Self-Improvement vs.
Self-Acceptance

We are wired to want and need acceptance, love, and belonging. One of the single most important people to ever accept us… is us. But self-improvement is not the best way to get to self-acceptance, nor is withholding self-acceptance a good way to motivate us towards self-improvement.

Dr. Amanda Seavey headshot

By Dr. Amanda Seavey, PhD

We are wired to want and need acceptance, love, and belonging. So much so that fMRI studies show that rejection activates the same areas of the brain that respond to physical pain. Because of this deep desire, many spend their lives looking to demonstrate their worth and earn acceptance. Yet this actually has a tendency to backfire.

 

Frequently, this desire to earn acceptance shows up as a tendency to be our own worst critic with long lists of behaviors or characteristics that we would like to change. Some wish they could be more patient or more disciplined. Some wish they’d finally let go of their pesky procrastination habit. The lists go on and on. With a self-help industry worth over 10 billion dollars, it’s no wonder we find ourselves buying into the value of self-improvement. But somewhere along the way, self-improvement has become a misguided means to an end. And it’s what gets promised to us will be at the end of this self-improvement journey that causes us trouble.

 

One of the single most important people to ever accept us… is us. But self-improvement is not the best way to get to self-acceptance, nor is withholding self-acceptance a good way to motivate us towards self-improvement. Yet that is exactly what so many of us do. Self-improvement and self-acceptance are very distinct concepts and how we use them in our lives is everything. So, it’s worth breaking them down to better understand how they can each help us or hurt us.

A much healthier way to incorporate self-improvement into our lives is to have self-acceptance be the foundation rather than the outcome of self-improvement. If we first accept ourselves as we are, faults and all, then there is an entirely different dynamic set up.

- Dr. Amanda Seavey

Each of us has strengths, and each of us has shortcomings. We are only human after all. Whether it’s inferred, taught or explicitly stated, we often believe that once we improve, we’ll finally feel good enough. We believe we’ll finally be accepted, loved, and worthy. This belief is where self-improvement gets problematic. I want to call attention to the difficulties this particular idea sets up for us.

  1. Perfectionism: We are only human and we are bound to make mistakes. What happens when I resort back to procrastinating? Do I lose my worthiness? Does my mistake get labeled a failure and turn into reasons for more self-criticism and shaming?
  2. An ever-changing finish line: There is always more we’ll find to improve on. It’s a process without end. Even if I succeed with procrastinating less often, it’s unlikely I’ll then feel like there is nothing left to work on. If I say to myself that I’ll finally accept who I am once I ___*insert improvement here___ than in actuality, I’ll spend the rest of my life chasing the improvement that will finally make me feel worthy of acceptance.
  3. Discouragement: If I believe that self-acceptance is limited or unavailable while I work toward change, I’m likely to feel discouraged or even unworthy during the process. This makes it more likely that I’ll give up, feel shame, and be more critical of my mistakes, none of which motivate and encourage me.

 

The process of pursuing acceptance, worth, and love through self-improvement is problematic for all the reasons listed here. A much healthier way to incorporate self-improvement into our lives is to have self-acceptance be the foundation rather than the outcome of self-improvement. If we first accept ourselves as we are, faults and all, then there is an entirely different dynamic set up.

 

This scenario actually still allows for the pursuit of self-improvement. In fact, self-acceptance may help us to see ourselves with more clarity and less shame. Self-improvement is likely to be more successful, enjoyable, and fulfilling when it comes from a place of ‘I am already enough’ rather than ‘I must earn my worth’.

 

Finally, it’s worth noting that self-acceptance is worth developing regardless of your stance on self-improvement. There is incredible value in the process of building self-acceptance and being free of the need to prove or earn worth. It’s no surprise that self-acceptance is associated with a greater sense of happiness and fulfillment.

Ways to move towards self-acceptance:

  • Observe and describe your thoughts and feelings with kind curiosity rather than being judgmental
  • Call yourself out when you are making judgments but don’t turn it into more judgment
  • Practice acceptance and compassion for your experiences, mistakes, and shortcomings
  • Let go of guilt and practice forgiveness 
  • Work towards understanding yourself and the fact that you are a product of your learning and history
  • Ask for your needs and desires to be met without apology. It doesn’t mean your needs and wants will always be met, but stating them out loud is still validating.
  • Notice and let go of the idea that if you were able to improve something/everything about yourself, that you would then be worthy
  • Have a self-affirming mantra to return to in the face of difficult experiences, judgments or invalidations (e.g., Everything you need to be to deserve love and acceptance, you already are.)

Amanda Seavey, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and founder of Clarity Psychological Wellness, offering psychotherapy and psychological assessment to adults, couples and groups in Raleigh, NC. She has extensive training in providing treatment for depression, anxiety, insomnia, interpersonal difficulties, trauma and substance use. Trained by some of the top researchers and clinicians in the field, her work has focused on treatments that increase psychological flexibility and reduce emotional suffering. One of Dr. Seavey’s primary specialties is in the treatment of insomnia and other sleep disorders.

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