What We Really Need As a Foundation for Personal Growth
“I’m always working on myself. I keep working to improve myself. Personal growth is hard work!”
This all sounds very reasonable, right? But these expressions may reflect a view of personal growth that doesn’t really support our growth. Maybe I’m being picky, but the expression “I’m working on myself” implies that we view personal growth as a process of dissecting, prodding, or poking ourselves to fit neatly into some vision of how we’d like to be. It implies that there’s a self that we don’t like or accept—or that we feel ashamed of. This vigilant and critical attitude can undermine personal growth by energizing an inner critic that is constantly watching over us—blaming us when we’ve blown it and badgering us to improve ourselves.
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 sensitive human beings who need acceptance and love, especially from ourselves. Like a plant that receives ample sunlight and water, we grow when conditions are supportive. Positive change and growth happen as we allow ourselves the potent nutrients of self-acceptance and gentleness. As psychologist Carl Rogers(link is external) famously said, “The curious paradox is that when I can accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Such self-acceptance allows for an emotional self-regulation and inner peace that is not perilously dependent upon acceptance from others.
What helps us to grow and evolve is self-awareness and mindfulness. We may be searching for “self-improvement,” but personal growth happens through an active process of deeply listening to ourselves and affirming ourselves as we are. Being eager to work on ourselves may only increase an anxious self-vigilance and blind drivenness, which sabotage 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, we might notice sadness or shame, which might prompt us to address a concern in a relationship or to make amends to someone we’ve hurt.
Self-acceptance means bringing a kind, gentle presence to the hurt places inside us. Being human means that feelings of fear, hurt, grief, and sadness sometimes arise. We don’t need to “work on ourselves,” as if something’s wrong with us for having these normal emotions. We simply need to create a loving, accepting space for them. I say “simply” as if it’s easy. But achieving the simplicity of allowing our experience its precious life is no easy task!
The goal—if there is any goal—is not to “work on ourselves” so that human pain no longer arises or that nothing upsets us. Growth doesn’t mean permanently eradicating fear and insecurity, but rather relating to these feelings in a more spacious way. Mindfulness practices and Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing(link is external), which is a type of mindfulness practice that is based on solid research, can help us be with our feelings in a way that does not overwhelm us.
The path forward is to kindly allow ourselves to be just as we are—and to flow more gracefully with our ever-changing human experience. Important life lessons and wisdom develop in a climate of self-acceptance, not self-denigration. No longer fighting ourselves, we may enjoy more moments of inner peace.
“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 being 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 might prompt 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 what’s important to us—and then forgiving ourselves and moving forward with greater mindfulness and sensitivity.
The “work” that’s required is that of self-awareness, not some onerous self-discipline that the term “work” implies. Buddhism calls it Right Effort or Skillful Effort,(link is external) which is simply the effort to be mindful of what is present–what is alive inside us right now.
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(link is external). The practice of gently noticing what is there brings more simplicity to our task.
Again, 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 patient effort of bringing loving attention to the uncomfortable places within ourselves–again and again. It’s the lifelong task of being more kind and accepting toward ourselves–cultivating self-patience, continually forgiving ourselves as we inevitably fall short, and humbly learning lessons as we stumble forward.
Gradually, we might discover this: what mostly feels like “work” results from cleaning up the messes created by lapses in self-awareness and self-acceptance. For example, if we vent anger toward our partner when we’re really feeling hurt, it takes much effort to clean up the damage we might have created. If we can be courageously aware of the hurt and sadness beneath our anger–and then reveal these more vulnerable feelings to our partner–we could avoid a lot of agonizing work!
As we move toward being with ourselves in an accepting way, it feels less like work. Being less poised to resist the flow of life, we open to our pain, relish pleasure, and allow our experience to be just as it is–and to come and go as it does. Growth happens as we no longer block ourselves from experiencing the natural flow of life. It means developing a more easeful intimacy with ourselves and with life. Resisting life less, we move toward a deeper sense of well-being and happiness.
Flickr image by Halcyon Styn(link is external)
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John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT, is author of Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships(link is external), which won the 2014 Silver Independent Publisher Book Award in the relationship category. His other books include The Authentic Heart (link is external)and Love & Betrayal(link is external). He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for thirty-five years in the San Francisco Bay area and has conducted workshops internationally on relationships and couples therapy.