What if our obsession with self-improvement is really a cleverly disguised form of self-rejection?
On a Saturday afternoon, my daughter is wailing. She’s screaming like her life is at stake. Her life is not at stake—she’s just tired. But she won’t. stop. crying.
And it’s sucking the life right out of me—like a dementor’s kiss, I’m being drained of every last ounce of happiness.
[Parenting Fail Alert: I just compared my daughter to a dementor.]
Only days earlier, I had published a post about back-to-school and parenthood and our calling to be inspired parents who are inspiring our children. So, on a Saturday afternoon, as I think about running away from home and never coming back, I say to myself, “Kelly, you need to go reread your own words. You need a little inspiration.”
But that thought is stopped dead in its tracks by another thought: “I have no interest in, or ability to be, inspired right now. I couldn’t read that article right now if my life was at stake.”
And I wonder if there’s something really wrong with me.
When Self-Improvement is Disguised Self-Rejection
I love to be inspired, and we need to be inspired. We need to be given a vision of higher ground, and we need to believe its possible to stand there.
We need Martin Luther King, Jr., giving his “I Have a Dream” speech.
We need Ronald Reagan telling Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down that wall.”
We need a montage of windshield video recordings, capturing small, lovely acts of kindness.
We need the moments that remind us life can be redemptive and it’s all headed somewhere and beauty is always just around the corner.
But I wonder if we’ve started to use inspiration like a tall cup of coffee.
I wonder if, in a culture addicted to self-improvement and epic stories—in a culture of viral YouTube inspiration and pithy memes—we drink down inspiration like caffeine, using it to propel us into some kind of glorious new place, into a more perfected version of ourselves. And I wonder if, in doing so, we unknowingly participate in a culture of self-rejection.
Perhaps when we feel uninspired and stuck, what we are really feeling is, “I’m stuck with who I am right now, and who I am right now is not good enough.” Not good enough. The slogan of shame. Working its way quietly into even our well-intended efforts to “better” ourselves.
When our sense of worth becomes contingent upon moments of inspiration and constant self-improvement, we need not worry about other people rejecting us—because we’re already doing it to ourselves.
Feeling uninspired and unimproved is a normal part of our good-ordinary lives and an essential part of our humanity. Yet we take the uninspired moments that make up the bulk of our days and fill the expanse of our lives, and we experience them like a final, condemning judgment of who we are.
When Being Uninspired is Good Enough
I hold my wailing daughter and I recall a recent conversation:
“Kelly, I love your writing, but I haven’t read a post in a while.”
“Because your writing is inspirational, and I just can’t find it in me to be inspired right now.”
I hold my wailing daughter, and those words deliver me. Not because they improve me, but because they return me to myself, they return me to the moment. Those words are grace. They give me permission to feel uninspired. They give me permission to be who I am—a tired dad at the end of his rope.
And, ironically, when I embrace who I am, the despair is diminished. I don’t need to fix myself. I don’t need to transform my daughter’s tears into laughter. I don’t need to find a deeper meaning in the agonizing moment. In fact, I don’t need to do anything at all.
Which leaves me free to simply be. It leaves me free to be an uninspired dad with a hopelessly crabby daughter. It leaves me free to hold her and to hug her and to be with her, exactly the way we are. In this moment. And then the next one. And then the next one.
And so I hold my little girl as she cries. I just sit in the mess with her and I feel completely uninspired. I sit there, wiped out by life, and I quit wondering what to do next, and I simply dedicate myself to being this.
To Breathe Life Into
The modern dictionary definition of inspire is: “To produce or arouse a feeling.” However, in its archaic usage, it meant, “To breathe life into.”
Maybe, sometimes, the calling of our lives is not to feel inspired. Maybe sometimes it’s okay to feel purposeless, to not be headed anywhere epic or grand, to not be constantly fixing and improving ourselves.
Maybe sometimes it’s okay to simply breathe alive into the moment.
[Resisting now the temptation to insert here an inspiring closing line that will negate the entire spirit of this post by making it inspirational at the last moment. Resisting. Resisting. Waiting for an authentic way to end this. Waiting. Waiting. Okay, how about this?]
Today, let’s just be who we are. Let’s be uninspired. Let’s quit trying to run from ourselves through self-improvement. Let’s simply settle into the current version of ourselves, and let’s pause our search for an upgrade. Let’s just breathe. And let’s find a moment in which that is enough. Let’s find a moment in which we know we are blessedly good enough, precisely the way we are.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.