Self Improvement vs. Self Acceptance

Close-up of red blood cells and germsMarch 28, 2013

(For this week’s audio podcast, click here.)

I had the honor of meeting author Robert Holden recently when we both spoke at the Hay House IGNITE event in San Jose, CA (which was an amazing experience, by the way).  Robert is someone whom I’ve admired for quite some time.  It was wonderful to get a chance to meet him in person and hear him speak live.  In his talk, he said “There’s no amount of self improvement that can make up for a lack of self acceptance.”

This statement really struck me and as I started to think about it more, I realized that so much of my life and my work is focused on self improvement.  And while there’s nothing wrong with me or any of us wanting to improve ourselves – too often we go about it erroneously thinking that if we “achieve” the “improvement” we’re after, we’ll then feel good about ourselves.  As Robert pointed out in his talk (and most of us have experienced this in our lives many times), it doesn’t work this way.

We live in a culture that is obsessed with self improvement.  We turn on the TV, look at magazines, take classes, read books, listen to others, surf the web and more – constantly getting various messages that if we just fixed, changed, and improved ourselves a bit, we’d be better off.  How often do you find yourself thinking some version of, “If I just lost a little weight, made a little more money, improved my health, had more inspiring work, lived in a nicer place, improved my relationships (or something else), then I’d be happy.”   Even though I “know better,” this type of thinking shows up inside my own head more often than I’d like.

The paradox of self improvement is that by accepting ourselves as we are, we give ourselves the space, permission, and opportunity to create an authentic sense of success and fulfillment.  When we insatiably focus on improving ourselves, thinking that it will ultimately lead us to a place of happiness, we’re almost always disappointed and we set up a stressful dynamic of constantly striving, but never quite getting there.

What if we gave ourselves permission to accept ourselves fully, right now?  While this is a simple concept, it’s one of the many things in life that’s easier said than done.  One of the biggest pieces of resistance we have regarding self acceptance is that we erroneously think that by accepting ourselves, we may somehow be giving up.  It’s as if we say to ourselves, “Okay, I’ll accept myself, once all of my problems and issues go away.”

Another reason we resist accepting ourselves is the notion that somehow acceptance is resignation.  It’s not.  Acceptance is acceptance – it’s about allowing things to be as they are, even if we don’t like them.  As Byron Katie says (and I often quote), “When you argue with reality you lose, but only 100% of the time.”

The paradox of self acceptance is that when we allow ourselves to accept who we are, where we are, what’s really happening, qualities about ourselves, aspects of who we are, and more – we actually set ourselves up and give ourselves the opportunity to make changes, improvements, and enhancements to ourselves and our lives in an authentic way.  When we obsess about and/or demand these improvements or changes “in order to” be happy, feel good about ourselves, or think we’re successful, it almost never works.

If you take a moment right now to think about some of the most important improvements and changes you’re attempting to make in your life, ask yourself this question, “What would it look like, feel like, and be like for me to fully accept myself in these important areas of my life?”

Most of the time it’s our own self criticism, perfection demands, and impatience that are actually getting in our way of making the changes, creating the success, and experiencing the fulfillment we truly want.  What if we changed our approach and with as much love, compassion, and vulnerability as possible, just accepted ourselves exactly as we are, right now!

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  1. Dear Mike,

    I heard you speak in the Bay area about 3 years ago and it was a great experience and since then I’ve subscribed to your blog and recieve monthy info/articles. This one in particular is such an excellent reminder for me, and I think almost anybody who lives in our Western Society – thanks for being out there for us all!

    Best Regards / Bill

    • Thanks Bill – appreciate your comment and kind words. Glad to hear this blog post resonated with you. Yes, we tend to be obsessed with “self improvement” in our culture. Self acceptance is key! Be well!

  2. dear Mike;
    it’s truth that acceptance of myself (my body my familly what i have right now)help me a lot and give me power to face the people and the world .thank you so much Mike about your articals and your work.know i m from Algeria my wish is to assist your speaking show ahhhhh but you are so far in usa;so welcome to you in my country.

  3. Mike,

    This topic certainly resonates with me. I’ve not had a good impression of myself, particularly as far as body and finances are concerned and that makes it hard to accept compliments among other things.

