There are two kinds of people in the personal development world. As a therapist, I’ve worked with both.
The first kind of person, let’s call him the Self-Improver, seems to be looking for specific changes in his behavior.
He seeks the kinds of changes that are hard to accomplish but, once in place, help him feel better about himself.
An example would be someone who suffers from anxiety but holds his own feet to the fire by making himself do the things that make him anxious. It’s a significant accomplishment to overcome that hurdle.
The Self-Improver can point to that accomplishment and be proud of the change he sees in his behavior. He no longer feels like he doesn’t fit in, or isn’t socially adequate, in that particular way.
Now, stay with me here…
He hasn’t exactly gained self-acceptance; he sees himself as the same basically unimproved person, just behaving better.
He gets to feel proud of his behavior, but he’ll lose that good feeling if his behavior changes.
Self-Improvers are not interested in the past, because only those things that can be changed are relevant to their project. And the past being what it is, it can never be changed.
Becoming Who You Are
The second kind of person wants to make changes, too. But she doesn’t just want to feel good about herself, she wants to become the person she’s meant to be.
I’ll call this type the Self-Actualizer.
The difference between them is subtle, but I’m convinced there is a difference between self-improvement and self-actualization.
The Self-Actualizer wants to know herself, warts and all. She’s curious when she fails; what exactly happened there?
The past is interesting to her. It’s a potential influence on the present, and that needs to be explored.
She can point to all the questions and answers she’s found inside herself, and be proud of her maturing.
Change vs. Maturity
Self-improvers focus on change. Self-actualizers want change, too.
Both want to feel more comfortable in their own skin.
Both want to be their best selves.
But self-actualizers’ desire for change is really a desire for growth toward psychological, emotional and spiritual maturity.
Self-Improvers are happy to see positive changes, period.
Full Disclosure of My Personal Bias
I think this difference might have something to do with self-acceptance.
If we see ourselves as inherently flawed, we’re more likely to seek pure improvement. We don’t want to look under the hood (or bonnet, for my U.K. friends), because it’s too confusing and dirty in there.
We just want to fill the tank and get moving. So what’s under the hood doesn’t get the attention it needs and deserves.
On the other hand, if we see ourselves as working toward wholeness, we’re more likely to be compassionate and honest with ourselves. We look into our hearts and, in doing so, open them up for healing.
Unlike some forms of change, healing is permanent. AND it leads us closer to being not just different, but whole.
I get a lot of self-improvers in my therapy practice. Maybe they’re drawn to my website because I look more like a coach than a therapist. (I don’t know why; I’m pretty sure I have the requisite number of soft flower photos.)
My mission, unofficially, is to turn self-improvers into self-actualizers. Because improvement for its own sake isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
What do you think? Is there a difference between self-improvement and self-actualization? Or are they merely two ways of looking at the same thing?