To push or to accept?6 min read

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Is it better to push ourselves, or to cut ourselves some slack? Should we accept our limitations and pat ourselves on the back for trying, or refuse to settle for less than our vision and push further?

I get a variant of this question a lot, both in my live classes and in my coaching sessions. People struggle with it for different reasons.

Some people are better at self-acceptance. Pushing themselves to try harder, and keeping themselves really accountable to their intentions, is experienced as painful—usually because there is a tendency to be overly critical with oneself. Self-acceptance can lead to balance; but at times it can lead to low motivation, low energy, or complacency

Other people are better at trying hard, not giving up, and being resilient. This is generally a good thing, but can easily backfire by creating excessive stress in one’s journey—which leads to burnout and potentially giving up. We also know that when we are in a state of emotional distress we are more likely to resort to bad habits and temptations (this is known as the “what the hell” loop).

So, which approach is better? As with many things in personal development, the answer is: that it depends. Each of these ways of thinking can be an asset, or a liability, depending on how and where it is applied.

When making a Never Zero commitment, we start with full determination, and with the mindset that we cannot fail and will not fail. We believe that we will absolutely do that small action every day, no matter what.

At this stage, if you start telling yourself that it may happen that someday you forget your habit or choose not to do it, and that if you fail it’s okay because you can start over—then you are already dissipating the power of your will. That is not self-compassion, but self-sabotage. Part of your mental energy is going in the opposite direction, busy making sure you feel good in case you fail. It means you are not fully determined.

So in the initial phase of setting a goal, intention, or commitment, it is better to do so with full belief in your capacity to fulfill it—to do so with conviction and optimism. That is the best tool for the job, at that stage.

But then what happens if, for whatever reason, you actually break your commitment? That’s when you need to switch gears, and tap into the mindset of self-acceptance and self-forgiveness. Otherwise, you’ll just cause yourself needless suffering, disempower yourself further, and likely abandon the journey.

Now, the way you practice self-acceptance and self-forgiveness also matters. Knowing how to navigate the nuances of this challenge in a way that is both healing and empowering, is an art.

For example, we are not telling ourselves, “It doesn’t matter that I didn’t keep my commitment this time, no big deal”. If you think that way, you are undermining your motivation, because when you decide to try again, part of you will feel that your efforts won’t matter, and that the result is not that important. Your energy won’t be focused.

Instead, it is better to face the difficult emotions of that moment. They are reminding you why your goal matters. They are telling you that you have high standards for yourself, that you want more for yourself, and that you are committed to tapping into your full potential for actualizing them—that’s why it hurts when you don’t.

So we go and feel those emotions. But we don’t allow them turn into a negative self-talk around our identity. This is the key point. You don’t let it connect to previous experiences of failure to create a narrative of low self-worth or low self-confidence. You feel the pain, let it go after some time, and then shift gears again to determination and self-belief.

So here is how these seemingly opposite mindsets fit into the cycle of Mindful Self-Discipline:

  1. Purpose. Start by becoming aware of your aspiration, which is the change you want to make in yourself or in your life. Choose one related habit that you need to build or to break, so that you get a step closer to your goals.
  2. Determination. Have a strong intention to keep your commitment to building/breaking that habit, no matter what. Do that with the self-belief that you can do it and will do it. Keep at bay any doubts or hesitation.
  3. Face Failure. If you do fail, don’t be too quick to soothe yourself. It’s okay to mindfully feel those emotions of disappointment and frustration, for they can fuel your motivation and commitment. Just make sure you don’t turn those emotions into a self-deprecating narrative. Don’t weave them into your identity. Simply be aware of them—let them be, then let them go.
  4. Recommit. Reconnect to your aspiration, and tell yourself, with renewed self-belief, “I can do this. I will do this.” Bring in even more determination to succeed. Your failure doesn’t define you. As long as you are determined, every failure is a step forward toward success.

In summary: Aspiration → Willpower → Awareness → repeat

Mental Flexibility

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

— The Serenity Prayer

In the paragraphs above we saw how two seemingly opposing mindsets are actually both valuable and useful. We went into detail about how to employ each of them in a way that we benefit from their strengths, without falling into their shadows.

This is actually true not only about the dichotomy of pushing vs. accepting, but in many other areas of our lives.

  • At times we need to tolerate, ignore, and let go so that we can maintain our relationships; at other times we need to set boundaries, speak up, or even fight, for the same reason.
  • At times we need to be naively optimistic, so we can get started on a project; at other times we need to be a grounded realist, so that we can adjust our expectations continue on the project.
  • At times we need to have full conviction in something, so that we gain clarity and energy; at other times we need to put all assumptions to the test, and doubt every conclusion.
  • At times we have to continue doing what we are doing, and just be patient; at other times we have to realize that our approach is not working, or we are not gaining momentum, and thus make a change.
  • At times we need to let go of perfectionism so that we can get started; at other times we need to invite in positive perfectionism so that we have a reason to keep going.

The bigger lesson, here, is that it is better to see every attitude, every mindset, and every virtue, as a tool in our toolbox. If we only have one type of tool, we’ll try to apply it to all cases. It’s the proverbial hammer, which treats everything as a nail. (And not everything is a nail!)

Our higher mind has the features of both awareness and willpower. They are both useful and both power. What we need is both the mental flexibility to be able to operate both modes, and the wisdom to know which to use. Both of these skills are trained via meditation and self-reflection.

Exercise

What is one mindset, approach, or tool that you have been resorting to a lot in your life?

How is that a strength for you?

How is that a weakness for you?

How can you integrate the opposite tool into a harmonious whole?

Going Deeper

To deepen into these concepts, check out chapter 38 of Mindful Self-Discipline, and also chapter 1 of my new book Wise Confidence, which explores how to balance self-belief and humility into a more mindful way of being confident.

If you are a member of the Mindful Self-Discipline app, I suggest you try the ALFA Meditation whenever you need guided support for processing failure in a healing and empowering way.

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