Why You’re Getting Absolutely Nowhere in Your Self Improvement Path – Part 1

I remember it clearly as if it were yesterday…

It was in the early 2000s, in the month of November, on a sunny afternoon. (I know, how cliche, but it really was sunny that afternoon.)

It was a really strange time of my life because I wasn’t working, having left the only “real job” of my adult life almost a year earlier. Well, I was sort of working with some startup that had big dreams, but I wasn’t getting paid for it, and frankly, I was just going through the motions with it and with life as a whole. I really had no drive to do anything, no motivation, nothing whatsoever. Of course I would’ve “liked” to have the symbols of success (nice care, nice pad, money, etc.) if they were bestowed to me by some benevolent “genie”, but really, that obviously wasn’t happening. Not only did I NOT have the desire or the motivation to pursue these things, but honestly, I didn’t think I had the capability of attaining them either if I were to pursue them.

Now, of course I know that the pursuit of material things is a road to nowhere, but really, if I had been pursuing these things, at least I would’ve been passionate about SOMETHING, and have been moving in SOME direction. In my case, I was just standing still doing nothing.

The thing was, I wasn’t lazy, nor was I depressed. I was just simply devoid of any desire for anything in life. I just didn’t care. I was bereft of any inspiration to do anything at all.

Was I happy?

Well…would you be if you were living like this? I think we both know the answer.

Deep down I knew there was something wrong considering the fact I hadn’t always been like this. The thing was, on the surface I thought that me being devoid of any ambition or any desire was the right, spiritual way to be, but it fought with every nuance of my being on a deeper level, i.e. it sucked to be me.

I think Thoreau coined my condition best: “quiet desperation.”

So, there I was, on this particular November afternoon, stopping in front of a bookstore that had a table display of books, when one in particular piqued my curiosity due to the title, so I picked it up in order to check it out.

I glance through the book and its subject matter seemed interesting enough, but I didn’t feel a need to buy it. However, over the next few days, for some reason, my mind kept on going back to that book, though I didn’t even remember the name, so the next time I passed by the bookstore, I bought the book.

And you know what? The book changed my life…

The name? “Think and Grow Rich,” by Napoleon Hill, a book about the principles of success. Well actually, it was another version of the book, “Think and Grow Rich: A Black Choice” by Dennis Kimbro, but reading that prompted me to possessedly go and buy the original version by Napoleon Hill. Needless to say, these two books single handedly gave me back something I hadn’t felt in several years: my inspiration in life to be successful and do something great on this earth.

In addition to re-kindling my desire to be successful, after reading these books over and over, and over again, I realized something else: I had a pitifully LOW self-esteem.

Low self esteem is funny, because most people who have it don’t know they have it and would never admit to it. If someone who was able to notice low self esteem in another person and pointed it out to him, he (or she) would either deny it or get very defensive. This is because people are very good at hiding their low self esteem from themselves through innumerable avenues, some of which include, erecting walls of materialism, bravado, or by simply just being an out and out asshole to the entire world.

I was no different.

It was when I learned this that I can say that I officially started my path of “self improvement” and self discovery. (There’s a reason why I put “self improvement” in quotes, stay tuned). I hit the ground running and threw myself into the whole process headfirst. My burning desire was to become a better person, raise my self esteem, and become a confident person that was secure with himself.

The Desert Years

Now, this is where I wish I could tell my happy ending, where I acquire unstoppable confidence, strike it filthy rich a few years later and fly off in my pink unicorn to my mansion on top of a hill at the end of the rainbow, where I sip glasses of Cristal and party nightly with the likes of Diddy and Naomi Campbell.

Nope. Definitely not with me.

Instead, I entered into another “desert” period in my life that lasted five years. It was a period where I experienced very little if any growth whatsoever. Instead I went around in circles, reading book, after book after book, going to different seminars, visiting a hypnotist, talking to coaches, listening to CD after CD, etc, all in the hopes of finding that magic pill, that one marvelous distinction that would enable me to finally let go of my negative beliefs, show me how to get over the past, and show me how to be a better person.

I remember buying book after book, hoping that each book would be “the one” that would give me that magical insight that would change my life. I would read each book accompanied with a “trusty” highlighter pen, highlighting everything I found insightful in the book, hoping that somehow these words would seep into my consciousness and help change me.

Sadly, that didn’t happen. All I’d get was a dry highlighter pen, but no real personal growth. I instead become a walking “self help” encyclopedia, full of inspirational quotes that made me look all positive and enlightened. I probably was able to recite to you on command, page 73 of every book I read, that’s how into “improving myself” I was.

