A few years ago, Brandon Roman’s after-work routine looked very different. He’d stop by a liquor store on the way home, then lock himself away from his wife and young children to drink and play video games until he passed out.
“I honestly don’t remember very much from one of my daughter’s first two years because I was so drunk and isolated most of the time,” says Roman, a 27-year-old former infantryman for the US Army, father of four, and current peer coach for Face It TOGETHER in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “I used to wake up every morning with an anxious feeling in my chest. I’d wonder if I did something illegal or if I ruined a friendship. I don’t have that anymore; I wake up happier.”
Roman’s primary relationship is drastically different now, too. He and his first wife divorced; he met his fiancee while in recovery. Now in the evening, he helps his eldest daughter with her homework and the couple makes dinner together and helps the kids with their baths. He has also transformed his relationship with his kids.
“Weekends used to be full of selfish activities when I was drinking,” Roman says.“Now, I spend the mornings with my son; sometimes I’ll cook breakfast or do a house chore. Our activities are all for the kids – gymnastics, swimming, jump parks – you name it.”
Roman’s sobriety and work helping others have had a positive impact on his self-esteem and confidence that he’s a good father. Research dating back decades suggests that fathers with high self-esteem report much better communication with their children. And several studies have noted that when parents have a close, positive relationship with their kids, it translates to kids having a much higher sense of self-worth once they’re adolescents.
Some research also has noted a more direct link between self-improvement and men’s ability to be good fathers. In a 2010 study published in the journal Public Health Nursing, young fathers recognized that self-improvement — chiefly, furthering education, having a job, and being a positive role model for their kids — is an important part of being a good dad.
Whether regular exercise, seeking therapy for anxiety, going back to school, or quitting drinking, for example, self-improvement projects can be daunting even when people don’t have kids. But recognizing aspects of your life that could stand improving, and then working toward improving them, is an important part of being a dad, notes Debra Kissen, Ph.D., author of Overcoming Parental Anxiety: Rewire Your Brain to Worry Less and Enjoy Parenting More and a psychologist specializing in anxiety treatment.
“Relationships are very much impacted by mental health and well-being, so working on yourself makes you more available and more attuned to others, which is incredibly important as a parent.”
How Self-Improvement Makes Better Dads
Quitting drinking or drugs is a momentous change to embark upon. But, of course, smaller changes also can have a positive impact on how you feel about yourself and how you treat and interact with other people.
Marketing writer and dad Michael Morris credits his meditation practice, first suggested by his wife, with changing his life for the better. He does it every morning and says it energizes him, helps set his priorities for the day, and makes him more confident in his decisions.
James Beard Award-winning chef and father Nate Appleman started running after the birth of son 15 years ago because he wanted to be a healthy, active dad. Running and making healthier eating choices helped him lose 80 pounds.
“I didn't want to be that lazy dad, too lazy to go to the park and play,” says Appleman, who now runs regularly with his son, Oliver.
Appleman doesn’t think he’d have the strong relationship with Oliver that he has now if he hadn’t started taking care of himself.
“I wanted to be an amazing chef, but I was a ball of frustration all the time and didn't have an outlet,” Appleman says. “Once I found running, that time by myself allowed me to process and think about what was missing in my life. It was a total transformation of my mind and body, learning how to eat, communicate, and act like a member of society.”
A self-improvement journey has a positive impact on relationships because it conveys a sense of self-awareness and an ability to grow and evolve, says Alex Dimitriu, MD, who is double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine. Ideally, these goals are mutual, and appreciated as furthering the needs of both people in the relationship, he adds.
It All Starts With Self-Awareness
Without this crucial insight into things that are holding you back, self-improvement can’t happen. In other words, the first step is identifying problems you need to change.
Awareness of why you are the way you are and how you got there can affect how you interact with others, Kissen says. People get into trouble if they assume all of their reactions are about the other person and not based on ingrained patterns within themselves.
Here’s an example: Say your child didn’t put the dishes away like you asked. You might get angry at them because your instinct is to look at their failure to put dishes away as a sign of disrespect, due to how you were raised. But with some awareness of that pattern, you’d be better able to step back and not jump to the conclusion that your child is disrespectful. Maybe they just forgot, and the failure is not an indictment on your position as a father.
“You have to know yourself, rather than assuming everyone else is wrong and the feelings you're having are based in reality when they’re not,” Kissen says. “We can’t be effective with others if we’re not effective with ourselves.”
Roman says it was eye-opening to discover all the things he had been avoiding when he was still drinking. “People’s personalities were different. But they didn’t change,” he says. “My perception changed since I was no longer under the influence.”
It’s Integral to Helping Kids
“The idea of ‘self-care’ feels almost like a joke when you’re just trying to get through a day of taking care of kids,” Kissen says. “But if a parent is not okay and loses his temper too easily, for example, getting him engaged to take care of himself will translate into his taking better care of his kids as well.”
