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On self-improvement, self-work, and self-change

On the repeated attempts to change ourselves and the role of radical self-acceptance in self-development.


Part I

People work on themselves. They try to improve and change their manners, attitude, and responses. Mostly, they are trying to push themselves towards a better life. They are trying to fight, dismantle and overcome their habits. And they believe that there is a strong connection between their habits and their lack of happiness. Some of them believe in karma, the law of cause and effect, which states that what you do in the present will appear in future lives.  So, they work to change things in their current lives in order to get better ones in the future. Or they visit a coach, or practice methods of self-programming such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming. We see these approaches in posts on Facebook, in newspapers, and in popular TV shows, where it is very common to see, for example, a child psychologist advising frustrated parents about what to do with problematic children. But these methods are also popular with people who are dealing (in one way or another) with self-perfection.

Another area in which people engage in self-work has to do with success: in careers, or in relationships. They work on improving relations with others, dealing with emotional dependence on their partner, bringing love and romance into their lives, and so on.

Or they work on alleviation of suffering. They believe that they are addicted to suffering, and that this addiction is a kind of disease. Thus, each time they suffer, they practice a mantra full of optimism and self-belief. A further, very popular belief says that we don’t have control over reality, but we can control our reaction to reality. Indeed, most people are hopeful about their future, but their hope has no relation to reality. Many people who believe in self-work think, moreover, that if they are not hopeful about their future, their pessimism will influence it and their life will become terrible. So, those who practice self-improvement are determined to cultivate in themselves the conviction that everything is OK, or most things are OK, and if they convince themselves of that, then all will be good in their life.

They believe that we should not delve into or dwell on our thoughts, or in the past, but we should rather focus on the present (and this of course will make our lives better).

This kind of self-work is very present, and actively pursued, not only in the psychological field of people’s lives, but also in the physical areas of sports and exercise, along with eating healthy food and taking nutritional supplements. People believe that if they invest energy in these fields, it will affect and influence how they feel emotionally and psychologically.

These approaches try to fight and overcome feelings of unhappiness, bad moods, despair, eating disorders, addictions, anxiety, and many other conditions.

And people are convinced that having a better life is all up to you. Change your responses and reactions, and what is around you will change as well.

They feel very good about these efforts; they feel, powerfully, that they are on the way to self-change and improvement, and soon their lives will be much better.

And they can be so pleased with these ways to change how they conduct their lives that they become lecturers and speakers about the wonders of this self-training and practice, and they speak, in long monologues, about the great effects of these efforts on their lives.

One example of such efforts might be that, if you feel you are not assertive enough and therefore lack the ability to say no to certain people, you should push yourself to say no (or avoid or block) people that domineer you. Or you may want to work on yourself in connection with frequent negative emotions and thoughts: you will learn that you should not go against them forcefully, but rather say to them gently, “Not now,” and this will do the trick.

Another area is taking responsibility for bad relationships with relatives and close friends: you fight your criticism and demands of them and try to transmit only nice, positive words.

People engaging in this sort of self-work cultivate a non-judgmental approach towards themselves. They get up in the morning full of thanks that they are alive. They say to themselves how good life is and that a wonderful day is ahead of them.  Overall, they are doing lots of autosuggestion: self-convincing which says that the future will be better, and what is even better still, is that the now is already good.

Part 2

The problem with most of these approaches and methods is that people remove their loyalty to their self, to their center of gravity. The most difficult thing, especially if you are suffering from personal problems, is to accept yourself. If someone tells you that the life you are living now will be the same in ten years' time, you will protest categorically. You want the change now.

Therefore, self-acceptance is the last thing that people tend to practice. They treat themselves and their life like shopping in the supermarket, as if they can buy and acquire the life and personality they always wanted to have. They believe very much in willpower and its potential to help them shape and form their life. But relying too much on willpower can break and crush the connection to their inner life, to their inner being.  

It is very difficult to accept that most of what happens in our life is the result of a fixed constellation. Our nature and behavior are fixed, and our personalities are generally crystalized. Just as a carrot cannot change into a tomato, a person with a particular nature cannot change it. Only the outer layers can be changed (and thus conceal who we really are).

You can renounce your true nature and become based in your efforts to change yourself, but these efforts are like makeup or clothes which do not change the reality of the body or face. These things remain as they are. It is the same with efforts to self-improve.

And here we have a paradox which (like all paradoxes) is difficult to accept. Only if we fully accept ourselves and our nature, the way we really are, can we change, grow up, come to internal balance, and develop a higher level of the self. You can work on yourself only with what is real in you, not with what you adopt. George Ivanovich Gurdjieff called what we have adopted “personality” and what is real “essence.” As long as we go against our essence, our real ways of behaving and acting, we will be stuck in the lower level of being.

We cannot change who we are. Our psychology is real and has a particular structure, just like the face and body. We believe that everything in the non-physiological areas of our life (such as personal characteristics, types of response, behavior and so on) is abstract, to do with stories we tell ourselves. We believe that we can be almost everything we wish to be. 

But the truth is that the least possible thing is to change, and the most difficult thing for most people is to accept themselves the way they really are, without makeup, without efforts to change.

If you begin to accept yourself, a wonder will happen. You will mature, grow up, and will come to peace with yourself.

If you connect to yourself, find your center of gravity, you have a home, from which you go out and to which you return in times of difficulty and distress.

If you are connected to who you are, and are at peace with it, then there will be a dynamic movement in your life, a real dynamic, which is not the result of self-persuasion.

Real self-acceptance is very, very difficult. We stick to the idealized self and nothing will remove us from it. 

But real acceptance of the self means accepting it along with what we consider flaws. Only by accepting our weaknesses can we connect to inner strength. We should actually make friends with our weaknesses, as this is the only way to accept ourselves, and from there grow to be at peace with what and who we are.

If you accept yourself and listen to your inside life, you will act out of harmony and coordination with your inner being. And by working with the real materials of your being, you can reach the higher levels of your existence. In contrast, if you are not at peace with yourself, are at war with your nature and with what you are, you will create a dissonance between yourself and the real center of gravity, and this dissonance (in its turn) will push you to take refuge in even more efforts at self-improvement, to need even more advice which is supposed to make your life successful.  

Character is mainly genetic, and this is difficult to accept. We are willing to accept that our character and personality are influenced by the environment, but to accept that we are not born as a clean sheet is very difficult.

We are not in control of our birth and death, but we at least believe that we have control of what is between them. Therefore, it is so difficult to agree that we have little control over our lives. Things mainly just happen to us, while we believe that we have some sort of control over some or most of what happens to us.

Real self-acceptance happens when we give up emotional identification with what is good and bad in our lives and adopt a neutral view, a non-judgmental one, of our lives and of who we are. Through the neutral vector we can hold the two polarities: the strong or good and the weak or bad. We usually take hold of what we consider good and desirable in our life and fight against what we consider weak or bad. It is very difficult to see both together and this can only be done through the neutral vector. This approach exists in a popular method today and is called mindfulness.

And if we succeed in holding together the two poles at the same time, we can be elevated to the level above. And this is the main issue: it is not possible to change. What is possible is to rise to a higher level. 

Gabriel Raam
A philosopher, lecturer (emeritus), and expert for non-verbal communication
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