The Paradox of Self-Acceptance vs. Self-Improvement

Written by on May 3, 2015 in Accountability, Breaking Barriers

self-acceptance vs. personal growthThere is an interesting irony about the way we tend to go about our efforts to improve ourselves. Rather than growing from a place of acceptance, we believe that we will only be worthy of approval and validation once we actually achieve the “improvements” we seek. Sadly, for many of us this turns out to be a journey that spans a lifetime.

Outside of issues of low self-esteem or self-worth, the main stumbling block to embracing self-acceptance seems to be the lingering perception that to approve of the person that you are now is a form of compromise, or worse, resignation. This naturally leads to the misguided assumption that it isn’t possible to accept yourself and at the same time be motivated to achieve your dreams and goals.

Once we adopt this mindset, the perpetual waiting for approval becomes a vicious cycle as there will always be one more thing about yourself you need to fix, one more change or goal to achieve before you can be free to feel good about yourself.

Motivation Through Rejection?

The paradox of self-acceptance vs. self-improvement is that when you accept who and what you are now you free yourself to grow and create meaningful change to your life in an authentic way while to resist feeling good about who you are until you have achieved all of the improvements you seek is actually a form of rejection.

We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves. ~Dalai Lama XIV

Whether we are aware of it or not, many of us rely on self-criticism as our principal motivational strategy. We assume that self-criticism will somehow safeguard against laziness, mistakes and complacency; that it will keep us in line and ensure we achieve our goals.

Imagine if you were to repeatedly tell your child they are not smart enough, not trying hard enough, not attractive enough or that no matter what they accomplish it will never be quite good enough. I think it’s safe to assume they would feel rejected, disempowered and unloved, and the same thing happens internally to a self-critic. You may keep telling yourself that self-criticism will motivate you, but when you choose to ignore all of your unique and wonderful bits and pieces, choosing instead to focus only on your weaknesses, it not only fosters low self-worth, it is rejecting a vitally important aspect of who you are. So then how can one enjoy genuine self-acceptance and remain motivated to continue growing?

There’s no amount of self-improvement that can make up for a lack of self-acceptance. ~Robert Holden

You Are a Work in Progress

Let’s start by revisiting the definition of self-acceptance, which is to fully embrace who you are in the present. Acceptance is not about perfection, it’s honoring the lessons you’ve learned and all that you’ve accomplished up to now, at the same time recognizing that you’ve done the best you can with the knowledge and tools you’ve had to work with. On the other hand, self-improvement is about the future that you intend to create for yourself.

You see it isn’t a matter of either you accept yourself or you continue growing, you can feel good about who you are today with the knowledge that this is not the “final product,” that you will continue growing and striving to create an even better version of you in the future.

If you can embrace this concept of self-acceptance there is very little the world can throw at you that you won’t be able to handle and take in stride. Accept change and unexpected detours. Accept frustration and the occasional stumble. Accept love and joy. Accept your desire for better things. Most of all accept that the process of becoming the person you were meant to be is every bit as important as what you will eventually accomplish.

Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.
About Marquita Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living  click here.


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  1. It’s so true that you have to learn to accept yourself, warts and all. We need to look at our perceived imperfections and so-called flaws as just part of who we are. Sometimes, we’re better off for it. Would Barbra Streisand have been as successful if she’d changed her nose – or her name?!!
    Krystyna Lagowski recently posted…Shredding stereotypes in the middle east and beyondMy Profile

  2. Jason B

    I definitely believe that self acceptance is something everyone should shoot for. It’s easier for some people to get it though.
    Jason B recently posted…Why You Should Consider Drying Out From Time to Time?My Profile

  3. Tim

    As you say Marquita, self acceptance is a work in progress and what a perfect way to live. Always waking up to the challenge of the new day. You can certainly go about the business of improving but accepting must come first. I really liked this post and is very relate-able for me.
    Tim recently posted…It’s Just Not FairMy Profile

  4. Jeri

    I am working really hard on this right now. People in real-life get to hear about about my spousal abandonment story. I see no reason to squelch the narratives that compose the fabric of my life. Self-acceptance is a trying task, but one I’ve made a priority my entire life.
    Jeri recently posted…#AmWriting: The Five Ws and One H of the Writing ProcessMy Profile

