My friend Lisa Holliday Lee recently wrote on her Facebook status bar, "I have stopped improving myself. I invite you to join me."
Now that's a bandwagon upon which I won't hesitate to jump.
I'm all for self-help (as long as it doesn't become what my friend Sharla Jacobs calls "shelf help"--a library full of self-help books unread or un-acted upon). Self-help gets a bad rap, bringing to mind those guys on the late-night infomercials who want to sell you an expensive set of revolutionary DVDs that will make you a wealthy, healthy babe-magnet (and they'll include a set of steak knives made by descendants of Samurai sword-makers if you act now). Self-help is simply a self-directed way to remedy something that isn't working in one's life, whether it's a behavior or a mindset. We could call The Work of Byron Katie a form of self-help. Alcoholics Anonymous is another.
The concept of self improvement over self-help rankles with good reason: it puts forth that something's broken that needs fixing. "Face it," says the concept of self improvement, "you're no darn good!" This feeds upon latent anxieties we may have about ourselves and has us be "doers" rather than "un-doers." Instead of cultivating awareness of what is, "We look before and after, and pine for what is not." (From Shelley's To a Skylark.)
A self-help approach to belief in lack would take us within to discover where that comes from and to question whether or not it is true. A self-improvement approach to a belief in lack would be to assume it's true that you're missing something and to strategize about getting more of whatever it is you think is lacking. Then, if you don't get whatever it is that's supposed to fill in the lack, you're a loser. If you do get whatever it is and you aren't happy, it means you must be doing something wrong, so there's more need for improvement.
What if there really is a genuine lack or need for improvement? I like to think that noticing that something feels uncomfortable is simply being in integrity. Out of that realization, there is a shift and action may occur; when it does, it's not so much of a "doing"; it comes naturally. You want to feel better, so you start eating vegetables and taking long walks, as opposed to brutalizing yourself to lose weight and exercise now, or else.
Self improvement, on the other hand, would indicate that there's something I ought to be doing that could make me better. Therefore my efforts to change are fraught with--well, efforting, for one thing. And perhaps depression and self-hatred. That sucks!
This is not to say we become sappy affirmation-spouters like Al Franken's adorable character Stuart Smalley. At heart, I think what we all really seek is balance and alignment with what we know to be good and right for us, as opposed to self improvement. Anything that falls short of that inner knowing feels off...including the thought, "I need to improve myself."