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The Dark Side of Self Improvement

Updated: May 7

the dark side

Happy May!!!

Any Star Wars nerds out there? I used to think I was knowledgeable Star Wars fan, but my kids are farrrr more into the lore than I ever was. (I guess the Clone Wars animated series was a big thing for Gen Z).

Anyways - May the Fourth be with you, and Revenge of the Sixth be kind to you.

All Star Wars fans know that the dark side of the Force was greed, the fear of change, and the

inability to let go. By holding on physical attachments, one became angry and hateful, which in turn led to suffering. Those who were unable to overcome their dark side were devoured by it.

The same goes for those who strive for self improvement.

And yes, that includes us veterinary professionals.

Self-improvement is the leading growth edge of creating a better life experience for yourself and maximizing your wellbeing. And while it is true that wanting to improve yourself as a human and as a veterinary professional is a good thing, your drive to improve can sometimes be motivated from a dark place that can sabotage your wellbeing and your success.

And Yoda has taught us that once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.

Lemme essplain.

Vet people, as a whole (me included), tend to be uber driven, hyper critical of themselves and others, and engage in the self sabotaging mindsets of maladaptive perfectionism or imposter syndrome.

How many of you have set goals for yourselves or have dreams you want to accomplish, only to fail or never start? Perhaps you did work toward a goal or a dream, but along the way you compare yourself to others or harsh yourself mentally while beating the drum of 'not good enough'?

Fortunately, there is a light side to self improvement as well.

Although George Lucas never talked about it, deep lore fans know that the light side of the Force was aligned with calmness, peace, and passiveness, and was used only for knowledge and defense. But how do you access the light side of self improvement when you are in the habit of regularly tearing yourself down or quitting when the going gets tough?

Let's discuss three things from the dark side of self improvement that trap, distract, or discourage people. Yoda says 'always two there are; no more, no less', but for the sake of this discussion, we've got three.

The Dark Side: The Trap of Learning

Do you ever get super inspired from reading/hearing/learning something, vow to make changes and incorporate what you have learned into your daily life so you can improve, and then end up doing nothing?

It's not entirely your fault.

Your brain actually does a really dumb thing after you see, read, or hear something inspirational that blocks you from taking inspired action. Here is what happens:

  • You get good information from an inspiring blog like this 😊

  • In response, your brain releases some dopamine which gives you a micro-satisfaction from learning YEAH DOPAMINE HITS!

  • You feel good from the dopamine, unconsciously decide that's enough, and do not take action on what you learned BOO

Most people get caught in the cycle of watching the videos, reading the books, and making plans to improve but not actually ever doing the work that leads to improvement. Don't let that happen to you.

The Dark Side: Weaponized To-Do Lists

Imagine a desire to improve yourself blooms within you, and you decide to do whatever it takes to make this improvement happen. What inevitably happens is you start to shoulding yourself. For example:

  • I should be reading more and doom scrolling less

the dark side
  • I should be waking up earlier

  • I should be working out

  • I should control my alcohol or sugar intake

  • I should meditate

  • I should be doing this...

  • I should be doing that...

  • I should...

In essence, you mentally create a to-do list of 'shoulds'. Then, if you don't do everything that is on that list, you use it as ammunition against yourself when you don't check off the lists.

This can be incredibly self-defeating and makes you feel like crap.

So when it comes to shoulding on yourself...just stop. If you decide to skip leg day, then enjoy the shit out of skipping leg day. If you decide to be absorbed in your scrolls, then enjoy the shit out of scrolling. If you decide to eat the cake, then enjoy the ever living shit out of eating the cake.

Don't do the thing that you really want to do in the moment and then beat yourself up for it afterwards - that sucks all the fun from the thing you decided to do.

Now...if you choose to relax or indulge and find that you have a case of the 'shoulds', pause in the moment and ask yourself 'whose voice is this?' It's likely your harsh inner critic coming out to 'protect' and 'motivate' you. Do your best to not listen - instead send the voice some love, and enjoy the cake or the bedrotting. You can get back on the horse tomorrow.

The Dark Side: Toxic Motivation

the dark side

The truth is self-improvement alone doesn't satisfy us in our core. Self improvement is just part of the journey. The other half, which is absolutely vital for growth, is self-acceptance. Accepting where you are right now.

Many people become sick and tired of who they are - essentially disliking the current version of themself - and strive for self improvement from this mindset. This often fails because self hatred is a terrible long term motivator. Sure - depending on the level of self loathing you may be motivated enough to get some improvement, but wanting to improve long-term because you don't like yourself in the current moment will ultimately backfire and won't bring your the joy and peace you desire.

Instead, try this:

  • Choose to improve because you love yourself, and you know you deserve the experience a better version of yourself.

  • Choose to improve yourself because you are curious what an improved version of yourself would look like, think, act, and feel. Who is that person?

  • Choose to pursue a goal because you love you, and you love how the idea of that goal makes you feel.

This emphasizes the importance of balancing self-improvement with self acceptance, celebrating wins, learning from failure, and finding joy in the present moment, even if your goal is yet unrealized.

It might not seem like it, but choosing to pursue improvement from these mental positions will keep you motivated longer and will make the process of goal achievement more pleasant, which in turn will make you more likely to succeed.  THAT'S BALLER.

Now, if you are like some vet folks, you might think this 'self acceptance' talk is silly - especially if you were taught to sacrifice yourself to your job and act tough, even when you were suffering. Although it is true - you can beat yourself into success - but I would ask, at what cost? And are you really, truly happy? SEARCH YOUR FEELINGS, LUKE.

To sum up:

  • Stay out of the trap of learning. When you get inspired, take action as soon as possible. Planning is not action.

  • Stop shoulding on yourself. Just staup.

  • Choose to improve yourself from a place of loving yourself so much that you want the best for you. Stay curious about the process. Remember that improvement is a marathon filled with ups and downs (it's not linear).

Action Step

Choose one aspect of the dark side of self-improvement that you tend to get trapped in. Commit to mindfully approaching this aspect with curiosity and self love when you get trapped, and choose to do or think something in that moment that is more loving to yourself and others.

As always, all our slightly scandalous love to you, and may the Force be with you.

Sarah J. Wooten, DVM, CVJ and the Jedi at Vets Against Insanity 😆

sarah wooten


If you would like to learn more about how to really energize your wellbeing, have a lot of fun, AND get great CE, I invite you to join us at the 2024 Vets Against Insanity CON in Nashville, TN!

There will be awesome speakers who will not only educate you on all the latest and greatest vet stuff, but we also have focused, no bullsh*t sessions on how to live your best vet life. And hey - we are running a May special! 👇


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