Working on yourself

Man working on himself.

Working on yourself.
Photo courtesy of

Working on yourself

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Counselor.

What exactly do we mean by “working on myself?”

One thing I commonly hear from clients is that they are taking some time to work on themselves. One of the hard things to define is exactly what they mean by working on themselves. This is the time of year when many people are making New Year’s resolutions or setting new life goals, and I thought it would be valuable to talk about some of the areas of yourself that may need working on and how you might go about doing that work.

Why might you want to pursue self-improvement?

Most people conclude that they are ready to work on themselves after a long period of pain or stagnation. Sometimes it’s the result of a traumatic event. Maybe you have been in a relationship that hasn’t been meeting your needs. Maybe that person you thought was your soul mate packed their things and left. Or perhaps you’ve been working at a job that isn’t meeting your needs. Possibly the pay is too low, or the work is hard and uninteresting.

The need to work on yourself frequently arises when there has been a change in your life. Moving into or out of a relationship changes us. Generally, it takes some effort to reestablish an equilibrium and find out who you are now that that relationship has ended. Rarely does someone return to being the same person they were before the relationship that just ended.

By relationship, I don’t just mean primary romantic or sexual relationships. Changing your job, moving from one place to another, adding a member to your family, or losing someone are all significant changes. The list could go on, but I hope you see that change often triggers the feeling that you need to work on yourself.

Self-change requires insight.

You will spend more time with yourself and with any other person in your life. Wherever you go on earth, when you wake up in the morning, you will be there. I can’t remember where I first heard those words of wisdom, but I do know that getting to know yourself and liking yourself is a starting point for creating the life you want to have.

Working on yourself means changing something.

People embarking on a self-change program may use a variety of terms to describe their objectives, but the primary areas you need to work on are your thinking, your feelings, and your behavior.

Maybe you have spent years trying to get someone else to change. At some point, you’ve reached your limit, and you know that for any change to happen, it needs to be you that makes that change. Once you’ve exhausted yourself with all your efforts to change other people, the only thing left is to start changing yourself.

Change involves new learning and new actions.

Humans are cognitive misers. When we are under stress, we typically resort to our usual way of behaving. I know that if I had to figure out which leg should touch the floor first when I get out of bed, I would probably still be in bed. Habits can be highly beneficial when they allow us to do a series of steps automatically and rapidly. If we have to think over each step in the process, we slow down.

Under stress, humans tend to revert to their characteristic patterns. This is why any new habit must be over-practiced until it becomes automatic. Unlearning old habits requires that same level of learning. You don’t simply stop doing the habit. The most efficient way to undo a bad habit is to replace it with a new positive habit.

Learning involves change at the cellular level.

The brain, the part in our head, and the nerve cells that run throughout our bodies become more efficient at doing things the more times they process the same signal. As we learn things, nerve cells create additional connections. Every thought you have, every feeling you feel, and every time you act, signals moving through your nerve cells create these events. You need to practice each new thought, feeling, or behavior until the changes you are trying to make become automatic. Today I will briefly describe three main changes that should be part of your self-improvement project.

Change your thinking.

As far back as the ancient Greeks, humans have known that the way circumstances affect people is more the result of the view they take of them than their circumstances. It’s possible to have extreme emotional suffering in a situation that, to outsiders, looks ideal. We also see people who live in extremely difficult circumstances but still maintain a positive attitude and report they have a meaningful life. How you interpret things largely creates how you feel about your life.

Make friends with your feelings.

Trying to ignore feelings is like trying to ignore messengers knocking at your door. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you get the message. But don’t shoot the messenger just because it’s bearing bad news. Instead, learn to accept feelings for what they are, sources of information. Then, use that information to identify either the thought that’s causing it or the behavior you need to take to alter your circumstances.

Change your behavior.

If you want more self-esteem, do more estimable things. If you want to be healthier, start by getting into action, whether that means eating a healthier diet or increasing your activity level. As your behavior changes, it will influence your feelings, and as your feelings change, they will change the way you think about your life and the world you live in.

Self-improvement also includes reassessing your relationships.

We tend to adopt the attitudes and behaviors of the people we spend a lot of time with. If you spend your days associating with negative, unhappy people, it’s much more difficult to maintain a positive attitude. Don’t be misled into thinking that if you changed your friends or your intimate relationship, then you would be happy. As you work on yourself and become emotionally healthier, you will attract healthier people into your life.

Pay attention to what you bring to relationships, not what you take away.

Most people have a lot more relationships than they realize. We even have relationships with people we were not in relationships with. Many of the clients I’ve worked with find that their most intimate relationships are with their drug of choice. If you are in love with Ethel, ethyl alcohol, or spend all your time with Mary Jane, marijuana, it’s hard to make room for romantic partners, children, or work.

If you keep getting into unhealthy relationships, re-examine what you’re bringing to those relationships. Do you seek out unhealthy people, so you don’t feel so bad about yourself? If all your partners have caused you pain, look at why you were attracted to people like that.

In future posts, I want to talk more about self-improvement and the process of change. Also, look at counseling and how that might fit into your process of working on yourself. Along the way, I will include a scattering of posts on how to create a life full of meaning and purpose.

Best wishes as we move into the new year.

Does David Joel Miller see clients for counseling and coaching?

Yes, I do. I can see private pay clients if they live in California, where I am licensed. If you’re interested in information about that, please email me or use the contact me form.

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