One does not complain about the water because it is wet, nor about the rocks because they are hard.
No amount of self-improvement can make up for a lack of self-acceptance.
God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference (from “The Serenity Prayer”).
Accepting yourself, including your flaws, is perhaps the greatest gift you can give yourself. And, it’s quite a gift to give to the rest of us, too. So much of our life is spent in self-denial, projection, or constantly comparing ourselves to others, that we forget how important it is for our physical and psychological health to truly, deeply, and “radically” accept ourselves. The purpose of this blog is to discuss self-acceptance, why it’s so important for being more Self-Actualized, and steps we can begin to take to accept ourselves – warts and all.
Maslow stated that this attribute – Self-Acceptance – is foundational for a healthy life, and for reaching our highest potential. Maslow, like many others, found that it is impossible to truly love and accept others unless you love and accept yourself. There are two levels of self-acceptance: internal and external.
From an internal perspective, Maslow stated that Self-Actualized individuals identified with, and accepted, their human nature in a “stoic style,” meaning that they didn’t use their acceptance as a “get-out-of-jail-free” card to justify their negative tendencies or traits. However, they also didn’t expend energy demanding that their nature be otherwise.
Now, here’s where it gets complicated: Maslow found that while Self-Actualized individuals accepted the immutable or unchangeable aspects of themselves, they strove to improve, develop, and enhance the characteristics that could be changed and improved. I refer to the “immutable” aspects of ourselves as our Timeless Traits. These aspects – our height, love of an activity or hobby, sense of duty, and the like – inform who we are and they are, essentially, unchangeable. However, when we fall short in other aspects of our lives, aspects that could be changed, such as being jealous or jumping to conclusions, it is appropriate to feel regret and guilt. I refer to these aspects as our Transient Traits – they can (and often should) be developed or changed. For example, I have made peace with the fact that I am 5’8” and will never play in the NBA. There is nothing I can do about that. However, at times I can be reactive in certain situations (or with certain people) and that approach rarely leads to a productive outcome. Being reactive with others causes me to feel regret, and that inspires me to improve. Understanding and acting on the differences between Timeless and Transient Traits are crucial for developing an objective and realistic appraisal of your developmental opportunities, as well as what you need to accept and let go.
The second level of self-acceptance relates to our external world: that which you are experiencing on a frequent basis. Tara Brach, author of “Radical Acceptance,” states that this kind of acceptance occurs at two levels: an honest acknowledgment of what you’re feeling, and the courage to just be with that part of your life. She refers to recognizing and then allowing those thoughts and emotions to exist without judgment. For example, you may be living with someone who constantly puts his needs before yours, or someone who refuses to pick up after herself. When this happens, you may feel angry and resentful. Acknowledging and allowing these emotions to flow, without denying or repressing them, is key for living a full, healthy life.
Although accepting yourself at this level requires a focused effort and the realization that it is very much a process as opposed to a one-time event, it can be done! Below are some suggested strategies for letting go of guilt, shame, and regret, and for embracing total, “radical” self-acceptance:
- Practice Relaxed Awareness: Notice without judgment what you feel and think.
- Grieve Losses: There are people we’ve lost, as well as dreams or hopes, and we should create the space to mourn their absence in our lives.
- Stop Comparing Yourself to Others: If you must compete, compete with yourself to be a better person, but stop comparing yourself to your neighbor or your ex.
- Express Gratitude: Journal every day and write down the things you are thankful for, focusing on all the positive things in your life. And watch this TED Talk: Gratitude TED Talk.
- Serve Others: When we are internally focused on ourselves and swimming in our own loss, regret, guilt, or shame, it’s easy to get stuck. Reach out to others who are less fortunate and practice compassion and service.
At the end of the day you must believe deep down that you deserve your own love and compassion. And if you can’t bring yourself to self-acceptance for you, then consider doing it for the other people in your life. What kind of love, support, and compassion will you be able to give them once you truly accept yourself?
Photo provided courtesy of Stacy Braswell