As I read more and more books, I’d feel more “enlightened” and “knowledgeable”, but at times, I’d have a somber moment where I’d say to myself, “you have all this knowledge, you’ve read all these books, but where’s the REAL growth?” I’d ponder this briefly and then think, “Oh well, on to the next book!” and sweep the one insight that I TRULY needed to pay attention to under the rug.

I was lost.

I remember taking the Landmark Forum and its follow-up course, “The Advanced Seminar.” I thought that now surely this was the place that would make me transform. After all, before I even took these courses I heard of some miraculous stories of the breakthroughs and transformations people received. As a matter of fact, upon taking these two courses. I did receive some tremendous insights, and I did see some people make some incredible remarkable change, but at the end of the day, I was thinking, “how ’bout me?”

I had more knowledge, more insight, but I still felt TERRIBLY lacking.

“Why can’t I change?”

“When am I going to get rid of this horrible feeling of inadequacy I have?”

I would ask these questions to myself over and over again, after the next, best self-help tool I discovered out there that I hoped would empower me to become a better person wound up getting me nowhere. I went to a hypnotist, hoping she would be able to hypnotize me to be a confident person….that didn’t’ work. In fact in retrospect, I just think she was a sucky hypnotist (no offense to her). The only “improvement” I got from her was a lesson of not to EVER waste my money or time with her again.

I talked to several coaches…nothing. In fact, one got so frustrated with me he almost kicked me out of his coaching group.

It’s funny, because during this period, I remember talking to a guy in my gym who I have to say, was a complete mess. He would complain to me over and over again about his girlfriend and how he didn’t trust her. The obvious solution to his “problem” that I would explain to him was to leave her, but he’d have a barrel of excuses of why he couldn’t do that. Yet, what surprised me was that he was an avid reader of self-help books, just like me, having ready many of the ones I had. He in fact bragged that he had a whole suitcase full of these books. I thought to myself in utter disgust, “Is this guy serious? Why is this guy such a debacle if he is supposed to have read all these books?”

The truth of the matter was that I really was no different myself. The reason why I was able to see that this guy was a debacle was because I was only seeing a reflection of myself in him. I, despite having read all these books was quite a debacle myself. I was pointing at him, but four fingers were pointing right back at me. I just didn’t see it.

I really, really, really wanted to change. The coaches at the seminars I attended were able to sense my desperation. I had all this negative self-talk going on inside my head, and I wanted to get rid of it. I had this deep feeling of inadequacy, and I wanted get rid of that. I lacked confidence, and I wanted to gain it. I felt as if I had been a horrible, inconsiderate, insensitive bastard in the past, and I wanted to become a good person that people would be able to look up to. I wanted to learn how to stop clinging to my past and be able to let go.

What was frustrating was that during this period, I had read and heard stories about people who credited a certain book, seminar or encounter with someone for giving them some insight that changed the entire way they perceived themselves and the world. They would note that it was this “shift” in perception they received that enabled them to transform from insecure, “bad”, unsuccessful people to happy, confident and successful.

I was looking for something that would do similar for me and fix all these “horrible” things I had. Yet, in all my five years of “self improvement”, the only major change that had come in me was after I first read “Think and Grow Rich,” which I wouldn’t even count because it was what first got me on my path. So in actuality, in five years, I had really gotten nowhere.

Oddly enough, I was somehow able to fool myself that I was “changing” because I was reading all these books and gaining all these “wonderful” insights.

Yet funny how these “insights” brought absolutely no real improvement to the quality of my life, nor did they improve my self esteem in any way. I was the same old me who started the journey five years earlier covered with a thin veneer of knowledge from a bunch of self-help books and quotes spouted by famous people.

I was a mess.

I liken this period of my life to the Biblical story of the Israelites wandering the wilderness for forty years without entering the “Promised Land.” They just tread the same ground over and over and over again for forty years.

I too was in the wilderness because I was in a place that was bearing no type of fruit. I just thank God it was five years, not forty.

Something had to give.

My “Deliverance”

So, 2005 comes along.

In the very beginning of this year, two significant things happen.

The first thing was when a cousin of mine came to my house for the first time and stayed for a few days. Upon looking at my bookshelf and seeing all these self help books, he comes to me and asks me, “Why are you looking for something you already have?”

That question struck me because it was told to me several years before. I didn’t get it when it was first told to me, and I didn’t get it when my cousin said it. However, now, these words struck me in a different way. I figured that since I was hearing these words for a second time, there must have been a message in there for me. I started to let them marinate in my spirit so I could find learn the message that they carried.

