Never-Enoughs, Good-Enoughs and Self-Improvement Junkiesby David Zahl on Nov 9, 2011 • 11:40 am
A revealing piece by Alina Tugend in The NY Times, “Self-Improvement, at the Risk of Self-Acceptance,” tracing our collective obsession with growth and self-help, and how the Occupy movement might signal a much-needed reaction against American aspiration imperatives. While the political/ideological ramifications of her observations are still very much up for debate – Lord knows there’s plenty of basis for skepticism re: OWS – Ms. Tugend is nonetheless wise to draw attention to both the addictive aspect and illusory future-orientation of self-improvement culture. Which is not to say you can lump every “system” into the easy target of self-help (contrary to what she writes, the 12 Steps, for example, largely defy that categorization), but certainly the ‘never enough’ mentality at the heart of it all makes for a pretty oppressive anti-Gospel. In fact, the word “enough” might be the most potent signifier we have for “righteousness” these days… ht KW:
Self-improvement is a deeply embedded American trait, something other cultures find both admirable and amusing. The notion that we can constantly make ourselves better is, in theory, a great idea. But when does it become too much?
“There’s a tendency to seek and seek and seek and never find,” said Kristen Moeller, creator of the Web site selfhelpjunkie.com. (The motto? “Stop Waiting. Start Living.”) “It becomes one more addiction.”
“We grew up with the idea that we can do anything,” said Hollee Schwartz Temple, a professor of law at West Virginia University and co-author of “Good Enough Is the New Perfect” (Harlequin, 2011). “But we took that to mean that we have to do everything. And many women took it as you have to do everything perfectly.”
Ms. Temple and her co-author, Becky Beaupre Gillespie, a former journalist, surveyed about 1,000 mothers in their 30s and 40s nationwide and interviewed about 100 for their book. They found that the women broadly fell into two categories: “never enoughs” and “good enoughs.”
Never-enough women felt they had to be the best at everything and often agreed with the sentiment that “I need to be a superstar even if it kills me,” Ms. Temple said.
Those in the good-enough category were, as is self-evident, fine with not being the best as long as they felt they were doing pretty well. But more important than how these women described themselves was how they described their lives.
“The never-enoughs more often described their marriages as poor, or even a disaster,” Ms. Temple said. “The good-enoughs were more satisfied and happier in their marriages. And they were just as likely to advance in their careers as the never-enoughs.”
But we can’t go around with the idea that “one day I’ll arrive; one day I’ll be whole,” she said. “It’s an illusion that one day I’ll be fixed.”
Such constant searching, she said, leads to a sense that you’re waiting to live your life rather than living it. Or you’ll feel that you’re always falling short, because rarely is the road to self-improvement easy or straightforward, and it’s certainly not the same for everyone.
This striving for self-improvement and the belief that we can all achieve success if we just work hard enough and figure out the right path, has political, not just personal, ramifications.
David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, wrote in a 2003 Op-Ed page column that Americans “always had a sense that the great opportunities lie just over the horizon, in the next valley, with the next job or the next big thing,” adding, “None of us is really poor; we’re just pre-rich.”
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