Acceptance vs. improvement: are they contradictory?

At some point in our lives, most of us have grappled with the dilemma between accepting ourselves and wanting to improve ourselves. Those of us in intimate relationships can extend this to the dilemma between accepting our partner and also wanting to improve the relationship. We have probably been told that the two are not contradictory – that it is possible to fully accept ourselves whilst still doing our best to improve. However, in practice, this truth is not easy to see, and it is difficult to reconcile the two goals.

When someone tells us to stop criticising ourselves (or our partner), we naturally resist. After all, how can we improve if we do not point out the problems? The notion that being more accepting might actually encourage change seems hard to believe. Yet it is true. Whenever we criticise ourselves or our partner, we create a conflict. This is the exact opposite of the cooperative attitude that we need. Rightly or wrongly, criticism is nearly always viewed as an attack, including the case of self-criticism. Thus, the response is nearly always defensiveness, even stubbornness, and the recipient is actually encouraged not to change in order to resist the perceived attack. Instead of achieving the desired change, criticism and lack of acceptance make behaviours more engrained.

So can we be accepting and still improve? Robert Najemy, author of The Psychology of Happiness: Understanding Our Selves and Others, gives some good examples of this being true in everyday life. He remarks that a first grader is not ashamed to be in the first grade, and is not self-critical for not being in a higher grade. However, nor would he accept remaining in that first grade year after year. Thus, we can naturally progress in life whilst still being happy with our present status. The second example is that of an unfinished painting. There is nothing wrong with seeing our lives as a work in progress, like the unfinished painting, but without being agitated or frustrated that things are not yet done. The message is that we can be accepting and still make things better, and indeed our own natures will force us to do so. This reminds me of a Greg Anderson quote: “I am complete but not finished”.

In addition to being accepting, what else should we be doing? The most important thing is to understand ourselves and others. Understand in a compassionate and accepting way. This is extremely powerful because, by understanding ourselves and others, we are naturally increasing acceptance. After all, everyone is doing their best to be happy, and so sufficient understanding will always generate positive emotions. Furthermore, this understanding encourages improvement. When we can see the cause of a problem, we naturally act in a way that reduces these causes. So we get the best of both worlds: improving ourselves and being more accepting simultaneously.

It also helps to focus on little improvements, one step at a time. When we set modest goals that are quickly achievable, we feel our life getting better. In contrast, a far-off unrealistic goal risks constantly reminding us of our inadequacies. We spend too much time comparing our life as it is to the way that it “should be”. It is important to see life as being good right now. That way, any change or improvement just makes it even better. If we think we need to change because life is bad, then we risk feeling even worse if we fail to change.

The easiest way to judge whether we are doing this right is to ask if our quest for improvement is making us feel better or worse. Are our attempts to improve ourselves and our relationships making us feel happier or unhappier? If we find that our desire to improve is only increasing existing insecurities, magnifying existing problems, and making the present state seem even more unacceptable, then we are doing it wrong. Instead, we need to focus more on accepting ourselves, and on understanding ourselves. When we have done this, we will find that improvements come naturally to us, and that such improvements will only enhance our good feelings.

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