The deep inner peace that comes from genuine self-acceptance is the essential bedrock of all of our ease and well-being. Yet a steady self-acceptance – grounded in the “love and awareness that holds and honors the fullness of our being” – can, at times, be painfully elusive.
When we have just been triggered into shame, fear, or inadequacy by someone’s cutting remark or our own inner critic, when we feel keenly the disappointment of failing to meet our own expectations or those of someone dear to us, when we believe again the harsh old negative stories about ourselves, convinced that they are the “real” truth of who we are, when some nagging self-doubt or primitive self-loathing comes roaring up from our unconscious, throwing our self-confidence into havoc, we need tools and practices to recover the sense of our inner goodness and worth that is our birthright.
This month’s newsletter explores how we can skillfully cultivate self-acceptance, through True Others, through be-friending ourselves, through mistakes as gateways to understanding, compassion, forgiveness. May you find these reflections and resources useful in your own journey of healing and awakening into your natural aliveness and wholeness.
How does self-acceptance get de-railed in the first place?
Some years ago the Daliai Lama was meeting with Western meditation teachers and psychologists in a pioneering East-West dialogue. One of the teachers asked how to help people deal with self-hatred. The Dalai Lama and his translators went into a few minutes of confusion over the term self-hatred; there is no comparable concept in the Tibetan language or philosophy. After a few minutes the Dalai Lama asked quite energetically how such a disastrous mis-perception could exist, reminding the group that everyone, absolutely everyone, is “nobly born” with Buddha Nature, the True Nature we explored in the July 2008 newsletter on Whole Self.
Tara Brach, internationally-known clinical psychologist and meditation teacher, explores how Westerners seem particularly prone to self-hatred and low self-esteem in her book Radical Acceptance. She explores the “trance of unworthiness” we are particularly vulnerable to in our achievement-oriented culture, a trance that often leaves us filled with self-loathing and self-doubt rather than self-worth and self-esteem.
“The belief that we are deficient and unworthy makes it difficult to trust that we are truly loved. Many of us live with an undercurrent of depression or hopelessness about ever feeling close to other people We fear that if they realize we are boring or stupid, selfish or insecure, they’ll reject us. If we’re not attractive enough, we may never be loved in an intimate, romantic way. We yearn for an unquestioned expereicne of belonging, to feel at home with ourselves and others, at ease and fully accepted. But the trance of unworthiness keeps the sweetness of belonging out of reach.”
– Tara Brach, PhD
Researchers of human development and attachment, such as Mary Main and Erik Hesse at UC Berkeley, Ed Tronick at Harvard, and Beatrice Beebe at Columbia, have demonstrated “beyond irrefutability” over the last thirty years that lack of attention, attunement and validation when we are very young can de-rail the psychological foundations of self-worth and self-acceptance, leaving us feeling anxious, insecure, defensive, rather than internally stable, resilient and content.
“It’s in the crucible of the child’s first relationships that, for better or worse, the self is originally shaped.”
– David Wallin, PhD
“The security of the attachment bond is the primary defense against psychopathology.”
– Allan Schore, PhD
In the last decade, neuroscientists have pushed the horizons of our understanding even further, exploring the neurological basis for self-worth and self-acceptance — or the lack of it.
“An unfortunate artifact of the evolution of laterality (in the brain’s left and right hemispheres] may be that the right hemisphere, biased toward negative emotions and pessimism, develops first and serves as the core of self-awareness and self-identity. To be human may be to have a vulnerability toward shame, guilt, and depression. The dominant role of the right hemisphere in defensive and negative emotions gives it executive “veto power” over the left. It can override conscious processing and emotional well-being in reaction to threat.”
– Louis Cozolino, PhD
What to do? This month we explore three specific ways to recover a genuine self-acceptance through the power of conscious, compassionate connection.
Consciousness and Compassionate Connection Lead to Self-Acceptance
1. True Other to True Self
The brilliant Irish playwright Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in England in 1895 for homosexuality. As he was walking through the throngs of jeering hecklers on his way to prison, his publisher and friend Robert Ross quietly bowed and tipped his hat to him. Wilde later recounted in his autobiographical De Profundis that his friend’s gesture of respect is what enabled him to endure his two years of imprisonment with his courage and dignity intact.
