How do I know when to stop trying to fix myself and everything else?

Dear Bear,

I’m a constant self-improver, constant seeker. I am always looking for the better in everything including myself and my circumstances and other people too. This has caused me some stress in my relationships, because I feel out of sync with people who are just fine and happy with how they are or what they’re doing. I always want to be doing more and better and I don’t understand really when others don’t.

Am I on the right track? Are other people basically just lazy about this? Is there a point where its just too much and I need to stop? I am 35 and as time passes there are more and more people in my world who seem like they have just settled for whats easy and available instead of pushing forward until they have what they really want. Am I doing it wrong or are they?

Dear Brave Correspondent,

I deeply, deeply “get” this question, and I have many thoughts about it so buckle up.

First thing: in healthy relationships – whether friendships or romantic relationships or familial relationships or whatever – when people are far apart on a topic they tend to find over time that they move a little closer to each other. Late guy is closer to on-time and obsessive early guy is willing to leave a little later, or eco-activist gal will take occasional private transport while car-enthusiast gal joins her sweetheart on the bus sometimes and so on. If the relationship isn’t very healthy, people often get polarized (you-always/you-never) and move further apart on those topics. What’s not very common, or healthy, is that one partner goes the entire way to the other partner’s habit or position and stays there forever. Which makes my first question – is that what you were expecting? Do you, in relationships, need the person/people to do things exactly as you do them? If so, that’s going to be a tall order.

Ideally, even on important topics, you’ll find yourself able to welcome some flexibility and also offer some. Now for sure that’s not about “agreeing to disagree” about the validity of someone’s personhood; I remain 100% on the Son of Baldwin rule (and its versions – ANYONE’s humanity, thank you). But many people are not in the ongoing self-improvement cycle you describe. So if this is a thing in which you need someone to be matched and not merely compatible or complementary, that’s 1. very fair, and 2. you need to know that and choose people to spend time with accordingly or you’ll just make each other feel bad forever, and nobody needs that.

when I teach about LGBT2Q+ issues, or about privilege and disempowerment generally, I talk a lot about the concept of Best Practices and how they are constantly evolving and how this is a good thing. I often meet people in my work who, some years ago, found a sense of personal satisfaction and resonance in a political space around something – often something in identity politics – and took it on as part of their views and beliefs. In the time since, often, there have been further advancements and innovations in thinking but they mostly pass by people who feel a sense of comfort that they’re “right” about that thing.

The problem with this, in my experience, is that it’s easy to get stuck there if our idea of being right isn’t constantly influenced by continuing learning and growth. Best Practices are iterative – that is, they are continually tested and improved against the most recent results in order to grow. I encourage people in these workshops to think about medical best practices to get them out of their feelings a little bit and into the world of facts: a Toronto team of surgeons led by Dr. Joel Cooper performed the first long-term successful lung transplant (and later the first double lung transplant) in 1983. Their work set the world stage for transplant techniques across the process – they were the first and best to accomplish this. AND medical care has evolved considerably since 1983, including the introduction of robotics, new drugs, and other new things I don’t know anything about. On multiple occasions, including this coming June, Toronto will host a Lung Transplantation and
Artificial Lung Support symposium to discuss innovations and challenges. So I ask the people in my workshops: is this good? Without reservation, they answer that yes, it is good, what could be bad about that? I ask them: would you want the same technique as the first successful transplant, or the newest and most updated technique? Give the the newest and best version, they say.

Right. And similarly – here comes the challenge – why are we holding on to our first successful political ideas when there have been considerable updates? In a world where marginalized and disempowered people are able to contribute to public conversations with fewer barriers than ever, where knowledge is busting out of the academy walls and being democratized in ways we haven’t seen on this landmass since before colonization, why are people not listening? There is SO MUCH to learn about the experiences, ideas, theories and analyses of people who would not have had nearly the same access to public discourse before – we can follow thoughtful individuals and hashtags on Twitter to learn more about sex worker rights, about misogynoir, about autistic experiences in an allistic-centred system, about DREAMers, about Indigenous representation and so much more if we didn’t know. All of which can inform and expand our worldview and help us make better choices.

Here’s where a lot of people (including me sometimes, dammit) get stuck: being unwilling to make a change because it means we may have been wrong before. To update one’s practices or beliefs suggests that the old ones were incorrect. To some people it means that they were bad for thinking/believing/doing them. I’m here to say, maybe but maybe not – sometimes an upgrade is warranted because a newer thing has been invented and it makes everything better! So you swap out the past best for the current best with full knowledge that you’ll keep looking for (maybe even working on) the newer best. But also – that’s almost beside the point. The point is that progress is always a stronger position than stagnancy. Growth has value. In this way, I agree very much with your premise, Brave Correspondent – there is always more to learn, more to do, further exploration required, a closer proximity to justice, to liberation, to peace, to health, to any beautiful theoretical perfection.

And.

One of the hardest parts about all of the beautiful theoretical perfections is that they are absolutely stunning and absolutely theoretical. They are perfect precisely because they’re not real, which means we can project any quality onto them and feel attracted to it – a theory can neither resist nor contradict us. It also means we can never catch up, never attain them. Which means part of the trick to eventually finding enough peace to sustain yourself through the fight is developing the ability to enjoy the good even though it isn’t perfect. To live in the world we have while simultaneously working to build the world we want. We’re kind of all doing a version of 1. being mad about Walmart and 2. simultaneously knowing that many people could not afford to feed themselves or their children without it, all the time. So there comes a moment, Brave Correspondent, when the constant seeking and refining and pushing (building the better world, finding the newest best practice) has to pause or step to the background in order for living in the world we have to happen.

