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  • Writer's pictureJuliane Bergmann

Fuck the “growth mindset” - and self-improvement, too.

Photo by Live Richer on Unsplash

It is the late 2000s and I’m at my local target with a crinkly $100 bill that I got from my then-husband.

I don’t remember if he gave me the money for a special occasion or not, just that it came with a card that read “buy yourself something nice. You’re only allowed to spend it on yourself.”

We already had kids at the time, and I didn’t spend money on myself, because we were broke all the time. I often had to decide between buying food or diapers. Sometimes we went to our church for food boxes. We never carried insurance on our dilapidated van, because we couldn’t afford it. We had our utilities shut off multiple times and our account closed because it had been overdrawn for over 90 days. All this is to say, $100 was a lot of money to me.

Having $100 to myself seemed ridiculous. I didn’t think I was worth spending $100 on. That it would be wasted on me.

As I looked around in Target, I saw a scarf that was knit from silky, slippery yarn, so the scarf was almost completely smooth. It looked like a mosaic of small red, pink, orange and purple tiles and stretched when I pulled it. I must have stood there for a good 20 minutes touching the scarf and looking at it, then putting it back and picking it up again.

It was maybe $20 or $30 so the price wasn’t the only issue. It was not just that I felt guilty for spending any money at all. I suddenly realized that I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not. I looked at the scarf confused, trying and failing to make a decision.

I felt an overwhelming sadness click into place. How could I possibly be so far gone that I didn’t even know what kind of scarf I liked? Who was the woman standing in Target unable to decide on a cheap accessory? I tried to swallow the burning sensation in my throat, push down the tears threatening to spill out of the corners of my eyes. I didn’t leave the store, I didn’t call my husband, because what would I have said to him?

I don’t know if I like this scarf. I’m having an identity crisis at Target. What do I do? We didn’t talk at that level. Instead, I went straight to the check out and bought the scarf, telling myself that I liked it.

Years later, I threw the scarf away. Too slippery! I didn’t like it after all and I had at least gotten enough of myself back to know my own scarf preferences. A scarf must be soft and fluffy and not have 8 different clashing colors.

Back then, I didn’t know who I was or what I liked for many different reasons, but one of them was my infatuation with self-help, self-improvement, and a growth mindset. I was always looking to get better, be better. I thought self improvement meant happiness. I thought growth meant becoming better in some way and that meant skinnier, richer, prettier, more popular, a better mom/wife/daughter/sister/friend.

I missed the whole part where I figured out who I was in the first place. Especially in difficult times, through divorce and financial stress and a nasty custody battle and losing my parents, so often I thought I still had to learn from the situation, and then I heard a woman speak on a podcast I forgot the name of. She spoke of her mother’s death and she said:

I don’t want to learn anything from this.

And I stood there, perfectly still, thinking fuck yes. Exactly.

I don’t want to find the silver lining. I don’t want to overcome, rise from the ashes, make lemonade out of lemons. I just want it to be enough that I got through it. That I’m still going through it. That I’m still here, that I witnessed and endured and tried to stay present. That I stayed alive even though it was painful and I all I wanted was to run, to numb, to hide, to pretend, to forget.

I don’t want to have to make sense of it, find a deeper meaning, reframe it. Can I just leave it be for a second? Can I just breathe?

Why do I have to emerge stronger, better, wiser? Isn’t it enough that I emerged? That I’m still here?

Can we skip the moral of the story? And the “If I can do it, anyone can!” bullshit? Can we instead just walk together, sit together, cry together, laugh together, witness each other living, loving, hurting, dying? Can that ever be fucking enough?

You don’t need to understand, don’t need to find the right words, don’t need to cheer me up, or make it all better. You can’t. Just be here with me. There is nothing to do or say, nothing to learn, no lesson to extract, no 3-step process, no life hacks, no inspirational quotes. It takes all the effort to just be. With eyes open and with chests rising and falling.

I don’t want to improve myself right now. I don’t even know who I am. The energy I have I want to spend on figuring out who I am first, then on being that person.

What is my obsession with growth and improvement? What about exploration and discovery rather than growth and improvement that always come with mandatory upward trends? Is it worth spending hours, days, years on improving weaknesses when there is much more beauty to be created if I double down on my strengths?

How much of my life do I want to spend on constant growth, self-improvement, betterment when there is so much pleasure and ease and contentment to be had from leaning all the way into the parts that are already good and whole?

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