When I began my journey of self-discovery a few years back, I remember questioning which end-point I was aiming for; change or acceptance.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have understood that it is not an either/or proposition. If you accept the premise that we are ever-evolving, then change is inevitable. And hopefully this change is for the better – though in my experience the conditions and timing need to be just right for positive change.
Acceptance, on the other hand, is not inevitable. But it sure does make everything a lot easier if we can find a way to be comfortable with ourselves and our situation. For most people, this is the work of a lifetime. Practicing shame-resilience and self-compassion helps of course; however people only become aware of (and willing to participate in) this work when the time is right.
Therefore, I think most of us struggle to hold both of these contradictory concepts side by side and understand the vital role each has on the other. And this can lead to all sorts of trouble. Striving for improvement is wonderful, but not when it leaves you feeling like you’re never quite doing enough. Likewise, accepting yourself blindly means missing out on opportunities for growth.
So it seems that ‘a little from Column A and a little from Column B’ is the way to go. Or, to use a different image, think of each ideal as a pedal on a bicycle. You need both to move forwards effectively. Perhaps this is where the concepts of self-improvement and self-acceptance cease to be contradictory and instead become different parts of the same machine.
A quote which summarises this mutually dependent relationship comes from American psychologist Carl Rogers:
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
What I love most about this realisation is that it removes the immediate pressure that comes with actively seeking change, while still creating the space for future growth. So, if self-acceptance is our starting point as Rogers suggests, how does one become more self-accepting?
I think knowing oneself is a good starting point. After all, how can you embrace what you can’t understand? In my experience, self-knowledge brings objective clarity about our goals and values, our strengths and weaknesses. With clarity comes the reassurance that all of these facets have combined to create something worthwhile and capable. Subjectively we may not feel we are either of those things, but objective clarity can see the both potential and worthiness, even while it recognises our failures. Essentially, self-acceptance is putting our faith in this objective view of ourselves. The paradox is that this ability often leaves us when we need it the most, which is why I’ve come to see that self-acceptance –and by extension, self-improvement – are never simply end-points, but parts of the same machine we use to move us through life.
If I could go back and tell an earlier version of myself anything, it would be simply to be kinder to myself. Because years on, I am finally starting to understand that the less we resist ourselves, the easier self-improvement becomes.
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