improve has helped to germinate our current pervasive “wellness culture”—the pressure to constantly address our physical health and minds in the name of self-care, and to be able to afford the products and food necessary to do so.
But self improvement, personal development, inner work, spiritual growth—whatever you want to call it—can go from being a toolset reached for in times of need to projects that never end. People can get stuck in the personal development mindset, treating the “self” like a block of marble that you can never stop chiseling away at. Then, ironically, personal development can become a way to avoid difficult feelings, distract from the truth of being an imperfect person, rob the joy from leisure activities that have nothing to do with being “better,” and, ultimately, make us all less community-oriented—since we’re only gazing inward and not out.
If there’s something chronically disrupting your everyday life, you should see a professional. But Seerut Chawla, a psychotherapist based in London, thinks there’s a crucial mental health message that isn’t being broadcasted enough these days: You don’t have to work on yourself forever.
Chawla is an active participant of “therapy instagram,” where mental health professionals with thousands (or millions) of followers go viral for offering concise bullet points on how to learn about your inner child or by describing different attachment styles. From being a part of this community, Chawla has begun to worry about a phenomenon she’s dubbed “psychological orthorexia.”
Orthorexia is an over-fixation on having a healthy lifestyle, usually involving food or exercise. A person with orthorexia might not meet the clinical definition of an eating disorder or over-exercise, but their life is driven solely by the need to be “healthy.” They can’t break their strict food or exercise rules, and despite being generally healthy, ruminate about food and movement for hours a day…