My problem with these expressions is that it implies that we view personal growth as a process of dissecting, prodding, or poking ourselves to fit into a vision of how we’d like to be. It implies that there’s a self that we don’t accept — or feel ashamed of. It energizes an inner critic that is constantly watching over us — blaming us when we’ve blown it and ordering us to improve. This vigilant and critical attitude undermines personal growth rather than supports it.
How we conceptualize and pursue personal growth makes a crucial difference between actually growing and clinging to a self-image of someone who’s growing. We’re more empowered to move toward our deeper potential if we hold ourselves with a more gentle, self-accepting attitude.
Embracing Ourselves As We Are
We’re not a chunk of clay that needs to be muscularly molded and shaped. We’re a sensitive human being who needs acceptance and love, including from ourselves. Like a plant that receives ample sunshine and water, we grow when conditions are supportive. Positive change and growth happen as we allow ourselves the nutrients of self-acceptance and gentleness. As psychologist Carl Rogers famously said, “The curious paradox is that when I can accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
What helps us to grow, evolve, and develop is self-awareness. We may be searching for “self-improvement,” but personal growth happens through an active process of self-acceptance. Being eager to work on ourselves may only increase an anxious self-vigilance and blind drivenness, which sabotages our growth. We grow more assuredly as we embrace our human vulnerabilities, which means slowing down, noticing and befriending our genuine feelings, and hearing what they might be trying to tell us. For example, our feelings might prompt us to address a concern in a relationship or make amends when we’ve hurt someone.
Self-acceptance means bringing a kind and gentle presence to the hurt places inside us. Being human means that emotions of fear, hurt, grief, and sadness sometimes arise. We don’t need to work on ourselves when experiencing such emotions — as if something’s wrong with us for having them. We simply need to create a loving, accepting space for them.
The goal — if there is any goal — is not to “work on ourselves” so that human pain no longer touches us and that nothing upsets us. The path forward is to allow ourselves to be just as we are — and allow ourselves to flow more gracefully with our ever-changing human experience. Doing so may lead to more moments of peace as we’re no longer fighting ourselves.
Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach offers a helpful inquiry in her book True Refuge:
“Explore what you are experiencing more closely, calling on your natural interest and curiosity about your inner life. You might ask yourself, ‘What about this most wants my attention’? or, ‘What wants my acceptance?’ Pose your question gently, with your inner voice kind and inviting.”
Being Gentle with Our Limitations
Self-acceptance doesn’t mean becoming blind to our flaws and limits. It includes noticing when we’ve fallen short. Perhaps we’ve violated someone’s dignity through our words or actions. Or, we’ve dishonored our own values through a lapse of integrity. A small dose of healthy shame prompts us to offer an apology or remind us to live with greater sensitivity to others. Our growth then involves learning a lesson or being reminded of something that’s important to us — and then forgiving ourselves and moving forward with greater mindfulness and sensitivity.
Growth involves noticing when we’ve fallen short. The “work” that’s required is that of self-awareness, not self-denigration or some onerous self-discipline that the term “work” implies. Buddhism calls it Right Effort or Skillful Effort, which is simply the effort to be mindful of what is there.
If you’re still fond of the expression, “I’m working on myself,” please consider that the progress you’re hoping for happens more robustly through an attitude of radical self-acceptance. The practice of gently noticing what is there brings more simplicity to our task.
Of course, such simple attentiveness does not come easily! I might even add (with a smile) that it takes a lot of work! But this is the work of inner attention, not self-manipulation. It’s the lifelong task of being more kind and accepting toward ourselves — cultivating self-patience, continually forgiving ourselves when we fall short, and humbly learning lessons as we stumble forward.
We might gradually discover this: what mostly feels like “work” results from cleaning up the messes created by lapses in self-awareness and self-acceptance. As being with ourselves in an accepting way comes with greater ease, it feels less like work and more like a easeful intimacy with ourselves.
Deviant Art image by Trollesque
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