The Personal Development Dilemma: Striving Vs Self-Acceptance

By Seamus Anthony

Should you strive to change your habits, your circumstances, your whole life?

Or should you enjoy increased inner-peace by accepting who you are right now, unconditionally so you can relax and enjoy the moment?

I find life to be a constant tension between these two approaches, and I can’t help but notice that in what we loosely call the “personal development” field there are many pushers of both ways towards inner satisfaction.

I have for a while now leaned heavily in favor of the “Zen” path of warts-and-all self-acceptance of yourself and have been scornful of the Tony Robbins “go-get-em-tiger” school of hyped up motivation and the “follow-these-sacred-rules-and-kiss-my-Guru-ass” schools of overtly serious and holy spirituality.

That’s the attitude we founded Rebel Zen on: a different, down-to-Earth, street-savvy approach to Enlightenment and Worldly Success – and God help us if we ever lose sight of this mission because in my opinion it’s what is sorely needed.

BUT…

The other night I was awake at about 4 in the morning and a thought struck me like a punch in the face.

As I sat there next to the cot, trying to coax my little 1 year old daughter to go back to sleep, my mind was racing through things in a semi-conscious way and I suddenly realised that if I kept going down the path I am on, of comfortable self-acceptance, then I am quickly going to turn into on of those mouldy middle-age dudes who is stuck in a nice comfortable rut and has lost his edge.

What I mean by this is – unless I decide to change some things then, while the good things in my life will probably stay good (and there is plenty of that for which I am infinitely grateful), the BAD stuff will GET WORSE.

Example: I don’t exercise enough and my pot belly is inching its way forward day-by-day and my muscles are fading bit-by-bit. And that shit don’t get better – it gets WORSE.

Example: I STILL haven’t learned to speak French very well even though my partner and her family speak it around me all the time and we want our children to speak it also. And that shit don’t get easier – it gets HARDER.

And there are more examples, but that will suffice for now!

Why Do You Read Personal Development Stuff?

Is it because you want drastic change in your life or because you want to learn how to be happy now as you are?

In my case, more than ten years ago, I got into meditation and personal development because I desperately needed to change my ways and figure out “what it’s all about”. Once I had tempered my self-destruction a fair bit and developed a model of the Meaning of Life (links to my old model which needs a revamp as according to this post here) I then stepped into a different mode, the above mentioned mode of just chillin’ and accepting myself as being perfect even though I am human and regularly fuck things up and then some. (I have, as you can see, learned a little French at least!)

It’s a Yin Yang Thing

It probably won’t blow your mind to hear me say that I reckon we need a bit of both in life, we need to strive to achieve and meanwhile we need to accept our lot as is, be grateful for the gifts we enjoy and be happy now. But the Yin Yang model isn’t about just hovering in a static place in perfect balance, it is about moving through different ratios. A good example of what I mean is day and night: at one point of the 24 hour cycle it is brightest, at another it is darkest, and during the rest of the cycle we are bathed in degrees of light and dark mixed together.

So what I am getting at is sometimes we need to swing to extremes and there is nothing wrong with this. My friend and Rebel Zen business partner Steve, calls it ‘Dynamic Balance’. He is a classic for it, sometimes he won’t write a post here for months because he is immersed in another project. Then when it’s done he moves back into a more generalist space.

The reason for this long-winded post is that I have come to the realization that I need to move into an “extreme” phase now. A period of Striving for Big Changes. It’s just what I need to do and to be honest I am a little scared because it means I am going to set myself up for possible failure.

To add an extra element of craziness to the mix, I am going to document this process here at Rebel Zen. I have no details yet, but hopefully it will be of benefit to you and your progression through this kooky old life. Meanwhile let’s just finish off with a quick look at the two polar dynamics of personal development:

Striving and Self-Acceptance

There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to both extremes…

Striving – the Pros

  • Can result in lasting change for the better
  • You CAN be healthier, richer, happier, more productive, a greater contributor to the problems facing society than you are now
  • and such success CAN bring you increased enjoyment of life
  • Tomorrow DOES come and the seeds you sow today … you know the rest

Striving – the Cons

  • Can set you up for failure and disappointment
  • Can lead to unhealthy obsession and alienate you from your family and friends
  • Can distract you from enjoying the moment and being happy now (‘now’ being the only reality you will ever actually experience)
  • Can bring negative effects of stress into your life, eg. reduced immune system functionality

