Accept yourself just as you are.
October 24, 2021
That curious paradox — the only way we can change is to first accept ourselves just as we are — was identified by Carl Rogers, the father of humanistic psychology.
Rogers spoke from personal experience. He wasn’t loftily trying to fix broken people. He was learning from them, and sharing his experience of what worked in moving toward a satisfying life. He was a work in progress, never claiming to fully actualize who he wanted to be, but always working toward that end.
But if we are to accept ourselves just as we are, we must first discover how we sabotage that acceptance.
Here are three possibilities:
- We resist what life hands us.
- We have unrealistic expectations.
- We confuse our random thoughts with values.
RESISTANCE TO WHAT LIFE HANDS US
Life hands us personal characteristics — strengths and limitations. Every one of us has the full menu of qualities — anxious, confident, depressed, happy, assertive, passive, generous, selfish…
Think of any characteristic, and buried deep within, you carry the seed.
Life also sometimes rudely plops us into environments and situations that aren’t ideal.
But here’s the thing to remember. The more you push against the reality of who you are or where you landed, the more you grind it in stone. That means that whatever you resist, ignore, or avoid, will get bigger and become more powerful.
Many of us spend much of our life trying to be somebody we can like, which is terrific. But when we ignore the parts that we don’t like or pretend we don’t have them, they tend to grow and sometimes take over, or show up in weird ways.
Take the person who believes they’re always kind. When they behave in unkind ways, they will fall on the sword to prove that they’re only doing what they’re doing because they love you, or because it makes sense (to them).
The same thing is true of life. If I avoid seeing that my job is killing my soul, or I rationalize that my marriage isn’t that bad, or that my community isn’t really struggling, the less chance there is that I’m going to do anything to change what may be an unsatisfying or even damaging, situation.
Often, resistance is simply a habit. For instance, someone tells me what to do. I have a problem with authority. My immediate response is, “No!”
Just because my usual response is to say no, that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Today we know about neuroplasticity, so we know that our brains can change. Which means we can change.
But we can’t change something that we refuse to acknowledge exists.
We must use our resistance as a tool that reminds us to look more closely at something, rather than look away or pretend ourselves beyond who we really are.
We live in a world that promotes unrealistic expectations. And when our expectations aren’t met, we believe something is wrong with us, or with the world.
In his book “The Practice of Groundedness,” Brad Stulberg references a 2006 epidemiologist study of why Denmark citizens consistently score higher on measures of happiness and well-being. The outcome was that though they scored high on life satisfaction, their expectations were relatively low.
In another 2014 study, Stulberg looked at research done at the University College of London. In lay terms, the primary outcome was that happiness at any given moment equals reality minus expectations.
If expectations are constantly higher than your reality, you’ll never be content.
So are the Danes’ expectations low, or are they simply more realistic?
The important thing to remember is that neither study suggested we should consistently set low expectations.
They did reinforce that we need to embrace all of who we are, and all of life, exactly as it is. That means seeing through a lens that is grounded in reality. Not just seeing what we want to see.
If I decide to enter a contest to win a bathtub full of cash, the odds that I will guess the number of dollar bills in that bathtub is probably something like a trillion to one. It’s fun to guess, if I don’t delude myself that I have a ten to one chance to win.
We need to realistically assess what’s going on, and then reassess often.
CONFUSING THOUGHTS WITH VALUES
Your values develop over a lifetime. Some of them you internalized from your primary caregivers or folks who influenced you as you matured. Some you developed through your life experience. Your values represent who you want to be and how you want to behave.
However we come to them, we need to pay more attention to our values than to the random thoughts and feelings that usually drive our decision-making.
How often have you had an unexpected thought followed by an emotion that made you blurt something you regretted? Or a thought that prompted you to say yes when you wanted to say no?
Our thoughts and feelings are important when they are grounded in the present moment. Our ability to think is what separates us from every other species. Our cognitive abilities have allowed us to survive, thrive, and lengthen our lifespans in ways that two hundred years ago would have seemed like a science fiction fantasy.
However, when we are on autopilot, caught in habitual ruminations, our thoughts can take us down paths that our values would never go. Our thoughts can tell us that we really aren’t the problem when we keep getting fired or lose relationships one after the other. Our values will help us get back on track and more in line with reality.
When we confuse our random thoughts with values, we can convince ourselves of almost anything. We work to recognize the difference so we can let our values lead the way. And that is the beginning of change.
To sum it up, if you want to create change — either internally or externally — you need to first accept yourself as you are and life as it is. To do that you need to do three things:
- Accept ‘what is’ — the reality of what life hands you.
- Keep your expectations in line with reality.
- Clarify the difference between your random thoughts and your values.
Maturing into the people we want to be means clearly seeing and accepting who we already are. Then, and only then, can we begin to change what isn’t working and begin to create the lives we want.