• Marina R.

Rethinking “Self-Improvement”

Getting sober was my first step into self-care. I recall countless other intentions and attempts at solitary self-help when I was in the midst of substance use disorder, but they were short-lived and I had no community, conversation, or accountability around those efforts (I eventually found these in recovery). However, in sobriety I have often found myself entrenched in the self-improvement culture that goes beyond attending recovery meetings, connecting with others, and working the steps. The need to constantly work on something in myself follows me on streaming sites, podcasts, books, and other avenues I might turn to to “better” myself, yet it feels endless at times. The possibilities to “self-improve” feel magnified in the time of this COVID-19 pandemic as there seems to be more time and space to work on ourselves, yet it’s possible to pursue the path of spiritual and recovery growth without pursuing the coulds, woulds, and shoulds. It’s possible to savor what we have already achieved in our recoveries and still aim for gradual growth rather than rapid, linear progress.

Recovery Meetings Are A Start

In early sobriety, I needed to talk about drinking and drugging war stories and hear things like “You’re not a regular drinker.” I needed to test drinking again during my 4-month lapse before finally getting sober in January 2014. However, sometimes I can use my proclivity towards addictive behavior as a marker to divide myself and those I know into two binaried groups: those in recovery and “normies.” Though the term “normies” is used in jest, it makes me wonder if it does more harm than good. Though some people may not be in 12-Step recovery, they may be working on themselves in other ways that don’t have easy labels, like identifying as a member of a 12-Step group. In separating myself from “normies,” I can get self-righteous about my version of personal development and get pushy, trying to “fix” others when I might just be needing some more TLC with myself in gentle ways. I don’t have to try and “fix” or offer unsolicited advice and unofficially “sponsor” someone; this can ultimately hurt both parties and stir up resentments.

The Problem With Self-Improvement Culture

When navigating “self-improvement” culture, I need to remind myself that I’m not broken, so there’s no “fixing” needed. Though a cliche, Michelangelo’s theory of chiseling away (rather than creating from scratch) resonates with me. Rather than putting pressure on myself in quarantine to acquire, add, or improve, I can focus on cherishing the recovery tools I have. Navigating bouts of “never enough” can leave me feeling restless, irritable, and discontent. I got messages of “never enough” from my parents growing up, so I can easily retraumatize myself when I put the onus on myself to push harder, faster, and further.

Activity Addiction

One way self-improvement manifests in my life is through a constant need for productivity, even if it means absorbing media 24/7, like listening to podcasts while doing the dishes and laundry or pressuring myself to read or write on public transportation. There’s an underlying sense of FOMO--that I will miss out on certain “essentials” that every recovering individual has somehow already accessed. Before I can let myself rest or relax, there’s a lingering feeling that there is one more task to take care of before I can truly put my feet up. The origins of this compulsion can be tied to toxic capitalism as well as messaging from childhood, so get curious about the “why.” Constantly needing an intake of dopamine is another way of getting and staying high.


Some questions I’ve been asking myself regarding recovery are: Who am I when I’m not tethered to my meetings? How well do I trust myself outside of meetings to attend to other parts of my life? It’s easy to hide out in meetings or intellectualize and dissect everything as a way to not feel or develop true intimacy with one’s self or others. I’ve judged people for “falling away from the herd” of meeting membership, but six years into sobriety, I now respect those who can take care of their needs in ways that aren’t absolutely tied to specific meetings every week. Left unchecked, certain unhealthy groups can exist on an underlying foundation of breeding codependency amongst the members within it.

How To “Detox” From Self-Improvement

Let’s be real: there are more harmful compulsions than trying to “better” yourself. But if you’re looking to take a step back from the self-improvement runaway train, allow yourself to be exactly where you are, as you are. Allow yourself a few moments between conversations, meetings, arrivals, and departures to fully “arrive.” This could look like taking a few deep breaths or pausing to take in the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic elements around you before delving into the next thing.

I have a tendency to pathologize, rather than normalize, certain compulsions when they come up. For example, we’re all emotional eaters to some extent; emotions dictate our mood and what we feel like eating. There will be meals where I undereat or overeat and may not feel great, but I don’t have to moralize it. A lot of recovery from “process addictions” around food, relationships, and work may feel like they veer on one end of the pendulum (e.g. avoidance/anorexia or addiction), but how quickly can I forgive myself? The long-term goal may be to stay in balance, but recovery is not linear and certain behaviors will come back from time to time. They may not be as detrimental, but to expect that all behaviors will dissipate and new healthy behaviors will instantly and flawlessly replace them is an unrealistic expectation.


Recovery growth is important, however, when constantly pursued, as if it were a tick, it can hurt more than help. Remember you have intrinsic value just by being the you that you are, and it’s a blessing to experience that self in recovery. What if you shelved your self-help books for lighter fare, like comic books, video games, and comedy? Challenge yourself to meet yourself in non-recovery contexts, which will holistically add to your overall recovery.

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