  5. Lenie

    Hi Marquita, I really enjoyed this series. It is so true that we need to accept who we are today but realize we are not the finished product. There is so much more to learn which can only make us better. I love this quote:
    There’s no amount of self-improvement that can make up for a lack of self-acceptance. ~Robert Holden
    The lack of self-acceptance can lead to a lot of unhappiness though if people think this is as good as it gets.
    Lenie recently posted…Lavender: Health Benefits and UsesMy Profile

  6. Self acceptance is so important. Sometimes i am my harshest critic that i forget to value myself enough. I am doing my best, everydayday i keep getting better. Thanks for this post x

  7. Mark

    Wow M!

    Where do I begin! Seriously! You have so hit this one out of the park! Again, I might add!LOL!

    First of all, thank you so much for clarifying that extremely subtle difference between “self acceptance and self improvement!”

    I definitely needed to get that straight!

    Because the much needed journey to “self acceptance” just seems to open the door of current and long term possibilities, so much wider!

    And helps lift a tremendous and down right destructive emotional burden off our shoulders!

    Thanks so much! And I definitely agree with “Pique Dan’s”‘ earlier comment.

    Your totally excellent written post, has given me some much needed clarity! Thanks!
    Mark recently posted…So What Do Cab Drivers, College Students And Your Diner Have To Do With Increasing Retail Sales?Part TwoMy Profile

  8. Susan Cooper

    “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves,” is one of my favorite quotes. Why is it so hard for many of us to accept and appreciate who we are as a person. I think it because there are so many who are so willing to point out our flaws. It’s up to us to not to let that happen.
    Susan Cooper recently posted…I Fear, I See, I Am: #MusingMy Profile

  9. Patricia Weber

    Marquita, I think this is my favorite quote in your post: “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.” Dalai Lama XIV.

    Many of my introverts are stuck in the lack of this and loving their strengths. I so get the message and like to think, in general although not always, I am self-accepting. When I start with my criticism is if I act out of haste and do or say something I regret later. Like in times of anger.
    Patricia Weber recently posted…What Introvert Assets Are Like Your Femur Bones?My Profile

    • Your point about self criticism peaking during times of stress is well taken, and I think that goes for most people. Glad you enjoyed the article, and thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts – always appreciated!

  10. Dave

    This entire series has reminded me about the importance of embracing right now – not the past, not the future – but, right now.

    Your statement about it not needing to be an either/or proposition was empowering, thank you.

    We can accept who we are today, understanding that it is not the final product, while continuing to reach for new goals and ambitions out on the horizon.

    Great article, and great series Marty – I’m already looking forward to what you come up with next 😉
    Dave recently posted…Shifting gearsMy Profile

    • Glad you enjoyed the series Dave and I believe the point about the importance of accepting who we are today is not the final product pretty much sums it up. Always appreciate your contribution to the conversation. 🙂

  11. Donna Janke

    I really connected with all the things said here about self-acceptance. Why do we rely so much on self-criticism? The quote from Dalai Lama is great.
    Donna Janke recently posted…Culture Shock: A Book ReviewMy Profile

    • Great question Donna with a very complicated answer! For some it stems from leftover issues of childhood. For example I can tell you from personal experience that for people who were on the receiving end of bullying when they were children the notion that they are sub-standard becomes part of their DNA and even when they grow to adults and know better, there will always be something in them that wants to prove they are worthy. For others it’s a way of coping with failure or the myriad of limiting internal beliefs that they’ve built up over a lifetime, for a surprising number it’s a sugar-coated version of judgment and self-hate. Ultimately, it all comes down to self-awareness because the world is full of walking-wounded who are unaware, and the truth is most would really prefer to keep it that way. Thanks so much for contributing to the conversation!

  12. sherill says:

    Hi, This such a very important topic to learn and understand. Self acceptance is really important for us to move forward and achieve whatever goals we wish to have. Thanks for sharing. Great post!
    sherill recently posted…Speaking at Hay House I Can Do It Denver Conference – A Dream Come TrueMy Profile

  13. Erica says:

    I can’t imagine that there are many people who get the desire motivation from criticizing themselves. I get how people think that can be effective, but I imagine, for most, self-criticism is a real blow to self-confidence.

