Self-Work Is Not About Trying to Be Perfect
Self-growth, personal development, inner work — if simply thinking about these concepts fills you with the weighty sensation that you're not "enough" and need to do better, you're not alone.
There's a perpetuated, preconceived, and incorrect notion that self-work is synonymous with the pursuit of perfection, but that's not what personal growth is about. In fact, it's arguably more focused on embracing imperfection. Self-growth involves accepting yourself as you are, holding space for self-forgiveness, and giving yourself grace as you dig deeper. At least that's what it should entail.
"When you're developing yourself, you should not be focused on being perfect in societal standards; instead, you should be aiming to discover what brings you the most joy and makes you feel the most fulfilled in your life," explains licensed mental health counselor, Marisa Hendrickson, M.A.
But, of course, pursuing personal growth in this pure way is easier said than done. To deconstruct your own idea of what it means to "work on yourself," read on as experts explain exactly how to approach self-growth in an accepting, nurturing way, and why it'll benefit you all the more.
1. Remember, you're not working toward an end goal.
Personal growth is a journey — one that involves your past, present, and future self. But it's important to note that it's a journey without an ultimate destination; rather, just a direction.
"Self-work is taking a long, hard look at yourself and how you've shown up in your life," says Val Jones, a speaker and certified life coach. "If you're not satisfied with past results or how you're showing up today, it's an opportunity to change. It is the 'journey' of becoming the best version of you." (See: What Is a Life Coach — and Could You Benefit from One?)
And though this superlative idea of the "best version of yourself" seems, well, pretty much like an end goal, it still isn't. Really, self-work is not about becoming the best but simply becoming better. "There is never a moment in time when you should think to yourself, 'Yeah, I'm perfect. There is nothing more I need to work on,'" explains Jones. "You are human. You are flawed. You make mistakes. You fail."
2. Ditch the illusion that checked boxes are tied to your self-worth.
Society breeds "box checkers" — those who feel like they need recognition and validation of everything they've done "right" (according to some obscure societal standard, anyway). That often looks like going to college, landing a job, finding a partner, buying a house, and having a baby. But constantly having to check life boxes for the sake of just checking boxes — especially if these society-picked steps are not necessarily to-dos that excite you — can be dangerous, says Charese L. Josie, L.C.S.W., women's leadership coach and founder of CJ Counseling and Consulting Services.
"When this happens, your self-worth is tied into your work and goals," she explains. "This is dangerous because you become under the false illusion that you control your destiny and, when you realize that life will happen to all of us in one way or another, you're not prepared. It's then that people feel they have failed in some way."
Jones — who's a self-proclaimed list-maker — warns that, while she loves creating goals for herself and checking them off, you shouldn't become attached to those lists. "When you attach yourself entirely to checking off goals, you will find yourself in a place where you will ask yourself 'what next?' and it will never be enough," she says.
Instead, give yourself permission to not follow all of the rules and regimens to which you've subscribed. Explore what feels right for you, and celebrate all of your unique wins along the way. This means "freeing yourself and your mind from the expectations of others," says Hendrickson — including all those boxes you feel obliged and pressured to check.
"Self-development is often too obsessed with piling on new things: new goals, new skills, new certifications," adds Chris Lee, a mindset coach and award-winning author of Less Is the New More. "The most powerful self-growth comes from stripping things away: other people's expectations, self-limiting blockers, and assumptions that don't serve you."
3. Practice makes progress, not perfection.
Self-development is about bettering yourself, not perfecting yourself; there's no such thing as perfect.
"I like to think of self-growth as awareness and clarity work; it's discovering and uncovering who you are in the present," says Tiffany Lanier, a public speaker on change and wellbeing, a clarity coach, and the founder of The Morning Shift Co. "Taking inventory of old stories, habits, and behaviors that need to be unlearned and acknowledging the ones that need to be embraced. As you do this awareness and clarity work, you also keep an eye on the vision of who you're looking to become."
