Self Improvement vs Self-Acceptance.
The most perfect definition of happiness that I’ve ever heard goes like this: “Happiness is the end of the striving for happiness.”
It’s simple and direct and I love it. It works because there’s this tension between striving for happiness and finding happiness that we’re all aware of. Most of us spend our lives alternating between the two, trying to work our way to the right end of the spectrum.
There’s the same tension between self-acceptance and self-improvement. I mean, you could just as easily define self-acceptance as the end of the striving for self-improvement, right? But if these two are also at opposite ends of a spectrum, doesn’t that mean we’re doomed to alternate between trying to change ourselves and being dissatisfied with ourselves?
The answer is a thoroughly unsatisfying; it depends.
The difference between happiness and self-acceptance.
Happiness and self-acceptance are similar, but they’re not the same. You could say that self-acceptance is a subset of happiness. Happiness is the acceptance of every aspect of the present moment, whereas self-acceptance is the acceptance of every aspect of yourself at the present moment. It’s possible to accept yourself and still be unhappy, but it’s not possible to be truly happy and to not accept yourself.
Both happiness and self-acceptance happen now. You can’t be happy yesterday or happy tomorrow. You’re either happy right now or you’re not happy at all. Remembering that you once were happy or hoping to be happy in the future don’t count.
Self-acceptance works the same way. You can be acting like a complete idiot and still accept yourself. In fact, you have no choice but to accept yourself. Even if you’re behaving really badly right now, you’re doing the very best you can at this moment. If you want to be a stickler about it, you’re also doing the very worst that you can right now. What you’re doing is what you’re doing. It can’t be any different because it’s already happening.
However, unlike with happiness, we can look back on our behaviour and think: “wow, I acted like a real idiot back then.” This doesn’t mean you don’t accept yourself — self-acceptance happens in the present remember — it means that you can look at your past behaviour and recognise that it was less than ideal. It’s like reviewing a project you’ve already completed. Whether the project went fantastically or terribly, it’s still good practice to look back and think about where improvements could be made. You don’t have to hate the project to do this. It doesn’t even need to be your project. It’s simply a learning experience.
But why would you want to change something that you’ve accepted?
Healthy self-improvement is less about wanting to change than about recognising that change is inevitable. In fact, it’s constantly happening. A seed will grow into a flower, a caterpillar will grow into a butterfly, a child will grow into an adult. You will grow into something else. Nobody knows what that is yet, but we know it’s going to happen. As this change is guaranteed, it makes sense to do everything you can to direct that change in the ways you want.
For example, a parent will put great effort into educating their child. Does that mean they don’t accept their child when they can’t read or when they don’t yet know their multiplication tables? Of course not. Good parents accept their child and whatever kind of adult they turn out to be. But at the same time, they do everything in their power to give that adult the best possible foundation.
As an individual, the relationship between the guide and the guided is reversed. The younger you, the version you are now, influences the older you. It’s like the child trying to guide the adult. This is why the process so often gets messed up, or why the older wiser you looks back and wonders what younger, more childish versions of you were thinking.
This is why people lean on self-improvement in the first place. But its also where self-improvement can go wrong. If child-you, unsure of how to guide your older self, tries to force you down a path that’s not right for you. It’s an easy mistake to make. It looks at people who have achieved what it imagines your future self will want to achieve and blindly does the same. Instead of supporting your future self like a good parent, it tries to force you down somebody else’s path.
So then why change? Aren’t I perfect as I am?
Let me put this in a way that will be perfectly clear; No. Despite what you may have read in the latest best-selling self-help book, you’re not perfect as you are. Also, he does think your bum looks too big and she has been with a guy who was bigger than you.
You’re not perfect the way you are, but you are the way you are. There’s nothing to be added or taken away at this moment. But as I mentioned earlier, when you’re looking back on this moment, you can think about whether there’s anything you’d like to improve.
You don’t have the option of not changing, but you do have the option to decide how you change. You can make choices that will change you for the better in ways that matter to you. You can learn a language or earn more money or treat people more kindly. Or you can ignore all of these and risk them changing for the worse.
How to find balance.
Perhaps the healthiest way to think about self-improvement is that you’re trying to make your future self happy. You’re trying to make sure that he or she won’t need to strive for happiness. That when they look back, they’ll be grateful for the efforts that you’re making now. If you do an especially good job, they’ll be grateful even if your actions didn’t lead you to a particular job or the adulation of millions of screaming fans. You’re just acting in the best interests of the person that you’re inevitably going to be.
Self-improvement isn’t a rejection of who you are now, it’s an act of love towards the person that you’re going to be. Accept yourself as you are now. Look at yourself honestly and with compassion. And take whatever steps you think will make the person you’re becoming happiest. They may not appreciate it now but don’t worry. One day they’ll thank you.