True Others are those who can see and reflect our True Self back to us when we have forgotten, or perhaps have never known, who we truly are. They remember our Self at Best when we are mired in our Self at Worst. True Others are not necessarily the people closest to us, thought they can be. They are the people most attuned to us, those most accepting of our True Nature.
We find True Others among the 5 P’s:
1. Parents: “Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible – the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.”
– Virginia Satir
For those of us whose family atmospheres were less than open, tolerant, appreciative or flexible, we grieve and look further:
2. Peers. I’ve written often in this newsletter about the power of acceptance in friendships to heal and transform our sense of self.
Ah, the comfort,
The inexpressible comfort
Of feeling safe with a person.
Having neither to weigh out thoughts
But pouring them all right out, just as they are,
Chaff and grain together;
Certain that a faithful hand
Will take them and sift them;
Keeping what is worth keeping and,
With the breath of kindness,
Blow the rest away.
We’re learning so much from modern neuroscience about the power of one brain to change the pattern of neural firing in another brain. It behooves us to choose our friends and companions well. Our sense of our self will be shaped by the company we keep, whether we’re aware of that or not. (See this month’s Books and Websites for more on the “social brain”.) When we hang out with people who accept us, all of us, for who we are, we can learn to fully accept, love, and cherish ourselves as well.
3. Partners: I loved learning from Mary Main and Erik Hesse, attachment researchers at UC Berkeley, that a person can heal from an insecure to a secure attachment style – with all the adaptive functioning and resilience that having an internal secure base provides – simply by being married to someone with secure attachment (even living in close steady proximity to someone with secure attachment) for 3-5 years. No therapy, no professional intervention. Simply the effect of being attuned to, resonated with, being seen and accepted by a partner as True Other. Awesome, that love, empathy, acceptance can so transform us.
4. Professionals. Feelings of shame, fear, inadequacy plague many of the people who come to see me for therapy or coaching. The empathy, reflection, acceptance available in a therapeutic relationship “counts.” Therapists and coaches can function as True Others to True Self far beyond the professional fee arrangement. I also counsel people frequently to not waste their time working with the outmoded blank screen therapist who refuses to engage in an intersubjective relationship. Our brains aren’t hard-wired to do well with that much avoidance. The therapist that maintains a remote distance can do more harm to our sense of worthiness than good.
5. Presence. When we experience our own True Nature or True Self directly, through mediation, yoga, prayer, a quiet walk on the beach or in the woods, we are often flooded with a profound sense of I Am. And I’m OK. Our very beingness feels like “home” and we can rest in the serene acceptance that everything, including ourselves, is ultimately, profoundly, OK.
See Exercises to Practice Self-Acceptance below to cultivate True Others to True Self
2. Be-Friending Our Selves
Seeing our True Self, as True Others see us when they are attuned to our Self at Best, allows us to see our own Self at Best rather than our Self at Worst, too. Indeed, creates the safety to see ourselves honestly at all.
Be-friending our selves simply means being willing to look at all parts of ourselves the good, the bad, the ugly, with honesty and clarity, with kindness and tenderness. To open our hearts and minds to the truth of ourselves, without flinching, without self-hatred or condemnation, with an eye to appreciate the complex results of our all too human conditioning – how we have come to become who we are.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest-house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness come
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you
out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Be-friending ourselves has four steps:
1. Show up. Showing up is essential for anything to heal, change, transform itself at all.
“If you don’t go in, you can’t find out.”
We practice being present, open, willing to engage with whatever needs to reveal itself to our consciousness. This can be too scary or unbearable to do on our own. The safety of the True Other to True Self relationship helps us get started, until we develop enough faith and skill in the process to investigate ourselves on our own.
2. Tolerate. Our negative habits of responding critically, judgmentally to ourselves and others, operate much more quickly in our brains than our positive tendencies to approach and approve do. (See Louis Cozolino in Reflections above.) Learning to sit with and tolerate whatever presents itself to our awareness is a huge and essential step in acceptance. Ironically, the more we “expose” ourselves to a mindful awareness, the more horrified we can become at what we’re seeing clearly, sometimes for the first time.
We need to be allowing, accepting, compassionate with ourselves, as much as we need to be aware, for the process of self acceptance to move forward.
3. Respect – honor. Honoring goes an essential step beyond tolerance. Honoring every single part of ourselves, every single step of our journey, as an integral part of who we are and who we are becoming, is what allows us to feel coherent, integrate, whole. We “make sense” and that creates the platform for full acceptance of who we truly are. The exile-orphan, the skeptic-critic, the ecstatic and ascetic, are all facets of our True Nature in human form. All have their message, all have their gift.
