The more I learn about Buddhism and develop my own meditation practice the more I think about one of the core paradoxes of happiness. It seems there are two paths you can take on the path to greater well-being. You can work to close the gap between where you currently perceive yourself to be and where you want to be. That's generally called personal development. The other path is to close the gap between who you perceive yourself to be and who you want to be by shifting who you want to be to who you are. I'm calling this self-acceptance.
I think this is a fundamental aspect of being human: what is the best balance between personal development and self-acceptance? Too much of either would appear to result in less-than-ideal results. If you're 100% focused on personal development then you lose awareness of the present. Being obsessed with being "better" can end up being a profoundly unhappy way to live as you're constantly thinking about how the future can be different from the present. There's nothing wrong with wanting a better future for yourself but if it comes at the cost of enjoying the present you have to ask yourself if it's worth the price.
On the other hand, the other end of the continuum doesn't seem optimal either. Complete self-acceptance with no interest in personal development results in a lack of preparedness for the future. Working on yourself helps you be ready to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. Whether that is something as simple as getting into better shape so you can play with your kids or being strong enough to save someone from an emergency situation, personal development of some nature is what prepared you. Complete lack of interest in personal development also means that you're not interested in improving yourself for the benefit of the people around you. I do lots of annoying things that I'm trying to be better about because I don't want the people I care about to have to deal with it.
There is clearly some optimal point on the continuum between complete self-acceptance and personal development that we should be aiming for. In the past, I thought of this as a static place where once I found it I'd know it. Now, I've come to think of the continuum as much more fluid. I think that optimal point changes depending on the situation in your life. For example, sometimes I think too much about what I could be doing to improve myself. I'll make lists of habits I want to change, things I want to learn about, and online courses I want to take. I become acutely aware of how who I want to be and who I currently am are vastly different. At times like these it can be helpful to take a step back, re-engage with my meditation practice with new dedication, and try to cultivate some self-acceptance. At other times I can find myself becoming complacent. When complacency sets in it means I've stopped challenging myself. That's when I need to scale back the self-acceptance and kick my butt a bit.
What seems important to me now, and I think I'm getting better at this, is figuring out where I am on the continuum and where I need to be. I think a lot of the mental anguish we experience in our lives is caused by not recognizing our mental state. We feel something unpleasant and we leave it at that. Feeling unpleasant leaves us cranky and irritable. But if you can feel unpleasant and then identify WHY you feel unpleasant, that's a whole new story. I'm getting better at labeling my emotions for what they are. A labeled emotion is going to have a much less severe impact on your mental well-being (both bad and good, though).
Learning how to label emotions and recognize where you are on the self-acceptance/personal development continuum is a topic for another article, unfortunately. The sneak peak, though, is that it comes from training your mind. How do you think you develop this ability?