This Small Decision Improved My Mental Health

Milena
6 min readNov 30, 2021

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I went on a personal development diet and it felt great

So far in 2021, I read 33 books. 18 were fiction and 15 were non-fiction.

Out of 15 non-fiction books that I read, only 3 were personal development books.

Reducing the number of personal development books substantially- that, my friend, is what helped me stay saner and a little bit happier during this crazy year.

Let me explain.

I loved reading since early childhood. For a nerdy kid like me, spending time in the library or next to a fireplace on a cold winter day, with a cup of tea and a good book was delightful.

Books helped me learn, understand, get new ideas, immerse myself into strange worlds, following heroes on their quests. Books brought me joy and delight and opened new worlds to me.

I still love to read, but about a decade ago, my reading interests shifted significantly. I was a broke millennial, trying to get her act together and achieve security and satisfaction in the post-economic crisis world.

And that’s when I discovered personal development literature.

I am from Southern Europe so even though I did have access to some popular psychology and personal development, those were not genres I was used to. Only later in life, I came to read personal development, and at first, found it greatly beneficial.

I am motivated by growth and mastery of new skills. When I found myself lost in my career and clueless on what to do, I read a lot of personal development books and got a new sense of purpose, hope, and personal power.

I read self-help and personal development voraciously and always tried something new. I was obsessed with endless hacks, gratitude lists, goal setting, life optimization in so many ways. I saw my entire life as a self-improvement project.

Reading personal development literature felt like an inherently beneficial activity, something that, in and of itself, should improve my life. If I saturate myself enough in the ideas and concepts, it’s just a matter of time when I will start implementing them big times and become a superhuman, right?

And don’t get me wrong, I think that many ideas of personal development are good and can make your life better. I benefited from them a lot.

However, the poison is in the dose.

Just like how too much water can kill you, too much of any good thing can become nasty and burdensome.

But there is something else.

By perpetually being on the quest for self-improvement, you are somehow accepting the idea that you are not OK the way you are.

By always striving for more, faster, better, you are perhaps neglecting the possibility that your life may be perfectly fine the way it is. Perhaps your life is not a problem that needs to be fixed and you are not a broken individual in desperate need of another life hack and new life-changing habit.

We may say that you can still be happy AND pursue self-improvement. That’s true, but also a slippery slope.

Self-help is an industry that, in the times of capitalism, benefits from your own self-doubt, just like a diet industry, fashion industry, fitness industry, or the sports cars industry.

Just like Instagram fills you with feelings of inadequacy when you compare your ordinary life with the filtered lives of millions, personal development fills you with the urge to get better and (it’s totally possible, only if you set your mind to it) become just like one of those amazing authors and entrepreneurs.

(Likely, by following their advice, you’ll become just like them: a personal development guru who helps others achieve the level of personal development so that they can teach others about personal development. Sustainable and circular business model, no doubt.)

Self-help typically ignores the context, privilege, nuance. It usually fixes the problems on the surface. It works until it doesn’t. It does give you the agency about resolving some of your problems, but most problems are often too complex for these simple hacks and principles.

Self-help is helpful, but after some time, it loses its charm. It’s tedious. It’s tiring.

Since 2016, I took several personal development diets. During the first one, I read Narnia. It was magical and empowering.

Investing my time into something that is only fun and has no purpose to help me make money, win friends, influence people, and become a better person was liberating.

I didn’t listen to podcasts, I didn’t read any blogs and books that were supposed to help me become better. I only did what I found fun and that included reading fiction. Children’s literature.

In 2020, I grappled with depression and insomnia. It was one of the hardest years of my life and I am sure I am not the only one.

When I planned 2021, I knew that there were going to be many things I have limited to no influence over:

  • Pandemic
  • Recession
  • Traveling restriction
  • My own health

… to mention a few.

One thing I WAS able to do was to stop feeding myself the idea that I constantly need to get better, more evolved, richer, and whatnot. A practical way for me to do that was by eliminating personal development books from my reading list.

I decided to read a lot more fiction than before and to tackle some good non-fiction books that invoke curiosity. I decided to make reading a fun activity, not something I do to fix and improve myself.

This small decision made me much happier and had an immense impact on my mental health.

Note that I don’t think that quitting reading self-help is enough to overcome a full-blown mental health crisis. I did many, many other things: worked with a therapist, quit drinking, made more friends, changed my working habits, etc.

Shoving self-help in my face all the time seemed like a benign activity but it actually added oil to the fire of my feelings of inadequacy. And removing that constant reminder that I should be on the quest to become better helped me embrace who I am right now in this very moment.

Reading became my favorite activity before bed. I was able to relax and gradually doze off with my book (if you grappled with insomnia, you know that this is a big achievement). I joined a local book club, made a bunch of friends, and discovered many awesome books. I was able to step away from the personal development culture, at least a little bit, see it a bit more objectively, and decide that the break from it is an excellent decision.

I admit that I am tired.

I am tired of goal setting. I don’t want some bro to tell me why I haven’t achieved my goals in 2021 and how he can help me do it in 2022. I don’t even know what my goals are.

I don’t want anyone to tell me to wash my face, become a badass, find my purpose, optimize my life. I don’t want to get better, faster, stronger. I don’t need an amazing morning routine. I don’t want to wake up at 4:30 am. I don’t want to eat the frog first thing in the morning. I did all that for so long and I am ready to just be.

Maybe I am not the best, happiest, the most actualized version of myself. And maybe that’s OK. Maybe I am fine just the way I am and maybe the most “productive” thing I can do is let myself be messy, unproductive, sluggish, sad, curious, confused, alive. Maybe the wildest thing I can do is let myself be, and stop trying to cultivate myself into this amazing product. Maybe.

If you read this far, I imagine you may feel the same. You may be tired just like me, maybe also anxious, depressed, confused. Maybe trying to improve yourself right now feels delightful (in that case, go for it) or maybe it feels burdensome. Allow yourself to follow your own wisdom, not the wisdom of some self-proclaimed guru. You already know what is best for you.

And if you stumble onto a good book along the way, wrap yourself up in a blanket and allow yourself to be pulled in.

P.S. Three books from my 2021 reading list that I absolutely adored are:

All three were written by female authors and the first two are women of color- it’s more important than ever to diversify our reading lists. What have you read recently (preferably fiction)? Let me know in the comments below.

Before you go…

If you are on Medium you are probably obsessed with creativity, just like me. I made a FREE ebook “100 ways to be creative today”, with 100 creative prompts, most of which require 5 minutes or less, $0, and no special skills. Go HERE to learn more and grab it.

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Milena

Engineer. Creator. Sustainability researcher. Obsessed w/focus, mental health, sobriety. On the quest to find gentler and more meaningful ways to live and work.