Self-Acceptance – the Pros

  • Can be a huge weight off your shoulders
  • That allows you to Just Be Happy Now (no mean feat)
  • Gives you a lightness of heart and a self-confidence that is a pleasure for yourself and others to behold
  • Attracts luck your way because your positive vibes make people want to work with you and help you
  • Helps others because you stop focusing on your own perceived problems and start reaching out with compassion

Self-Acceptance – the Cons

  • you run the ‘danger’ of becoming stuck in your own self-satisfied rut, i.e. you can become very mouldy 😉
  • you may actually only be so full of self-acceptance because you live in a very sweet situation day-to-day. Therefore if the shit hits the fan, will your enlightened state persevere or will you succumb to stress, self-pity and fear?
  • You may be underestimating yourself and settling for a lesser contribution to society than you could be making
  • You may be deluding yourself – you may in fact have actually given up on your dreams and are masking your own deep, sad sense of disappointment in yourself and life with a veneer of false self-satisfaction.

Well that’s all for me for now but this is certainly the beginning of a series of posts exploring these themes and setting myself up for some kind of public challenge.

What are your thoughts on these ideas?

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Hi, I'm Seamus Anthony. I am an author, artist and musician from Australia. Here at Rebel Zen, I document my journey as an creative artist and human and in doing so, hopefully help you in your own progress through your life of creativity. Go get your free E-book by me: "Taming The Monkey Mind".

29 comments Write a comment

  1. Well, you can imagine that I’m more the ‘striving’ type, but I certainly try to retain a pretty good balance. Otherwise I will burn out and miss out on life. But like you said, if you just accept your situation for what it is and never seek ‘life upgrades/enhancements’ you will not just sit there, but atrophy. You’re either moving forward or sliding backward, but standing in place is not an option.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and opening up an excellent discussion/topic. I can’t wait to see these enhancements your speaking of, regarding your blog. Keep us informed, my friend. Eric.

    Eric Hamms last blog post..Minimize Your ‘Focus Reboots’

  2. I agree with you about finding balance. Far too often we get overworked and lose the most important aspect of living..actually enjoying every moment. I think you can find both. You can be productive, set goals and achieve them, but still live everyday to it’s fullest. That might mean working hard on a given goal, but as long as you are happy and taking it all in you’re golden. It’s all about the experience, good or bad.

    Ambers last blog post..Do You Have A Theme Song?

  3. @Eric- thanks for the comments and yes I will be continuing this theme. I think I will be experimenting with concepts like what to choose to strive towards, and why, and in what kind of time frames and what the best way to go about it all is. Stuff I usually avoid but like I said … it’s time for extra strivation…
    @Amber – yes I think remembering to take it all in is a key factor for sure. For example I work from home in a little bungalow in a beautiful, lush garden. I have big windows in front of me to remind me of my good fortune, but sometimes I keep my head down for hours and forget how lucky I am and just feel pissed off about all the tasks that I have to do that I would prefer not to ever do again. Then I look up and think “Oops … oh yeah … ummm … thank you …”

  4. Well, I have an opinion about this – no surprises there. We are used to thinking of the two as mutually exclusive – we think we have to reject a current circumstance to allow a change to occur. I always find an old habit pops up of thinking that I have to choose one or the other and if I don’t reject the existing option I can’t have the new one.

    Also, ‘striving’. Not the kind of word someone with my brand of chronic fatigue tends to use. The word drains the energy. It makes me think of swimming against the stream when I might as well take advantage of the gravitational forces at my disposal. Swim downstream, is what I’m trying to say.

    Having said that, I can see that the word can be a tonic for an energetic, probably virile, probably youngish man such as youself, Seamus. You yang types love a challenge. I look forward to seeing what your new goals will be.

    Hilarys last blog post..Bad thoughts phobia

  5. Hi Seamus – I love this article. That seeming contradiction between self-acceptance and self-improvement IS a source of confusion!

    Perhaps one of the things that leads to self-improving is accepting ourselves – as part of the process of moving forward. And as you say, no movement is not pretty!

