How to Stop Trying to Be Better

Enjoying yourself as you are right now is the Forever Goal.

Woman in a Crumbling Cell (1949) by Gertrude Abercrombie

When the object of your affection rejects you or friends are hard to reach or the world feels cold and unfriendly, do you turn that disappointment into a kind of Rubik’s Cube that needs to be solved, or do you live in reality, where everyone has a million and one reasons for what they do, most of which have nothing to do with you? That’s the central question of this Ask Polly from seven years ago, which delves into the random whims and allergies and fears of single men in particular:

Early Polly was very good at pounding home the lesson that Rejection Is Never Personal, because I was just starting to learn that lesson myself back then. I was also just starting to come to grips with the concept (later explored at length in my book What If This Were Enough?), that a constant focus on self-improvement has a tendency to erode your self-esteem and turn you into a neurotic, approval-seeking mess:

"Instead of redoubling your efforts to be more lovable and better, always approaching some infinite ideal of the whip-smart but easy-going professional with a body like a fuck doll, you need to take a good look at yourself and accept what you see."

It’s a good column, and I urge you to read it right now if you’re feeling less than your full fucking self. I read it and thought, “Whoa, I needed that.”

And can I just say, isn’t that absurd? I mean it’s almost embarrassing. I wrote the damn thing, more than seven years ago. That means that whoever I was back in August of 2013 has had seven years and seven months to become even better — wiser, calmer, more forgiving, more informed. I should read my old words and laugh — HA HA HA! — at how primitive and unseeing they are, from MY THRONE IN SPACE.

Instead, I sometimes read an old column and I get a tiny bit worried that I might’ve lost my touch. Maybe I haven’t been improving enough, all these years. Maybe I need to start trying to be better again, redouble my efforts to be more lovable and clever and insightful, always approaching some infinite ideal of the whip-smart but easy-going professional with a body like a fuck doll… Oops.

The irony is that when you work too hard to improve yourself every day, you slowly start to feel stuck and anxious and angry at yourself. I don’t write well from that spot. Believing that a good life is a constant upward trajectory, like a rocket ship to the stars, isn’t good for you. It’s unrealistic. It leeches the joy out of your life to think that way.

Because that’s not how life works. Life is full of stops and starts. You’re young some years, then old, then young again. You learn and you’re brilliant and then you slow down and feel dumb sometimes. You’re tough and resilient! And just when you’re about to declare victory… you fall apart and cry and wonder how you landed there.

The goal is not to be better and better. The goal, every day, is to simply feel where you are and accept it. What is happiness, after all? Happiness is enjoying yourself as you are right now and connecting to other people as they are. That’s it. You don’t have to change anything. You don’t have to win anyone over. You just have to savor this day.

It’s the hardest thing to learn, but contentment in the moment is the FOREVER GOAL. Not seeming cool or getting rich or winning admiration from multiple sources or looking hot or making some “15 under 15” author list published by frantic old people who are perversely obsessed with youth and the passage of time and their own waning significance in the world because they can’t feel anything at all. No.

Bitterness is the realm of humans who don’t know how to live in the moment or love themselves for who they already are. Don’t take that path. Feel where you are, breathe it in with all of your senses. Delight in all of your absurdities, your foolishness, your wild daydreams, your good heart. This moment is delicious. Slow down and look. There’s so much here.

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