The trap of self improvement

I have a confession to make: I think I might be happy. I’m not sure exactly when and why it happened, but the knot of anxiety that sat in my chest for years has disappeared. Obviously I still have moments of feeling a bit tired, or stressed out, or irritated about something. But underneath these surface emotions I feel bizarrely content.

I say bizarrely, because being a project person, I’m used to always working on something. But now, I seem to have lost my drive. I’m happy to just lounge around chatting to housemates or watching DVDs. And although I think I should feel bad about this lack of productivity, I don’t. Which makes you wonder what the point of so called “self-improvement” projects are if you feel better about yourself when you’re not doing any.

Because there are a couple of things that are acting as blockers to my happiness, and they’re both connected to an idea that is supposed to make you happy.

  1. I still stress out about food. I would love to eat a piece of cake, or an ice-cream, or a heavy meal without beating myself up about it afterwards, but I can’t. I put on a good show of non-disordered eating, but that’s because I don’t let myself buy any food that I enjoy enough to binge on. Because the mental anguish that follows eating half a box of chocolates isn’t worth eating the chocolate in the first place. Which is nonsense, because it’s not as though I dislike how I look or fear putting on weight. It’s because I’ve internalised a load of rubbish about how not eating chocolate makes you a better person.
  2. I stress out about spending money and owning things. While initially helpful in getting me to think about what I need (or don’t need) and what kind of life I want to have, all that minimalist blogs seem to do now is make me feel guilty for owning as many things as I do. Which definitely isn’t the author’s intention, but I always want to be the best at everything I do, so reading about people doing simplicity “better” makes me feel bad about myself.

But getting rid of things that do give me pleasure or depriving myself of things I can actually afford to buy is as likely to make me happy as eating less or making myself throw up the things that I do eat. It might make me think I’m in control in the short term, but it isn’t the answer to long term happiness. I’ve spent years on various projects, some of which have improved my life, but what I’ve realised is that that self improvement doesn’t make you as happy as self acceptance does. We don’t have to be always striving for something better. Sometimes, this is it, and it’s great.

To me, acceptance is about:

  • Spending all morning in bed reading without feeling bad about not going for a run or cleaning the kitchen.
  • Enjoying that second helping of pudding without worrying about what it’s doing to your body.
  • Writing blog posts when you feel inspired and not because you feel obliged to stick to a schedule.
  • Knowing that you have enough goal setting in your professional life without bringing them home.
  • Letting yourself off the hook. You don’t have to live up to anyone’s standards but your own. It’s okay to be that bit chubbier than you possibly could be, or for your house to be a bit messier. Happiness will make yourself and your surroundings a million times more beautiful.

5 things I’ve learnt from not buying new clothes

  1. Mostly, we shop because we can and not because we need to. It’s easy to go out and buy something new when you feel as though you don’t have anything to wear. But also, it’s been quite easy for me to put something together from what I already own. After a “but I have nothing to wear!” meltdown, it takes about two minutes of looking through my wardrobe to find something that I do have to wear. I’ve learnt to stop and think like a rational person, trust my style (rather than faddy fashions) and that throwing money at a problem is not always the best way to solve it.
  2. It’s easy to hide behind new clothes. The times that I’ve broken or seriously considered breaking my no new clothes resolution is because I’ve had a date or a job interview i.e. an occasion where I’ve been trying to impress somebody. Obviously people do judge on appearances, but real confidence comes from your self-esteem and not from a hot new outfit. Within a few days it will become an old outfit, and then you’ll have to buy another to get a new boost. Having to show up in old clothes has been good for building a new kind of confidence.
  3. It’s easy to fix things. Without the option of replacing them I’ve adjusted clothes that didn’t fit anymore, sewn up holes and basically done all the mending that’s been on my to do list for years. It wasn’t as difficult or take as long as I thought it would. It’s quite empowering to realise you don’t have to pay someone else to do this, or pay to replace something. Consumerism is a choice.
  4. Less is more. Weirdly, not buying new clothes has led to me giving more stuff away. It’s as though not constantly adding to my wardrobe has given me the space I needed to evaluate it properly. Instead of solving my lack of inspiration by buying something new, I’ve had to answer the question “why don’t I want to wear this?” Slowly, I’m getting rid of the things I’m not excited about wearing and feeling as though I have more to wear and not less (I guess because I now just see all the good stuff).
  5. You can convince yourself you need anything. But most of the time we just don’t. Not buying new clothes hasn’t been an inconvenience at all. I’ve managed to find myself outfits every occasion that’s come up. Not shopping for new outfits has saved me time, money and headspace – instead of worrying what I need to shop for I know I don’t do that and make do with what I have. There might be something I do need eventually, but having to make do with what I have has made me realise that I could probably keep making do indefinitely. Which is actually a little bit surprising.

