Self-Acceptance vs. Personal Growth

April 16th, 2006 by Steve Pavlina

How do you balance self-acceptance vs. the drive to grow and improve yourself?  On the one hand, it’s a good idea to accept yourself for who you are… faults and all, right?  But on the other hand, isn’t it also a good idea to set goals and aim for something even better than what you already experience now?  How do you resolve this conflict?

Is compromise really the best solution?

I believe most people simply compromise.  They don’t fully accept themselves as they are, but nor are they fully comitted to lifelong growth.  I think that’s a lame solution though.  Why not have both?  Why not fully accept yourself as you are and also be totally committed to lifelong growth?  Can’t you enjoy both?  Is there a way around this apparent conflict?

I often receive feedback, both publicly and privately, that suggests that because I’m so openly committed to personal growth (which should be obvious to anyone who spends more than a few minutes perusing this site), that therefore I must not like and accept who I am right now.  It’s assumed that since I keep pushing myself to grow in new ways that I must be sacrificing the self-acceptance side.

The linear mindset

Why does there seem to be a conflict between self-acceptance and growth anyway?  I think the conflict is actually a result of a particular mindset.  I’ll refer to it as the linear mindset.

The linear mindset says that your life is like a point moving down a line segment.  Your life is a journey through time.  The end points represent your birth and death.  The points behind you are your past.  The points ahead of you are your future.  And your present moment is a little dot on that timeline, slowly inching its way towards your death.

Every point on your life line can also be said to have a certain quality.  You can look at any point on the line and measure your instantaneous state at that point.  On any particular day of your life (past, present, or future), you can pose questions like:  Where do I live?  What’s my job?  What’s my net worth?  Who are my friends?  What’s my relationship status?  How much do I weigh?

Self-acceptance vs. personal growth

Within this paradigm it’s only natural that the conflict between self-acceptance and growth should arise.  Once you start labeling some points of your life as being of “higher” or “lower” quality than others, then you have the means to compare any point to any other.  How does your life today compare with your life five years ago?  Are you richer?  Happier?  Healthier?

Now you have to decide how much you want to push things to improve in quality as you progress through life.  You can accept your current position as adequate and opt to simply maintain it, or you can strive to achieve something greater.  You can also adopt the belief that your life is largely out of your control, in which case your best bet would be to learn to accept whatever outcomes you experience, regardless of how you might rate their level of quality.

The more you accept where you are, the less motivation there is to grow.  And the more you push yourself to grow, the less satisfaction you derive from your current position.  You might end up oscillating back and forth along this spectrum, sometimes being very complacent and other times being very driven.

Limitations of the linear mindset

The linear mindset is very common, especially in the Western world.  We love to measure things and assign them grades and ratings.  Which car is the most fuel-efficient this year?  Is company X more profitable than it was last year?  How fit and healthy am I?

And that mindset certainly has value, especially in business.  I’m not suggesting that it’s an inherently undesirable paradigm.

However, there are areas where this model works, and there are areas where it doesn’t.  And one of those areas where it doesn’t work so well is your self-image.

Trying to apply the linear mindset to your self-image creates the conflict between self-acceptance and growth.  Instead of merely measuring various aspects of your life and noting how they change over time, you identify with them.  I am richer than I was last year.  I am more depressed than I used to be.  I went from being a telemarketer to being a sales manager.

When you identify with the positional aspects of your life, you pull your ego into the picture.  Your sense of self then becomes dependent on your particular position.

If you primarily think about life in terms of hitting new highs, such as better health, greater net worth, or a more anal job title, then what happens when you experience a setback in your position, maybe even a big one like being charged with a felony?

We all experience setbacks.  It’s only a matter of time.  If your self-esteem is based on your position, then you’ll suffer greatly when your position declines.  What would it do to your self-esteem if you lost all your money?  What if you gained 50 lbs?  What if your life mate dumped you?  If you lose your position, will you lose your sense of self?

