Self-improvement is generally a very helpful thing for our lives. If we didn’t engage in self-reflection and adjust the way we approach things, it would be very difficult to maintain friendships, improve our work performance, skill-up in our hobbies, or function in our intimate relationships.
However, just like how drinking too much water can actually be harmful to you in extreme cases, excessive reliance on self-optimization can have harmful consequences for one’s mental health. To understand this better, it is first helpful to get a sense of why some people engage in self-optimization and what it does for them.
Self-Optimization as a Strategy for Minimizing Anxiety
Most people who engage in high levels of self-optimization learned to do so starting in childhood. Although no one description applies to everyone, it is very common for people with this focus to have felt heavily criticized or scrutinized in childhood by their parents or caregivers. Even in the absence of direct criticism, when parents focus on their child’s performance (for example their test-taking abilities in school), this subtly teaches the child to condition their own self-worth on performing well-enough.
This dynamic can additionally lead the child (and future adult) to learn self-optimization as a general response to anxiety. For example, the process often looks like this:
A person receives a negative and/or less positive-than-hoped-for evaluation (either in school, at work, in relationships), and this spurs an anxiety response that the person feels viscerally in the body. The person then engages in self-criticism and/or problem-solving until they determine that they can prevent the negative outcome from occurring again in the future. This functions as a STOP rule and is what signals to their nervous system to return to a sense of calm again, which then reinforces the whole cycle, making it more likely to happen again in the future.
It’s important to acknowledge that this approach does come with its benefits – that is, for highly motivated and productive people, this habit of worrying, stressing, and focusing on self-improvement seems to play a functional role in success. In other words, people learn to do this because it tends to bring the results they want.
Two Modes of Mind
In order to understand the essence of how a self-optimization mindset works, it is first helpful to understand the two different modes that our mind can be in. I call these Problem-Solving Mode and Observation Mode.
In Problem-Solving Mode, we are identifying a problem and trying to fix it. For example, you problem-solve the quickest route to take when an unexpected errand is added to your day. Human beings are set apart from other animals by our incredible problem-solving and abstract thinking abilities.
In contrast, in Observation Mode we are able to simply observe our experience without trying to correct or change anything. This is the mode we are in when we take in a beautiful sunset, simply experiencing it for its own sake.
A clear example of these different modes would be two friends that go to see an action movie together in a theater. While the first friend spends the time engrossed in the film and the amazing stunts/visual effects (Observation Mode), the second friend spends the time critiquing the film in their mind for its plot-holes and dialogue (Problem-Solving Mode).
Each of these modes has their time and place, and each can be helpful or harmful given the context and whether they are well-matched or mismatched to the situation. Someone with a focus on constant self-optimization is likely to spend nearly all of their time in Problem-Solving Mode.
The Problems with Constant Self-Optimization
If a focus on self-optimization can help someone achieve success in their life, then what are the issues with it?
Here are a few of the negative consequences it can have for people:
1. This mindset can serve us when things are going well and we are achieving, but it is most harmful when we inevitably make mistakes, get sick, and/or fall short. When we treat ourselves as machines, demanding perfection and never-ending output, this can cause us to act in a way that is ineffective and further drains our emotional energy, which can then in turn negatively impact performance.
For example, not knowing the answer on a test can cause heightened anxiety about what it says about the person that they do not know it, which then causes their mind to go blank during the test-taking time. Because our own thoughts and nervous systems work very differently than most other concerns in our life, some issues actually cannot be addressed through Problem-Solving Mode.
2. Staying in Problem-Solving Mode nearly all the time keeps your body constantly engaged in the Fight-Flight-Freeze mechanism. This mechanism was evolutionarily designed for immediate physical threats in our environment on a temporary basis, rather than to be continually activated. Staying in Fight-Flight-Freeze for an extended period keeps your body from supporting necessary functions like your immune system and digestion. This is one way in which chronic stress negatively impacts physical health long-term. Additionally, having Fight-Flight-Freeze continually activated can affect one’s mood, most notably resulting in irritability.
3. A self-optimization mindset can create more difficulties in intimate relationships. For example, staying in Problem-Solving Mode when your partner is only wanting to feel heard can backfire and lead to unintended consequences. Additionally, a self-optimization mindset trains oneself to always identify sources of blame, which when applied to one’s partner, tends to create an unhelpful dynamic for resolving relationship problems.
4. Staying in Problem-Solving Mode can cause us to miss out on otherwise enjoyable or value-based moments in life. When we’re in the habit of thinking about the next thing we need to do, we can lose focus on what’s happening right now. It makes it hard to enjoy the vacation, the weekend, the movie, the conversation with one’s partner. It can also cause us to rush right past our achievements. Instead, allowing ourselves to go into Observation Mode to appreciate and celebrate the wins we achieve can be a vital part of building sustainable motivation to keep working toward our goals.
A Way Forward
If you’ve been reading this description and can relate to aspects of it, you are likely wondering how to solve these problems of constant self-optimization. After all, that would be the Problem-Solving Mode approach!
I would say that part of the solution involves learning better for yourself when and how to transition out of Problem-Solving Mode and Into Observation Mode, which can happen in several different arenas. Relatedly, developing a better understanding of your own personal values that drive you forward and give your life meaning can be really useful for figuring out what strategies and processes you want to develop to replace your current ones.
I would characterize the tendency to constantly self-optimize as a habit that, while it may be in line with some values, may ultimately conflict with others. In a sense, our habits exist in the physical form of the neural pathways in our brains and bodies that guide our automatic tendencies. However, just because something is rooted in our biology does not mean that it is unchangeable. We can change our habits by changing our neural pathways through practice over time.
It can of course be helpful to have an individual therapist to help guide you through this process. If you live in Seattle or the greater Washington area, and are interested in working on this via telehealth, please feel free to contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation today or learn more about my approach on my website.