What’s the myth:
In recent years, the idea of self-acceptance (“You are good as you are,” “You are enough”) has certainly gained its moment in the limelight. Unconditionally embracing the people we are—both on the inside and on the outside— seems to be the solution to many of our inner struggles. It’s the magic bullet for becoming more confident, happy, fulfilled and lead our dream life.
Why it doesn’t work:
At first blush, it appears that absolute acceptance of who we are is exactly what many of us need, in order to become who we want to be and achieve the things we aspire to do.
So far, so good.
But, as I mentioned in a previous post, self-acceptance is a bit like a Catch-22 situation. On one hand, being too self-accepting may mean that you like the status quo and may not be too interested in changing the Current You. On the other hand, though, being too self-criticising is not great either– it may throw you into a perpetual battle with yourself– to do better, to always strive for perfection, to never be satisfied with your achievements.
The idea that we don’t need to change ourselves, anticipating that people will love the wonderful person we just happen to be, can be a dangerous notion to embrace (regardless of what the romance novels try to convince us). Of course, the opposite—excessive self-judgement— is certainly not healthy either.
But then—to paly devil’s advocate—if you don’t give yourself a kick from time to time, how can you truly improve then? Because if you believe you are “good as you are” and too content with Me Now, it’s often challenging to find the motivation to do better and become more.
So, what options does this leave us with?
What to do instead:
The first thing to remember is that you should not stay stagnant. You need to change, evolve, improve.
As Tony Robbins eloquently puts it: “If you are not growing, you are dying.”
But pushing yourself too hard to measure up with friends and peers can sometimes tip you over the edge. You may open the door to a myriad of other issues— eating disorders, depression, sense of worthlessness, unwarranted self-consciousness.
So, how can we combine then self-acceptance and self-compassion with the need to grow and improve? It’s a tough one to juggle.
Here is my advice:
Self-acceptance is truly about acknowledgement—that you are not perfect (and that no one else is), that you are work in progress, that your final draft is yet to be completed. We all have yin and yang—light and darkness, good and need-improvement qualities, flawless and flawed parts, virtues and foibles. And this is what makes each one of us unique.
Self-acceptance is also about minding your inner dialogue. It’s good to nudge yourself—it’s actually a proven way to change your behavior. But you shouldn’t say to yourself things as: “You are so stupid. You are not worth it. No one likes you.” This is not the right way to motivate yourself. It will have the opposite effect—and research supports this over and over.
Self-compassion is about self-kindness—that is, instead of judging yourself, talk to yourself like to your best friend. Be nice, be polite, be understanding.
Finally, think about it—what good does intentionally putting yourself down do anyway? Disliking yourself makes you lose self-respect and self-confidence.
2. Constructive Criticism
Excessive self-criticism, on the other hand, is counterproductive. We often think that persistently pushing ourselves will fast-track us to the success we seek. In fact, research shows that it’s exactly to the contrary. “Being hard” on yourself has an adverse effect on motivation, it makes you procrastinate more and actually slows down goal progress.
Self-criticism does have some merits, though. IF used properly. It can help you do better in some situations, seek for ways to improve, and think more critically.
So, how do you make this “obnoxious roommate”,the Inner Critic, work in your favor?
It’s called constructive (as opposed to destructive) criticism.
There are few ways to self-criticise without the adverse effects—so that you are feeling motivated rather than discouraged from not being on par.
For instance, psychologists tell us that we need to challenge specific changeable behaviours, not global unchangeable attributes. If you say to yourself: “You are stupid, and this is why you failed the test,” it will likely make you feel very depressed and disappointed with yourself.
But flip the narrative a bit (called “explanatory style”), and you can have a completely different outcome. For instance, say to yourself: “I didn’t pass my test because I stayed up late. Next time, instead of watching that show until the wee hours, I’ll go to bed at 10pm, no matter what.”
And this situation is something we can control.
Another way to use self-judgement to our advantage is to turn it into self-correction.
Negative self-talk by itself is passive, it’s like “empty calories.” It keeps you trapped in a vicious circle of self-loathing.
So, instead of ruminating on how unsuccessful you are in life, make a plan. Be specific. List the things you want to improve and how you will go about doing this—the situations, actions, the timelines. For instance: The next time I have to give a presentation, I will not freeze, but will look at my notes and will read from them.
It’s so much better than just saying: I’m a failure. Because how do you go about changing being a failure? It’s so general, that you don’t really know where to start. It may be so overwhelming to tackle it, that it can paralyse you into inaction.
~ ~ ~
In the end, “You are good as you are” may not be the best way to go about boosting your self-esteem. Self-acceptance is, of course, necessary on some level—so that we don’t throw ourselves into a tantalising and never-ending pursuit of becoming “better.”
But we often take “better” to mean “like someone else” (or “not like me”) and not “better than I was yesterday or a year ago.” And this is where the culprit is—this is how self-criticism turns toxic. We start thinking that we are just never good enough—not pretty enough, not successful enough, not rich enough, when we fare 51against others.
When you seek change, it needs to be for different reasons than to measure up with the Joneses or to fit in. If you want to learn new things, master your craft, get healthy—then, yes, there may always be room for improvement.
And it’s certainly worth a nudge.