Why Self-Acceptance and Self-Improvement Go Hand in Hand

Self-acceptance is often contrasted with self-improvement. While the former means embracing how things are, the latter is all about growing out of a state of stagnation and deficit. However, self-acceptance – while it involves accepting all aspects of yourself, both praiseworthy and unpleasant – is a process which has self-growth at its core. Moving from self-denial and resistance of all the things you don’t like about yourself, to self-acceptance, is necessary for self-improvement.

What is Self-Acceptance?

According to psychologist Carol Ryff, self-acceptance is one of six factors that lead to optimal psychological health. L.A. Shepard (1979) argued that self-acceptance is achieved when we stop criticising the defects in ourselves and tolerate that we are imperfect in some ways.

Ryff distinguishes self-acceptance from self-esteem, which refers to how much one likes or values oneself, which is based on comparing oneself to others or measuring oneself against personal standards. Many psychologists maintain that self-acceptance is healthier than self-esteem, because people’s self-esteem is often highly contingent and unstable, rather than stable, long-lasting and self-determined.

When we ‘fail’ in relation to some standard or expectation, we can develop low self-esteem (associated with mental health issues such as depression). And when we ‘win’ with respect to certain benchmarks, we end up with high self-esteem (correlated with narcissism).

Self-acceptance, on the other hand, can best be thought of as an attitude of non-attachment, non-avoidance and non-judgement towards the totality of who we are.

The Paradox of Self-Acceptance

The humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers has posited that after you accept yourself, change will occur. In his book On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy (1961), Rogers writes:

I find I am more effective when I can listen accepantly to myself, and can be myself.  I feel that over the years I have learned to become more adequate in listening to myself; so that I know, somewhat more adequately than I used to, what I am feeling in any given moment … One way of putting this is that I feel I have become more adequate in letting myself be what I am.  It becomes easier for me to accept myself as a decidedly imperfect person, who by no means functions at all times in the way in which I would like to function. This must seem to some like a very strange direction in which to move.  It seems to me to have value because the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change.

That last line is crucial. If we are constantly focused on who we want to be (and, thus, who we are not), then we carry around the heavy weight of non-acceptance, which can make self-development difficult. On the other hand, when you can see that you are both kind and selfish, and you can calmly say, ‘there’s this part of me’, and ‘this part too’, then you’re moving towards psychological health, which puts you in a better position to grow.

The paradox is that when we don’t focus so obsessively on improving ourselves, then we can improve ourselves. If we use up too much energy focusing on our ideal self, without taking stock of everything in us – without having a realistic appraisal of our strengths and weaknesses – then change will be frustrated in some way.

As a case in point, you may find yourself judging others, and you may hate the fact that you do it, especially if people tell you how tolerant you are or if you place a very high value on being non-judgemental. If non-judgement is an ideal that you strive (and strain) to realise and you wish you weren’t so judgemental, then you’re going to get stuck. In contrast, once you accept that part of you is judgemental, then you might become more understanding and be accepting of others’ judgemental nature, allowing you to become less judgemental as a result.

There may be a common misconception that self-acceptance is a defeatist position which says that accepting your weaknesses means continuing as you are. But this isn’t true. Self-acceptance encourages developing a different relationship with yourself. Embracing everything about you allows you to become lighter, calmer, more present, less self-critical and kinder towards yourself when mistakes are made. This way of relating to yourself is fertile ground for self-development.

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