The Self-Improvement / Self-Acceptance Paradox

We’re taught that striving for excellence and growth is admirable, yet we must also learn to be content with the present moment. That we need to aspire towards an improved future version of ourselves, whilst recognising the importance of being compassionate towards our present-day self. Do we have to choose, or is it possible to find a balance of both?

This is a million-dollar question; one that’s been bugging me for a while now. There are myriad books explaining how we can improve ourselves in some capacity, and an equal number detailing the importance of personal acceptance and self-care. There aren’t many manuals clarifying how we do both in unison.

I’ve come from a world where a quest for personal improvement is not just expected, it’s demanded. My whole existence, for fifteen years, was focused on progression; a continuous cycle of goal setting and target hitting. Athletes train for hours and hours each week, pouring every last ounce of energy into the pursuit of mastery, never content with their current ability, always searching for ways to go one better. Even after a successful competition, satisfaction is fleeting, before the next cycle of obsessive self-improvement begins. The message we tell ourselves daily is, ‘I’m not there yet, keep pushing’.

Are athletes happy doing this? Not always, but it makes them incredibly effective at attaining their goals. It also makes them incredibly critical of themselves, berating anything other than excellence in the execution of performance.

When I stopped competing, I didn’t lose this drive for continuous improvement, I just didn’t know where to re-focus my energy. I didn’t have a real-world equivalent to my swimming pool, a single place to push myself, both physically and mentally, every day. So, my context had changed, significantly, but the desire for progression remained.

Yet the more ingrained I’ve become into new routines, and the more familiar I’ve become with channelling my energy towards new challenges, the more I’ve had to re-assess what ‘being successful’ in this new life means to me. I’ve started to understand the importance of self-compassion, of accepting that I don’t need to continually yearn for a more successful future version of me. I’ve recognised that being present is often more rewarding than being uncompromisingly future-focused, and that happiness doesn’t need a measurement or ranking in order to be justified.

It isn’t easy. I’m still incredibly ambitious, and with ambition comes a natural yearning for growth and development that sometimes borders on the obsessive. I find myself insatiably curious, wanting to learn about everything and everyone, and I’m rarely satisfied with my current level of skill or ability.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. There won’t be many (good) parents who tell their kids not to bother dreaming big. For most of us, challenging ourselves brings an inherent sense of satisfaction. Psychologist Abraham Maslow brought the term ‘Self-Actualisation’ to prominence over eighty years ago, recognising the instinctual desire to realise one’s potential, so this isn’t a new concept. But where is the line between self-improvement and self-acceptance? Between living in the moment and still seeking a brighter future? Is it possible to have both; seeking a self-upgrade, whilst still being comfortable with who we are right now? The two concepts don’t appear, on paper, to be symbiotic, yet maybe they don’t have to be entirely incompatible. Some things to consider whilst trying to find your balance…

Check your intentions

I don’t think I’ll ever not be competitive, but there’s an important difference between wanting to win because of the inherent satisfaction of pushing yourself and progressing, versus wanting to win because you’re constantly comparing yourself to others and finding you’re coming up short. This desire to ‘prove yourself’ is likely unsustainable and indicates a broader lack of self-esteem.

I don’t always get this part right—sometimes my intentions aren’t self-directed, and I fall into the familiar trap of trying to recreate sporting experiences in the real world, searching for a way to ‘win’ at life in the way I could win a backstroke race. The problem with this is that life isn’t like sport; there isn’t a universal rule book, or a world ranking, or prize for beating the other competitors. In fact, what does ‘beating’ someone else at life even mean? After years of competing in a finite game, it’s been a tough lesson to learn that there is no finish line in most pursuits outside the world of sport.

If your intentions for self-improvement are only motivated by a desire to somehow ‘succeed’ at life, then you’re constantly left wanting, because there isn’t a universally accepted definition of how to win. On the other hand, if your intentions stem from your values—and the inherent belief that challenging yourself is important—then I fully believe that we can be content with our current level of ability, and still strive for improvement from our future selves.

Are you making time for both?

If I look in my diary, the majority of my commitments are geared towards self-improvement. Work, networking opportunities, development or learning sessions always seem to be a higher priority than social occasions, down time or activities done solely for pleasure. It seems most of us rank self-improvement as more of a priority than self-acceptance—I sometimes bargain with myself that if I get certain tasks done then I can ‘treat’ myself with an hour of self-indulgent relaxing later in the day. I even stopped reading for pleasure—now I just read books about how to be better at things, by people who are good at things!