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
– Carl Rogers.
4. Cherishing – to feel loved and cherished is the deepest yearning of the human soul, whether by ourselves, our beloved others, our sense of life, essence, God. When we cherish ourselves, we come into a deep inner peace and serenity, a deep sense of goodness and belonging. Our self-acceptance becomes a new center of gravity from which to engage with the world, with all the ups and downs of life, resiliently and wholesomely.
See Exercises to Practice Self-Acceptance below to cultivate be-friending our selves.
3. Mistakes as Gateways to Self-Acceptance
See this month’s Stories to Learn From for a third tool in cultivating self-acceptance: Mistakes as Gateways to Self-Acceptance through Understanding, Compassion, Forgiveness.
Poetry and Quotes to Inspire
I wish they would only take me as I am.
– Vincent Van Gogh
* * * * *
We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us there is something valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.
– e.e. cummings
* * * * *
Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated and treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?
– Jane Nelson
* * * * *
The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.
– Carl Rogers
* * * * *
Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt – marvelous error! –
that there was a beehive
here inside my heart.
and the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.
– Antonio Machado
* * * * *
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest
the glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine,
we consciously give other people
permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.
– Marianne Williamson
(quoted in Nelson Mandela’s inaugural speech)
Reprise from July 2008 newsletter
Stories to Learn From
Mistakes as Gateways to Self-Acceptance through
Understanding, Compassion, Forgiveness
I once witnessed a fascinating deflection of responsibility: the husband was berating his wife as they passed me on the sidewalk, “Well, that check never would have bounced if you hadn’t tried to cash it!” Come again? My jaw dropped at the sheer deftness of his efforts to keep his self-esteem intact by blaming her. Yet, I all too quickly saw myself doing that same defensive dodge just a week later.
I just couldn’t own up to my partner that I had gotten two speeding tickets and dinged the front fender of his car in a parking lot in the same day. I had grown up in a critical-blaming-devaluing household; I had developed my own harsh inner critic as a result; I had perfected a system of denial over the years that would automatically protect me from any shame attack, from within or from anyone else who might confront me.
“Who me? No, that wasn’t me. I never saw that post coming toward the car before I hit it. And the speeding tickets? Must have been the engine running fast after the tune-up last week.”
These defenses of deflection and denial to protect ourselves from feeling bad when we’re caught in a mistake can be so unconscious and so lightning quick. There’s not time to see the lack of self-acceptance that drives the whole sequence of defensive denial in the first place.
I feel bad about myself when I make a mistake. I feel worse if I’m caught. It’s too mortifying to get caught. If I get caught, I instantly deny any responsibility and blame somebody else. No vulnerability to shame allowed.
I had a dramatic opportunity to radically revise this defensive sequence a few years after my day of driving fiascos. I had made a really huge mistake in judgment that could potentially cost the public interest law firm I worked for at the time tens and tens of thousands of dollars. There was no denying what I had done. There was no one else to blame. I walked into the senior partner’s office almost sick to my stomach with fear and distress. After I told him what I had done, and we both agreed on the potential consequences, he did the most remarkable thing.
He simply sighed a deep sigh like a “good parent” rather than lash out in anger and contempt like a “bad parent”. He made sure I had learned what I needed to learn to safeguard against this kind of mis-judgment ever happening again. Then he said, “What’s done is done. We’ll know in a few days. In the meantime, let’s get back to work.”
I was floored, slowly taking in that I wasn’t fired. He apparently didn’t think any less of me than before, though he was soberly and realistically assessing the potential damage of my mistake. Like a True Other to a True Self described in this month’s reflections, he was able to de-couple who I was from what I had done. He was able to maintain a view of my capacities and the goodness of my intentions separate from my behaviors and the potential fallout of them.
The few moments I stood there silently in his office, taking in this whole new acceptance of mistakes, happened years before I had heard of True Nature or our innate goodness underneath all of our conditioning. But I experienced that True Nature being seen by my boss and reflected back to me as a life-changing gift. I hadn’t “gotten away” with anything. (Though, we learned a few days later, my mistake did not have the disastrous consequences it could have; all turned out well enough.) I had been given a moment of freedom from all the old punitive stories I carried about myself “being bad for being wrong.”
