Self-Improvement or Self-Acceptance?

I’ve been in the “improve” camp my whole life. I love change. Look at my Medium profile, I’m a self-development geek. I’m constantly doing experiments to make myself a better person.

I want to be better, smarter, happier. I aim to be more personable, more passionate, more productive. I try to be a better brother, friend, person.

If you are reading this post, I bet you have a similar mentality.

Self-Improvement — “Stand out. Put your best foot forward. Be your best self. Fake it until you make it”

Self-Acceptance — “You are enough. Be yourself. Love yourself.”

On the other hand, there is an unmistakable desire to accept myself the way I am. Since I’m always trying to change, I sometimes lose a sense of my core identity. It is hard to love myself when I’m always trying to be another person.

While the cost of self-improvement is self-esteem, the cost of acceptance is arguably worse — latency and loss of personal agency.

How to strive for change AND be content?

I’ve been mulling over this paradox for years. I’ve finally intellectualized a work-in-process answer: Radical Acceptance.

What is Radical Acceptance?

I was introduced to the term “Radical Acceptance” by a psychiatrist giving some students advice about wellness.

Radical Acceptance was developed by a therapist, Dr. Marsha Linehan, originally intended to help individuals with borderline personality disorder have more adaptive thoughts.

Radical Acceptance rests on letting go the illusion of control and a willingness to notice and accept things as they are right now, without judging. — Dr. Marsha Linehan

Later, the Buddhist psychologist Dr. Tara Brock, popularized the term in her book “Radical Acceptance,” where she applies these ideas to accepting ourselves.

Radical Acceptance is the willingness to experience ourselves and our lives as it is. — Dr. Tara Brock

Radical Acceptance has three main components 1) Seeing reality, 2) Accepting reality, and 3) Moving forward.

When I first heard of Radical Acceptance, I immediately rejected the idea. After all, I love the idea of improvement and change. I hate passivity. Why would I want to accept anything in the world when everything has room for improvement.

But, I recently had an epiphany: Radical Acceptance is the first step to change.

Radical Acceptance and Tetris

Let’s say you are playing Tetris. Tetris is a game you have to stay in the moment to really enjoy, but sometimes the Tetris gods are just constantly against you and giving you the wrong pieces.

Joe is an average person. Joeyells at the Tetris Gods for giving him another shitty piece. If he doesn’t yell aloud, he at the very least complains in his head about the shitty situation. While he is thinking about what would have happened if he got the “right” piece, he loses track and mistakenly places the squiggly piece in the worst position.

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On the other side, Accepting Albert is very, well, accepting. He is passive. He sees the next piece and doesn’t complain. He simply lets the piece drop right down the middle of the screen. Obviously, not an optimal position.

Radical Acceptance Rachael embraces the ideas of Radical Acceptance. She realizes the squiggly piece is not the best piece she could have received but nevertheless accepts the piece.

Because Rachael was able to accept the reality of the situation sooner, she was able to place the piece in the best position possible.

  1. Seeing reality→ There is a blue squiggly shape in front of me
  2. Accepting reality → The blue squiggly shape doesn’t fit on my board well.
  3. Moving forward → I will put this piece in the best place possible anyways.

Once the piece falling down the screen, the piece cannot be changed. . Instead of getting mad at the Tetris gods (like Joe) or passively accepting the situation (like Albert), focus on placing the piece in the best place (like Rachael)

Radical Acceptance facilitates change because the sooner you unconditionally accept the situation for what it is, the sooner you can make a decision about the best place to put the piece.

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Radically Accepting Ourselves

Now let’s apply Radical Acceptance to a more realistic scenario. Let’s say Average Joe, Accepting Albert, and Radical Acceptance Rachael all want to become more confident people.

Average Joe is constantly trying to change himself and the world. He hates that he is not as confident as the people he sees on television. His mind is always chattering: “If you were confident you could have asked out that girl or aced that job interview.” Each time he isn’t able to be as outwardly confident as he wants to, he berates himself.

Accepting Albert is apathetic. He is static. Deep down, he knows deep down a little boost in confidence could help him, but he never acknoledges the reality. He is afraid of trying because he is afraid he will fail. This leads him to be passive and accepting.

Radical Acceptance Rachael is aware she is not the most confident person in the world. She doesn’t criticize herself. She realizes that her lack of a self-confidence is due to a long string of events influenced by her previous experiences and upbringing. She realizes she can’t change these previous events at this point in her life (unless she builds a time machine). Because she is accepting of the cards that she has been dealt, she is able to 1) see reality clearly and 2) move forward with the goal of improving her confidence in the future (something she does have control over).

Radical Acceptance is empowering. By completely accepting reality and letting go of the desire to change reality, one feels empowered to change and improve their situation.

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” — Carl Rogers

By trying so hard to change himself, paradoxically, Joe gets less confident. By radically accepting herself, paradoxically, Rachael is able to become more confident.

It is important to note here is a slight, but important, distinction between acceptance and approval. Accepting Albert both accepts and approves. Rachael accepts but does not approve of it. After she accepts the present truth, she strives for future change.

The difference between Joe, Albert, and Rachael is nothing but a slight shift in mentality and thought patterns.

How can we practice Radical Acceptance?

Substitute “confident” with any other adjective: I want to be better/funnier/stronger.

Substitute “shitty Tetris piece” for any other situation: “I was expecting ____ instead. I never wanted ____. But I wished that ____.”

The best response to any situation is Radical Acceptance. Here is how to start implementing Radical Acceptance in three steps:

Step 1: Seeing reality

What is the current situation? Are you seeing it clearly and honestly? Are you denying anything?

Step 2: Accepting reality

Take a step towards the truth instead of away from it. Does this situation bring up any emotions? Let it simmer inside of you for a moment. Sometimes letting the feelings sit with you for a moment will make you realize you don’t want to change anything.

Step 3: Moving forward

Now that you see the situation clearly and have taken a moment to pause with it, if change is necessary, strive for it.

Here is a little story to conclude —

Throughout Buddha’s life, he was often greeted by the Demon God, Mara, who always tried to tempt with lust, greed, anger, doubt, etc.

Instead of trying to fight Mara away, Buddha would calmly acknowledge Mara and even invite him in for tea and give Mara the best and most comfortable seat in his house. Discouraged and without direction as to what to do, Mara would get frustrated and then leave.

Radically Acceptance allowed Buddha to positively change his situation. Hope you can apply the same lessons to your life!