There is no shortage of ways to attempt to improve your life: pricey gym memberships, ambitious diet plans, social media experiments encouraging #100happydays, recommendations to keep a journal, to eat fewer dairy products, to turn off electronics long before bedtime. We usher in each new year by resolving that it’s time we’ll reach our highest potential.
Self-improvement is a funny thing.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to become better, but there’s something comical about the misguided, hairbrained attempts at doing so that are most certainly doomed from the start. Those are the ones I find interesting, having been compulsively guilty of undertaking them. (I also derive great pleasure in hearing about anything that has a hilariously disastrous outcome.) In lieu of actively trying to change problematic behaviors or enact a plan that will have long-term positive effects, it’s easy to latch onto one small project with the conviction that it will be life-changing.
Take my attempt at community gardening. The summer after I graduated college I was the most unhappy I’d ever been. (No shit—I even felt like I was a special snowflake for realizing I was afflicted with special snowflake syndrome.) I hated my job, my boyfriend at the time, and the city I lived in. I was drunk more often than not. My brilliant solution was to rent a community garden plot near my apartment for $25 per year. I immediately posted about my acquisition on Facebook, spent the next two weeks ignoring the plot, half-heartedly attempted to clear it out, planted three things, grew a single tomato, posted a photo of the tomato on Facebook, then stopped going until I eventually moved to a different neighborhood and abandoned the project. I thought that taking care of something would help me get my shit together, but I completely ignored that I had terrible seasonal allergies, was horribly impatient, and not a fan of manual labor, dirt, and being outside for long periods of time. There’s also only so much you can reap or sow when you’re constantly wasted.
This, of course, wasn’t the first time I’d gone straight for a quick fix that I thought would change my life. The summer before, I decided to try out the Master Cleanse. My idea of how a human being should eat was fairly fucked up at the time, and sipping nothing but lemon water flavored with maple syrup and cayenne pepper for ten days seemed like the reasonable thing to do to tap into my best self. Proponents of the cleanse reported not only dropping pounds and feeling more energetic, but reaching a new state of mental clarity. Plus, Beyoncé had famously lost twenty pounds for Dreamgirls in record time by sticking to the plan. I lasted for seven days, lost 14 pounds, was a monster to anyone I interacted with, then went on to eat an entire cake at the end. Most importantly, what Bey fails to mention is that you have to drink a salt water flush periodically throughout the cleanse that essentially makes you pee out of your butt, an experience that I’m positive was the sole inspiration for Pretty Hurts. (Stars—they’re just like us: afflicted by bouts of explosive diarrhea.)
There were countless other times when I’d followed the same sort of pattern: I was drawn to attempting something entirely unsuited for my personality to try to eliminate a spell of unhappiness. These never were rational strides towards meeting my true, overarching goals. Volunteer projects were cut short when I realized I was terrible with children, meditation ruined by the pounding anxiety that sitting still caused, Facebook accounts deleted then reinstated within two weeks. If I was alive in the 60s, I would’ve undoubtedly become a Hare Krishna, then bailed after a few chants.
When I wrote this, I wanted to hear if other interesting, intelligent women had also found themselves subject to that sort of irrational hurtling towards self-improvement. Here’s what they had to say.
It took me 90 minutes to get to the school: I rode the subway to the end of the line, transferred to one bus and then another, and walked uphill for 20 minutes. It was eight o'clock on a Friday morning and I was 19 years old, with no professional training or certification to speak of.
The kids were excited to meet a new person. They had little pencil cases and bad handwriting and sparkly backpacks. I sat one-on-one with each student, reviewing their homework assignment ("write a paragraph about your summer") and talking about spelling and grammar and opening sentences. It was a little overwhelming, but kind of wonderful.
An hour into the school day, there was a commotion. One student had arrived late. She had a note from her dad explaining that their car had broken down on the way to school. The teacher ridiculed her for being late and not prioritizing her school work, and made the little girl stand in front of the classroom and apologize to each of us individually for disrupting the school day. I wanted to cry. My rose-colored glasses came off. The teachers were mean to the students, the students were mean to each other, and nobody cared about me. What was I doing here? I ate my sandwich in the bathroom stall.
I knew I was sad and lonely and searching for something meaningful. But then it came to me: what I really wanted was attention. I quit the volunteer gig after the first day and I started making out with people at parties instead, which required a shorter commute and usually no heels.
