Self-help is a multi-billion dollar industry. In 2016, it was worth $9.9bn in the US alone. By next year, it’s expected to increase to $13.2bn.
Across the world, it’s a similar story – more and more people are spending their money on personal development, with millennials driving the industry’s growth.
This is largely because of the internet. Social media platforms have provided us with a million different profiles to compare and contrast our lives to – and a million different reasons to feel inadequate as a result.
For some, self-improvement promises to fill this sense of inadequacy. If we don’t feel good enough right now, it’s because we haven’t yet ‘earned’ that right. Once we get fit, or once we’ve ‘made it’ financially, then we’ll feel secure.
The irony is that we won’t ever truly accept ourselves if our acceptance is conditional.
True self-acceptance is being able to embrace all aspects of ourselves – our strengths AND our weaknesses. If we approach self-improvement as a means to acceptance, we end up continuously reinforcing the idea that we ‘need’ to improve and, paradoxically, we become less accepting.
Instead, we ought to treat the two as separate journeys. The more we practice accepting ourselves for who we are in this moment, the better we get at it. From there, any change we pursue becomes a matter of personal preference rather than a requirement to feel good about ourselves.
Practically speaking, this means being less critical and more understanding. It requires that we develop greater self-compassion and treat ourselves like we would a close friend. Further, if we recognise it as an ongoing practice – rather than an on-off switch – it becomes easier to accept those days where we struggle. It’s normal, at times, to feel unsatisfied.
Feeling the need to improve can often stem from thoughts of comparison. We form standards and expectations for ourselves based on the way we see ourselves in relation to others. Online especially, we’re constantly reminded of where we fall short – where we ‘need’ to improve.
On the one hand, this comparison can motivate us to take action – it has its upsides. But it can also be disheartening if we take everything we see at face value. Comparing the worst of ourselves to the best of others is a recipe for disappointment and unrealistic expectations.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what other people are up to. Online, you’ll always find someone ‘better’ than you in any given area. The more you can stop comparing yourself to others, the less critically you judge yourself. This doesn’t mean ignoring your faults or shortcomings – just understanding them.
Instead of comparing yourself to other people, compare who you are today to who you were yesterday. It’s a much better metric.
We are each the sum of our past experiences. Who we are today – in this case, what we think and how we behave – is largely a result of who we were yesterday, and all the days that came beforehand.
A big part of self-acceptance comes from realising that you can’t change the past experiences that gradually went on to forge your character. And whilst there may be areas in your life which you think are important to improve or expand upon, it’s equally important to recognise that you’re starting from your own unique place.
With that, you can drop any expectations surrounding, say, the rate or ease at which you are to improve in a given area. Your current behaviour doesn’t have to match how you’d ideally like it to be. Rather, you can trace back through your life and understand that where you are today is a result of where you’ve been in the past, and the sum of all the choices you’ve previously made.
Understanding the past helps you to better plan for your future. Moving forward, you can still set your sights high, but you can also allow for being human and set more realistic expectations for yourself based on what you’ve already learnt.
It’s in our nature as humans to be dissatisfied and to want more. There are always going to be aspects of ourselves that we would like to improve and ‘accepting ourselves’ doesn’t mean deluding ourselves out of this. Acceptance ≠ complacency. It just means we come to terms with and (ideally) learn to enjoy where we’re at.
The problem with using self-improvement as a means to self-acceptance is that it reinforces the narrative of “I’ll be happy when x”. The more you approach your life in this way, the more you pattern your mind to think in this way – the more likely it is that, in the future, you’re still thinking in this way. We’re just creatures of habit, after all.
Instead, like the Stoic sage, we ought to treat the ‘best version of ourselves’ as simply a north star; a point of reference to help in guiding our present decisions rather than an end point we must reach.
It’s fine if we haven’t arrived there yet because we never will. This space for improvement gives us meaning and purpose; a direction to move in. Rather than worrying about the distance we have to travel, or how quickly we’re moving, we can simply turn our attention to the next step.
Granted, this is easier said than done, but so is anything worth pursuing. It’s important that we continuously bring ourselves back to this idea, whenever we revert back to our old thought loops. By focusing on the next step, we stop needlessly wasting energy and, in turn, we have more to direct towards the things that we actually can control.
Since our lives will likely be more psychologically rewarding if we feel accepting of who we are, it’s better that we plant and tend to that seed sooner rather than later.
In the end, greater self-acceptance means less time dwelling on negative emotions – more time feeling good about ourselves.
When you’re feeling good, you want to do more. Self-improvement then no longer becomes a wrestling match to prove yourself over and over. Instead, you can approach it more rationally and from a genuine place of inspiration.
Further, self-acceptance isn’t something that some are born with and others aren’t. To better accept ourselves, it requires that we first set out with that intention and then, like anything else, we put in the reps (i.e. reworking negative thought loops into more empowering alternatives).
Along the way, mistakes shouldn’t be seen as personally defining but rather as an unavoidable reality. By being more compassionate to yourself in this way, you don’t eat away at your confidence or sense of self.
Finally, by becoming more accepting of yourself, you become more accepting of others around you. You realise everyone else is also just a result of their past experiences and wanting them to be different is a pointless exercise; essentially, wishing they had a different past.