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Self acceptance vs. Personal growth

How do you balance self-acceptance vs. the drive to grow and improve yourself? On the one hand, itís a good idea to accept yourself for who you areÖ faults and all, right? But on the other hand, isnít it also a good idea to set goals and aim for something even better than what you already experience now? How do you resolve this conflict?

Is compromise really the best solution?

I believe most people simply compromise. They donít fully accept themselves as they are, but nor are they fully comitted to lifelong growth. I think thatís a lame solution though. Why not have both? Why not fully accept yourself as you are and also be totally committed to lifelong growth? Canít you enjoy both? Is there a way around this apparent conflict?

I often receive feedback, both publicly and privately, that suggests that because Iím so openly committed to personal growth, that therefore I must not like and accept who I am right now. Itís assumed that since I keep pushing myself to grow in new ways that I must be sacrificing the self-acceptance side.

The linear mindset

Why does there seem to be a conflict between self-acceptance and growth anyway? I think the conflict is actually a result of a particular mindset. Iíll refer to it as the linear mindset.

The linear mindset says that your life is like a point moving down a line segment. Your life is a journey through time. The end points represent your birth and death. The points behind you are your past. The points ahead of you are your future. And your present moment is a little dot on that timeline, slowly inching its way towards your death.

Every point on your life line can also be said to have a certain quality. You can look at any point on the line and measure your instantaneous state at that point. On any particular day of your life (past, present, or future), you can pose questions like: Where do I live? Whatís my job? Whatís my net worth? Who are my friends? Whatís my relationship status? How much do I weigh?

Self-acceptance vs. personal growth

Within this paradigm itís only natural that the conflict between self-acceptance and growth should arise. Once you start labeling some points of your life as being of ďhigherĒ or ďlowerĒ quality than others, then you have the means to compare any point to any other. How does your life today compare with your life five years ago? Are you richer? Happier? Healthier?

Now you have to decide how much you want to push things to improve in quality as you progress through life. You can accept your current position as adequate and opt to simply maintain it, or you can strive to achieve something greater. You can also adopt the belief that your life is largely out of your control, in which case your best bet would be to learn to accept whatever outcomes you experience, regardless of how you might rate their level of quality.

The more you accept where you are, the less motivation there is to grow. And the more you push yourself to grow, the less satisfaction you derive from your current position. You might end up oscillating back and forth along this spectrum, sometimes being very complacent and other times being very driven.

Limitations of the linear mindset

The linear mindset is very common, especially in the Western world. We love to measure things and assign them grades and ratings. Which car is the most fuel-efficient this year? Is company X more profitable than it was last year? How fit and healthy am I?

And that mindset certainly has value, especially in business. Iím not suggesting that itís an inherently undesirable paradigm.

However, there are areas where this model works, and there are areas where it doesnít. And one of those areas where it doesnít work so well is your self-image.

Trying to apply the linear mindset to your self-image creates the conflict between self-acceptance and growth. Instead of merely measuring various aspects of your life and noting how they change over time, you identify with them. I am richer than I was last year. I am more depressed than I used to be. I went from being a telemarketer to being a sales manager.

When you identify with the positional aspects of your life, you pull your ego into the picture. Your sense of self then becomes dependent on your particular position.

If you primarily think about life in terms of hitting new highs, such as better health, greater net worth, or a more anal job title, then what happens when you experience a setback in your position, maybe even a big one like being charged with a felony?

We all experience setbacks. Itís only a matter of time. If your self-esteem is based on your position, then youíll suffer greatly when your position declines. What would it do to your self-esteem if you lost all your money? What if you gained 50 lbs? What if your life mate dumped you? If you lose your position, will you lose your sense of self?

Even more problematic than a real loss is worrying about the possibility of a loss in advance. You may hold yourself back because you fear becoming too dependent on a certain position. If you stay low, you donít have far to fall when things go bad. Gaining a few pounds over the holidays isnít as painful when youíre already 50 lbs overweight. Going broke isnít so terrible when you only have $1000 to your name vs. if youíre a multi-millionaire. And how much worse can your relationship situation get if itís already lousy (or nonexistent)?

Perhaps by setting up camp in mediocre land and staying far away from super-achiever, youíre protecting your ego from inevitable setbacks. You know that even the most successful people in the world experience setbacks, so why would you risk subjecting yourself to such dramatic highs and lows? What goes up must come down, right?

The underlying problem is that by rooting your sense of self in something that will fluctuate, like the current position of any measurable part of your life, youíre going to suffer in one way or another. Either youíll push yourself to achieve, achieve, achieve, and then suffer emotionally when things take a turn for the worse, or youíll become attached to outcomes to an unhealthy degree, such that you may sacrifice your ethics to maintain your position. Or youíll settle for much less than youíre capable of achieving and probably give yourself regular beatings for being too lazy and for over-procrastinating Ė youíll always be haunted by the knowledge that you could be doing better. Or lastly you may decide to withdraw from society in order to escape/transcend this whole punishing process; but still your contribution is far below your potential.

Beyond the linear mindset

This whole situation is basically win-lose, isnít it? You have to compromise somewhere. You canít play the positional growth game full out and still accept and enjoy every moment along the way, right?

Or can you?

Allow me to suggest an alternative paradigm.

Instead of rooting your sense of self in your position, which is changeable, what would happen if you rooted your sense of self in something permanent and unchangeable? Stop identifying yourself with any form of positional status, and pick something invulnerable insteadÖ like a pure concept that nothing in this world can touch. Examples include unconditional love, service to humanity, faith in a higher power, compassion, nonviolence, and so on.

When you root yourself in unchangeable Ētrue northĒ principles, you may still measure the various metrics of your life and notice how they change over time, but you wonít make them part of your identity. Hence, you keep your self-esteem separate from your particular circumstances.

This isnít easy to do. But you donít have to be perfect to get results from this paradigm. Even a small move in this direction will reduce the conflict between self-acceptance and growth. Essentially youíll gain the best of both worlds.

Separating position from identity

By rooting yourself in the permanent, your position detaches from your identity. This makes it possible to unconditionally accept yourself as you are while still courageously playing the positional growth game, regardless of the outcome. Self-acceptance and growth are no longer in conflict because now they donít apply to the same thing. Youíve separated your identity (self-acceptance) from your position (growth).

Detaching ego from outcomes

Have you fallen into any person-position pairing in your own life? Do you derive your sense of self from things that are changeable and vulnerable, such as your income, your job title, your relationships, or any other form of status? How much energy are you investing in defending those positions out of fear?

When you loosen your attachment to positions, you donít have to defend them. When you root your self in something permanent, then your sense of self is effectively untouchable. Your position can be attacked, and you can still defend it if you like, but you wonít feel irrationally compelled to defend it out of fear. You wonít feel youíre being personally attacked when your position becomes vulnerable.

Enjoying inner peace

What Iím really getting at here is inner peace. When you keep your sense of self away from third-dimensional positions, your position can rollercoaster all over the place, and you can still be at peace on the inside no matter what happens. You donít have to withdraw and be totally passive. You can enjoy being an ambitious overachiever and set and achieve goals like a maniac ó and have a great time doing it. But meanwhile you donít seek your identity in those fluctuating outcomes.

Any questions??