    Were can I find guidance to a path of self-acceptance?


    • Thanks Jim – appreciate your comment, authenticity, and question. Self acceptance is a journey for all of us – practice. Meditation is a good way, and there are many books, resources, counselors, and coaches out there – if you put the intention out that you’d like to enhance your capacity to love and accept yourself, I’m sure you’ll find lots of resources to support you on your journey. Be well… Mike

  4. Hi Mike; This sounds like what i went through last year when finally deciding to consult with a gastric surgeon. I had just had the talk with my regular doctor, and she was warning me about future diabetus if i didn’t start doing something. I had finished six months of a prescription that was supposed to help. I finally had to accept that what i was doing just wasn’t working. My best efforts at diet and exercise were not working. So, i agreed to have a consultation and see what the surgeon had to say. It turned out that in addition to the surgery i learned a lot about how to eat better. I lost 80 pounds prior to the surgery because it took over 8 months to get the insurance approval. I had the surgery october 2nd, and I’ve lost I’ve lost anothe 100 pounds since the procedure. Still have lots of work to go, but I continue to learn more about my body and my habits. I also have lots of help from friends and family online and in person. I’m now healthy enough that i can walk on a tread mill. Now, i find myself having to learn to accept it when people say i look handsome even sexy. Like you say we all have to work on it. I look forward to future posts to help me and to remind me to stay authentic and acccept who i am. Take care, Max

  5. Hi Mike
    I saw you speak at the I Can Do It Ignite San Jose, you inspired me. Your words of wisdom are words to live by. Thank you so much for who you are and all you do! Looking forward to seeing you again! : )

    Happy Easter!

    Donna McLeod

  6. When you wrote, if you accept yourself you feel “may somehow be giving up”. It made me wonder, could I accept myself AND be motivated to change myself? There is a motivating factor in not being satifyed with myself and my situation. In your opinion, what is the difference between not being satifyed with myself and accepting myself?

    As a side note, I LOVED your talk at Wisdom 2.0. I am still watering the seeds your words planted!

    • Great question Ann – I wonder about this one myself and sometimes struggle with it. I think that acceptance and resignation are different…we don’t have to resigned about something and, in fact, accepting it as it is, allows the space to authentically make changes if that is what we truly want. The key element here is intention. If we try to “change” something becuase we think it is “bad,” (in a self critical way), we bring that energy to it, which makes the change harder and more stressful. If we choose to change something out of authentic preference, it is much easier and more likely to happen.

  7. This is an excellent topic. I have also heard you speak and I believe that is really what got me into this season of Self Improvement I have been on. Your books have been so wonderful, and really led me into that world as well. I have recently found someone who has helped me with real insights as well, Riana Milne. Her book Live Beyond Your Dreams is so great. if anyone is interested. I think that there is nothing wrong in finding motivation wherever you can! Thanks so much for your wonderful words, they really helped me!

  8. Hi Mike
    As usual, you said just what I needed to hear when I needed to hear it. Sometimes we are too exhausted to do anything but accept ourselves. That’s where I am now. Recently I have lost several loved ones, and now my beloved cat is in his last days. I feel pummeled by grief and life and there is no time for self improvements. There are only these precious moments I have left with my cat, and my efforts to make him as comfortable as possible. I don’t know if anyone else can relate. I am in a bit of a daze so this may not make sense…

    • Thank you for your comment and vulnerability. So sorry to hear about all of the loss you have recently experienced. I am sending you love, prayers, and blessings as you move through your grief. Be gentle with yourself

  9. Hello Mike:

    This is a great post, thanks for sharing it. I appreciate the message of accepting ourselves not from a point of resignation but from recognition of who we are. By doing so, you can have an honest discussion of who you are and what matters to you. It is, in my opinion, a critical component of both goal setting and leadership development. Jim Rohn has a great line about earning a million dollars where he states (paraphase) “Don’t earn a million dollars for the money. Do it for what you will become in the process.” In other words, the money is nice but the experience invaluable.

    I’ll look forward to reading more of your work.

    Best regards,

  10. I really enjoyed this essay – I am also a huge fan of Glennon Melton. And then I noticed that you decided to “follow” me on Twitter so I just wanted to “drop by” your blog and say thank you! I am honored that you visited my site 🙂

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