    Robins last blog post..Bloggers’ Recording Project

  6. Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t really see that there is any contradiction between self-acceptance and self-improvement. Admitting you have weaknesses and attempting to do something about them doesn’t imply self-hatred (or whatever the opposite of acceptance would be). You can accept that you are where you are right now while still wanting to keep moving. It’s a journey, with every individual step being right where you should be at that moment.

    The difficult bit is staying in that mindset when you’re not concentrating on it, of course – maybe someday I’ll get the hang of it, but I’m not there yet. I won’t beat myself up about that. ;o)

  7. @Hilary, unfortunately swimming downstream doesn’t build great abs! But I totally agree with everything you said … it’s just I also agree with the opposite!
    @Robin – yes and self-improvement not surprisingly makes it easier to accept ourselves as we are. But self acceptance for me is a non-issue – I am great at it and have a gigantic ego the size of Mt Everest. My real issues lie in getting off the couch and going the extra mile (he says “working” at midnight).
    @Shadowduck – indeed, what you describe is a perfect state of balance, no conflict there. I am talking about the extremes of the dynamic i.e. being too self accepting to make much real progress or being too future-driven to enjoy the moment, and when this is ok and when it is time for the needle to travel back towards the other pole.

  8. I think there is a huge difference between striving and struggle. Struggle is a sign that you have abandoned joy on your path right now in hopes you will attain it at some future point (ie when you reach a goal). A feeling of struggle indicates an imbalance in your life.

    But there is nothing wrong with striving for a goal provided you bring joy and/or enthusiasm into the process.

    You are a creative being and an important part of the evolutionary process in this universe. Creativity by its very nature demands action. And action is by definition a movement toward something (goal). But it should not be about struggle.

    The ditty “row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream” reminds us of this balance as we “go with the flow”. There is still action (ie rowing) but with the recognition that there is a natural flow to life and to row with life, not against it.

    Abd the remainder of the ditty, “merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream”. Reminds us to bring joy and enthusiasm into this world through our presence.

    mark richardss last blog post..Share the Wealth

  9. Seamus, I think we all struggle w/ this to some extent. I practice a bit of meditation and try to stay positive about my life and my accomplishments. I also get angry as hell about some things that I don’t like about me.

    Isn’t that what Zen is all about – learning to walk that line and get all enlightened and shit? And doesn’t it take many, many lifetimes? I guess we should just keep on keepin’ on…

    Maria | Never the Same River Twices last blog post..CommentLuv needs updating on this site. Please download the latest version and install it on your site. This message will apear during the first 10 minutes of each hour. This remote script will cease returning posts in 7 days

  10. You’ve got to find what works for you personally and I think this comes from trying a bit of both approach and seeking balance. However, I don’t think balance is a static place either, you will constantly be seeking balance.

    For now (you never know when it may change!) I’m into self-acceptance and I find a lot of forward movement in self-acceptance. I think the easiest way to move forward is to accept yourself and love yourself enough to want to make changes where you feel necessary without beating yourself up along the way.

    In peace, love and success x x x

    Lola

  11. Damn! You nailed it here! I cycle through phases on this… or perhaps it’s more like a spectrum. The switch tends to happen pretty naturally, often coming out of boredom with the status quo. But there’s always that tension tugging at the back of my mind, and to be honest, I think it’s probably a good thing to ponder every now and then. Actively thinking about that balance between striving and self acceptance is like recalibrating the scales.

    Sara at On Simplicitys last blog post..The Personal Development Dilemma: Striving Vs Self-Acceptance

  12. Thank you Sarah – I also think a bit of tension is a good thing. I’d get pretty bored if I just decided to leave everything at the status quo. One thing I think I didn’t explain very clearly in this article is that I was really talking about the extremes of the scale. About how sometimes it is good to be really, really into striving and sometimes just the opposite. So although we all know balance between the two is good, I don’t think that JUST that is good. At least not for me. OR maybe it IS good but I just aint that kind of guy – I dunno.

    Meanwhile sorry for commentluv being all screwy. I appreciate the free service they provide but not the way they go about asking you to update. Seems a bit draconian and well, dysfunctional, really. What if your whole blog went down every time you didn’t update wordpress? Oh well, we’ll fix it soon enough, not exactly number one on the priority list…

  13. Dude. Wow.

    So many things you said there just ring so true for me. You’ve given some real form to this personal battle that’s been raging inside of me, mostly subconciously, for a long time. A lot of the things I read here were hard to swallow, but I know that’s just because they’re so right on the mark for me, and I’ve been avoiding ’em for so long.

