It has always been a paradox for me. Loving and accepting myself as I am AND working toward self-improvement and change.
I’ve spent the better part of the last two decades working on becoming a better version of myself. Even before becoming a mom, I was a self-improvement geek, but once I had those little eyes looking up to me, I knew I had a lot of work to do.
And though I have long been firmly rooted in the growth camp, I must admit I’ve struggled greatly with self-acceptance.
After all, self-acceptance means saying “I’m good enough the way I am,” and if that were true, why would I need to improve? How can I love myself when I’m always trying so hard to be someone else? If I accepted that I was lovable and good as I was, what would be my motivation to change? I was almost afraid to accept myself.
In an odd way, accepting myself felt like admitting defeat. Like I had lost all hope of improvement and this was as good as I was going to get, so I may as well accept it.
And loving myself? Well, how self-absorbed is that? My wounded self couldn’t fathom loving the broken, messy human I saw in the mirror. That felt like saying “Oh, I’m perfect. I’m conceited. I LOVE me!”
Let’s be honest. We aren’t really living in times that make self-acceptance and self-love easy. Our culture gives us plenty of “you suck” messages on the regular. You’re not good enough. You’re not thin enough. You’re not patient enough. You’re not good-looking enough. You’re not perfect. You’re not VIRAL.
Modern marketing is built around you not feeling good enough. That’s how they sell you all the things that will make you whole. And social media? How does your newsfeed stack against the other moms and dads in carline? Do your kids’ outfits match your Goldendoodle's bandana? Is your home spotless? Did you pack your child’s lunch in a bento box, and is the cheese in the shape of a dolphin? No? Then do better! These other parents are doing it!
These days, self-love is a radical act of defiance. But how to get there? I just wasn’t sure. I read a quote that really hit hard from Tara Brach’s book, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, that goes, “Feeling that something is wrong with me is the invisible and toxic gas I am always breathing.” I wanted to stop breathing the toxic gas.
I started thinking … is self-esteem just the price I have to pay for self-improvement? Can I not have both? What about my children? I love and accept them now while also teaching and guiding them toward self-improvement. I even recognized that, for my kids, my unconditional love was something they needed in order to grow. Yet I struggled to grasp this concept for myself.
As usual, my children inspired me to try. After all, if I wanted them to love themselves while they strove to learn and grow, don’t I at least make an effort to do the same? I realized that I needed the same compassion and nurturing that my children needed, and I was deserving of it just as they were.
The desire to do better can exist in and of itself. It doesn’t have to be driven by a dislike or disgust of who you are now. In fact, when you love yourself unconditionally you’re going to do whatever it takes to give yourself what you need and what you deserve.
Balancing Self-Acceptance and Self-Improvement
True self-acceptance is embracing who you are without any qualifications. It’s not just about embracing the good, positive, valuable parts of yourself but also the negative, flawed, less desirable parts. According to therapist Russell Grieger, unconditional self-acceptance is understanding that you are separate from your actions. Although you have made mistakes, as we all do, those mistakes do not define you.
Though it may feel counterintuitive, when you practice unconditional self-acceptance, you can begin to love yourself, and because you have acknowledged and accepted the less desirable parts of yourself, you can work on improving them without sacrificing your self-esteem because you know that this one undesirable quality is not the whole of you.
Here are 3 steps toward self-acceptance:
1. Forgive yourself. Learning to forgive yourself is crucial for self-acceptance. It doesn’t mean that you condone your mistakes or behavior, but that you have acknowledged them and are now freeing yourself to move forward.
2. Cultivate self-compassion. Repeat these steps over a period of several weeks to transform how you treat yourself.
- Notice when you are being self-critical. Note your inner speech. What is the tone of your voice? Does this voice remind you of anyone in your past? Get to know your inner-critic well.
- Soften the self-critical voice with compassion. You might say, “I know you feel worried about me, and you are hurting me.” Then allow your compassionate self to speak.
- Reframe the observations made by your inner critic in a friendly, positive way. That might sound like this: “I’m feeling exhausted and need to rest. I snapped at my child because she made a mess again and now I feel bad. I will go and apologize to her, give her a warm hug, and then I’ll set aside my to-do list and take 30 minutes to read my book. I deserve to be taken care of, too.”
3. Repeat positive affirmations. You may choose to try on some of these.
- I can accept myself whether I win or lose.
- I am worthy of love, flaws, and all.
- I love the person that I am and the person I am becoming.
- I accept and love myself as I am.
I’ll close by posing a question to you. Can you look in the mirror and truly accept the unique, wonderful work-in-progress person staring back at you? My hope is that you can answer “YES!”