Acceptance vs Improvement

In our western culture, much of the emphasis on personal work is oriented towards self-improvement.

Self-improvement is wonderful. It is not my intention to demonize it. What I want to point out are two things:

1) An exclusive focus on self-improvement risks becoming another avoidance strategy. A means of getting away from ourselves right now. And avoidance strategies are unlikely generate much success in the long-run.

2) It oftentimes comes with the subtle (or not-so-subtle) belief – or certainty – that who we currently are is problematic/not ok.

As many people have pointed out, we can spend the entirety of our lives chasing an improved version of ourselves and never get there. Life, “real life,” always feels like it’s just around the corner.

It’s not that an exclusive focus on self-improvement is inherently “bad,” but that it risks being ineffective without the additional practice of acceptance.

When we practice accepting who we are right now, we are actually training ourselves to be able to enjoy the benefits of self-improvement. If we are unable to accept ourselves now, it will be just as difficult to accept ourselves in the future. The moving target will always be just out of reach (asymptotic). Most of us are familiar with this phenomenon.

The Green line is where “I am”. The Red line is where “I want to be”. They may get closer, but never intersect.

We can challenge the self-improvement addiction and introduce a practice of acceptance by investigating whether there is really any problem in being we we already are, right in this moment.

This is almost inevitably a disturbing practice. We’ve spent so much time trying to get away from ourselves that we’re convinced it is not ok to accept who we are right now. We’re convinced that there is something obviously wrong with us. That is why I call it an “investigation”. Go in open minded. Look for evidence that you’re fundamentally not ok as you are right now. You might be surprised.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we are likely to find that we’re very much ok. We may not like everything we find and feel, but we’re ok nonetheless. Apparently, consciously participating with who we already are doesn’t kill us. It doesn’t damage us. It doesn’t incapacitate us in any way, actually.

The thing is, we can’t not be who we are in this moment. In any given moment, we cannot change that truth. As such, we are left with two options. We can either say “yes” to ourselves, or we can say “no” to ourselves. Neither answer changes us, however.

People are scared of saying “yes”. They think that means giving up on self-improvement. In fact, the opposite is true. When I accept who I am in this moment, I can choose my next action with a greater degree of choice, skillfulness and confidence. In other words, my efforts at self-improvement are more likely to be successful.

Approaching change from the place of, “I’m ok right now,” and “I’ve got this,” is much more powerful than approaching change from the place of, “I’m a broken, problematic person.”

It is paradoxical, but accepting ourselves actually supports and enhances our efforts to improve ourselves. They are not mutually exclusive practices, but complimentary.

It may sound scary, but give it a try. You can say something like, “I completely accept who I am in this moment.” See what happens. Sit with the disturbance. See if it harms you. Do this for a few minutes a day and then return to your practices of self-improvement afterwards. Simply approach it as an experiment. And then investigate the results.

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