Has Self-Help Gone Too Far? The Dangers of Over-Optimizing

Studies show, most of us have given up on our New Year’s Resolutions by now. Have you? If the answer is yes, you might be shame-spiraling and kicking yourself for not being stronger or better, while still doing nothing about it. If you’re still on track, congratulations! But is your life happier? Is it better? Or are you realizing that “new year, new me” is a false promise?

That’s the bitter truth of personal growth: it never looks how you expect it. While metrics and data-driven strategies have their place, it's essential not to lose sight of ourselves in the pursuit of optimization. All the “glow-up tips,” “that girl” videos, and “how to become unrecognizable,” video essays seem to want everyone to morph into this conventionally attractive, thin, productivity machine that checks all the boxes and is uncontroversial.


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This homogenizing content can be comforting, in a twisted way. It says: if you don’t know who you are, become this generic version of a person — someone easy to love and admire. The depressing part is that it might actually work. But instead of worrying about what other people think is good and right, real self-improvement starts with knowing who that self actually is. Yet, at its worst, self-help can erase that.

I’m not entirely cynical about resolutions and leveling up. As a fan of vision boarding and manifestation, I am no stranger to trying to build my dream life, and dream self. But the alluring world of self-help culture often makes us believe that who we are now is not enough. And if we could only stack more habits, and be more perfect, our whole lives would improve.

When put like this, those little James Clear quotes all over your Instagram feed feel a little more insidious. It is possible to balance self-help with self-love — without falling into the trap of using self-care to self-sabotage. But it’s a delicate balance and to get there, you have to understand the potential dangers of excessive optimization.

What is self-help? How do you self-optimize?

In the past decade, the landscape of self-help has transformed from the farfetched magical thinking of The Secret era to a bled of manifestation, podcast gurus, and business-backed literature. Armed with academic credentials and tech success stories, new age self-help celebs sell us metrics. They tell us how our lives should look. To be good, you have to make SMART goals, chart your progress, count steps, log sleep patterns, tweak diets, and record every negative thought. It's a data-driven approach that promises efficiency, focus, and effectiveness in our quest for happiness and productivity. But what if my best self doesn’t look like some generic person in Dri-Fit workout gear and an Apple watch? (No shade, all tea.)

It just feels like so much self-help starts by telling you what’s wrong with you. They're now selling the promise of optimized lives, where every aspect is finely tuned for maximum output. This shift reflects the new age of technology — which is only getting more intense thanks to AI.

The Dangers of Over-Optimizing

Over-optimization can lead to burnout, anxiety, and a distorted sense of self. Yikes. This might seem a bit dire, but it’s more likely than you’d think. How many of us know someone stuck on the hamster wheel, always reaching for the next milestone in their career, their life? It’s easy to get sucked into the same trap with self-help.

The obsession with constant improvement thrives in the social media landscape, where the culture of comparison and unrealistic expectations rule above all. Over-optimizing can be bad. So what can we do about it?

How to Improve Without Losing Yourself

It’s noble to want to improve yourself. But going too far might speak to a deeper dissatisfaction with yourself. As corny as it may sound, you have to lead with self-love, otherwise, self-help becomes a desperate attempt at becoming someone else. And in most cases, it probably won’t even take.

So, how do we navigate the self-help landscape without over-optimization? Here are some tips for achieving genuine self-improvement while staying true to yourself:

Embrace Imperfections:

Recognize that perfection is an unattainable standard. You’re not going to reach your all goals, you’re not going to keep all your habits every day, and you’re not going to wake up as someone completely new. Your dream life shouldn’t be some pristine, perfect place where someone else lives. It should be made for you — mess and all.

Set Realistic Goals:

While setting SMART goals is great, many of us gloss over the “realistic” section of it all. What might be realistic for someone else, might not be for you. Make sure your goals meet you where you are and align with your values. Avoid succumbing to the pressure of achieving arbitrary benchmarks.

Devalue Meaningless Metrics:

Speaking of benchmarks — metrics only serve you as far as they serve you. Measure what matters, but don’t get caught up on mindless productivity and spinning on the hamster wheel.

Treat Yourself:

While most of the time, it’s important to prioritize discipline over momentary pleasure. However, indulging sometimes is good for your mental health.

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