Self-acceptance and self-improvement

Most people want to change something about themselves for the better. We want to be thinner, richer, happier, fitter, healthier, more loved, more admired.  We want to feel good about ourselves and we want others to see us as successful.

I think Robert Louis Stevenson got it right when he wrote:

To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.

Self-improvement is a normal drive and one of the main points of living. But often though, our efforts at self-improvement are driven more by a rejection of ourselves and become contortions to try to force ourselves to fit someone else’s idea of what is good, suitable, acceptable or desirable. Or just as damaging, we try to remake ourselves into our own fantasy of perfection. Often, self-improvement is not about being better but about being different.

At a recent art exhibition I overheard some of the exhibiting artists talking. One whose work was finely detailed longed to paint like another whose work was loose and expressionistic, a printmaker whose stunning black and white images were selling well mourned his lack of colour sense while a watercolourist who produced subtle and delicate botanical studies declared she was taking up oil painting because works in oil had more ‘authority’. By comparing their art to someone else’s they judged their own as wanting. Instead of embracing and valuing what they did well they rejected their uniqueness and longed to be ‘like someone else’. For many people,  who they are is not who they want to be.

My friend Nate was recently headhunted by a major multi-national. He was very happy in his job with a medium sized family owned company but was flattered at being wooed and offered more money to defect.  His friends and family were thrilled at his ‘advancement’ and it was inconceivable to all that he could refuse such an offer. But a few months down the track and Nate is miserable. The new job is stressful, he has a much longer commute, many hours of overtime are mandatory so that he sees little of his family, and he feels alienated from his co-workers by a culture of driven competitiveness, power-plays, and one-upmanship.

Nate now realizes he is not as ambitious as he thought. The new job has made him understand his life priorities better and for him, family life, meaningful relationships, and time for his other interests are more important than money or status.

Nate took the new position because he thought he ‘should’, (and because, he sheepishly admits, it flattered his ego) so he really didn’t feel he had a choice. Everyone wants to ‘better’ themselves right? So it would have been irrational to stay in a ‘lesser’ position when you were offered a chance to improve your lot. But things are not always what they seem and if something ‘better’ is actually not what we really want or need, and not right for the essential ‘us’ then it is not better at all.

Sometimes the ‘improvements’ we want to make are simple not right for us because:

  • We judge ourselves b