Your Suffering Is Not a Self-Improvement Exercise
Ten years ago, I was a deeply insecure 27-year-old walking home from a very good job that I hated with every inch of my being. I was sobbing into the phone to my best friend Dave, who was at Home Depot with his wife Megan.
“I’m lost,” I wept. “I’m exhausted. I don’t want this kind of life and I don’t know how to change it.”
In the background, I could hear Megan asking how I was doing, and Dave stuttering to find a way to say “deeply unwell” without offending me.
But now look at me! I’m a deeply insecure 37-year-old with a life I love and a career that doesn’t make me envious of city workers tamping down asphalt into potholes. (This isn’t hyperbole — I used to stare out the window of my office, watching the people filling potholes and thinking about how satisfying it must be to see a smooth road at the end of their workday.)
Reflecting on the past decade, it’s clear that every part of my current life can be traced back to the death of my husband Aaron. We wrote his obituary together, before he died, and it went viral. That’s how I got a literary agent and a book deal, and how I got a job in public media. I met my current husband through my fellow widow friend Moe.
I firmly believe that we are meant to be changed by our life experiences. We are not human time capsules or mosquitoes trapped in amber. But the issue isn’t whether or not we are shaped by our experiences; rather, it’s the pressure we feel to alchemize our traumas into trophies. So much of modern-day self-improvement has roots in toxic positivity and our need to feel that we are Doing It Right. The book asking readers if they want to come out of [insert trauma here] a better person. The Instagram influencer posting that pain can become growth, with the right mindset.
Look, I understand the desire to stop loss from having the final word, but can’t we just let it have a say?
The hard parts of our existence are not an aberration or interruption to life — they are life. This push to make lemonade out of every single lemon we’re handed puts an unreasonable expectation on us as humans. It perpetuates a narrative that says suffering is all in your head, or at least in your control.
It is not.
America is a country where 40% of adults do not have the capacity to save $400 for an emergency. It is a country where we do not have paid bereavement or parental leave, where social safety nets are flimsy and unreliable, and where mental health is a buzzword, but good luck having your insurer cover any of it. America is a place where the things that don’t kill you can leave you financially, emotionally, and spiritually bankrupt.
I’ve been watching The Vow, an HBO docuseries about Nxivm (pronounced Nexium). Nxivm is… well, it’s a cult. But it was also a multilevel marketing company in the nebulous world of self-improvement. Participants were lured in by the notion of attaining a big life and told they needed to get rid of “limiting beliefs.” Over and over, members talked about aspiring to joy not as an occasional experience, but as a constant state of existence. Yet it seemed impossible for them to achieve that, no matter how many thousands of dollars they’d spend on courses.
It is honorable for you to try to change and adapt and grow throughout your life. Trust that you will. But you are not responsible for using your suffering as self-improvement. Your responsibility is to evolve, not optimize. When life gives you lemons, you do not owe anybody a glass of lemonade.
Your goal is not to come out of every trial and trauma a better person, but to make it out alive.