The second event was that I could sense that God was speaking to my heart trying to tell me something.

That “something” was Him telling me not to hang out with my childhood friends for the whole of 2005.

See, these childhood friends of mine have been my “family” for almost my entire life. They had also been a foundation of security for me most of my life, because I felt that no matter what I went through socially, they would always be there. The insight that God was giving me was that by not hanging out with them for an entire year, I will start to develop that foundation within myself. Also, being absent of their “influence” will help me start to see an aspect of myself that I previously wasn’t aware of.

That’s similar to the scenario of a tree bent in a certain way would grow in a certain way, however, if you unbend it, it would grow in a different direction.

This was a PROFOUND insight that I definitely could not have thought of on my own. It was completely out of the box of my reality.

Me, looking desperately for answers, saw no choice but to listen.

So to my childhood friends who are reading this, if you’ve been wondering why I wasn’t around for all of ’05 and making “excuses” why I couldn’t hang out, (if you remember or even care), this was the reason. It was all for self discovery purposes, nothing personal. You guys may find it “weird”, but I’ve come to accept the fact that I’m just not a normal person. Also, if you do find it weird, I retort with my oft repeated phrase that you know very well, “your opinion means absolutely nothing to me.”

Either way, I digress.

So, getting back to 2005, it was a year like every other of the previous four years: going to seminars, reading book after book, having all these wonderful insights making me believe that I was enlightened, all coupled with the frustration of being in my own way. I think you get the picture.

However, come the last two months of that year, November and December, I received two MAJOR insights, one insight for each month, that unlike all the countless other “insights” I received, were the ones that were to lead me out of the wilderness.

The first one I’m not going to get into, as it I another topic for another blog. Also, it really didn’t have an immediate effect on my life as did the second, which began to change things immediately.

The second insight is the topic of this blog.

It was late in December, a couple of days after Christmas. I was talking to my mom in her room while she was watching TV. In the conversation, she mentions to me that she had a deep conversation with my brother and the subject was yours truly.

She mentioned that my brother was complaining, added to the complaint of my other siblings that I was emotionally unavailable and even though he tried to communicate with me on a deeper level, I wouldn’t let him in and kept him at arm length.

The news of this didn’t shock me because my siblings had complained about this before. I knew that ever since my childhood that I had always been emotionally distant from my siblings and never really attempted to foster a close relationship with any of them. As I had “matured”, I knew this wasn’t a good thing, and I felt that by becoming a better person through my “self improvement”, this would somehow remedy itself.

Upon hearing this, I told my mom that I was trying to change, and that I had been reading a lot of self improvement books and going to seminars for a number of years, and the insights I had received had helped me to grow.

I then asked her a crucial question, “Haven’t you noticed any change in me?”

To this she responded that she didn’t see too much of me because she left for work before me and I usually returned home from work late, and at that time she was already in bed, so she really couldn’t tell if I had many any change at all.

All of sudden, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been doing this whole self improvement “thing” to please my mother.

Why does that insight even matter?

Well let me take you back a few years to my childhood. When I was growing up, my father was the strict disciplinarian in the house, and coupled with that, he wasn’t always an easy person to deal with. From a young age, he came down very hard on me and the older of my two sisters, and so, we were dependent on our mother for refuge.

Because of all this, it can be easy to see how my father became the “bad guy” and my mother was the “good guy”. My father was the one associated with having a bad temper, being impatient, angry, etc, and my mother was associated with being loving, caring, patient, nurturing, etc. Thus, compared to our younger two siblings, it became important for me and the older of my two sisters to stay on our mother’s “good side” because if we didn’t, we would be at the mercy to the whims of our father.

Furthermore, as a child, I had a very bad temper, and was prone to throwing huge temper tantrums. When I would do this, my mom would say to me disapprovingly, “You’re just like your father.”

Well, of course, it sucked to hear that, because I didn’t want to be like my father, I wanted to be like my mother. My mom knew this, and over the years, she would play the manipulation game whenever she and I would have a disagreement by hanging over my head the comment, “You’re just like HIM.”

This had the effect of immediately putting me on the defensive or shutting me up. Either way, it gave my mom a “power” over me. It made me want to be more like her, and since she became the “measuring stick” of who to be like in my house, it also made me believe all the other negative labels she had placed on me.

Thus, over the years, I would develop this persistent fear that I was going to turn out just like my father. One of the main reasons for embarking on the path of self improvement was to “finally address” this issue of me being this horrible person in the past and become a person who my mother could look at proudly and say, “Wow, you’re totally different from your father. You’re more like me.”