I’ve since come to understand the new sequence – of understanding, compassion and forgiveness – that is the undoing of the old sequence of defensive denial.
What is happening is understandable. There are reasons why I do what I do. Even if what I do is no longer skillful or in my best interests, I can make sense of what I learned to do based on my conditioning. It was the best I could do growing up. I’m not a bad person for learning to survive in the ways that I did.
I can have compassion for the ways I’ve learned to cope, and for what those coping mechanisms may have cost me or others. I am human. I’m doing the best I can. Not only am I OK; I see more and more clearly what I do to protect myself when I believe I’m not OK. I’m still originally whole and good, even if that goodness has gotten obscured by defenses against the muck of fear and shame.
I can forgive myself for how hard it is to be enlightened human being. I can learn from my mistakes. I can learn from the mistakes of others. It’s all part of waking up and growing up. It’s all been sent as a guide from beyond. It’s all grist for the mill of healing and awakening.
Understanding, compassion and forgiveness for our all too human tendencies to make mistakes, sometimes even egregious ones, leads to the self-acceptance that dissolves the need for defensive denial in the first place. I now often assign my clients a homework exercise to identify five mistakes they’ve made in the past week and practice understanding, compassion and forgiveness for each one. When we can accept all parts of ourselves, even our mistakes, we can rest in the wisdom of the Third Zen Patriarch:
“to be without anxiety about non-perfection.”
Exercises to Practice Self-Acceptance
1. True Other to True Self
Guided visualizations, guided meditations, are powerful tools to re-wire the brain. Neuroscientists have discovered that the same neurons fire in our visual cortex if we imagine seeing a banana as fire when we see a real banana. Using our imagination can harness the neural plasticity of the brain to create new pathways, just as new experiences in reality do.
Settle comfortably in your seat, allow your eyes to gently close, focus your attention on your breathing, rest comfortably in the awareness of the inner presence of Being. When you’re ready, let yourself become aware of how you are holding yourself in this moment. Are you kind toward yourself? Are you uneasy with yourself? Are you feeling critical of yourself? Just noticing, just awareness and acceptance of what is, without judgment, or if there is judgment, noticing that.
Then, when you’re ready, bring to mind someone in your life whom you know unconditionally, genuinely loves you. They love and cherish you; your very being feels safe in their presence. It could be a teacher or dear friend, could be a partner or a child, could be your beloved dog or cat. Could be a spiritual figure – Quan Yin or the Dalai Lama, your own Wiser Self. Someone who simply accepts you as you are, and loves you.
Imagine yourself being with them face to face,. They are looking at you with such acceptance and tenderness, such love, such joy. Feel yourself taking in their love, their acceptance of you.
Now imagine yourself being them, looking at you, looking at yourself through their eyes. You – being them – seeing yourself as they see you. All the love and openness, feel that as them toward yourself.
Now come back to being yourself, you are in your own body again, experiencing them looking at you again, with so much love and acceptance. Feel yourself taking in their love, their acceptance. Let the love deeply into your own being. Feel it in your body; set the intention to remember this feeling of acceptance any time you need to.
2. Be-friending Our Selves
This guided visualization, developed by Virginia Satir, family therapist who specialized in self-acceptance and self-esteem, allows us to access and integrate various parts of ourselves with understanding and compassion.
Settle comfortably in your seat, allow your eyes to gently close, focus your attention on your breathing, rest comfortably in the awareness of the inner presence of Being.
When you’re ready, you imagine you’re outside a theater, a stage theater where they present plays. Imagine the building, the doors, the posters outside. When you’re ready, walk up to one of the doors, open it, walk into the lobby; walk on through the lobby to one of the doors into the auditorium, open that door and walk into the empty theater. Walk all the way down to the first or second row and take a set in the center of the row. Now you’re seeing an empty stage in front of you. All is quiet.
Now imagine the first figure to come out on the stage is your wise guide, standing in the center where you can see them clearly. This is a figure that to you represents wisdom, acceptance, compassion; it may be your Larger Self that you feel completely safe with.
Now we’re going to imagine other characters on the stage one by one. All of the characters embody a particular quality about your self. So it could be someone you know, yourself at a different age, someone you know from the movies or history or literature; it could even be a certain character or an animal.
The first character embodies a quality about your self you really, really like, any quality at all, just something you feel very positive about yourself. Take a moment to let that character on the stage, remember them, perhaps jot them down.
