Leo argues cogently that the process of self-improvement has no end. Its only result is perpetual dissatisfaction:
We are never adequate, never perfect, never self-confident, never good enough, never comfortable with ourselves, never satisfied, never there, never content.
And it becomes the reason we buy self-help products, fitness products, gadgets to make us cooler, nicer clothes, nicer cars and homes, nicer bags and boots, plastic surgery and drugs, courses and classes and coaches and retreats. It will never stop, because we will never be good enough.
Leo’s solution is simple: Just drop the urge to improve yourself. Remind yourself that you are already perfect.
This sounds okay until you try to apply it.
Case in point: If I accepted Leo’s solution, I’d immediately stop reading his blog. And I don’t think he’d like that.
Another case in point: The “you’re already perfect” mantra is a hard-sell for someone who’s suffering a lot.
Think of a someone you know who’s going through a bitter divorce, living with major depression, or getting treatment for late-stage cancer—and actively resisting their current circumstances.
Do you want to tell them that they’re perfect? I don’t. I don’t think it will help.
Here’s another option: Stop holding self-acceptance and self-improvement as opposites and forcing ourselves to choose one or the other. Instead, see them both as part of an underlying change process.
Self-acceptance does not stop us from changing. In fact, acceptance—non-judgmental self-awareness—promotes positive change. For example:
- The simple act of noticing your posture prompts you to stop slumping.
- The simple of act of noticing your breathing prompts you to breathe more slowly and deeply—an immediate stress-reliever.
- Blogger Michael Hyatt reports that he lost weight simply by making note of what he ate each day.
- People in Alcoholics Anonymous start by telling an inelegant truth: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. This is Step One, which makes it possible for alcoholics to practice all the other Steps of AA. I hesitate to imagine what would happen if Step One was revised to say: We admitted we were inherently perfect—that our lives are already manageable.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy for addiction often includes a technique called “surfing the urge.” This means simply noticing the urge to reach for alcohol or another drug, breathing mindfully, and waiting for the urge to pass. (For more details, see this wonderful interview with Dr. Alan Marlatt, a pioneer of this technique.)
Drop the opposition and embrace the options
The whole tension between self-acceptance and self-improvement is a trick that we play on ourselves. It all hinges on the question we ask.
Leo asks: Will I accept myself or improve myself?
I ask: What’s the truth about myself and how do I choose to respond?
This is not an “either-or” proposition. It’s “both-and.”