Self-Acceptance Without Resignation

You probably have many flaws. I know I do! I've spent most of my life approaching these flaws in two ways: either I felt crappy and inferior for having them, or I worked my butt off to try and fix them. The first approach is painful and clearly doesn't lead anywhere. The second approach is self-delusional, because no matter how many flaws you "fix", you'll never get to the point where you can honestly say this:

Bitch, I'm flawless!

When I first started reading about self-esteem and happiness, a third approach emerged: accept my flaws and live a good life in spite of them. The trick is to treat yourself with compassion, stop throwing insults at yourself in your head, and love yourself despite your flaws. (Cheesy, I know.) But there is something unsatisfying about this. Does accepting yourself mean that you give up on trying to become a better person?

I have a lot of faith in people's ability to change for the better, so I'm not comfortable with the idea that self-acceptance = resignation. I think we can illuminate this issue better by asking two questions: Does this flaw get in the way of your happiness? And: Can you do anything about it? Put the possible answers on two sides of a 2x2 matrix, and let's see what we've got.


The life-limiting & changeable quadrant is where the action happens. Here are the flaws that make you unhappy, and that you believe you can change. Maybe you're overweight and you start an exercise program. Maybe your job is boring as hell, so you go look for a more satisfying one. Maybe you find it difficult to approach members of your preferred gender, so you get out and practice until it gets easier. (Fair warning: It's easy to feel overwhelmed if you're trying to change too many things at once. See the quadrant below.)

The non-limiting & changeable quadrant holds flaws that you can change, but that are not a high priority right now, because they don't interfere with your happiness as much as the ones in the quadrant above. Maybe you're terrified of heights, but you don't think it's worth your time to overcome this fear. Or maybe you wish you were a better speaker, but you decide to focus on other goals for now.

The life-limiting & unchangeable quadrant is the most painful. Maybe you have diabetes, and you hate having to watch what you eat. Or maybe you're extremely nervous around people, and you avoid social interactions. In both cases, the solution is to reframe the flaw and move it out of this quadrant. In the diabetes example, challenge the life-limiting aspect by focusing on all the fun things that you can do despite your chronic illness. The disease is a small part of you, and not the one major flaw that defines you. In the social anxiety example, challenge the unchangeable aspect by realizing that your problem is in fact treatable.

The non-limiting & unchangeable quadrant starts out empty, because if something really bothered you, it wouldn't be in this quadrant. This is where unchangeable flaws end up, if the reframing is successful.

Our updated matrix looks like this:


How does self-acceptance fit into this? In the CHANGE quadrant, you accept your flaw as temporary, and you give yourself credit for trying to change it. In the REFRAME quadrant, you accept your flaw, but focus on the things that make you happy despite it. In the DEFER quadrant, you again accept your flaw, but acknowledge that it's not worth fixing right now.

So you can have the best of both worlds: you accept yourself, and you also keep improving. Since the improvement process never ends, you have to make yourself happy on the way, and not think "I'll be happy once I fix this flaw."

Bitch, I'm not giving up!