What being ALIVE means to me

This post is part of the ALIVE in Berlin Blog Tour, which is spreading the power of ALIVENESS to the masses. Alive in Berlin is a global gathering devoted to personal transformation that takes place on the 30th and 31st of May 2014 in Europe’s most exciting cityThe event will bring together world-class experts, visionaries and change makers from a variety of communities and disciplines. Together, we’ll explore the common threads that connect us and make us come alive. To learn more and join us, click here.

If you’d asked me what makes me come alive a few days ago I would have said something different to what I’m about to say now. In the middle of a hectic week of parties, gigs and lunches with old friends I would have said: “Inspiring people, amazing music and great wine.” These things will still sometimes make me feel at the top of the world, but after a solid six days of them you can start to feel the opposite of alive. Today, I feel alive again because of ten hours sleep, a five mile run and all day by myself to think and to write.

So, to recap, what being alive means to me is: partying all night but getting loads of sleep, being around great people but spending time by myself, indulging in rich food and alcohol but eating light meals and running a lot.

Yes, you heard that right. What being alive means to me is a lot of contradictions, because life is messy and confusing. But if you don’t let this bother you too much, it can also be a hell of a lot of fun.

Part of the fun for me is about learning about myself and what makes me come alive. By making a note of when I feel most inspired I’ve been able to change my life to include more of these things, and less of the other stuff.

Some things that make me feel alive are:

  • Realising that I can make something I thought I’d have to buy. For me, craft is massively empowering. That feeling of having made your own necklace, dress, scarf or lampshade: something that’s uniquely you. Something that you haven’t had to rely on the exploitative practices of a corporation for, or made to feel as though you’re the wrong body shape because it doesn’t quite fit properly.
  • Hanging out with a true friend. You know the one, where you can talk for hours and still not want to go home. One of those friends who inspires you, makes you laugh more than anyone you know, who is there for you when things go wrong and celebrating alongside you when they go right. You always leave thinking “Why don’t we do this more often?”
  • Finding the answer to something I’ve been mulling over for a while. I’ve learnt not to panic about not knowing the answer to a question: what I want to wear to an event, what I’m going to blog about next week, what I want my tattoo to look like, how I feel about a particular person, whether I should apply for a different job. Whatever the question, I know I can’t rush the answer and I know I can’t listen to anybody but my own intuition. I might not know what to do right away but if I give myself enough thinking time it’ll suddenly come to me –  in the shower, on a run, or first thing in the morning – and the “that’s it!” moment makes me come alive.
  • Running further than I’ve ever run before (and enjoying it). After a few years of running about four miles three times a week I’ve started to push myself further. Sure, it might be more difficult, but the feeling of having run further than I’ve ever run in my life before (and thought I would be able to) far outweighs any physical discomfort.
  • Hearing that first guitar chord of a favourite song. Whether I’m in the audience, in my car or dancing in my kitchen.
  • Stepping out of the airport or train station into a new city. I love the feeling of opportunity that travel brings: the chance to explore a new place, meet new people and try new food.

As some of the things that make me feel alive things contradict each other, I’ve learnt to balance them. I had a busy social week last week, so this week I’m planning to spend more time alone: reading, creating, and going to bed early. It might not be sound very cool but being cool isn’t what being alive means to me. Being alive is knowing myself, embracing opportunities, being okay with not knowing all the answers, and most of all enjoying the ride.