I walked past an upscale makeup shop and went in. Soon I was being made-up by this girl at the counter. she had all these little tricks, talked about how to bring out "shapes" and "colors." Most of what she said meant nothing to me, but as more and more little powders and pencils and sticks kept coming out of this crazy chest of drawers, I got sucked further and further into a certainty that I needed to start wearing makeup. It seemed to be this quintessential aspect of womanhood that I lacked. I connected my cluelessness about makeup with my cluelessness about dating and sex. Maybe if I became this kind of woman—the kind who wears makeup, I would become that kind of woman—the kind who dates and has boyfriends and sex.
I bought almost $200 dollars worth of makeup that day. I've worn it maybe 10 or 12 times since I bought it and now it's expired.
Yeah, I still do dumb stuff like this all the time.
It was a strange time in my life. At the same moment that I was basically disenfranchising myself from any shot at human connection, I spent hours reading about, by and large, the sufferings, strivings, failures, and successes of other people. It sort of worked as a self-improvement exercise. I felt pretty informed in that specifically coastal metropolitan kind of way. And I felt more connected to people—distant people, the names in the pages— by reading the news, and the book review, and the magazine personal essays, even as I increasingly felt like everyone immediately around me was a totally alien.
If you follow the news very closely, it starts to become like watching a serialized TV show—the characters become familiar to you, and you can escape into it like you can escape into entertainment. Except it's 24/7 and people congratulate you for being plugged into it.
I started to get passive-aggressive with the journal, writing one-word answers and skipping days, then noting that "I was busy yesterday, sorry." I began to resent writing in that journal so much that, despite its intended purpose of making my life better and more wholesome, I had began to hold onto feelings of disdain and anger toward it, so even as I was writing down my most intimate feelings, I wanted to throw the whole thing down a hallway of blood and carrot peels.
I abandoned the journal about six months in and haven't turned back since, except when it appeared among my other journals when I was moving recently. I didn't even flip it open to see what I'd written, knowing full well it was page after page of, "I'm fine. I'm fine. I'm fine."
So I went to my library and took out Learn French With Michel Thomas on CD. It said on the cover that he is ~The Language Teacher to the Stars~. I uploaded hours and hours of French audio courses to my iPod and worked out to that instead of vulgar hip-hop and Katy Perry. I ran along winding backcountry Connecticut roads with my headphones in, repeating, "My name is Maryellen! Je m'appelle Maryellen! How are you? Comment allez-vous?! What time is it? Quelle heure est-il? I would like to eat something! Je voudrais manger quelque chose!"
Turns out, you can't really learn how to have conversational French with native speakers from 10 hours of Michel Thomas. Not long after, I was at my boyfriend's parents house for dinner, completely lost in translation per usual. His father took my drink order and I quietly said, "Vin blanc, s’il vous plaît" and decided English is a complicated enough language and I'll stick with that.
Thankfully, a friend of mine took notice of my impending downward spiral and invited me to come to a Quaker meeting in downtown Brooklyn with her. I grew up in a religious home, though since college I’d distanced myself from organized religion as much as possible, but I figured I had nothing to lose. They met in a one-room, church-like building and the podium was in the center. I listened to various speakers share stories, talk about their communities, and when someone stood up and read a Mary Oliver poem, I was moved to tears. I stuck around after and met a few people and went back sporadically in the next few months. It didn’t make me feel like I was improving myself exactly, but I felt less lonely. My life in New York gradually began to take shape; I stopped drinking alone all the time, started running, and meeting people through the wonder of the internet. Eventually, I quit going completely. I’ll always look back on that time and feel very thankful that I had somewhere I could go to put things in perspective. I think about going back every once in awhile but it’s on Sunday mornings, which usually interferes with my brunch plans.
- Spent upwards of $100 dollars on makeup items at Sephora because a magician there made me look beautiful. I now own several tubes of lipstick, lipliner, lipgloss, and a lip tint (??) that all make me look like I consumed a cherry popsicle three days ago and haven't yet washed my face.
- Given up carbs no less than 100 times, often while eating potato chips and rationalizing because they were fried it didn't count, and if I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to get home instead of taking the train it didn't count. I was doing this in an effort to get my body into ketosis, which is something I learned about on Reddit.
- Tried to change my life with advice that I've gotten on Reddit.
- Insisted on attending yoga for the "health benefits" even though every time I go I inadvertently 1) pass gas and 2) fall asleep at the end.
- Subscribed to The New Yorker.
- Sat in a chair for five hours while a woman braided a pound of fake hair onto my scalp so I could see what I looked like with a ponytail (okay).
I am still unmussed and illiterate.
Previously: My Struggle Bingo
Gabriella Paiella writes (and tweets) from Brooklyn. Yes, her name rhymes.