A counter-intuitive theory of change
I have an allergic reaction to “acceptance” as someone committed to innovation, leadership, and personal development. When people tell me to “just accept the way things are,” I feel a sense of exasperation rise up through me. Don’t they understand how much better it could be? How can they not see all the opportunities for improvement?
If you’re a life-long learner like me, this might sound familiar. You’re committed to creating meaningful change in the world and probably notice lots of problems with how things currently are. Wouldn’t acceptance be equivalent to approving of those problems? Shouldn’t we focus our time and energy on making tomorrow better than today?
This reasoning applies just as much to improving ourselves as it does to improving our work. I’m going to focus on where all change begins: within us.
The problem with this rejection of acceptance is that it’s actually counter-productive. Despite your best efforts at creating forward motion, it can end up feeling like you’re stuck on a hamster wheel. There’s always something new to work on, another part of yourself that you can improve, one more tarnished piece of awareness to continue polishing. From the outside-in it might like you’re doing great work–but on the inside, it just feels like you’re running in place.
It’s easy—for me at least—to beat myself up for being at an earlier stage of development, or getting down on myself for not being “better” already. I’ve been looking inwards and focusing on personal growth for years, why am I still making the same mistakes? How is it that I keep on learning the same lessons again and again?
Here’s what I’ve been learning recently about what exactly keeps us stuck in this cycle, and how to break free from inertia so that you can actually make some forward momentum. It’s surprising but quite simple:
The first step to change is actually self-acceptance. If you’re as skeptical as I am you might be thinking “how does accepting myself help me to change?” It seems counter-intuitive at first. You might think—like I did—that acceptance would keep you stuck, or that it’s an endorsement of the status quo. But it’s a necessary and crucial step towards making any progress. The reason why?
You can’t leave a place until you arrive there.
This phrase is both common-sense and nonsensical at the same time. It seems obvious when we think of a physical location–but even though it’s a bit more confusing as a metaphor, it’s just as true of our inner world.
Without truly “arriving” and accepting yourself as you currently are, it’s impossible to make effective change. It’s like trying to take a step forward without putting your feet on the ground. If you’re not grounded in the present you’ll end up tripping over yourself, which totally misses the point. We need to accept what is currently happening in order to deal with the reality of the situation to make real progress.
What gets in the way of self-acceptance?
Harsh judgment from our inner critic. Whenever we notice an opportunity for improvement, this little voice only focuses on our shortcomings. Beating yourself up for not being better already is like getting upset that it’s not tomorrow, today. As the famous Chinese proverb says “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
Blind optimism from our rose-colored, wide-eyed idealist. This little voice is over-focused on how amazing the future will be, while wholly neglecting the present. Walking around with your head in the clouds is a sure way to miss smelling the roses at your feet.
So how do we actually accept ourselves as we are, while also making progress?
1. Non-judgmental witnessing. Pay attention to your thoughts and emotions. For those of us (myself included) who are hyper-analytical, this can be a challenge. Take some time to slow down and pay attention to what’s going on inside.
-What exactly is coming up for you in the moment?
-What emotions are present?
-Where do you feel them in your body?
2. Curious exploration. Rather than criticizing yourself for not knowing better, put a part of yourself under the microscope and see what you can learn.
-What information does it have to provide you?
-What do you get out of your current behavior?
-What’s the benefit of that thought pattern?
-How has that belief been serving you?
3. Compassionate acknowledgment. There’s a reason why you’ve been doing things this way until now.
-What aspect of yourself are you grateful for?
-What lessons have you learned?
-What good were you able to create from that paradigm?
-What will you lose that you value by changing?
4. Focus on what will stay the same. Don’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
-What, if anything, do you want to keep or continue?
-What can you reuse or repurpose?
-How might you honor the legacy of your past self?
5. Align action with your values.
-What’s most important to you?
-What are you committed to creating?
-How will you carry this forward in a new way?
Following these steps will help you arrive where you currently are, so that you can leave to bigger and better things. Life only happens in the present. It’s important for us to accept what is, and then focus on making it better.
How might you benefit as a leader from practicing self-acceptance? What meaningful changes will you be able to make more effectively?
Let me know your thoughts or anything I missed in the comments.
If you’re curious to learn more or want support on your journey, schedule a free 20-minute discovery session. I’ll help you get crystal clear on what more you’re able to achieve, uncover the biggest thing standing in your way, and create an action plan to get there faster.