Now a second character comes on stage embodying another positive quality about yourself you really, really like. Take a moment to let that character materialize on the stage, remember them, perhaps jot them down.
Now a third character comes on stage embodying yet another positive quality about yourself that you really, really like. Take a moment to let them materialize, remember them, jot them down.
Now you have three characters on stage that embody qualities about yourself that you really, really like, and your wise guide. Take a moment to remember them all.
Now, you bring a fourth character to the stage that embodies a quality about yourself that you really don’t like all that much. In fact, you wish it weren’t true, but you know it is. And this character embodying a negative or afflictive quality about you comes on stage; take a moment to materialize this character, remember them, jot them down.
Now you bring on a fifth character that embodies another negative or afflictive quality about you; take a moment to materialize them and remember them, jot them down.
Now you bring on the last character, a sixth character embodying just one more negative or afflictive quality about your self, a quality you don’t like very much and wish weren’t true but it is. Take a moment to materialize them, remember them, jot them down.
Now you have on stage your wise guide, there characters embodying positive qualities and three characters embodying negative qualities. In your imagination, ask each character in turn, what special gift they bring to you by being part of you. What lesson do you get to learn from them by their being a part of you. Ask each of these characters, the positive ones first, then the negative ones, and listen carefully to what they have to say to you; each one has some wisdom or learning to offer.
Now, in your imagination, briefly thank each of these characters for coming to be with you in this way today. Have them exit off the stage one by one, the wise guide last. Then imagine yourself getting up out of your seat, walking to the aisle, walking back up the aisle out of the auditorium, through the lobby and back outside the theater. Turn around to look at the theater where this all happened. Then slowly come to awareness again of sitting quietly, and when you’re ready, open your eyes.
Take a moment to remember and embrace each of these six characters, expecially the “negative” ones, as an integral part of you, essential to your wholeness.
3. Mistakes as Gateways to Self-Acceptance
Identify five mistakes you made this week, running a red light, overdrawing your bank account, not remembering someone’s name, their birthday, an appointment with you, leaving a pot boiling on the stove too long. As best as you can, remember your response to the mistake at the time. Can you offer yourself understanding, compassion, forgiveness for each mistake? Does this help you settle into more acceptance of yourself as a complicated but “nobly born” human being?
Books and Websites
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach, PhD. Bantam, 2003.
In Radical Acceptance, winner of the 2005 Books for Better Living award, clinical psychologist and international Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach skillfully uses poignant stories of people grappling with the pain of feeling deficient, not OK in one’s personal self, to teach readers a model of personal growth and healing through mindfulness and radical self-acceptance. Exercises integrate tools of mindful reflection and deep self-empathy to liberate readers from destructive views of themselves and evoke a transformative kindness toward themselves and others.
Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw. Health Science Communications, 2005.
In this revised edition of the New York Times bestseller, Healing the Shame that Binds You, John Bradshaw explores how unhealthy, toxic shame, often learned early and maintained into adulthood, is the core component in our addictions, co-dependencies, and the drive to super-achieve. The author offers practical tools – affirmations, guided meditation, visualization, inner voice and feeling work – to help readers release the shame that binds them to their past. The new edition explores the intersection between spirituality and emotional healing.
The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. By Louis Cozolino, PhD. W.W. Norton, 2006.
For a comprehensive clinical textbook on interpersonal neurobiology – how our brains are shaped by interactions with other rains – Cozolino’s Neuroscience of Human Relationships is a delightful read – full of warm, accessible humanity. Intended for clinicians, I have found the case studies at the end of each chapter very helpful to clients and friends in cultivating self-acceptance as well as understanding what can go wrong in our self-development, and how to make it right.
The New Peoplemaking by Virginia Satir. Science and Behavior Books, 1988.
Family therapist Virginia Satir pioneered the cultivation of self-esteem in family therapy. Her New Peoplemaking offers positive ways to support and encourage growth, development and understanding of the people in a family. Satir offers exercises to re-own all the parts of ourselves that make us who we are, and makes it easy and OK to take a look at them. Satir’s common sense concepts and humor make the book accessible and useful.
An interesting article on Self –Acceptance Without Judgment, offered on the Emotion Freedom Technique website. The July 2008 newsletter included an exercise – accepting all aspects of our selves – based on EFT.