Self-Acceptance vs. Self-Improvement: A Fine Line
For many years as a younger woman, I struggled with body image distortion, obsessive dieting, and self-criticism. As I have gotten older, what once seemed so paramount has faded. My own personal work of self-acceptance has helped to discover a strong and beautiful relationship with myself. However, today in the gym, as I listened to an absolutely gorgeous young woman talk to our coach about steroids, I was reminded of that intense internal struggle. I wondered about the fine line that exists between self-improvement and self-acceptance. How do those two concepts interact and where does self-improvement become harmful if cased in a frame of perfectionism, self-judgement and/or criticism?
Now, I am not just being euphemistic in my description of this young woman. By our society’s standards of what we tend to consider beautiful, she seemed to have it all. As she inquired about a type of steroid that her apparent “friend” was strongly encouraging her to take in order to make her body “absolutely perfect,” I couldn’t help but wonder to myself, what else would you add?
Bodies are not made to be perfect. They are airbrushed that way, or surgically molded, or chemically enhanced. Why not work more on accepting what is yours and making the most of what you have been given? This is where that fine line shows up, right? I talk a lot about challenging yourself, facing your fears, pushing through perceived limits, and living an optimal life. Self-improvement and growth are never-ending opportunities during our time here on this planet. However, the perspective from which we approach self-improvement can greatly impact whether or not this practice constitutes a process of enhancement or destruction.
Approaching self-improvement from a foundation of self-acceptance allows room for growth as an enhancement to what already exists. But the foundation stands on its own as enough. We can always add more to it, but it is not lacking anything to begin with. Approaching self-improvement from a foundation of perfectionism or self-judgement relies on the core belief that your foundation is inherently lacking something and needs some type of improvement or upgrade in order to be enough or complete. When the foundation is built on the notion that adding or adjusting or transforming “just one more thing” will make it complete, a never-ending battle spirals into a bottomless pit of dissatisfaction. This is where eating disorders, body-dysmorphia, and some self-destructive behaviors are born.
For me, it has been a process to be able to look myself in the mirror or in a picture and say, “Wow, I look good!” It has required both inner and outer work. The inner work consists of strengthening my relationship with myself and cultivating a deep respect for and value of myself deep down into my core belief system. This helps to create a much more considerate and reasonable environment from which to practice the outer work of physical challenges and self-care. I am not exercising or eating particular foods in order to become something that I am not already. I am just trying to make the most out of what I have. I exercise to feel good, to feel confident in my ability to move and play in whatever fashion suits me, and I eat for the same reasons and to fuel the activities that I love. I love the feeling of having energy, sleeping well, feeling happy, motivated, and satisfied. Goals are great, but the outcome is flexible and guided more by my own inner knowing of what feels right for me, rather than my fear that something is wrong or lacking because I will never look like the digitally and chemically enhanced fitness models in the magazines.
As a therapist, I am a huge supporter of self-improvement. However, I do not encourage improvement for external reasons. I encourage you to get to know yourself, discover what you love, what you offer, and truly own how valuable you are. If you would like to challenge yourself to push beyond your fear or your perceived limitations, do it from a place of curiosity and allow yourself to be surprised and amazed by whatever result you encounter. If your results do not match the exact picture that you created in your mind at the outset, be open to other possibilities. Maybe you go beyond your expectations! Don’t limit yourself with a static vision of an outcome. Just commit to the process of enhancing yourself and your life and revel in the satisfaction that comes with being the best you possible. When you know that on the inside, you know that you are living your Truth. This is what it means to be in integrity. Be in acceptance of wherever you are right now and give yourself permission to release your inner critic, and any beliefs of “not enough.” You are enough, right now, just as you are. Get okay with that thought first, before you add in any other layers of improvement. Strengthen your foundation of acceptance. From there, anything is possible!
For a meditation to help guide you in that process of self-acceptance, click on the video below. Enjoy!