How self-improvement projects make an impact on self-esteem has to do with a concept called “mastery,” says Paul Greene, Ph.D., a cognitive behavioral therapist in New York City. Mastery refers to everything we do that lends a feeling of accomplishment, such as paying bills or cooking dinner for your family, Greene says. “When we get that sense of mastery, we feel good about ourselves and maintain a sense of self-esteem.”
If a guy sees a nutritionist to improve his diet and lose weight, for example, seeing the number on the scale go down will make him feel better about himself in various ways, Greene says.
In fact, with each healthy behavior you engage in, you feel more grounded and balanced, Kissen adds.
It Can Help You Regulate Emotions
Learning how to handle feelings when they come up makes people less reactive, thus making effective communication with others easier, Kissen says. But if working on yourself is feeling too difficult or overwhelming, self-improvement can help you regulate emotions without even realizing it.
“When we regulate our emotions more effectively, it makes us less vulnerable to emotions that can harm relationships, such as anger and depression,” Greene says. “Some parts of regulating emotions are a conscious effort, but some we just learn.”
Research suggests that exercise, for example, improves mood and helps reduce the risk of depression, Greene notes, so regular workouts make people less vulnerable to it as well as other negative emotional states.
“Exercise doesn’t immunize us, as such, but it’s part of what it takes to regulate emotions,” he says.
A healthy Mediterranean diet (which tends to be rich in vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and lean protein) also might improve emotional regulation, Loma Linda University researchers concluded in a 2014 study. The authors found a positive correlation between the diet and people’s emotional clarity.
Greene, who also specializes in mindfulness-based stress reduction, says meditation and mindfulness training can be particularly helpful in managing difficult emotions such as anxiety and anger.
It Can Help You Be More Present With Loved Ones
Learning to manage anxiety, for example, will enable you to be more present in your communications with your kids and your partner.
“That’s going to facilitate better communication and better relationships,” Greene says. “It’s kind of a generalization, but I think it’s true.”
Good energy begets good energy, adds Appleman. Once he started taking care of himself, it improved his outlook on life in addition to his well-being.
“It made me motivated and healthy to where I was just ready to go all the time,” he says. “I’m excited and happy about life, and ready to solve things.”
It Helps You Model Healthy Behaviors for Your Kids
Kids pay close attention to what their parents do and how they live their lives. “So if they see their parents valuing their physical and emotional health, they absorb the lesson that it’s worth doing,” says Greene.”
Ironically though, it can be kids that prevent dads from modeling healthy self-improvement. They might feel like they should change something – like see a therapist regularly or go to the gym – but worry it would be selfish to take time for themselves away from their families.
“A lot of parents are reluctant to work on self-improvement for this reason, and some even worry that taking time for themselves might make their kid upset,” Greene says. “Some parents have a low tolerance for their kids being unhappy, whatever the reason may be.”
But learning to tolerate unpleasant emotional states is a necessary coping skill in life, he says.
“If parents have a 100 percent success rate helping their child avoid any negative emotional state, that kid will be uniquely unprepared to deal with life,” Greene says.
Yes, It Can Be Too Much of a Good Thing
There are of course caveats to the heavy lifting self-improvement can do to improve relationships. Obviously, spending all your family’s waking hours at the gym every weekend, for example, won’t improve your relationship with them. Nor will getting so obsessed with your AppleWatch health data that you’re unable to pay attention during conversations with your partner.
If your children or partner start to make comments that you seem obsessive, that could be a red flag that you’re taking self-improvement too far. Constant rumination about your project in a way that’s making you unhappy is another unhealthy sign. (Getting sober is an exception, however, as it can be all-consuming for people, and should be, Greene says.)
Self-improvement can be great and positive, but not if it stems from feeling like you need improvement because you're lacking or inadequate, Greene continues.
“People who view themselves as not good enough might constantly be embarking on self-improvement projects,” he says. They may have a benefit, but if they’re only serving to reinforce the idea that you need improvement, that can be detrimental to your sense of self, he says.
“The mentality with which you approach these things is important,” he explains. “If you go to the gym thinking, ‘This will benefit my health, so I can be there when my kids go to college,” that’s a great mentality. But if you go to the gym thinking, ‘I’ve gotta get this fat ass in shape,’ there might be some physical benefit, but less psychological benefit with that mindset.”
At the end of the day, self-improvement doesn’t have to be time-consuming, difficult, or expensive. Taking baby steps every day toward making yourself a better person can have a big impact. Noticing one thing you’re grateful for every day, for example, can make you feel more positive about how you live your life. As Kissen says, “You don't have to be in 10 hours of intensive therapy a week to create change.”