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Personal growth is full of paradoxes. One of the biggest is the tension between self-acceptance vs. self-improvement. I experience this tension regularly. I want to be the best version of myself and I also want to be OK with the way I am right now. I want a better, brighter future full of dreams, aspirations, and goals, and I also want to feel happy with what I have in the present.
So how do we make peace with these two things? How do we balance the desire for self-acceptance vs. self-improvement?
You can have too much of a good thing
I notice I struggle with the questions above when I take either element to its extreme. If I focus too much on self-improvement, I find myself falling into “when…then…” thinking. When I make the next big change, then I’ll be happy. When I meet a certain goal, then I’ll have time to do more of the things I want to do.
If you’re familiar with this pattern of thinking, you can insert several of your own examples here. This way of thinking is rooted in the belief we are not enough as we are. As Nathaniel Branden says in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, ”If my aim is to prove I am ‘enough,’ the project goes on to infinity because the battle was already lost on the day I conceded the issue was debatable.”
Another way self-improvement can hurt rather than help us is when it’s borne out of comparison. Wanting to improve myself through fear I won’t be able to keep up or out of a sense of competition with other people is also rooted in “not enough” and therefore at odds with self-acceptance. When we base our sense of self-worth on where we lie in relation to others, we will always be able to find examples of where we fall short. As Sarah K Peck said in our interview for The Entrepreneur’s Inner World, “There’s only one person who’s the best in the world and—let’s look at probabilities—it’s probably not you.” The only measure of worth that matters comes from our internal barometer and knowing: Did I live in alignment with my values and principles today? Did I show up as the person I want to be?
On the other hand, if I focus only on self-acceptance, I deny a very important—and natural—part of myself that longs for growth. Several psychologists have discussed the drive for self-actualisation, including Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, and it’s a natural, healthy desire to have. There are things I want to change about my life, and that’s OK.
As humans, we’re always evolving, both as a species and as individuals. Rather than turning this desire for growth into a problem, in this post, I want to explore how to integrate these two aspects of our being and use them to our benefit. Because we can integrate them and doing so is a beautiful foundation for healthy, intrinsically motivated ambition and growth.
Self-Acceptance vs. self-improvement is a false dichotomy
In fact, the two things are symbiotic. We need to accept where we are right now to grow. This doesn’t mean liking where we are, but acknowledging the reality of what is, the good and the bad. Nor does accepting ourselves mean whitewashing our current situation. It means:
- Acknowledging there might be certain things about ourselves we would like to change or improve
- Exploring the things we struggle to accept and approaching them with curiosity and an open mind
- Accepting our overall desire to grow
As Dara Chadwick remarks in this Psychology Today article:
“For example, say I haven’t been eating well and have stopped working out regularly, resulting in a jump in clothing size, a slump in my energy level and a general not feeling good about what’s happening. What’s the greater self-acceptance message for my daughter? Is it better to say, “This is where I am now so I accept it?” Or is it healthier to say, “I haven’t been taking care of myself and I’m not happy about the changes in my body. So I’m going to make some eating and exercise changes so that I can feel better and be healthier again.”
This example shows how true self-acceptance means accepting our current situation and accepting our feelings about that situation, including a desire to change it.
How to Balance Self-Acceptance vs. self-improvement
Approached from a good place, both self-acceptance and self-improvement come from one source: self-regard. This means wanting the best for ourselves; not because of what anyone else is doing, not because we need to make up for some perceived inherent deficiency, but because we have a place in this world, one life to live, and we’re right in the middle of living it. Here are a few things I’ve found helpful when exploring the relationship between self-acceptance vs. self-improvement in my life:
– Notice your intention for wanting to make improvements. Do they come from a place of wanting to optimise your life, or from wanting to fill some perceived internal lack? If it’s the former, great. If it’s the latter, you will find it more helpful to do some inner work around your sense of self-worth first (I recommend starting with The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem). Shelve the self-improvement project as a secondary aim to focus on later. Ask yourself: If I wanted the best for myself, what would I be doing differently right now?
– Start from your strengths. I find it all too easy to focus on my weaknesses at the expense of keeping my strengths in mind too. Self-acceptance involves looking at the whole package: acknowledging our weaknesses but also being able to identify and focus on our strengths too. Ask yourself: What is going well right now? What am I happy with? What strengths do I already have that I can use to improve the things I want to improve?
– Think of the growth curve as a series of upticks and plateaus. I’ve noticed after a period of intense personal growth I need a period of rejuvenation. You might prefer to think of this as planting seeds before waiting for the flowers to bloom. Growth is like the seasons: spring and summer are times of fertile growth, and then autumn and winter are necessary fallow time for recuperation and rejuvenation before the next growth cycle begins. The times you are not actively “growing” are just as important and necessary as times when you are. Ask yourself: how can I become more conscious of my own growth spurts and plateaus?
– Focus on the journey, not the destination. There is no destination. Well, there is, and it’s death. Until then, everything is the journey. Life is not what happens at some point in the future when we’ve lost 10 pounds or won that promotion or found the love of our lives, life is happening right now. This very second! Focus on falling in love with the process, rather than the outcome (this is another big lesson I took from The Entrepreneur’s Inner World). Ask yourself: How can I learn to love the journey?
– If you don’t like something, do something about it (from a place of self-kindness). There comes a point when we’ve done enough reading and talking about what we want to change and the only thing left to do is take action. Staying in the reading/talking phase only leads to frustration (and usually those “not enough” feelings—see how this is all interlinked?) Doing this from a place of self-kindness means making the changes as easy as possible, being honest with yourself about what’s working and what’s not. For me, this kind of transparency and accountability is an important part of self-kindness, when it’s done from a positive and loving place. It’s not easy to practice, but it’s a necessary part of becoming who I am.
How do you balance self-acceptance vs. self-improvement?
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