Healing Through The Practice of Self-Acceptance

Self-Acceptance is not a way of thinking. It is a way of living that embodies awareness, compassion, and a willingness to enter into experience just as it is in each moment, whether that experience is painful or pleasurable. Ultimately it is the avoidance of pain and the attachment to pleasure that cause all suffering including addictions, mental and emotional distress, violence, and war. (The concept of attachment has been mentioned briefly earlier in this blog [Letting Go], and it will be addressed at greater length in the near future as it is a key concept.)

Self-Acceptance is hardest when our lives have been filled will rejection, non-acceptance of us by others – our parents & family, our community, and the culture at large. Dismantling the stories they have told us about ourselves can be challenging because the stories have been told and retold so many times and often by many. That makes it difficult for us to NOT believe the story, to NOT accept the story as our own truth. The story is the truth of the teller and reflects more on their own life story – one of prejudice, competition, control, ignorance, hypocrisy, self-loathing, and fear.

These are not features of the story I have for myself so I try to root them out when I “read” them in my own actions and language. Is what I am saying and doing promoting the story of non-Self acceptance? Am I replaying an automatic tape in my head of something that is self-defeating, self-deprecating, and judgmental of Me? It can be especially difficult if you are a member of an oppressed or marginalized group. It’s easy to start to believe the story that is being told and this can give rise to Self-doubt. If it doesn’t feel right, instinctively, or doesn’t make sense logically, then it is not right for your story. It’s ok to say, “well, that’s your story and your belied, but I don’t have to accept it as mine nor do I need to react to it in a way that is disturbing to my way of being.”

This is not to say we should not stand up to social injustice. It is important to take action against oppression. However, we needn’t internalize the message (story) told by those wishing to denigrate and subjugate. Their need to exert power over only reveals their feelings of impotency. If they had self-acceptance and personal power they would not feel a need to castigate or lash out against another with differing views and ways of being.

How do we love ourselves despite all our faults--Learning self-acceptance?

Dr. Maslow believed that acceptance of self and others (and all their imperfections) was one of the primary characteristics of self-actualized people. His description follows.

They can accept their own human nature in the stoic style, with all its shortcomings, with all its discrepancies from the ideal image without feeling real concern. It would convey the wrong impression to say that they are self-satisfied. What we must say rather is that they can take the frailties and sins, weaknesses, and evils of human nature in the same unquestioning spirit with which one accepts the characteristics of nature. One does not complain about water because it is wet or about rocks because they are hard, or about trees because they are green.

As the child looks out upon the world with wide, uncritical, undemanding, innocent eyes, simply noting and observing what is the case, without either arguing the matter or demanding that it be otherwise, so does the self-actualizing person tend to look upon human nature in himself and in others.
(Abraham Maslow, (1954) pp. 155-156)

The little, wide-eyed child Dr. Maslow described in this passage is the Higher Self. What I believe has happened for these self-actualized people, is that their Higher Selves have become the dominant parts of their personalities, and the other parts have become integrated with their Higher Selves.

We all do things that are dysfunctional to our own and others health and happiness. We are all only human and have many limits to our knowledge, skills, and resources. Our limits may create dysfunctional habits that we keep our entire lives. However, the Higher Self is committed to growth and to our quest for self-actualization. It wants us to have a happy, productive life no matter what our past was like.

We will never get rid of all our inadequacies or negative subparts. Getting rid of negative subparts is not our task. It is ok for those negative subparts to exist, but we must remove their power to control our lives. Our task is to strengthen the more functional parts of ourselves and learn ways of identifying, understanding, and coping with the more negative parts. If you can do that you will be making fundamental personality changes that will have effects in many areas of your life.

Psychologists since Freud have recognized that one of the major causes of emotional problems are habits of repressing, avoiding, or denying parts of ourselves that we feel bad about. We hope that if we just avoid these negative parts, they will go away. While this approach does have some merit in limited situations, we cannot just avoid major subparts of ourselves that continue to cause havoc in our lives. That avoidance can actually give them more control.

Self-understanding, self-acceptance, and restructuring our beliefs are the keys to getting control of our underlying negative belief systems. See the self-exploration process in chapter 2 and the sections below to explore beliefs about yourself and replace dysfunctional ones.

"We make mistakes, mistakes don't make us"

Learn how to accept all of yourself, your past and your future
The self-acceptance process is a method for accepting the parts of yourself that you may feel bad about. Think of some part or aspect of yourself that you don't like--especially some aspect that you can't change immediately. Use the following process to increase your self-acceptance of that part. Even if you do choose to change that part, gaining acceptance of it as it is now is an important first step to change. The first thing that Alcoholics Anonymous requires of new members is for them to admit that they are alcoholics.

Step 1: CHOOSE TO VALUE TRUTH ABOVE ALL--Including honor and pride
The words "pride" and "honor" can mean many things. In certain contexts they can be functional concepts that enhance our lives. The idea of taking pride in our work and caring about what we do are examples of using the concept of "pride" functionally. Similarly, honoring or specially recognizing someone because they have achieved an important goal can be functional.

