7 Ways to Improve Your Life

Did I get your attention?

To be transparent with you, this post is not going to outline 7 ways by which you can improve your life. However, it will be related to the sentiment behind the idea, specifically the prevalence of keys/ steps in the world of self-help.

All of my life, I have wanted to find simple solutions to complex problems in my life. I was that teenager who read “7 Habits of Highly Successful Teens” in her spare time. I have gravitated toward things like cognitive-behavioral therapy because CBT is neat, clean, and organized. I want to believe that if I make this chart or do this exercise or read this book, I will feel better. That if I follow all of the steps, I will be fixed. Yet, I found myself doing all of these things and still having this angst inside of me, this abyss so deep that the pain has seemed to penetrate every part of me. Formulas couldn’t explain that.

While self-help books, simple steps, and formulated approaches to wellness help a lot of people, and they have helped me to an extent, in the end, I have found them simplistic. They do not tell the full story. My life has not gone A + B + C. It has been like an avalanche, with zombies and monsters and surprises, and “how-to’s” or “steps” do not do it justice. Moreover, when I would read these books or would practice DBT skills on Saturdays, I would feel a sense of frustration and hopelessness. If these empirically supported, or award-winning, strategies don’t provide lasting change in my life, is there something wrong with me? Is there any hope for me in life? (Caveat: I think that steps, keys, CBT, DBT, etc. have their place, and if that works for someone, great. I don’t mean to knock these approaches to wellness. They can help reduce distress when people are hurting. That is great. What I want to suggest is that these approaches they are not in-and-of themselves sufficient for complete healing, at least they haven’t been for me).

I have been reading Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection (a fabulous book, if I may give a shameless plug), and I was struck by this passage (context: she is talking about our culture): “We don’t want to be uncomfortable. We want a quick and dirty ‘how-to’ list for happiness. I don’t fit that bill. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to skip over the hard stuff, but it just doesn’t work. We don’t change, we don’t grow, and we don’t move forward without the work” (p. 35).

In my life, I have found her words to be true. I haven’t wanted to be uncomfortable in my path to healing. In fact, I have taken extreme measures to ensure temporary comfort, and most of them– okay, pretty much all of them– okay, all of them– have gone up in flames. However, I have found that discomfort, albeit painful, is necessary, for change.

Simple answers assume that with education, with this chart, with this book, with a tap of our red slippers, we can bypass the work, and who wouldn’t want that? Brene Brown continues that we face such struggles in our culture, and yet, we are so “educated.” We live in a word of Google, twitter, CNN breaking news, and Wikipedia. For any given problem, there is probably an app for that. I know that my caffeine intake is probably unhealthy, and I could read all the articles in the world on how and why to change my caffeine consumption, but I don’t. For the most part, people know what is healthy and advantageous, and yet they don’t do it. Why?

Perhaps because life, growth, change, and self-improvement cannot be boiled down to a simple blueprint. There is a lifetime of letting in, letting go, feeling, and doing. Once I think I have figured something out in my life, a new variable enters the mix. It is complicated and messy, so messy. Being vulnerable with others is messy.

At seminary, I learned to “live with the tension,” in the discrepancy between the present reality and the shalom of God. It is hard to sit with that, to live in the questions, not to offer pat solutions, but to be present in the messiness. I believe that there is hope, and there is healing, but I also don’t think it can be reduced in a formulaic fashion.

As Marya Hornbacher wrote in the book, Wasted:

“There is never a sudden revelation, a complete and tidy explanation for why it happened, or why it ends, or why or who you are. You want one and I want one, but there isn’t one. It comes in bits and pieces, and you stitch them together wherever they fit, and when you are done you hold yourself up, and still there are holes and you are a rag doll, invented, imperfect… There is no other way.”

Much of my life I feel like I’m wading through a mud pit to find this elusive sense of wholeness. That is the reality. Therapists have often told me, “Sit with your feelings.” I hate sitting with my damn feelings. I have spent most of my life trying to avoid doing just that. Sometimes recovery feels like I am on a roller coaster, dropping, dropping, and I can barely catch my breath. I hate it. Although I hate it, I am still doing the work.

There is no game plan that tells me how my life, and recovery, should go, nor do I want one. I don’t want a cheerleader or a fortune teller. What I need are grace and love. I want people to be there with me, who sit with me, who hold my hand, as I trek through the mud. I won’t promise that doing the work won’t be messy, but I think– I hope– it will be worth it.