Recently I had a midlife “don’t try this at home” moment when I had professional, high-def photos taken for my website.
Every wrinkle, line, and sag on my face appeared in sharp relief. I joked about needing multiple Photoshop injections, but inside I was haunted by an essay by humorist Heather Havriesky entitled, Are You Aging Correctly?
The answer is yes, and no. In my mind’s eye, I am eternally young, enlivened by joie de vivre. In the mirror, I am me, scrambling even in a pandemic to dye my hair the right color and working out like crazy to avoid the Quarantine 15.
While Havriesky’s essay is aimed at women, the core concept — that people of a certain age are supposed to have “matured beyond vanity” — is universal.
That sentiment is more than skin deep. It cuts to the eternal question: With all you have and all you’ve done, when will it feel like it’s enough? Like you’re enough?
Self-Improvement vs. Self-Acceptance
Here at Further, we talk a lot about what it takes to live your best life at midlife. Finding meaning and purpose top the list.
These things aren’t simple to define or quantify. Even self-optimization guru Tim Ferriss has found accomplishments alone don’t equate to what we desire most, including contentment and a sense of worthiness. As he points out,
…not everything that is meaningful can be measured easily.
Self-improvement, while a valid way to pursue happiness, has a built-in limitation. The very definition involves bettering yourself, which makes self-acceptance conditional. High standards, up to and including perfectionism, can fast-track low self-esteem.
On the other hand, self-acceptance allows you to move beyond your ego, drop judgments and comparisons, and equally embrace your strengths and weaknesses. This expands the possibility of finding peace.
Come As You Are
This isn’t to say that personal growth and being comfortable with yourself are mutually exclusive; in fact, the two work together. Radical self-acceptance, a concept put forth by psychotherapist and meditation teacher Tara Brach and embraced by Ferriss, is a great way to diffuse the pressure of making changes and taking risks.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t compete in a healthy way, put wholehearted commitment into work, or acknowledge and take pleasure in our own competence. But when our efforts are driven by the fear that we are flawed, we deepen the trance of unworthiness.
Back to the question of aging correctly, or really, doing anything right. Who’s to say what’s best for you? Stepping into your power means letting the critics inside your head and IRL prattle on and still hold onto that joie de vivre.
Because self-acceptance is the ultimate self-improvement. And we’re old enough to know that by now.