Even more problematic than a real loss is worrying about the possibility of a loss in advance.  You may hold yourself back because you fear becoming too dependent on a certain position.  If you stay low, you don’t have far to fall when things go bad.  Gaining a few pounds over the holidays isn’t as painful when you’re already 50 lbs overweight.  Going broke isn’t so terrible when you only have $1000 to your name vs. if you’re a multi-millionaire.  And how much worse can your relationship situation get if it’s already lousy (or nonexistent)?

Perhaps by setting up camp in mediocre land and staying far away from super-achiever, you’re protecting your ego from inevitable setbacks.  You know that even the most successful people in the world experience setbacks, so why would you risk subjecting yourself to such dramatic highs and lows?  What goes up must come down, right?

The underlying problem is that by rooting your sense of self in something that will fluctuate, like the current position of any measurable part of your life, you’re going to suffer in one way or another.  Either you’ll push yourself to achieve, achieve, achieve, and then suffer emotionally when things take a turn for the worse, or you’ll become attached to outcomes to an unhealthy degree, such that you may sacrifice your ethics to maintain your position.  Or you’ll settle for much less than you’re capable of achieving and probably give yourself regular beatings for being too lazy and for over-procrastinating – you’ll always be haunted by the knowledge that you could be doing better.  Or lastly you may decide to withdraw from society in order to escape/transcend this whole punishing process; but still your contribution is far below your potential.

Beyond the linear mindset

This whole situation is basically win-lose, isn’t it?  You have to compromise somewhere.  You can’t play the positional growth game full out and still accept and enjoy every moment along the way, right?

Or can you?

Let me suggest an alternative paradigm.

Instead of rooting your sense of self in your position, which is changeable, what would happen if you rooted your sense of self in something permanent and unchangeable?  Stop identifying yourself with any form of positional status, and pick something invulnerable instead… like a pure concept that nothing in this world can touch.  Examples include unconditional love, service to humanity, faith in a higher power, compassion, nonviolence, and so on.

I’m certainly not the first person to suggest something like this.  Stephen Covey wrote about this in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  He refers to it as true north.

When you root yourself in unchangeable “true north” principles, you may still measure the various metrics of your life and notice how they change over time, but you won’t make them part of your identity.  Hence, you keep your self-esteem separate from your particular circumstances.

This isn’t easy to do.  Covey himself has admitted how difficult it is for him personally.  But you don’t have to be perfect to get results from this paradigm.  Even a small move in this direction will reduce the conflict between self-acceptance and growth.  Essentially you’ll gain the best of both worlds. 

Separating position from identity

By rooting yourself in the permanent, your position detaches from your identity.  This makes it possible to unconditionally accept yourself as you are while still courageously playing the positional growth game, regardless of the outcome.  Self-acceptance and growth are no longer in conflict because now they don’t apply to the same thing.  You’ve separated your identity (self-acceptance) from your position (growth).

Covey’s true north principles are based on effectiveness.  Mine are based on fulfillment, so they’re slightly different, but there’s certainly a lot of overlap between them.  For example, one of my principles is service to the highest good of all.  This is close to Covey’s principle of thinking win-win.  Either version of this principle is independent of position.  You can be homeless and forgotten, or you can be rich and famous, and you can still do your best to serve the highest good of all and to think win-win.  These principles do not depend on circumstances; circumstances only affect the manner in which you’d apply them.

Detaching ego from outcomes

If I were to look at a snapshot of my life right now, I’d rate it as excellent in terms of its positional (i.e. growth-related) aspects.  Last week three of my articles were featured on the popular list on del.icio.us (one of them in the #1 spot), two were picked up by reddit, two got digg‘d, one got fark‘d, one got furl‘d, and one got spurl‘d.  I received 320,000 visitors and 664,000 page views that week, and I topped my one-day Adsense record too ($330.69 on April 12).  On Thursday I did a magazine interview, on Friday I did a nationally syndicated radio interview, and on Saturday I joined the Las Vegas National Speakers Association and went to my first meeting (Lou Heckler was the guest speaker).  Later today my family and I will enjoy an Easter picnic in the park with some friends, and I’ll spend the rest of the day having fun and relaxing.  Positionally everything is wonderful.  Lots of higher highs.