    I remember I had a friend as kid whose mother was really hard on her. She was a great student and accomplished in other ways, but it was never enough. I think her mother was hard on her because she knew how capable her daughter was. She wanted her daughter to strive to be her best. Yet I think we start to suffer in life when we imagine that perfection is the only answer.
    Erica recently posted…Are You A Change-Resister?My Profile

    • Actually, you’d be sadly wrong about how many people use self-criticism to motivate themselves. Think of all of the internal limiting beliefs people carry around such as their issues with body image, self-confidence, etc. A trillion dollar self-help industry has been spawned from all of the people who deal with issues connected with self-criticism each and every day. The real problem is that many people live in denial because they never bother to become self aware enough to recognize the dysfunctional stories they are living with. Thanks so much for taking the time to contribute to the conversation!

  14. Beth Niebuhr

    Yes, it certainly is important to recognize the difference between self-acceptance and self-improvement. It is such a good thing when someone can reach self-acceptance because then the road to self-improvement is so much easier to travel. Good post.
    Beth Niebuhr recently posted…Use Social Media to Boost Your BusinessMy Profile

  15. Donna Merrill

    Hi Marquita,

    It is so true. It all starts with self acceptance in order to start to delve into self improvement. It is like Point A. We must first learn how to accept ourselves. There will always be that little voice in our heads that tell us negative things. I like the way you related that to a child. We would never tell our children you can’t, you’re stupid, etc. That breaks down their spirit.

    In the past, we ourselves may have experienced this type of words from family, teachers, or peers when we were young, or worse, even now.

    I strongly believe we must rise above that. In order to do so we have to be able to accept who we are. Know we are not one is. But acknowledge our values and what we are good at to share with others.

    Sure, we have, and will stumble, but we do need to learn from that.

    Such an inspiring piece!

    Donna Merrill recently posted…Best 3 Ways To Brand YourselfMy Profile

    • You know that reference to the way in which we might communicate with a child has to do with Dr. Leo Buscaglia’s work on inner child which was so influential to me working through issues having to do with being an ADOCA when I was in my early 20’s. Thanks so much for taking the time to contribute to the conversation Donna, always value your thoughtful insights!

  16. Pique Dan

    Found this article in the right time.I have been improving myself for a very long time and while doing that, I came across “You have to accept yourself ideas .”I was confused for some time. This post gave me a clear difference between self acceptance and improvement.
    Pique Dan recently posted…How To Be Safe During An EarthquakeMy Profile

    • Welcome Pique and thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts! I’m so happy my article was of value to you and hope that you’ll take some time to check out a few of the other articles here at ERL.

  17. Meredith

    This is such an important distinction! There’s always room for self-improvement, but it makes sense that it will work better if it grows out of a foundation of acceptance. Really great point, and I love that Robert Holden quote!
    Meredith recently posted…Why I Want My Children to Fail…SometimesMy Profile

  18. Self acceptance is so important. We will never be perfect but we can continue to improve on ourselves without being self critical.

    I have struggled with accepting myself; pushing to be a ‘better’ person and rejecting myself when I failed. It was a miserable existence.

    As Joyce Meyer says
    “I am not where I want to be but I am not where I used to be”.
    Phoenicia Oyeniyi recently posted…Declutter your wardrobeMy Profile

    • I love that quote by Joyce Meyer and I’m a long-time fan of hers. You know I walked into a Starbucks here in Maui awhile back and (physically) ran into her, what a charming woman and love her sense of humor.

  19. This is a very succinct differential between self-acceptance and self-improvement. I love the way you stated it. ” …you can feel good about who you are today with the knowledge that this is not the “final product,” that you will continue growing and striving to create an even better version of you in the future.” I like to think that I am always a work in progress, but I’m proud of who I’ve become. Nicely done!
    Jacqueline Gum recently posted…Disclaimers… Where’s The Justice?My Profile

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