When self-improvement and self-acceptance go hand in hand

Lori, at Write Heart, Open Mind, just posed some very thought provoking questions about self-improvement and self-acceptance in her most recent post. You should go read it here.

At the end of the post, Lori left us pondering the following:

When dealing with something you don’t like about yourself, what percentage of your efforts should go into changing it and what percentage should go into accepting it?

Are there different scenarios that have different rules? For example, a personality trait vs a physical trait? Easy to fix vs difficult to fix?

What is a healthy way to approach this dilemma?

As someone who believes whole heartedly in both of these ideas I felt I had to tackle these questions in my own post.

This dilemma made me think of a similar quandary I encountered when I first learned of mindfulness: How are we expected to plan for the future when we are asked to be mindful of the present moment always? The answer is, you are welcome to plan for the future, as long as that planning is deliberate and productive and is taking place in a clear and present mind. Also, it must be remembered that planning for something productively and anxiously worrying over something you have no control are different things. In an ideal world, we would only be planning about 10% of the time while remaining mindful of the present moment for the vast majority–90%–of the day. (In my world I’m lucky if I do the exact opposite – very lucky indeed.)

Right now I don’t have time to commit to deliberately sitting in mindfulness meditation, but I do have certain times of the day when I practice mindfulness. One of those is in the shower. Of course, I also use my time in the shower to plan what I’m going to wear that day. I have to be careful to only spend a minute or two determining what I will wear before making a conscious effort to focus on my breath, on the sound of the water, on the warmth beating against my back. In this way I’m being mindful the entire time. At first I am mindfully planning for the future and then, when that task has been completed, I am mindful of the present moment.

You might wonder what this has to do with self-improvement and self-acceptance. I believe these dueling forces are much like the ideas of planning and being present; planning is similar to self-improvement and being mindful of the present moment is akin to self-acceptance.

You see, I believe that one can try to change their perceived shortcomings while still being accepting of them; our success in either endeavor depends on how we go about both. First of all, self-improvement must be embarked upon without malice. It might seem difficult, but we can recognize that which we want to change in ourselves without berating ourselves for needing to make those changes. Everyone has weaknesses and it does no one any good when we talk down to ourselves as we recognize our own. Knowing you need to change something about yourself is productive, finding yourself lacking is a second arrow we’re better off avoiding.

If we can approach self-improvement without judgement we can easily embrace self-acceptance as well. The desire for self-improvement helps us create a plan of action. Once that plan of action has been created, we must fall back on self-acceptance to see us through.

But what happens if we don’t follow our plan–or our plan doesn’t achieve the desires results–do we keep on accepting ourselves then? Then answer is yes. We keep on accepting ourselves as we determine why we didn’t stick with our plan, or why the plan didn’t work in the first place, and decide if maybe we shouldn’t do something different.

One of my own personal shortcomings is that I’m a horrible housekeeper. I created so many plans of action to help me get my house in order but I never stuck with any of them, in fact, many were never even attempted. I always had a very hard time accepting this personal defect, as my mother took great pains to install in me the expectation that women could, and should, maintain a gleaming house. I always felt like a huge failure because I couldn’t keep my own home clean.

Over time I learned that berating myself for not keeping my house clean wasn’t doing me any good; it didn’t inspire me to get off my ass and actually clean my house, but instead only caused me emotional distress. Slowly but surely I was able to let that judgement go and accept myself despite my faulty housekeeping abilities. I think this self-acceptance is what allowed me to finally find a system that worked for me so I could eventually feel successful as a housekeeper. Sure it took me the better part of a decade, but I got there eventually and for part of the time I didn’t even hate myself.

If we allow the desire for self-improvement to inspire us to take action, but are accepting of whatever the outcome might be, then we can pursue both simultaneously, without one sabotaging the other. It might seem hard for us to realize, in this judgement driven world, but self-acceptance can actually help us better ourselves. We just need an open mind and a little patience.

3 responses

  1. I just love you.

    Also, I use the shower to do my prayers. You know, after I plan dinner, put off shaving my legs for a few more days, and secretly wish that no one flushes or turns on the water for a few minutes…

    It’s an interesting quandry. I don’t know. I don’t know which of my shortcomings I would change or modify. Probably my bad attitude. Heh.

    Well said, friend. (PS Betsy the chicken sends her love)

  2. I am a consummate planner, and I’ve always found this teaching hard to wrap my brain around … but you’ve done a beautiful job of explaining it in a way I can try to practice.

  3. You figured out what I couldn’t quite put my finger on: “self-improvement must be embarked upon without malice.”

    THAT’s what was bothering me about the self-improvement piece — when it comes from a place of self-distaste.

    I’m so happy that you unpacked this issue.

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