Betterment Burnout: Why We Might Need to Question the Need for Self-Improvement

written by JOSEY MURRAY
betterment burnout"
betterment burnout
Source: Cora Pursley & Brittany McIntyre | Dupe
Source: Cora Pursley & Brittany McIntyre | Dupe

I feel like I’ve been trying to become a better version of myself since I gained consciousness. From being pushed to adjust my behavior and personality to be more outgoing to trying to manipulate my body to be more attractive and socially acceptable, becoming better has been a consistent goal in my life—so much so that I’m a wellness journalist and pursued a master’s in positive psychology (the science of wellbeing). I’ve been on a constant mission to figure out how to have more energy, to make my skin less blemished and more glowy, to make my hair fuller and brighter, to weigh less, to be more confident, to be more outgoing, to be happier, blah blah blah… and frankly, I am exhausted. The truth is my experience isn’t unique, and so many of us now—especially women—are feeling drained by the endless pressure to pursue betterment. So much so that it’s earned its own phrase: betterment burnout

Whatever your philosophical tendencies may be, whether you see your body as a temple or as a playground, whether you’re pursuing longevity or “here for a good time, not a long time,” your attempts to make the most out of life shouldn’t be actively making it worse by robbing you of joy and adding to the stress. So, let’s dive into why you might be feeling this way, get a little critical about the nature of self-improvement, and explore tips to ditch what doesn’t suit you and avoid (or heal from) betterment burnout once and for all. 

What is betterment burnout?

At the beginning of 2024, Bumble conducted a survey of over 25,000 Bumble users to gain insight into this year’s dating trends. What they found is something much more indicative, not just of the year’s dating trends but of our culture in general. Their survey indicates that 55 percent of their singles feel pressured to pursue self-improvement constantly, and one in four actually feels unworthy of a partner. 

Why do we feel this need to improve ourselves constantly? “It’s a response to a particular cultural context, one that often feels like we have little control. And I think over the last few years—in response to a number of crises including a global pandemic, wars that reverberate over the world, and increasing economic hardship—that need to constantly improve the self becomes heightened,” explained Adrienne Evans, Ph.D., professor in Gender and Culture at Coventry University. “Self-improvement might feel like one of the few forms of agency and control that we have.”

“Your attempts to make the most out of life shouldn’t be actively making it worse by robbing you of joy and adding to the stress.”

Burnout has traditionally been used in the context of work, identifying a trend of individuals feeling increasingly stressed and physically and emotionally exhausted as a result of their jobs. According to the Mayo Clinic, lack of control, lack of clarity, high demands, lack of support, and problems with work-life balance are possible causes of job burnout. A few of these causes strike me as also applicable to the world of self-improvement. You may feel a lack of control because all of these promises that wellness influencers made to you haven’t come true. You may feel a lack of clarity over what exactly to do. Everyone on the internet has a different idea about what to eat, how to exercise, how to be happier, etc.—who are we supposed to listen to? You may feel pressure to pursue betterment in all areas of your life, which is a very high demand. And finally, you may feel that you’ve lost the balance between doing things for a particular outcome versus following your joy. 

Another reason that betterment can cause burnout is that there is really no clear end to it. “Self-improvement has no finish line, and in fact generates self-reflection where one can always find the ways one falls short,” Evans explained. “It’s also not equal: Different people, based on the intersections of classed, raced, gendered, and sexualized identities, have different goalposts set for them, and so looking to achieve these can feel like burnout.” When the goalpost keeps moving, how can we ever feel satisfied with who we are?

Betterment burnout has resulted in women especially rejecting the pressure to better themselves constantly by trying to accept who they are right now; 68 percent of women in Bumble’s survey said they were taking active steps to do so. And this attitude affects how they date, with 40 percent of surveyed women only willing to date others who don’t want them to change. The tides are changing, not to say that we shouldn’t grow and evolve as people, but so each of us can more wholly embrace ourselves and find joy and love in this crazy game of life. 

“Maybe watching The Bachelor with your friends is going to satisfy your needs more than going for a run or taking a long bath, or maybe it won’t. It’s truly for you to decide.”

6 tips for healing from and/or avoiding betterment burnout 

When your betterment practices cause more stress than good and make you consistently question your worth, it may be time to start to reconsider what it is that you are really pursuing and reject the pressure always to be improving. Here are some ways to start readjusting your self-improvement practices and goals, ask bigger questions about why our society is this way, and find growth without shame or burnout. 

1. Lead with curiosity and compassion. 

“The short answer to how we reject constant pressure or reduce the stress that may come with self-improvement is to offer ourselves curiosity and compassion where we have learned to critique and judge,” suggested Octavia F. Raheem, an author, rest coach, restorative and Yoga Nidra Teacher, and founder of Devoted to Rest, a transformational rest focused immersion for visionary leaders making a high impact in their fields. 