Why do we think like this? Why do we wake up in the morning and, barely conscious, step straight onto the treadmill of life? When was the last time you ranked enjoyment higher than productivity? The problem with this way of thinking is that it’s easy to develop a tendency to ‘live’ in the future, postponing happiness and fulfilment until you reach the next milestone, only to realise that the milestone shifts forward again every time you reach it.

It’s hard to be bored when you’re moving forwards with a task, so we’re taught that boredom is bad—that we should strive to fill every waking hour with productive activity. Yet unproductive (in the most literal sense) time doesn’t have to be unfulfilling—why shouldn’t the objective for certain hours or days be purely to appreciate the here and now?

I’m not saying that measured investment in progression is wrong, but we should be proactively making time for both, and not necessarily seeing one as more important than the other. So, schedule time for learning and investment into the future, and also for being present with no objective other than to enjoy being alive. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t feel just as content to tick ‘lived in the moment’ off our to-do list, as we do when we finish writing a sales pitch or answering a million emails.

The danger of deficiencies

By all accounts I’m fairly good at life. If you have a job, a place to live, a family and some friends, then you probably are too. Yet we live in a world where it’s all too easy to identify our deficiencies, and incredibly easy to forget about the things we’re already doing well. Sometimes I feel sorry for myself because I’ve transitioned out of sport and that can be really hard, until I remember that I’ve been to two Olympic Games, mastered high-level sport and all the competencies it requires, and now I have a multitude of exciting projects to work on in new areas. Despite all that, I’m hard-wired to notice my deficiencies first, so I still fall into the habit of thinking I’m not quite good enough, especially when I see evidence of someone slightly better than me.

If, reading this now, you’re suddenly thinking your life pales into insignificance compared to an Olympic athlete, then STOP—you’ve fallen into the same trap! The blunt truth is that there will always be someone who has gone one better than you in some skill or another, and seeking confirmation of this is a one-way ticket to losing confidence and self-esteem.

Social media, in particular, can be a dangerous place when trying to appreciate your strengths (and not compare them to others), because it force-feeds you the ‘highlight’ reel of everyone else’s lives. I’m currently trying to break the habit of idle scrolling because absorbing endless perfection makes me feel so crappy about my unfiltered reality. Check your intentions with social media—if you’re genuinely engaging with it as a tool then fine, but if (like me) your absent-minded browsing runs the risk of inadvertently knocking your own confidence then it might be time to reconsider.

Yes, recognise that there is always room for improvement, but with the caveat that you first have to be cognisant of how you’re already smashing it. Working from the foundation of your strengths means you can be content with your current situation, whilst still wanting to change for the better.

You’re already enough… (and you can still be more)

Make sure that your quest for improvement doesn’t stem from the belief that you’re currently broken. Modern marketing is based on the suggestion that consumers have some kind of deficiency, then subtly implying how that shortfall can be met (well, that’s my excuse for buying a new iPhone anyway!) We do the same with ourselves—thinking we are somehow deficient and striving to correct that.

In reality, we’re all imperfect (no matter how much evidence to the contrary is posted on Instagram). Everyone has a long list of flaws, and striving for perfection is unrealistic and unattainable. On the flip side, once you accept that imperfection is (and always will be) part of the human condition, you then liberate yourself from the shackles of expectations, free in the knowledge that, whilst improvement may be desirable, it isn’t a requisite for you to be whole.

Maybe the real contradiction here is that the act of fully accepting reality can actually empower you towards change and growth.

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

Carl Rogers

Acceptance doesn’t equal complacency

The thought of complacency terrifies me—I can’t bear the thought of not making the most out of opportunities. But self-acceptance doesn’t have to mean just sitting back and watching life go by without actively investing in the direction.

Self-compassion isn’t the antithesis of ambition—you can have both. You can accept your current position, whilst still being curious about how you can be better.

This is maybe one area in which elite sport doesn’t know all the answers. A fear of complacency can drive performance, but it can also drive obsession. I don’t think there are many athletes who are truly content with the current version of themselves, despite the fact that most of them are living unbelievably impressive lifestyles. I also think that this innate drive to progress can be one of the biggest challenges for athletes when they stop competing—we’re so unfamiliar with stasis that it’s unnerving to be merely present, despite this often being the most enjoyable way to live our lives.

Ultimately, only you can decide what is important to you, and what is worth investing your limited bandwidth of time and energy in. Only you can find the right balance of striving for excellence and enjoying each day as it comes. But remember, if your goal is to climb the mountain, you can still appreciate the view on the way up.

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