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Self-Improvement Is Tricky

I have a problem with self-improvement. The problem is this: I’m so great, I don’t know what I could possibly do to improve myself.

Just kidding. Actually, it’s more of the opposite.

StretchingFor a long time, I didn’t have a clear understanding of the relationship between ADHD and my behaviors. I didn’t think of myself as having ADHD symptoms that could be tackled with practical solutions.

Rather, I saw myself as having character flaws and personal failings of laziness, lack of motivation, not trying hard enough, not being disciplined, and so on. And what fixes character flaws? Self-improvement.

Unfortunately, self-improvement doesn’t fix ADHD. If anything, addressing ADHD symptoms by “improving yourself” and trying to will yourself into the model of someone without ADHD only leads to more feelings of frustration and guilt.

Eventually, I got diagnosed and I reoriented my strategy. Instead of trying to fix ADHD by changing myself, I started focusing on finding practical solutions to coping with the effects of my symptoms and to making my environment more ADHD-friendly.

So does this mean we should throw the entire idea of self-improvement out the window? Not necessarily, but I think it’s helpful to have a litmus test for what’s productive self-improvement and what’s not.

For me, the litmus test is whether the self-improvement is targeting symptoms of ADHD, or any other mental health condition. Self-improvement is not a viable way of dealing with ADHD, depression, anxiety or any other such condition. Trying to cure symptoms of mental health conditions through self-improvement easily spirals into self-blame.

On the other hand, self-improvement can be helpful when it doesn’t have to do with a mental health condition.

For example, I try to engage in self-improvement by pushing myself to become more positive and more empathic, and to engage in more experiences that take me out of my comfort zone. These don’t have anything to do with trying to improve my ADHD symptoms, so to me they feel like productive types of self-improvement.

I’m still not a fan of the term “self-improvement” in general, because it seems to imply “improving” something that’s inadequate. Maybe a better phrase is personal growth.

Personal growth is a natural and healthy part of life. In many ways, striving for personal growth can make us happier. The major caveat, though, is that you can’t “grow” your way out of a mental health condition, and trying to do so will likely be counterproductive.

Image: Flickr/Tony Alter

Self-Improvement Is Tricky

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2018). Self-Improvement Is Tricky. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 14, 2019, from


Last updated: 25 May 2018
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