One of the challenges we have in the modern era is that social media shows us the highlight reels of everyone else’s life but we get to watch our own failings from the front row seat. When we see ourselves blunder through life, we realize how far away from our potential we are.
But comparison can’t be sufficiently multidimensional. For instance, when you compare yourself to a rich person, you don’t see how the person may have worked for 40 hours a week for 40 years and has lost all his close relationships because of it.
Hence, the one thing that often eludes us in our noble quest for improvement is that we forget that Self-improvement means journeying towards an ideal. Nonetheless, as good as it is to have an ideal, the hard reality is that every ideal is a judge. Once you posit an ideal, you instantly put your present self in an inferior position in relation to that ideal.
If, for instance, you’re not doing well but you’re around someone who is doing well, it’s very painful. Why? The mere fact of their existence judges you. And it’s very easy to want to destroy that ideal so that you don’t have to live with the terrible consequences of seeing it embodied in front of you.
One way people approach this dilemma is that they get rid of their ideals — either by settling and behaving like nothing they do matters or by undermining the accomplishments of those who have their lives together.
But this, of course, isn’t a useful strategy because it will lead to a meaningless existence in the long run.
Why? Having no ideal deprives you of the main source of pleasure and meaning generated as a consequence of observed movement towards a particular goal or ideal. If you have a high goal and you see any movement towards it, there’s a powerful sense of meaning that you don’t want to dispense with.
But when you set up an ideal that is high above you, it can judge you very harshly.
The solution, therefore, is to rearrange your reward philosophy: Instead of punishing yourself because of your perceived distance from your ideal (which can sometimes be someone else you think is better), reward yourself for incremental movement forward.
When you repeatedly reward yourself for incremental improvement, improvement often becomes inevitable for you — this is the hallmark of behavioral therapy. When you go to a therapist with a problem, as Jordan Peterson explained, they find small improvements that are measurable and implementable that they can reward.
Why? You can have the ideal you want as long as you are willing to reduce your movement forward to achievable increments. Big steps only feel good in imagination; in reality, they’ll exhaust you and burn you out.
Don’t beat yourself up because you want to get all your deficiencies right in one day. Be patient with improving yourself. Aim high, but reward yourself for small, incremental improvement, especially the ones that occur every day.