However, placing values best confined to specific situations above more important values can lead to dysfunctional results. When we put our honor, pride, or any other self-image above the truth, then we are inviting disaster--in the form of guilt hammering at our peace. Trying to drown guilt with alcohol, work-ahol, or play-ahol instead of facing the truth are dysfunctional results of putting pride above truth. Being completely honest with yourself is the first step toward self-acceptance--even when it means facing the worst truths about yourself.

Ask yourself questions like, "What do I expect myself to be like?" "How does that differ from how I am?" and "How are my beliefs, thoughts, and actions different from what I expect them to be?"

Explore conflicting expectations from different subparts. You may find conflicting answers to these questions from different parts of yourself. One part may expect you to make a lot of money, while another part may think that money is not important. In other words, you may have conflicting expectations from different parts of yourself.

Step 3: EXPLORE THE UNDERLYING CAUSES--Knowing "WHY" increases acceptance
One way we give more control to our healthy parts is to understand our dysfunctional parts better. We can question and change these beliefs and learn more functional beliefs. Some important questions to understand why we keep performing unproductive habits include:

When does it occur? What situations and stimuli regularly precede it?
What thoughts and behaviors occur?
What thoughts and images are associated with these thoughts?
What overall themes, beliefs, or assumptions are behind these thoughts or actions?
What internal or external outcomes may be reinforcing the thoughts and behaviors?
What are the historical causes of the habits? (Eg. Parental or peer modeling, instructions, reinforcements, etc.)

Remember, The more successful and powerful we are, the more praise and criticism we receive. More derogatory jokes, cartoons, and statements are made about the president of the United States than any other person in the country. Yet, by many measures, he is the most powerful and successful person in the entire country! What if the president couldn't stand criticism and got upset every time a politician or journalist said something negative about him? It just wouldn't do to have a thin-skinned president.

Behaviors are just behaviors. They do not come with labels. But--no matter who we are or how we behave--people will give negative and positive labels to those neutral behaviors. People who like what we do will use positive labels, and people who don't like what we do will use negative labels--for the same behaviors. There is no way out--even doing nothing can be labeled negatively. Certainly we will not think well of a president who does nothing.

What can you do if you have been inhibited by your fears of negative labels? First, assume that whatever you do will not be liked by some people. Those people may use negative labels to describe your behavior. They may also overgeneralize and use a negative label to describe you as a person. Not just that you acted "selfishly," but that you are "selfish."

Also, remind yourself that the more successful and influential someone becomes, the more they will be the target of negative comments. The more decisively you act, the more upset those who disagree will become. Learning to accept those negative comments is necessary if you want to have a significant positive impact on the world. Otherwise, your fear of those comments will keep you from speaking or acting assertively.

How to overcome negative labels. In addition to using the self-exploration methods, try using the following to help you identify and overcome some of your worst-feared negative labels.

1. Make a list of the worst possible self-labels. Follow your fears and imagine the worst possible comments someone could say or think about you. List them all--no matter how "silly" or unlikely they seem.

2. Accept the worst possible consequences and implications. Pick two or three of the worst labels to work on accepting. For each negative description use the self-exploration process described in chapter 2 to explore the implications of these self-labels. What beliefs or historical events with others underlie these self-labels? What are the practical implications for your life if it turns out you really are this way? What routes to happiness would still be open to you if the worst were to happen?

3. Learn to accept and love yourself "Even if I were a whatsit." Work on accepting and loving yourself even if you were this worst possible "whatsit." Unconditional self-love means that we can love and respect ourselves no matter what kind of a "whatsit" we might be. You are more than a label. You may do "whatsit" behaviors or even partly be a "whatsit," but you are much more than a "whatsit" and your essence is not a "whatsit."

4. Face the truth. Face the issue "How true is this description of me." Try to be honest with yourself and even seek the opinion of trusted others.

5. Do you want to make any changes? Keep working on accepting and loving yourself as you are now even if you do intend to change some part of yourself. As you begin to accept that you are an ok, worthwhile person who can love yourself being a whatsit, you free yourself to decide whether or not you really want to partly be a "whatsit" or not.
You are no longer being "pressured" into change by guilt, "shoulds," or internalized expectations from others. You can now ask yourself questions like, "Will's I be happier being a 'whatsit' or not?" or "Is changing from a 'whatsit' a high enough priority in my life to merit the time and effort it will take?"

PRACTICE: Learn to accept your worst possible self labels. Just as Roger Crawford learned to accept and love his hands and feet, we can learn to accept the worst possible "whatsit" that we might possibly be. We need to do this even before we face the truth. We need to follow our fears to the bottom or worst fear. Try thinking of all of the worst possible labels or descriptions you can think that someone might say or think about you. Then apply steps 1-5 above to overcome those worst possible label fears.

For more visit: http://front.csulb.edu/tstevens/
Copyright 2004, Tom G. Stevens PhD. A very special thanks to Dr. Tom G. Stevens, a licensed psychologist and professor at California State University, Long Beach, in the Counseling and Psychological Services Center.

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