This was the reason why I had gotten absolutely nowhere in five years of “self improvement.” I had talked a big game of wanting to become a better, more positive person, improve my self esteem, etc, but in actuality all I wanted was approval from my mother.

I remember watching those Warner Brothers or Hanna Barbera cartoons as a little kid where some cat (Tom or Sylvester) would be trying to chase a little bird to eat, but their efforts were always thwarted by the big mother hen or some other guardian that watched over the little chick. So, to fool whoever was protecting the chick, the cat would disguise himself as a bird. However, the plan would always fail because although the cat was dressed as a bird, in one way or another, his nature of being a cat would always rise to the surface (e.g. trying to eat the little chick.)

This was similar to my quest for self improvement. On the surface, I was saying I wanted to become a better person, improve my self esteem, etc, but below that something else was going on.

You see, when I made the decision of improving myself, I was riddled with guilt for who I was up until that point for not naturally being able to display the “characteristics” of my mother. I felt guilty for being such a rude, inconsiderate, selfish, impatient bastard in my past, and because I felt I really couldn’t be trusted with my own self improvement, I looked to others who accused me of these things in the past, as well as my mom as indicators of whether I was changing or not. Thus, the more pleasing I was to others, the happier I was because it meant I was changing. However, if I did something to step on another person’s toes, I would be depressed that I was failing in my quest to become a better person.

To add to that, I also tried to be overly pleasing to women, which meant walking on egg shells around them because afraid to say the wrong thing, seeking their approval, and putting up with disrespect that I had no business putting up with. I figured by gaining the approval of women, it would mean that I was different from my father, which would gain me the prize of my mother’s approval.

In any case, this all gave me a resentment towards women and my mother, because I gave them power over me to control my mental well being. What made me more resentful was that I wasn’t getting their approval back in return.

All who are reading this may be able to take a “wild guess” as to how my dating life was.

If a person were to take a good look at my quest for self improvement, they would see me constantly beating myself for not being a good person, me beating myself up for days on end for lapsing into the “old me”, me trying to acquire “knowledge” so as to impress people into believing I was a “good person”, me being so stiff and stifled because I couldn’t trust myself to be “free” because I might mess up, me being terrified of receiving someone’s disapproval because then it meant that I really hadn’t changed.

My goodness, it’s a miracle that I didn’t leap from a window or go postal.

I remember reading a quote during my years in the wilderness that went something like this (I don’t remember it verbatim), “Change produced by hate can never produce love.”

Oh yes, I definitely hated myself.

Now, let me ask you, does all this sound like self improvement to you?

Now you can see why I put “self improvement” in quotes. Clearly, I wasn’t improving myself. All I was doing was seeking an affirmation that I wasn’t a bad person while beating myself up along the way.

The thing was, I really didn’t know I was doing all this.

It was as if I were setting out from a journey to Chicago from New York with a map of Detroit, complaining the whole time why I wasn’t getting any closer to Chicago or why where I was winding up didn’t resemble Chicago at all.

That revealing conversation with my mom made me realize I was looking at the wrong map…..DOH!

At least now with the right map, I could get an inkling of where I needed to go.

I would also like to add that had I not followed Divine guidance and taken time away from my friends, I probably wouldn’t have gotten this revelation. Taking time away from the people that I had been around all my life allowed me to gain a different perspective of myself that made it ripe for me to receive the breakthrough I did.

Obedience to Divine guidance pays!

When I got this breakthrough, I was able to breathe a huge sigh of relief because a big burden was lifted off my back. I now was able to see that I had a lot of guilt in being a man instilled in me by society, my family and the Church, and I read some very interesting books that helped strip away a lot of that guilt. I also now began the painstaking process of untangling myself from approval seeking (which I might add is still going on up till now).

I also cut down considerably on the amount of self improvement books I read. The urgent need that I had once felt to read every self improvement book in sight left me.

Finally, the REAL self improvement process had begun. It was as if God had said to me, “Now you’re ready for Me to deal with you.” He now was in the driver’s seat.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I still don’t have the pink unicorn or the mansion on the hill. In fact, if you might be thinking that my life got any “easier”, I’m here to tell you that it didn’t. Straight from the desert, I had a brief respite before I was led into “purgatory”, (though it still felt like hell). This period lasted for another three and a half years where my life actually got harder. However, this served to be a cleansing period where, unlike the previous five years, I experienced a lot of growth, though I must admit, I didn’t care too much for many of the experiences I had that forced me to grow.

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