    I definitely tend toward the self-satisfied “everything’s cool, man” attitude. I’ve been that way ever since my last couple years of high school (I’m 23 now), when I started hanging around people who I like to call “coasters”. We coasters just coast through life without much effort at all. Lazy stoners, basically. I think being “cool with it” has made me like myself… actually, scratch that. It’s made other people like me, which is a great boost to my confidence.

    Yet… there is, and has been for a long time, this nagging voice in the back of my mind. It’s as much a fear of growing old and thinking about all that missed opportunity as it is a dream for something more. Something bigger. And that’s been very, very hard to reconcile with my “the Dude abides” type behaviour.

    It would be easy to blame my stoner mates for “holding me back”, but that would be the weak way out. Besides, I fucking love my mates.

    Recently, my “coasting” has been becoming more apparent to me as a cover-up for my fear of change. I even put off reading my personal development blogs, just letting the posts accumulate in my feeder. Until today, when for some reason (the Universe or some shit?) I just said “fuck it” and started catching up on my old favourite, Rebel Zen. I’m real glad I did.

    Anyway, thanks for putting my feelings into words so perfectly. It feels like you’ve climbed into my brain and gathered up all the bullshit and tossed it out, plain for me to see. It’s real encouraging to know there are others who have been where I am right now. It can get lonely in here sometimes.

    I feel like I owe you something now. Want a drawing? Hit me up.

  14. Hi Joe,

    Yes, we seem to have similar issues, back in the 90s we called ourselves Slackers rather than Coasters, but same diff. So all I can really add to this is that you shouldn’t freak out about wasting time, but rather chip away at it with focus because at 23 you have time up your sleeve in spades. BUT that time goes so fast. So choose your goal and take the long way around, don’t look for shortcuts, and try not to let other projects sidetrack you … or else you’ll end up like me 😉

  15. Pingback: The Personal Development Dilemma Part 2: Publicly Announce Your Big Dreams or Keep Them To Yourself? | Rebel Zen

  16. Balance : a state of equilibrium
    where none exists given human nature. We are actually striving for it and in the that state as it passes through us. our commentary just descibes static experiences as if time, the world, and ourselves are not changing in order to analyze it. We speak in generalities, but live in detail.

    Question: Can I strive to be self accepting and can I just “coast” getting what I want? sometimes?
    I like to think so. seems like 4 dimensions to me. not all or none, not exclusive it just makes us feel better and not go crazy to “set” our world as stable.
    love the postings.

  17. Pingback: Warning: Self-Indulgent Post About ‘Me’ Not ‘You’! | Rebel Zen

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  19. Pingback: The Personal Development Dilemma Part 2: Publicly Announce Your Big Dreams or Keep Them To Yourself?

  20. I’m late with this but that goes to show how life can rewind within any generation. I appreciate this post because I just turned 20 and i’m having constant and crazy epiphanies with life where I just don’t really understand what I want anymore. There’s a million different perspectives in life and my mind never stops talking. The pros and cons listed are definitely well spoken descriptions of what is going on in my subconscious dilemmas. I just think eventually when it’s all over, we will learn to genuinely understand, accept and LIVE. I’m not one to ever reply but this post hit me where I needed so, keep em up.

  21. You buy a new phone.
    It is costly, speed and has a great camera.
    Luckily there is only one phone of your type.
    That is self acceptance.
    You are a great mold and the creator is God.
    To put new apps, phone numbers, photos , themes,ringtone is personal development.
    I liked the ying yang kind of thinking too.
    Great work.

  22. Oh, all you guys are looking good here. 🙂 As a consultant, I prefer “stiving”. After lots of striving, you will fell some different between the past and present. If you think you need to change your life, attitude, style; you have to do striving.
    Whatever, Thanks Seamus for this useful article.

  23. I appreciate your efforts. You are quite right on this point. requires serious effort to take it to next level. I keep thinking why we leave it as it is. Life becomes interesting if are willing to give it what it takes. Whether we gain it or we lose it, we are responsible for it. It is part of our personal development process.

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