Howdy, folks! It’s another gorgeous Saturday morning here in the Brazos Valley. The temperature is cool, so I popped open the patio door to let in some of that fresh morning air. I can hear a bird conversation, and the sun is glinting off the cars in the parking lot.
As I was puttering around my apartment this morning, I realized that I’ve stopped thinking about my old apartment, the one in Illinois, as home. It was a nice thought, as though my unconscious has finally accepted that we are here, in Texas, and we are staying here for a while. I don’t know what the magic trigger is that allows a new place to finally replace the old one as home. Is it the curvy hooks I bought for the bathrooms last weekend? Some critical threshold for time spent cooking and cleaning here? Or is it something less tangible, like the steady rhythm of returning here night after night, opening the front door and dropping my stuff as though I live here? Whatever it is, I’m feeling unusually content these days. I like it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the paradox of self-acceptance and self-improvement. On the one hand, we’re taught to love ourselves exactly as we are right now: flawed, imperfect, even ugly in some ways. On the other hand, we’re taught that we should strive to improve ourselves and our lives, always working hard to make things better. To me, these are conflicting goals because one idea negates the motivation to pursue the other. I think I’ve had a headache for the last fifteen years while trying to do both of these things at the same time.
I’m much lazier than I used to be, and I think it’s because self-acceptance has won the battle. My motivation to achieve is coming from somewhere other than a desire to improve myself. In my current job, I feel closer to my teaching goal than I was in graduate school, so it’s easier to remember that this whole PhD schtick was my way to help others learn and achieve their goals. Now that I’m done with school (forever!), I’m more motivated by curiosity than fear of failure. My main project in the lab is wide open with possibilities. I’m on the cusp of figuring out what those possibilities are and then deciding which ones I want to pursue. It’s an exciting time for me, even though it feels like it’s moving at a snail’s pace.
Self-acceptance is a beautiful thing. I think it makes us stronger and happier which, ironically, makes it easier to pursue our goals. Maybe it’s a sort of detachment, like if I know that my self-esteem does not depend on publishing a Cell paper or running a marathon, it is less scary to contemplate the pursuit of those challenges. I am someone who is intimidated by small things—washing the dinner dishes, for example, or calling a friend after a long silence—so anything I can do to lower my resistance to big dreams is a relief. I have become my own cheerleader: You can do this! You can do this!
The other incredible thing for which self-acceptance clears a path is pleasure. Self-improvement fosters a mindset that is focused on the future, making it difficult for us to focus on the present. Pleasure is all about the here and now. For me, a big part of pleasure is slowing down and paying attention. I still struggle with deliberate relaxation as thoughts of I should be doing this and I should be doing that float through my head. It’s hard for me to stop worrying about the future so that I can enjoy the present. Embracing pleasure is one way that I’ve been able to take my ambitions and turn them into something that lets me relax, finally.
Perhaps learning to live with paradox is a bridge from the black-and-white world of childhood to the shades of grey that paint our adult lives. Life is never perfect but neither is it perfectly awful. Even in my darkest moments, I’ve been able to appreciate the beauty of a tree trunk or a river flowing in gentle gurgles. I have admired a field of dandelions, their yellow faces bright with determination. I have sipped wine, marveling at how it still tasted good, even though I felt like I was living in a bottomless pit of unhappiness. I accepted these pleasures, let them fill my mind and my heart. I like to think that these small things, pleasures that made me feel good in spite of myself, helped me get to a place where my happiness could flourish again. That is the place where self-acceptance meets self-improvement: the paradox becomes a circle.
Happy weekend, friends.