But if I let my self-esteem and my identity get too wrapped up in these external outcomes, I’ll be setting myself up for ultimate failure.  When the pendulum swings the other way, and of course it eventually will, I’ll get frustrated with my less than stellar performance.  And from there it’s a slippery slope into the realm of ego-driven attachment to outcomes.  What will happen when my traffic or income takes a nosedive at some point?  I’ll either resist accepting my present situation, or I’ll withdraw into a shell and settle for mediocrity for a while, or I’ll put on a fake front and pull an Enron.  None of those are good solutions.

The solution is upstream… to keep identity and position as separate as possible.  I find that a couple practices help a lot with this:  journaling and meditation.  I’ve been doing both for many years, and these practices help me keep my internal compass aligned with true north principles that aren’t going to change within my lifetime.  I keep my sense of self rooted in permanent concepts like service, awareness, and peace.  Those concepts don’t change, so my deepest sense of self remains fairly fixed.  That makes it easier to fully accept who I am in every moment.  But on the positional side, I’m still able to enjoy the pursuit of positional growth and play full out without settling for underachievement.

If I stray from these practices for too long (more than a few weeks), I gradually fall out of alignment with true north.  I eventually get sucked back into the prevailing social climate that loves to identify people with their positions.  For example, while I was doing my polyphasic sleep experiment, some people started identifying me with polyphasic sleep.  And that’s OK until they start becoming too attached to that person-position pairing.  Positions are always temporary, so it’s best not to become overly attached to them… whether in yourself or others.  It would have been problematic if I fell into the trap of letting my ego become overly attached to my position as a polyphasic sleeper.  The ego resists positional changes it perceives as negative — it doesn’t like to be wrong.  So I might have clung to polyphasic sleep even when it didn’t serve me as well as monophasic sleep.

Have you fallen into any person-position pairing in your own life?  Do you derive your sense of self from things that are changeable and vulnerable, such as your income, your job title, your relationships, or any other form of status?  How much energy are you investing in defending those positions out of fear?

When you loosen your attachment to positions, you don’t have to defend them.  I disliked when people started giving me labels like “the internet king of polyphasic sleep” (not my words)… because if you’re a king, then you’ve got a kingdom to defend.  People like to attack kings simply because of their position as kings.  I’d rather not be perceived as a king of anything positional, since I don’t want to spend my time defending temporary positions that are eventually going to crumble anyway.  Trying to defend your position as if it were the real you is a losing battle.  None of the positional aspects of your life are going to endure, so it’s best not to become too attached to them.  Enjoy them while they last, but don’t seek your self in them.

When you root your self in something permanent, then your sense of self is effectively untouchable.  Your position can be attacked, and you can still defend it if you like, but you won’t feel irrationally compelled to defend it out of fear.  You won’t feel you’re being personally attacked when your position becomes vulnerable.

Enjoying inner peace

What I’m really getting at here is inner peace.  When you keep your sense of self away from third-dimensional positions, your position can rollercoaster all over the place, and you can still be at peace on the inside no matter what happens.  You don’t have to withdraw and be totally passive.  You can enjoy being an ambitious overachiever and set and achieve goals like a maniac — and have a great time doing it.  But meanwhile you don’t seek your identity in those fluctuating outcomes.

If you find yourself succumbing to the ego-position trap, add some practices to your life like meditation, journaling, time with kids, time in nature, and so on.  This will help you reconnect with what’s most sacred to you (your own version of true north principles) and keep your identity separate from your position.  Then you can experience drive without attachment, ambition without ego, and peace without passivity.  :)



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