Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Accept/Expect: Finding the Balance for a Happy and Fulfilled Life

"I want to accept myself, yet also expect more of myself."

Gretchen Rubin, of the Happiness Project, often talks about self-improvement in ways that get me thinking about my own project to find myself (my own version of a happiness project, I suppose, although I've not defined it that way).

Recently she wrote about the balance between accepting and expecting. This was a thought which has surfaced for me a few months ago but not stated as clearly: if self-acceptance is important for happiness, where does the need to improve, strive, and change fit with the need to realize that we are good as we are?

It can be easy to beat oneself up while seeking to improve oneself. I can remember clearly the self-loathing and anger I'd feel while trying to lose weight. One time I was actually borderline for a eating disorder, my first year in college, and I would look at other young women and hate myself. I starved myself and did other dangerous things because I wanted to change and my need to change was driven by a deep hatred of who I was right then. Naturally, this was a terrible motivator and I eventually woke up to the dangers I was putting myself through. I managed to talk myself out of a very dark mindset, but my eating habits stayed negative for a long time and affected my health.

In a similar way, I am currently driven by a deep sense of dissatisfaction in my life which came up around my 41st birthday. I was in a job I hated (which, ironically, I lost within a week of starting this blog thanks to layoffs), having recently finished my Ph.D. but unable to find work in my field (still looking for work, 6 months after being laid off). I am childless, originally by choice since we delayed this for my schooling and then because it just didn't seem to happen, and every birthday reminds me of the increasing likelihood that we will never have kids. I want to write a novel but have done little to make progress on it (better but still a ways to go). I want to be organized but my house was a mess (this is improving). I had a long list of projects to accomplish but never seemed to finish any of them (also improving).

I know the dangers of change driven by an anger or hatred of one's self. It can cloud the judgment and also mask who we really are. My goal is to find out what will make me truly happy, to push myself to go for the life which will satisfy me, to improve myself but to also see myself for who I really am and find ways to make that work for me. It would be ridiculous to change myself into some other person because that person seems more successful. I'd never be happy that way. Sure, I envy some of my friends with their successes, but I'm a different person and there are different measures of success.

I'm seeking to make myself a better person--to accept who I am and make that person the best she can be, not to change myself into something I am not. It's the parts of me that don't work well, which hold me back and make me unhappy (the fear of failure which keeps me from finishing projects, the shyness which keeps me from making contacts, the depression which makes me become more disorganized) which I am trying to improve. That is where the expectations and striving come in.

The Real Me I hope to know better before I am 42 is not a different me--it's just a me who has worked past the obstacles holding her back from a happier life. Hopefully this Real Me will have figured out a way to make a living (finding a job which is more than just a paycheck--but hopefully one that pays!) and accomplish the goals she has set herself. I'm spending this year trying to get organized, accomplish goals, stretch myself a bit (with my 41 Things to Do Before I'm 42 list), and think a lot about what I want in life.

Part of what I want in life is the ability to accept who I am, including the fact that I'll be 42, childless, and maybe still unemployed--but very lucky to have a great husband, family, and potential. I can have a great life, striving to maintain the balance of self-acceptance and expectation, so that I can improve myself without hating who I am now.

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