Now to be clear, that doesn’t mean becoming a mindless and uncritical consumer of everything capitalism has to offer. But it does mean sometimes making compromises and sacrifices. It also means getting okay with the idea that you also have value, in the world as well as in the work, and that you can take a minute to rest and enjoy things too. Also, getting okay with the idea that other people also deserve that time and hold that value. Our culture has wild ideas about work, especially these days in our always-connected culture, and the conflating of work with value in the world. We report how busy we are when asked how we are because it feels like the correct orientation in a speeded-up culture: work-facing. Which, to be clear, definitely includes work that’s not paid and if you don’t believe in the absolute value of that labor I’ve got some children you can come take care of.

Really, Brave Correspondent, there’s a point at which you are going to have to deploy the word “enough.” Whether it’s enough work or enough striving or someone doing enough. Which also applies to the question of other people settling for “what’s easy” – many of them have found a place of “enough” for themselves. Now, it’s very fair and fine for you to want to be in relationships with people whose bar for “enough” is high. AND lets recognize that work toward justice happens in a lot of ways (I suspect you know this but since we have the whole internet watching let’s just review): people who experience constant discrimination or disempowerment have to paddle that boat upstream all day every day, and it takes an absolute ton of work to do it. Is part of what you’re seeing people who have a lot of privilege and don’t give a shit? That’ll be a good group to avoid dating or hanging out with (for many reasons). I’m betting, though, if you’re doing social justice work you may be blinking with surprise at people who are spending their non-work hours engaged in actual leisure activities, and I’m going to remind you and the internet that that’s not only valid but actually crucial – vital, in the proper sense of that word – to having a life that doesn’t grind you to dust before you’re old enough to enjoy that senior discount at Denny’s.

Some people are just do-it-make-it-fix-it oriented, and others have other skills and talents. That’s okay. The world needs its capable stewards as much as its disruptors. Some people are making glorious impassioned quotable speeches on the steps of a venerable monument and some people are bookkeeping for the revolution. All of these people are valuable to the work of justice and liberation. Let’s make sure we are valuing people for what they’re good at and their choices to lend some of that time and talent, whatever it looks like, toward the goal of a better world instead of always valorizing the person doing the face work. The one who spends their Sunday coding and categorizing a list of doors to knock on for the local municipal election doesn’t get much recognition, but without them the entire enterprise crumbles. Let’s be sure we have a clear sense who the entire iceberg, is what I’m saying. For everyone who is at the protest or action with a cheeky sign there’s someone who spent the entire previous day meticulously serving as an expert witness about sexual harassment taking a needed break with whiskey and comic books.

Last thought in this rather long post-hiatus Bear-has-a-lot-of-feelings answer: I would like to very gently wonder together where you got this relentless sense of not being good enough, ever. To grow and learn is wonderful. To be conscious and aware of the ways we can improve is of great value in the world. But if there’s a voice in your head you can’t turn off that constantly tells you you’re not good enough yet and you need to try harder, do more, be better… it makes me wonder whose voice that is? My guess, Brave Correspondent, is that you are probably doing pretty well and that you could take time out for good behavior and go swim in a lake or have milkshakes or lie around indolently on a summer Sunday with a cold beverage and a novel and be just fine. If it feels like it would be awful to not be constantly interrogating, constantly striving, then maybe some conversations with a trusted friend or a licensed professional about this topic would be helpful? Sometimes those of us who rarely ever heard that we were doing a good job get squirrely as adults about trying to prove that we’re Good and I would like to invite you, Brave Correspondent, to allow yourself and also the people in your world to sometimes just be good enough, for a minute.

love and courage,

Bear

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2 comments on “How do I know when to stop trying to fix myself and everything else?”

  1. Film Base says:

    If you want to shift your own self-criticism and free yourself from the tyranny of your Mean Marshmallow Man, stop trying to fix yourself and start trying to love yourself.

  2. Beverly C says:

    I didn’t read the entire answer to the question, but I do know EXACTLY what the question-writer is talking about. When you’re on the road to self-improvement, you know there’s always more joy on the other side of each step you take. You can’t understand why anyone would not want to make some effort to get to those pots of gold that you reach along the way.

    I think it’s typical to go through a phase of trying to convince people to want to grow, and of frustration when that usually doesn’t work. You start to look down on those people, which is painful for you, and causes them to back away.

    I think you eventually reach a point where you accept the fact that most humans are not serious about improving their lives. There are many people who are approaching seeking, but are still not willing to face themselves. The ones who are willing to face themselves and do the work are in the minority. I think that’s an unchangeable fact. I don’t know why.

    I’m just now getting on the other side of the frustration phase. I see that people usually don’t want to change, and I respect their right (sadly) to be that way. I then adjust my interactions with them accordingly. Find the right place for each person, as they are. When you come across other true seekers, that is a red-letter day! Celebrate, since it’s rare.

    I’m starting to think that the state of the world is the cumulative result of people not seeking to elevate themselves. What to do? Keep seeking. Maybe it’ll all make sense at some point. Meanwhile, you get your own pots of gold for being willing to do the work. Be glad that you have that rare ability.

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