A week’s worth of moments

On Monday I was walking back from the library wearing a t-shirt and skirt (bare legs, no coat) when it started to chuck it down with rain. My clothes were quickly soaked through and my hair dripping wet. I was cold and I was miserable. But then my phone shuffled onto a great song and I smiled. The rain changed from relentless to refreshing, the situation from annoying to amusing. By the time I got home I was laughing. My housemate was stood in the porch in her running kit, frowning as she watched the rain. “You’re soaked,” she said, quite unnecessarily. As soon as I went inside it stopped raining.

I woke up early on Tuesday and decided to lengthen my jog to work by running alongside the river. The path was emptier than usual and the water looked beautiful in the early morning sunshine.

Thursday was wonderfully sunny and we had a picnic lunch outside on the grass, almost forgetting that we were in the centre of a business park.

On Friday I discovered that something as simple as painting your fingernails bright colours while listening to great music can take you from a mood of wanting to crawl into bed to feeling excited about going to a party. (The party was great, and so were my nails).

Saturday reminded me that the measure of a good friendship is not seeing someone for years, but still picking up exactly where you left of. We spent seven house drinking coffee, eating great Lebanese food, wandering around Oxford and catching up.

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Sunday brought punting in the sunshine, and late afternoon cocktails. Just what weekends are made for.

(Apparently nothing ever happens on a Wednesday)

5 things I learnt from a (mostly) makeup free week

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Last Saturday morning I found myself away from home and without any make up. I usually wear eyeliner and mascara every day without thinking about it, but a day of having to go without made me a) realise being make up free is not a big deal and b) wonder if I could  do it for a week. Here are some things that I learnt from the experience:

  1. It’s nice not to worry about smudging. It was pretty windy on Monday and my eyes were watering while I was cycling to work. I caught myself worrying what my eye make-up looked like when I remembered, “Wait, I’m not wearing any!” So that saved me two minutes and a tissue. It’s also pretty awesome to be able to rub your eyes (or is when you spend as much time staring at a computer screen as I do) and wash your face a few times during the day.
  2. You get used to it. I don’t really like the way I look without make up. This doesn’t really affect me in a big way because my self esteem comes from elsewhere. But I probably needed the weekend (two days of the only people seeing me without make up being the people who are used to seeing me without make up) in order to recalibrate my perception of how I looked in the mirror before going make up free to work.
  3. Some people are worth breaking rules for. So okay, I did put some eyeliner and mascara on to go out with my boyfriend on Tuesday evening. Obviously it wouldn’t matter to him in the slightest and he’s seen me plenty of times make up free, but I wanted to make some kind of effort with my appearance, and make up is part of the ritual of getting dressed up.
  4. You don’t get that used to it. I’ll be wearing mascara again tomorrow. It might be better in the summer but right now I’m so pale every time I catch a glimpse of myself I think I look washed out and ill.
  5. Despite looking washed out and ill, it didn’t affect my confidence. I actually forgot about it most of the time. I bet most people didn’t notice I wasn’t wearing make up, they certainly didn’t treat me any differently (why would they?), further reinforcing my theory that most of our neuroses about appearance exist entirely in our own heads.

 

Moments of magic

A new weekly feature, in which I look back at the best moments of the week. It’s easy to let time slip by without consciously enjoying or remembering each moment, as exemplified by my inability to remember anything distinctive that happened on Wednesday.

Monday

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I came across these little beauties.

Tuesday

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I rediscovered the joys of wearing cowboy boots and virtually skip to the pub. It’s the first time this year we’ve been able to sit outside, and I celebrate by ordering cider (my summer drink).

Thursday

An evening of yummy Indian food, and a ride around the ring road on the back of a motorbike.

Friday

I have a long phone conversation with a friend and then my Mum, even though it makes me late for where I am going it makes me feel much happier to have connected.

Saturday

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I listen to great music and play with beads all day long.

Sunday

I rejoice at having gone to bed early the night before: no hangover and a really great run. I ran much further than I usually do and most importantly I actually enjoyed it.