When you find signs of betterment burnout in yourself, she suggests pausing, taking a couple of breaths, and asking yourself the following questions: Do you feel the need to improve yourself constantly? If so, why? Who or what is driving the need for improvement? What if I told you that, as you are, you are enough and worthy? What does the previous statement spark, wake up, agitate, or settle within you? 

During those moments when you feel pressured to do something for the sake of self-improvement, evaluate your true intention. Maybe watching The Bachelor with your friends is going to satisfy your needs more than going for a run or taking a long bath, or maybe it won’t. It’s truly for you to decide, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to decide any which way. 

2. Consider just being 

I had a weirdly life-changing moment, sitting on the couch during the pandemic at my childhood home. I had felt constant pressure to exercise to make myself smaller since high school, and at this moment, sitting on the couch, I felt the same dreadful urge to go to the basement to run on my treadmill. Instead of listening to it, I questioned it. I felt the instant relief of letting go of something that wasn’t serving me, that was making me question my worth rather than promoting self-acceptance, and that was taking me away from just being. 

“Even if there is something that we desire to shift and change about how we are showing up to life and in the world, we have to begin with a sense of compassionate self-acceptance,” Raheem said. If we aren’t OK with ourselves now, how are we ever going to be OK? According to Raheem, rest is essential to learning to just be. When we slow down, we can more easily find compassion and give ourselves the space to think more critically about why we are pursuing improvement. “Rest is an invitation to be with ourselves as we are. Rest asks us to do nothing except be,” she explained. “Rest will cause us to ask and answer the question, ‘Who am I when I am NOT doing, performing, fixing, or striving?’” All we ever have is this moment; find it again and sit in it as completely as you can, just as you are right now.

3. Turn a critical eye to self-help

Self-help has been my favorite genre since high school. I’ve wanted to know how I could change my reality and live the life of my dreams. In the past few years, guided partly by my academic pursuits in positive psychology and partly by my brother’s consistent nudging to consider other philosophical traditions and ways of being, I came to question self-improvement and the very nature of these self-help books. 

In a compelling article titled “The gendered nature of self-help,” Sarah Riley, Adrienne Evans, Emma Anderson, and Martine Robson, four professors and researchers in critical psychology, write that women are “the primary objects of transformation in contemporary self-help,” indicating the continuation of the belief that women, their behavior, feelings, and tendencies, are inherently flawed. The targeting of women in this genre perpetuates the idea that for women to exist and succeed in our society, they need to work on themselves. As these researchers point out, the very nature of self-help may not be for you to become a better version of yourself so that you can live a happier life—it may be to make you into a better worker and consumer. The researchers also suggest that this era of self-help pushes us to be increasingly individualistic and consumed by our own quest for improvement, which deprives us of the opportunity for collective action and true societal change. 

That isn’t to say you should ditch everything you’ve ever heard from self-help gurus and psychologists and throw out all of those books. It’s just to encourage a more critical eye when listening and reading so you can figure out what will actually help you show up in the world how you want. 

“We are here to grow and evolve, and this is actually different from improvement.”

4. Prioritize relationships and community

Self-help is inherently individualistic, meaning it can tear us away from the rest of the world. It makes us believe that before we can engage wholly with the world—before we can find love and belonging—we have to be perfect. This robs us of the very things that often bring us the most joy and fulfillment. In fact, one of the longest studies on happiness ever conducted, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, found that relationships were the most important contributor to happiness and longevity. 

Also, consider what Riley, Evans, Andersen, and Robson suggest—that an obsession with self-improvement deprives us of attention to collective and community engagement and action. Spend more time with family or friends. Reengage with your community through attending local events, hanging out in local parks, or volunteering. 

5. Focus on evolution rather than improvement

“I do believe we are here to grow and evolve, and this is actually different from improvement,” Raheem said. “All things in nature grow and evolve. It is an organic process that can also be nourished and supported through practice, community, care, and so forth.” This reframing could allow you to be less critical of where you are now or where you have been and allow for a more natural, less judgmental, and less societally pressured evolution to take place.

6. Practice gratitude

To break down the notion that you are flawed, remind yourself of all of the good in your life and around you. Not only will this practice encourage you to see the positive in yourself, but it may also inspire you to engage with the world more, be more kind and helpful to others, and help you tend to those ever-important relationships. Plus, gratitude activities, like identifying three things that you are grateful for every day, boost mood and well-being. If happiness and holistic well-being were what you are after in the first place, slowing down, being grateful, and accepting yourself just as you are might be the answers. Or they might lead you to more questions, which is OK too, because what is life other than just a big question?