woman reading personal development book

What To Do When Your Personal Development Isn’t Working

You read all of the books, you follow all of the popular coaches on Instagram, and you find what they say thought-provoking and inspiring – but none of it has seemed to significantly change how you show up in your everyday life.

You’re putting in hard work and it doesn’t seem to be working. What gives?

When you find yourself in a rut with your personal development, consider what energy you are bringing to your personal development efforts and how you measure changes.

How do you approach your personal development?

With a genuine desire to expand, grow, and become a better person because it sounds fun and interesting? Or do you think about all of the things that are wrong with you that need to be fixed and changed?

Do you hear both voices? Which voice is louder? Which one is calling the shots?

Is it the second voice saying how much you suck because you always get really defensive if a client or boss brings up a teensy tiny thing they’d like you to do differently or that your natural inclination is to pull back in relationships when they get serious?

This is a sneaky force that drives us to personal development work. We think if we can just, well, personally develop, we can get away from our crappy feelings and finally start to feel better about ourselves.

The reason your personal development isn’t working is that you’re not using it to grow, you’re using it as a way to escape the discomfort that comes from not being perfect.

When you approach personal development this way, you don’t feel better about yourself when you make changes – you only find more things to fix. It becomes a moving target you can never seem to hit.

You’ve misdiagnosed the problem.

It’s like deciding your plant is turning brown because you are under-watering it. Then when you give it more water and it doesn’t get better, you think you need to try harder instead of considering another possibility like it needs more sunlight, the soil is old, or the pot is too small.

Your plant watering skills are just fine. The reason the plant isn’t getting any better is that you’re solving the wrong problem without realizing it. You need to put down the watering can and pop that bad boy in the sun instead.

In terms of personal development, you think the problem is that you have flaws you need to fix. Your efforts to solve this problem don’t provide you with any relief because the actual problem is that you have a poor relationship with your flaws.

People subconsciously think personal development looks like this:

Step 1. Identify what needs to be fixed

Step 2. Fix it

But really it looks more like:

Step 1. Write down a list of things that you don’t like about yourself or your life (like the fact that you procrastinate everything until the last second, you tell other people yes when you mean to say no, or that you keep holding yourself back from your dreams because you’re scared).

Step 2. Don’t try to change any of those things yet.

Step 3. Start considering why you want to change them in the first place. How do they make you feel? What do you think it means about you that you struggle with those things? How do you think you would feel if you didn’t do those things anymore?

This is where the work is.

It’s more effective but harder because you have to be willing to give up on your pursuit of perfection. When you’re operating under the belief that perfection is what will create the feelings you’re looking for, it can be hard to divorce that belief.

If you don’t feel like your personal development is working, take a break from fixing and explore where you’re expecting yourself to be perfect and how it makes you feel when you’re not.

Do you acknowledge and celebrate your progress?

Most of us have difficulty noticing or fully celebrating how far we’ve come because it can be hard to see small, subtle changes over time, and our brains are not naturally wired to look at what we’ve accomplished.

When it comes to changes over time, it can be hard to remember where exactly we started. It’s not like a weight loss journey where you can look at your “before” and “after” pictures and see the difference.

Have you ever had a dull, nagging annoying pain somewhere? Maybe you smashed your finger or you have a bruise on your shin from running into a coffee table. The first day it was sore and tender, and then each day it felt better until you didn’t notice it anymore, right?

Most of the time we don’t wake up and think, “hey! My bruise is gone!” The physical pain subtly fades and as it does, it fades out of our consciousness too.

One way I like to mitigate this effect is by journaling. Journaling doesn’t bring me much catharsis or relief in the moment, but I love being able to look back on snapshots of what I was thinking and feeling so I can fully appreciate the difference between then and now.

Another reason it’s hard to see our accomplishments is because of the way our brains are naturally wired.

There’s no survival benefit to celebrating accomplishments so the brain doesn’t do it naturally. If you don’t find that your brain gravitates towards appreciating how far you’ve come, all that it means is that you’re not yet practiced at it.

You have to purposely go out of your way to find things to be excited about.

When you think about the personal development work you’ve done, is it really true that nothing has changed? And nothing is happening? Or do you just not believe anything has changed because you’re still not perfect and so it’s not good enough?

When you judge your progress by if you feel good enough (and then you don’t) you assume nothing is changing.

What is your threshold for an accomplishment that is “good enough” to celebrate? If you force your brain to come up with an answer to that question it sounds like “I don’t know what’s ‘good enough’ but it wasn’t that.”

There’s nothing wrong with the work you’re putting in, your measuring stick just needs to change.

If your brain wants to say your success was luck, a fluke, and you could have done it better, that’s only one way to look at it.

What else could be true?

Could you be proud of the way you showed up for yourself?

Could you celebrate a unique way you did something?

Did you ask for help when you were scared to?

Decide what you think is worth celebrating, not what society tells you is worth celebrating. Money, success, power, status, and material objects are all things we learn we “should”  be proud of. Effort, determination, and creativity don’t always make that list, but you can decide if you want them on yours.

At first, it’s hard. It will likely feel awkward, forced, and clunky. Any time you learn a new skill that your brain isn’t practiced at, it’s difficult. And when you’re worried about being perfect, if you feel bad at something you’d rather quit than experience the discomfort of getting better at it. Keep with it.

It’s normal to get in a rut with your personal development, but if you find that it’s making you feel worse more than it makes you feel better, it’s time for a change! Try working on the relationship you have with the things you wish you could change about yourself instead of quickly jumping to fix them in hopes that’ll make you feel better. Recognizing how far you’ve come, and not just how far you have to go, can also help you gain some perspective.

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