Balancing self-improvement with self-acceptance

We have an innate desire to endlessly learn, grow, and develop. We want to become more than what we already are. Once we yield to this inclination for continuous and never-ending improvement, we lead a life of endless accomplishments and satisfaction. Yet, if we are motivated to change for the wrong reasons, we will end up being unhappy. So, let’s take a look at some mistakes we may make in our quest for endless improvement. Let’s also consider how to balance the desire to change with the need to accept ourselves.

Our motivation for change can be negative or positive. It can be based on dissatisfaction or satisfaction. For example, Jerry is overweight and unhappy about it, so he decides to try to lose weight. But what if he is unsuccessful? Won’t he be unhappy? So, he was unhappy before he tried, unhappy after he failed, and he remains unhappy. Not very positive, is it?

On the other hand, Betty is in relatively good health and happy about life. In fact, she’s enjoying it so much, she wishes to increase her enjoyment. It’s like sipping a cup of tea and thinking, “Wow! This tastes great! I want some more!” She realizes she is a little overweight and believes that if she were to lose a few pounds, she would enjoy life even more than she already does. She is an example of positive motivation in action.

Can you see how negative motivation can pull one down or hold one back? And can you see how positive motivation can pull one forward? It’s like choosing to work with a stick or a carrot, isn’t it? But what if one is, for example, overweight and unhappy? Are they doomed to failure simply because they’re unhappy? No, they’re not, but progress becomes much easier with positive motivation. So, why not change one’s attitude? Jerry, for instance, could shift his focus from his unhappiness of being overweight to his happiness of his many other accomplishments. After all, everyone has many accomplishments. By focusing on them and savoring the pleasure they have brought, we can motivate ourselves to seek even more pleasure than that which we already have. Use positive energy to pull you forward. You can’t push someone up a ladder; they need to be pulled up.

Another incorrect reason for change is peer or media pressure. Everyone around us is telling us what we SHOULD be like and what we OUGHT to do. Trying to comply with the demands of others only leads to resistance and frustration. It is HARD to do what we SHOULD and EASY to do what we WANT. So, why not harness the power of your WANTS by asking yourself what you WANT from life and then pursue it in small incremental steps?

It is not only our motivation, but our approach that can block our progress. Perfectionists, for example, set unrealistic goals. By setting them too high, they condemn themselves to failure and unhappiness. Our goal should be self-improvement, not self-perfection. Perfection is not attainable, but improvement is easily within our grasp. Another harmful approach is that of obsessive behaviour. Obsessions are debilitating and dysfunctional. It is one thing to want to reduce one’s weight to a healthy level and another to become bulimic or suffer from anorexia nervosa.

If our quest for improvement is making us happy, we’re on the right track and should continue, but if it is making us unhappy, we are doing something wrong and need to stop, analyze our behaviour, and correct it. With serious problems such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa, we should seek outside help to correct our distorted thinking.

Although there are other wrong approaches and false beliefs that hamper our progress, let’s move on to considering the need to balance our desire to improve ourselves with our need to accept ourselves. Let’s say you are suffering from anxiety, shyness, or self-doubt. If so, your wish to improve the situation is perfectly normal. And you may decide to take an assertiveness course to change things for the better. That’s all fine. But don’t expect perfection. It is unreasonable to expect all your fears to vanish. The purpose of improvements, such as assertiveness training, is to help you cope, not to make you perfect. You have to balance your desire to improve with an acceptance of the limitations imposed upon you by life.

Let’s look at an example. The great, former night show host Johnny Carson always suffered from self-doubt and insecurity. At a party, he would feel uncomfortable mingling with strangers and talking one-on-one. Yet, he learned to cope with his lack of confidence by ACCEPTING it as part of his personality. He performed nightly before large audiences not because he got over his nagging self-doubts, but because he chose to act in spite of them.

Johnny Carson’s weakness was his strong point. His lack of confidence was a great gift, for it caused him to compensate for his feelings of inferiority by becoming an entertainer. His constant fidgeting, twitching, nervous tics, and skittish laughter exposed his vulnerability, and endeared him to all. After all, with all our weaknesses, we could easily identify with him and wanted him to succeed. Also, the fear he experienced before coming on stage caused adrenalin to surge through his veins and resulted in a natural high and bursts of exhilaration as he daily proved to himself that he could entertain others despite his doubts.

We need to follow the Johnny Carson model by accepting who we are and making the most of it. In a world of perfect people, everyone is the same. Everyone is plastic, molded after perfection. Everyone is lifeless. But in the real world, people have imperfections, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities. This is what defines people. It gives them personality. It also gives them the opportunity to display great strength and courage by acting despite their fears.

Helen was constantly criticized by her parents as a child and went through many hardships. Today, she has little confidence in herself and seems to be stuck. Why can’t she make any headway? Is her life ruined because of her mother? No, it isn’t her mother’s criticism that is holding her back, but it is Helen’s own relentless focusing on the past that imprisons her. She can liberate herself today by saying, “Yes, I lack confidence, but so does Johnny Carson. Like him, from today onward, I will wear my weaknesses as a mantle of strength.”

Once we unravel the mysteries of life, we realize that there are no weaknesses, only opportunities to display our strength, character, and personality. There is also no reason to complain, only cause to rejoice. Yes, your wish to improve is natural and to be encouraged. But your so-called weaknesses are also natural and a part of your nature. Once you learn to accept and make the most of them, you will come to love them and yourself. So become better, but become a better YOU.