Self-Acceptance vs. Self-Improvement

If you tried to follow every piece of meme-based “wisdom” on Facebook, you’d soon find yourself in an utter dither about what to do with yourself. “Out of sight, out of mind” wars with “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” “Continuous improvement” dukes it out in your head with “Be kind to yourself and accept yourself as you are.” I’ll take some time today to untangle that second knot. Your approach could vary, but then that’s part of reality, isn’t it?

The physical battle

One of the biggest disconnects the American culture faces is the one between fitness what’s now called “body acceptance.” On one side we have the health-and-fitness gurus who transform themselves from 300-pound blobs or 98-pound weaklings into 180-pound Charles Atlases that go on to run marathons at age 60. And there’s no doubt that we’re facing an obesity epidemic in the U.S., with related health problems accompanying it. So, yes: there are people (including somewhat-blobby me) for whom improving their body should be–if not a priority–something to address.

On the flip side of the need for good health is the very real social problem of discrimination or just plain meanness society inflicts on people who are overweight. The current term for it is “body shaming,” and it affects everyone from pre-teen girls to 30-year-old superstars to 50-year-old office workers. Human beings can be nasty sometimes, and that nastiness can result in depression and social isolation for the victims of the nastiness. Depression can make things worse, resulting in things like binge-eating to feel better while packing on the carbs and making the original problem worse.

I split the difference on this one: I don’t want to be Charles Atlas, Jim Fixx, or Arnold Schwarzenegger. On the other hand, I’m vain enough to not want to have to buy clothing above a certain size. That means I have to make some efforts at improving my health, including monitoring my diet, exercise, sleep, and stress behaviors. However, once I reach the weight my doctor and I can live with, I need to let it go. I can’t stop the lifestyle changes–those are, in fact, necessary lifetime changes–but I can’t beat myself up over the fact that I’m unlikely to be chosen to be Harrison Ford’s stunt double any time this side of the grave. I am who I am, sayeth Sir Popeye the Sailor, and it’s worth remembering.

The professional battle

The battle here is similar in that as long as we’re in our productive adult years, we should make some effort to improve our skills and income potential. The most obvious method for that is “moving up the ladder.” I was about 25 when I realized that I did not want to do that. Maybe younger. I don’t want to be a manager because I don’t want authority over others. I want to be responsible for myself and what I do. However, I have made efforts to pursue continually more challenging individual-contributor jobs. I try not to repeat myself or go back to jobs I’ve held previously. Eventually I went freelance and now will struggle to keep myself in that position as long as it pays the bills. Eventually I’d like to write fiction well, but that’s a long-term need. What does your professional improvement path look like?

Related to this continuous-improvement battle is the one we can fight with ourselves over how much money or “stuff” we think we need. I reached a certain level of comfort for myself and realized that I really didn’t need much more than that: two-bedroom abode with one bedroom serving as an office/guest room, a working car, a well-stocked library, enough money to pay the utilities, groceries, and occasional vacations as well as some money set aside so that (theoretically) I can retire at some point. I have no significant other, spouse, or kids, and I’m cool with all that, so the lifestyle I achieved around age 35 seemed like a good point at which to stop the social-climbing race. I haven’t had a grand desire for real estate, fast cars, gambling, extravagant vacations, or exceptionally expensive clothing.

I managed to match my income to my needs, and so live happily. If I wanted a more exciting, socially mobile, or high-priced lifestyle, I’d have to push myself to take jobs that require more work but make more money. In my mind, it makes sense to have a real sense of what you want out of life and make sure you’re doing the things to achieve or acquire them. If your desires and income are mismatched, you might need to change your circumstances to match your inner and outer worlds.

The mental battle

Internal self-acceptance can be even harder than physical or professional acceptance. Again, we’re supposed to keep learning and improving personally. That improvement can encompass things like learning new skills, ceasing unproductive or unhealthy behaviors, and ensuring that our personal behavior among other people improves (or doesn’t get so bad) so that we don’t end up alone in our old age. And the self-improvement gurus out there can practically print money because, as they say, nobody’s perfect, so there’s always room for improvement. There aren’t a lot of books out there teaching us how to be worse human beings–some of us manage to learn that without any guidance whatsoever.

So what does self-acceptance look like when we know that we can wake up angry, nasty, unhappy, moody, malicious, unmotivated, or just plain ornery? Here’s where I came from, and I offer it as one middle-class American’s opinion, for whatever it’s worth.

If you’re starting from a very dark place in your life when you’re wrestling with these problems of improvement and acceptance, start with the fact that you are here for some purpose and to accept that if you’re still alive, you must have something constructive you can still do with yourself and your life. Honestly, I don’t care where you derive that belief–from a personal God, another “higher power,” or existential philosophy. You’re here, so you might as well accept that and move forward from there.

From there, take inventory of your assets and attributes: what are your possessions, what are your finer points? Are you at a point where you realize you’re broke and not a very nice person? Well, it takes some honesty and humility to admit both, so there’s a starting point–it’s something to build on. (Or, if my questions amused you because you’re in a serious mess, you’ve got your sense of humor still, don’t you?) Take a look around you: what do you care about–if not inside yourself (depressed people can be painfully hard on themselves, I know) then outside yourself. What one thing outside yourself do you consider good, valuable, and worth preserving? What can you do about it? Do that. There: you’ve now got a purpose in life. That’ll be $150. (Kidding.)

On a more practical, less philosophical level, self-acceptance inside yourself means knowing your virtues and faults, working daily to make your virtues shine, to minimize expression of your faults, and to not beat yourself up if you fail at one or the other task. There have been very few “perfect” people to live on this Earth. The fact that perfect, near-perfect, or even kind people exist at all should be enough to give us some hope. And even those good people have bad days.

Inverting Descartes a bit, I’ll close with the Bartish approach to life: I am, therefore I’ll try to do good. Notice the “try” in there. I’ve accepted that I’m not always going to succeed, but I keep trying. Now get out there and try to be good to yourself. Someone has to.

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