By Sarah Wesch, Ph.D.
Often, when we consider the idea of self-acceptance, we find some way to resist the idea. We might want to accept ourselves, but find it hard to accept the parts of ourselves that we want to change. We might accept ourselves when we’re successful, but feel self-loathing when times are tough. We might fear that accepting ourselves will mean giving up or not making any more progress. However, paradoxically, the opposite is true. The only real way to make progress is to start by accepting where you are. Trying to move forward without first accepting where you are is like trying to use a map at a shopping mall and not having the “you are here” label. No matter where you are in your life journey, “YOU ARE HERE” and that’s totally okay. No, really, it is!
It’s not hard to accept ourselves when school, work, and relationships are going good, and when we’re feeling calm and happy. When something goes wrong in one of those areas, we tend to jump into “fix it” mode. We try to eliminate any negative experience or feeling from our lives. While this approach is sometimes helpful, leading us to make positive changes, it can backfire. This is particularly true when what we are trying to fix isn’t entirely under our own control. Thoughts, feelings and relationships are under our influence, but we can’t dictate exactly how these important facets of our life will unfold. When we try to control these things, it often makes it worse. Imagine breaking up with a significant other. How effective is it to tell yourself “stop feeling this way!”? It’s like the classic example: try not to think of a white elephant. When we try to suppress our thoughts or feelings, the opposite occurs: the thoughts and feelings get even more intense. The more we try to escape, the tighter they hold on (like one of those Chinese finger traps.)
When we let go of our need to control our thoughts and feelings, we move into a mode where we can be less self-critical. We can begin to approach our problem in a way that is more calm and compassionate. Instead of asking ourselves “What is wrong with me?? Why can’t I just get over this??” We can say, “What is it that I need right now? What resources might I use to help improve this situation? What could I do to help myself?”
At this point, some of my readers are saying to themselves, “That’s okay for some people, but I can’t accept X, Y, or Z about myself.” Is there part of you that is thinking that way? Take some time to fill in the blanks of the following sentences. Fill it as many responses as you can think of, in the space below:
I can’t accept …… about myself. I can’t accept myself because .….. I can’t accept my ……
Did anything come to mind? For some people, it will bring to mind emotions (“I can’t accept my depressed feelings.”) For others, it might be something about your appearance or performance (“I can’t accept my weight.” Or “I can’t accept my grades.”) For others, it might reveal deeper self-loathing (“I can’t accept myself because I’m a loser.”) It could even be part of your past that wasn’t under your control (“I can’t accept that I was molested as a child.”) This exercise helps to reveal the most important things for you to work on accepting. It’s not hard to accept our strengths—what is essential is finding a way to accept the parts of ourselves that we feel ashamed of.
“But wait!” some of you might be saying, “What is acceptable about being depressed, overweight, having poor grades or a history of trauma? Aren’t you just putting a happy face on a bad situation, a situation that needs to be changed?” Again, it’s important to remember that we don’t have to be perfect to be acceptable. Somehow, our life circumstances, much of which is out of our control, have led us to where we are today. We may have made choices that we regret, engage in behavior that we dislike, or have painful feelings. This is the human condition. There is nothing that you’re feeling, thinking or doing that hasn’t been felt, thought or done by someone else. When you accept yourself, you see yourself clearly, with patience and compassion. This is the only way to move forward and change the things that you want to change about yourself.
Steps towards Self-acceptance
1) Look at the responses that you made to the first exercise. These are the aspects of yourself that most need accepting.
2) Try to understand how you came to possess the thoughts, feelings, or experiences that you are struggling to accept. Are there other people in your family with similar issues? Can you relate it to the way that you were raised? Understanding where you issues came from is an important part of being accepting of the issues. If you are struggling to understand how you came to be where you are today, it could be helpful to do some reflective journaling or to speak with a trained therapist. 3) Create different self-talk. If you struggle with self-acceptance, then you likely have a very negative track of thoughts playing in your head. Replace those negative thoughts with more self-accepting ones. Try finishing the following sentences:
a. “It’s okay that I feel……” b. “I understand why I……” c. “I’m working on ….… but I’m okay where I am.”
4) Adopt a mantra. A mantra is a saying that we repeat to ourselves. It helps us to embrace a new way of thinking. “Progress not perfection” is one self-accepting mantra.
5) Treat yourself like you’d treat a friend. Often, we are much more accepting and forgiving of our friend’s shortcomings than we are of our own. Ask yourself, what would I tell a friend who was in my situation?
6) Don’t give up. It can take a long time to reverse the habit of self-criticism. The process may feel like “two steps forward one step back.” That’s okay. You’ll still be one step ahead.