A huge part of this inner work is creating space that honors the fact that "your seasons change" while allowing for grace, she adds. You have to understand that it took years, if not decades, to become who you are now. And change doesn't happen overnight.
"When you seek perfection (or the illusion of perfection) in your effort to change, you do yourself a disservice and negate the real point of self-growth and development work — which ultimately is to learn more about yourself… and move toward a more desirable way of existing in your day-to-day life." (See: Why You're Not Failing If You Don't Have An Instagram-Worthy Morning Routine)
4. Let go of shame.
In order to create change, you need to come from a place of compassion.
"All too often, people work on themselves to remove parts they hate, which leaves scars on their souls, or they contort themselves into someone they aren't — but it doesn't have to be this way," says psychotherapist and ADHD coach Rebecca Tolbert, LICSW. "When you start with unconditional love for yourself, you can recognize your 'bad habits' and 'vices' for what they are: coping mechanisms. You were doing the best you could to deal with what happened in your life. And now you're ready to deal with things in a more adaptive way."
Instead of spiraling in shame and self-loathing, she says it's important to "love yourself up" to higher levels of functioning. "You don't have to beat yourself into a certain behavior," she explains. (See: Why Shaming Doesn't Work, As Evidenced By COVID)
After all, the mistakes you've inevitably made along the way are opportunities for personal growth.
"Contemporary developmental psychologists think of healthy relationships as being based on the dynamics of rupture and repair — in contrast to perfection or perfectionism — and when you allow each mistake (rupture) to be an opportunity for growth (repair) you're engaging grace, self-forgiveness, and compassion to enter your heart, mind, and life," says Mark Borg, Ph.D., co-author of the upcoming book Making Your Crazy Work for You.
Besides, so much of what you know about yourself (and love and hate, accept and reject) is what you've been taught — by society, by other people, by culture — about yourself, he adds.
"So much of what you know comes from the early, ongoing, and consistently reflected appraisals that you receive, take in, and make use of in the development of your relationship not only with the world but also with yourself," says Borg.(See: How Negative Self-Talk Harms Your Health)
5. Look inward instead of outward for development opportunities.
It can be easy to buy into the idea that specific actions or habits will help you become a better, more enlightened version of yourself. But it's not about the podcasts you listen to, the books you read, or the things you write in your journal. Personal growth work starts with tuning into yourself, says Azadeh Khatibi, M.D., M.S., M.P.H., a physician, teacher, healer, and creator.
"[Self-development] involves understanding your unique neuro-psychological profile, and understanding how your genes, childhood, and past experiences have 'programmed' you into who you are," she says. (Take, for example, attachment styles, which form when you're less than a year old.)
A lot of this work requires "centered detachment," she explains. That doesn't mean ditching who you are because that person isn't "good enough." Rather, it means "accepting the duality, the yin and yang, the light and the dark" of the ego with great compassion. (Related: How to Explore Your Dark Side Through Shadow Work)
"Ultimately, it requires listening to your heart, being gentle with yourself and your imperfect 'programs' — a by-product of being human," continues Dr. Khatibi. "It's a life-long, never-ending process of peeling back the layers of the onion of life."
That's why your thoughts and feelings are so important during self-development — arguably more so than the hard goals you're hitting or not.
"It's crucial to not just focus on your behavior (what you're doing or not doing and the results you're getting or not getting)," says Annalicia Niemela, a certified holistic health coach and leader of the Exercise180 Movement. "It's also crucial to focus on what you're thinking, who you're being, and, ultimately, how you're feeling."
A change in attitude precedes a change in behavior. "A natural byproduct of thinking better is doing better," she says. "When you begin to think better, you won't have to force yourself to do better; it will happen naturally and will be sustained naturally. Valuing life's 'intangibles' is absolutely key to finding that sweet spot where success, sustainability, and peace of mind all come together."