You're Not Broken, So You Can't "Fix" Yourself

positivepsych self-improvement

Man as Machine

One of the biggest obstacles to self-improvement and self-reflection is the belief that it implies actually being broken. In some extreme cases, self-improvement gets tagged as 'fixing', and any advice offered in this vein can be taken as a suggestion that the recipient needs to be fixed.

I call this the Broken-or-Fixed Paradigm. It can be likened to assuming people work like machines, rather than living things.

It can be tempting to think of ourselves as machines: they are simple and easy to understand (compared to even the most primitive living thing, machines are laughably simplistic), logical, follow set rules, and conform to rigid standards of measurement. But people are not machines, and thinking of them like that has serious consequences.

If we measure ourselves by the standards we use for machines, there is no gray area for success. You either work right or you don't. Adaptation is not a concept that can apply to a machine. If it does not perform its function, it is useless. If it performs its function poorly, it is subpar, outdated, and soon to be scrapped. If a person starts to believe this about him or herself, it can be devastating, and can even lead to suicide.

Once You're Broken, You'll Never Be Fixed

At its most extreme, this Broken-or-Fixed attitude assumes that there are only two kinds of people in the world: functional, emotionally mature, perfect people, and disturbed, immature, broken people. The latter group are non-functional, incomplete humans. If we identify with this group we do not see ourselves as worthy of claiming our own greatness and living our  bliss because we do not feel we are even capable of handling ourselves.

If this is the case, no amount of soul-searching will solve our problem. No matter how capable we become, we will always be human and will therefore always be fallible, so we will always see weaknesses. In the Broken-or-Fixed Paradigm, this means that we will always be broken, incomplete humans, unworthy of our quests.

I believed myself broken for a long time. I made lists of all my shortcomings, and I had hopes that, with diligence and patience, I would eventually 'fix' all my problems, check them off the list, and become a complete human. Then all the great deeds I aspired to would come easily. I treated my psyche like a junked engine that needed a tune-up.

I read books, practiced habit change, and actually checked a number of things off my lists. But every year, each new life experience revealed a new weakness in my character. I felt like a mechanic trying to fix a monstrous machine from the inside, bolts and sprockets popping off every second, the whole thing on the verge of falling apart.

Basically, it was futile. Viewing myself in this way was not helping me be effective. All it was doing was justifying procrastination of the big adventures I wanted to pursue until the day I was totally 'fixed,' which was never going to come.

The solution to this first mindset is to realize that we will never fix all our problems. Life will rarely, if ever, line up perfectly for our purposes, and if we wait for it to do so before we act on our intentions, we will simply never act. We will spend our entire lives running errands and handling little emergencies rather than doing anything that matters.

It also helps to understand that we don't need to be perfectly squared away to do great things, and to realize that many great people had a lot of crazy stuff going on in their lives (just look up any sensationalist biography of your personal idol).

A concrete example is housecleaning. If we wanted to, we could probably find enough tidying and cleaning to occupy our entire day. Refusing to sit down and write your novel until the kitchen is perfectly spotless is the equivalent of refusing to move forward on your goals and projects until every one of your perceived shortcomings is handled. Eventually, you have to just decide things are good enough and get down to the work that matters.

And of course, we only grow by putting ourselves in a position where we need to grow.

Refusing to Grow Because it Means Being Broken

On the other hand, you may refuse to admit that you could possibly be 'broken' and so refuse to even contemplate the possibility of change through growth. If this is your perspective, you still see the world as divided between 'Broken' and 'Fixed' people, but 'Fixed' people (complete, whole humans) have no need for growth or self-development. To engage in such activity--to even contemplate the possibility that you might benefit--would be to admit that you need to grow, and therefore that you aren't already fully grown. You therefore close yourself off from any possibility of change, which is necessary to overcome challenges in life.

The solution to this second mindset is to understand that failure to grow is the real dysfunction. The living world, of which humans are a part, depends on growth and does not require that its members be assembly-line fresh in order to function and participate. (No matter how reliant on machines we become, we are organic, living things, and our success depends on living by the laws of organic, living things. While this may seem obvious, social institutions and the mentalities they give rise to in individuals do not always operate with this in mind.)

The Laws of Nature

In the natural world, organisms exist in a simultaneous state of perfection and adaption. Any biologist will attest to the intricate perfection of an embryo or seed, but that doesn't negate the pressing need for change. Growth is part of the plan. A seed is not complete if it does not grow. Even once it gets past the stage of being a seed and is a sprout, it can't just stop growing. Yes, it was hard work getting out of that husk, but the real work has only begun. The sprout becomes a sapling, then a young tree, then a mature tree, then a forest queen. Even these great lords of the forest are growing every year. None of them is a static being.

Animals are the same. They are always getting stronger or weaker, or finding better ways to adapt to their environment. But just because they are in the process of becoming something else doesn't mean that they are not good enough as they are. They are always good enough, and they will always need to grow. The two states exist at the same time, in the same being.

Finding the harmony between being present and growing is the great balancing act of organic life. Machines don't do it. Only living things do. They know how to be immediately present while becoming something else entirely, every minute of their lives. A machine is static, and no machine yet built can be anything more than it was when it was created. Time will leave it behind and it will become outmoded.

Growth is a fluid process, one that ebbs and flows with the requirements of the environment. We may envision our lives in any terms we want. I am making an argument that the more empowering model is one based on organic, natural life cycles, which can admit both immediate perfection and a perpetual need to change, rather than the mechanistic one, either broken or fixed.

(Photo credit: Bistrosavage on Flickr)