One of my friends recently sent me an article by blogger Steve Pavlina called “Self-Acceptance vs. Personal Growth.” In it, Steve P. lays out his answer to these questions:

How do you balance self-acceptance vs. the drive to grow and improve yourself? On the one hand, it’s a good idea to accept yourself for who you are… faults and all, right? But on the other hand, isn’t it also a good idea to set goals and aim for something even better than what you already experience now? How do you resolve this conflict?

My own first gut reaction was that “self-acceptance vs. personal growth” was a nonsensical question or dilemma anyway (kind of like when someone asks you, if we have free will, why can’t we fly out of windows?). But I thought about some of the ways people sometimes respond to my blog, and I realized that this is a big concern. There’s a question about when do exercise or body goals represent the same lack of self-acceptance that leads to eating disorders, low self-esteem, comparing oneself to others, being overly susceptible to impossible advertising images, and the like?

Steve P. isn’t talking mainly about body goals, though his ideas apply. Both of us believe there is no true opposition between self-acceptance and self-improvement. To explain, Steve P. invokes Stephen Covey’s concept of “true north,” which means knowing and applying your core values. Examples he gives include unconditional love, service to humanity, faith in a higher power, compassion, nonviolence, and so on. Which ones drive you? If you derive your sense of who you are, what your value is as a person, from the higher values you hold and serve, then you have self-acceptance. You have it no matter what your current circumstances are, rich, poor, high status, low status, thin, fat. You have value because you know who you are at the core and what you align yourself with in this world.

Goals seem to interfere with self-acceptance when people overidentify with their status goals instead of their core values, and meeting those status goals becomes the measure of their self-worth. Money, job title, looks. If I place my self-worth not on the eternal values I commit to, but on whether my weight is up or down or which pants size I fit into, that’s the problem, and getting to the lower weight or smaller pants size will not solve that problem.

I spent a lot of my life in my thirties on a status goal — trying to prove to my business superiors that I was a serious contender. My goal was that much more difficult because I had an academic degree, and because I hadn’t started in business until my late twenties, but the barriers and doubts people put in front of me only drove me harder. My life, my waking hours, revolved around my job, but even worse, so did my sense of self. I fretted, worried, worked all the time, got an MBA while working all the time, eroded my health and my relationships — but eventually made a lot of money with some moderately impressive job titles. At some point, I came across Zen and the Art of Making a Living by Lawrence Boldt.

It’s a great career guide, but the best part is the amazing final chapter, where the author talks about relaxing because the corporate world is not life-or-death, not a measure of your self-worth, but just a game. A game! It all hit me; it made so much sense. You play the game; there are rules; there are rewards, and winning, and losing. All the things I’d put so much stock in were part of a giant game that we’d all agreed to participate in! But — and this was most impressive — Boldt didn’t say be a dropout, sneer at the game, live in protest, consider yourself above the others while boiling up your ramen noodles in your dank hovel. He said: Play with all your heart!!  Play to win, play like you mean it, play just like you played games and sports when you were a kid. And when it’s over, you can walk away whether you win or lose, because you know — it’s still just a game.

Around the same time, I enrolled in the year-long Basic Improv Course at Second City (the one that doesn’t require an audition). My goal was to lose the stage fright that had dogged me for so long, undermining work presentations and preventing me from doing the acting and performance I was interested in. And nothing, but nothing, terrified me more than improv: the idea of standing in front of an audience without a script! I signed up specifically because it so completely terrified and undid me (what I call “walking straight into the eye of the storm” — a great prescription for personal growth, by the way).

My fantasy was that improv would cure my stage fright by giving me the skills to ad lib my way smoothly through any situation. (I had no idea how little experience a year is in the difficult practice of improv!) And improv did cure my stage fright — but not because it made me a smooth talker. Improv cured my stage fright because I got so used to bombing, to crash-and-burning  — even in front of real live audiences in the Mainstage and ETC theaters — that I finally lost my fear of doing so! I lost my great fear of looking like a complete idiot in front of other people.

Losing that fear has served me well.

After improv, I was finally able to attend writing workshops and have my writing critiqued. I’d gotten to a point where I could feel that a piece of my writing was an object separate from me. Is it effective? Is it saying what I want it to say? That’s what I want to know. I feel that way about my goals with my body, too. Nothing is ever perfect, not a body, not a piece of writing, but can I make it better? I didn’t know if I could get elite running status, but I wanted to give the attempt my all. I don’t know if I can get to fitness model shape at my age, but I’m going to give that my all and see. If it doesn’t work, well, it was a game and I played it with all my heart. I’ll move on and look for the next game to play that makes me feel alive.

I’ve had enough things happen in life by now, including difficult things that are mostly invisible to others, that I know that who I am is a core, good, unchanging soul that has nothing to do with how I rank with the people around me. And so it is with everyone. I think that’s what Steve P. is talking about. It has been very freeing. I can experiment in life without feeling like I’m laying my self on the line by taking a risk and failing. I can fall flat on my face on that improv stage.

So many people just go in circles over the same issues in their lives. Going back and forth over your health and fitness because you think maybe you’re not accepting yourself enough if you try to get in shape is wrongheaded. Being healthy invariably serves your larger purpose, and being more gorgeous or competing in a sports contest are the games. Play the games you want to play, and play them to win! You’ll be a fine winner on some days, and a fine, fine loser on others.