Self-Improvement vs Self-Acceptance: Which is Right?

I read a lot of personal development material, online and offline – and there are two clear competing trends.

One school of thought says keep striving for improvement. Keep doing more. Lose weight. Get fit. Make more money.

The other says accept yourself just as you are. Love your body. Exercise if you like. Don’t look to money for happiness.

Who’s right?

Well, both approaches have advantages – and disadvantages:

The Self-Improvement Junkies

At its extreme, the self-improvement movement preaches the importance of constantly getting better. That has some obvious advantages:

  • You’ll improve your weaknesses – areas which may be holding you back
  • You may well improve your material conditions (your house, car, bank balance, etc)
  • You can achieve great things, accomplishing a lot not just for yourself but for the wider world

On the flip side, though, focusing too much on self-improvement means:

  • You may feel despairing because you’re never quite happy with your life – however much you do
  • Your achievements can feel empty, especially if you’re chasing someone else’s goals rather than your own
  • You can become judgmental – looking at others and thinking “she should get out of debt” or “he should lose weight”

The Self-Acceptance Hippies

The self-acceptance movement focuses on being happy with where you currently are. Again, there are some obvious advantages:

  • You can celebrate and focus on your strengths – areas where you’re already excelling
  • You don’t need to do a great deal in order to be happier – instead of buying a new car, you can be satisfied with the one you have
  • You’re likely to be focused on kindness, compassion and acceptance of others

But there’s a down side again, because focusing too much on self-acceptance means:

  • You may feel like you’re kidding yourself – trying (and failing) to be happy with your current life
  • You might not achieve very much, using self-acceptance as an excuse for laziness
  • You won’t necessarily stand up and speak out when there really is a need for change in the world

Combining the Two Approaches

It’s probably clear by now that I don’t come down on either side of the fence. There’s a lot of value in both self-improvement and self-acceptance – and I both positions can be taken too far.

Ideally, you want to combine the best of each. They might look incompatible at a glance, but they’re not. One way to bring the two camps together is like this:

You’re a wonderful and unique person with particular skills and attributes – and with the potential to use those fully in being your “best self”.

It’s perfectly possible to accept yourself just how you are, to love the body, mind and soul that you have – and because of that love, to want to keep developing and improving, striving to be the very best person who you can be.

Think of the way you might love your younger siblings or your children. You accept them just how they are, and you wouldn’t want to force them to be someone different. But you also want them to live their own best life – to step up to challenges and follow their dreams.

Today, think about which side of the fence you normally come down on. Are you too hard on yourself, constantly fighting towards goals that you might not really care about? Or are you too laid back, accepting things which – deep down – you really want to change?

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Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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