Lily ruminates about her failed marriage, beating herself up for mistakes she’s made and opportunities she’s missed.
Tom, a recovering alcoholic, obsesses about the years he lost to booze and castigates himself for the people he hurt and the relationships he damaged.
For Lily and Tom, both approaching middle age, self-acceptance is a challenge, but isn’t it a challenge for all of us?
On the road with yourself
Throughout the course of our lives, we are subject to screw up, probably many times. That’s the human condition, despite our best effort there will be times when we fail to handle ourselves and plow ahead, ignoring the signs warning us of dangerous curves ahead. We crash. It can be of the bumper thumper type or it can be a near total wreck. Usually, the crash was emotionally driven, not balanced enough by reason.
Some of us walk away unscathed, some with scrapes and bruises, while others of us wind up in an emotional intensive care unit trying to heal the carnage left in our wake. We screwed up and no one knows that more than we do. We hope to not repeat the same mistakes again but sometimes we do and the inner torment takes on new energy.
Life happens. The key question is: How can you come to peace with yourself? Can you look past the harsh judgments you impose on yourself and move on? Can you drop the self-castigation and attempt to see more clearly just what drove you to screw up? That is, why not stop beating yourself up and focus on something more productive, like seeing what you can do to avoid screwing up?
If you don’t do that and continue to tell yourself that it is not merely a screw up, but that you are the screw up; that is, you leap from having made a mistake to feeling as if you are a mistake. You define yourself by your mistake(s).
If you can’t accept yourself as an imperfect human being, then somewhere in the back of your mind you have buried your “sins” in a shallow grave, waiting for the chance to resurrect them so the self-torture can resume. Being at peace takes a back seat to the inner war, it is a war you will lose and the main casualty is you.
We’re human beings and thus subject to make mistakes, especially when raw emotions come into play. Think back on all the dumb stuff that you may have done throughout the course of your life. Didn’t overwhelming, emotional responses play some role in your linage of occasional dumb stuff? It has in all our lives, including mine. The truth is that we are all more than our mistakes. Self-acceptance is not optional for a healthy relationship with yourself, it is essential.
In fact, self-acceptance is one of the most important journeys we’re challenged with in this life. It is about being willing to embrace who we are, blemishes and all.
Here’s how I think about it: Imagine a container holding a variety of fruit, a perfect apple, a great piece of pineapple, blueberries that are just okay and a banana that is rotten, among a host of other fruits, some excellent, others less so.
Is the container good or bad?
Good? What about that rotten banana?
Bad? What about that perfect apple?
Get it? You are the container and those fruits represent your behaviors. The container can’t be rated, that would be simplistic, but the fruits (your behavior) certainly can and should be rated. The problem with Lily and Tom, and most of the rest of us, is that we stubbornly rate the container—our total Self. In essence, you are not good and you are not bad. You just are. I know, hard to grasp, but when you do, peace settles in.
You are so weird!
In contrast to those that judge themselves, their whole selves, take my friend Bob. When he told me about a very strange medical procedure he invented to treat a rash and avoid going to a dermatologist, I told him, affectionately, “You are so friggin’ weird!” He replied spontaneously, without defense, “Yes, I know I can be weird at times.”
A couple of weeks later he complained about glare when he drove at night. When I suggested it might have to do with aging, he confessed it was the result of corrective eye surgery.
“Wait,” I said, “you wouldn’t go to a dermatologist for a rash, but you let someone put a knife in your eye?” “I have contradictions,” he stated with a soft smile, once again, quite non-defensively.
Now there’s a guy who is comfortable with himself, who has embraced his “weirdness” his contradictions, his limitations and fallibility. He embraces who he is, blemishes and all.
He is not into the fake issue of self-esteem; he doesn’t need to play out the typical self-esteem tactic of softening or excusing mistakes or shortcomings. Self Esteem is based on feeling as if you are okay when you behave okay, and not okay when things don’t turn out as planned. It’s conditional.
The real deal is accepting your dark side as well, your imperfect humanity. Some of your behavior may not be successful, but you do not judge your total being based on that behavior. Rather than working yourself over and then thinking you’ve worked something out, stop castigating yourself and get going on a solution!
Again, thinking along the lines of self-esteem involves feeling good about yourself when you do good and feeling bad about yourself when you do bad. Your well-being is at the mercy of your behavior. With that inner philosophy you will only embrace yourself when you are behaving perfectly and your accomplishments as well as your life in general goes your way. That is an approach that is going to keep you on a emotional roller coaster.
Looking Inner Peace?
Would you like to make that full embrace while you can? Here are a few things to consider:
1. Agree in principle with all criticisms of yourself. If someone says you are being selfish in a particular situation, don’t argue. Reply with something like, “You are right, sometimes I am selfish.” And that’s true! Everyone is selfish (and a lot more) at times. You are practicing the uncommon “art” of accepting yourself with imperfections, rather than the all too common “un-smart” defensive behavior.
2. Cut the small talk short and discuss the issue of self-acceptance with your friends. Ask how they forgive themselves for mistakes and shortcomings. Ask about their personal “compassion philosophy.” Yes, we all have a personal philosophy that guides the inner conversations we have with ourselves about ourselves. Unfortunately it is often not compassionate.
3. Debate with yourself whenever you lose perspective about the fallibility of all human beings, including yourself. Remind yourself that perfection is not for human beings. It is about doing your best, not being the best. If you hold a perfection standard you are setting yourself up for torment.
4. About those rotten bananas in your container, don’t rate the whole container—that’s poor thinking that will only create more rottenness. Remember, obsessing doesn’t change anything, and, as Jung said a century ago, what you resist persists. The irony is, accepting yourself, rotten banana and all, is more likely to lead to change.