Self-Acceptance: Good Idea
Kirsten Enriquez is a psychotherapist-turned-life coach who loves to help clients take concrete actions while also addressing those feelings and thought patterns that make change difficult.
Most of us would agree that an essential part of being human means at times experiencing thoughts and feelings (and sometimes even engaging in behaviors) that are typically considered "harmful," "negative," "selfish," or otherwise "wrong." Most of us know what it's like to wish harm upon someone. Many of us have taken things that did not belong to us. Most of us know what it's like to think primarily or solely in terms of our own interests.
What happens for you when you experience this part of yourself? You've probably been told that this aspect of your psyche is normal and inevitable. This aspect let's call it the lower self is part of who we are as human beings. You can't get rid of your lower self, and denying that it exists just makes it act up all the more and the best way to handle it is to accept it without judgment.
But Can You Do It?
But do you really accept your lower self? There's a big difference between knowing that self-acceptance is a good idea and actually experiencing self-acceptance. One sign that you may not accept your lower self in an "effective" way includes feelings of guilt or discomfort in response to lower-self expression. Do you feel guilty or uncomfortable with the fact that you're still really angry at your ex and would love it if something bad were to happen to her? Do you experience your anger as normal and understandable, or is there a striving or a need (vs. a simple desire) to let go and forgive? Certainly, forgiveness is a worthy goal, and we're hardwired to feel good when we're experiencing a loving attitude but true self-acceptance means there's nothing wrong with anger, either!
Another sign that our self-acceptance may be limited includes thought patterns in which we "rush" to replace less-desirable perspectives with perspectives that seem more desirable. When you feel that old anger at your ex coming to the surface, do you acknowledge it ("Yep, I'm angry again") or do you rush to find some kind of reframe? "She didn't mean to hurt me in the ways she did (so being this angry doesn't really make sense)." "I help myself when I forgive. I choose to release this anger now.") Again, there's nothing wrong with forgiveness, and there's nothing wrong with helpful reframes but striving for "positivity" as a kind of kneejerk response? I like to experience the human being as made up of various selves, of which the lower self is one. If the adult self or the higher self interrupts the lower self every time it starts to talk, this is not helpful thinking, it's suppression. And suppression is the opposite of acceptance.
Assuming that a genuine acceptance of the lower self has real benefits for example, an increase in one's ability to be compassionate, or freedom from guilt how can we accept ourselves more fully? One powerful and potentially interesting self-acceptance practice is to invite the lower self to say what's on its mind and then listen. It's helpful to give your lower self your undivided attention when you do this; for example, you may want to have this conversation in a quiet space in which there are no distractions and let me emphasize that in this practice you're not simply observing yourself in some detached way, nor is your rational self explaining why you feel the way you do it's the lower self that's talking, and you're listening from a space of curiosity, respect, and compassion. When I first tried this exercise over 20 years ago I did so on the premise that a more accepting, intentional relationship with my lower self would result in a decrease in uncomfortable feelings of anger and sadness. During this period in my life I was often very angry with my best friend, so one morning I invited my lower self to tell me what it thought of her. "I hate her," I said. "I wish she were dead." The authenticity and intensity of this response surprised me, but things became even more interesting when another voice spoke up shortly after the lower self had its say: "I love her." This experience provided me with a concrete understanding that we have many aspects, and the attractive aspects don't lose their influence when we allow the less-desirable selves to speak. On the other hand, when I listened to my lower self in a genuine way, without any intention to "fix" or change its perspective this kind of listening actually did help me to feel"lighter," less angry, and more objective.
Something else that can facilitate real self-acceptance is a genuine openness to and belief in the notion that "there are no"'shoulds.'" In other words, while many of us might say that we agree that there are no "shoulds," perhaps we say this because we "should"; this is the enlightened perspective, after all, and "should" implies judgment, and we all know that judgment isn't cool... But do you really believe that there's no right or wrong? I don't entirely believe this myself, but I'm working on it. If it's actually the case that'"the other side" "higher intelligence," "Spirit," "God," whatever you want to call it doesn't think in terms of right or wrong, then my lower self is fine the way it is. This doesn't mean that I want my lower self to guide my actions in the world. It's in our nature to expand, to grow, to move toward the light; so it's natural to want to limit lower-self activity. But the lower self doesn't want to be told what it should do, and it doesn't like to hear that it's wrong. It's easier to accept the lower self's thoughts and feelings when we aren't so concerned with being right.
Ultimately, true self-acceptance is about relationship. Understanding your selves, observing your selves this is good, but it can be even more helpful to spend time talking with and getting to know your selves. And your relationship with yourself doesn't need to be draining or dramatic it's really quite natural for your lower self to calm down fairly quickly (and even cooperate with limit-setting) once it feels heard. Most of us accept the idea that, in a therapeutic relationship, the therapist's nonjudgmental, compassionate stance plays a key role in the transformation of undesired thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. True self-acceptance has a similar effect. When you relate to yourself from a place of wanting to give yourself space to express and be heard, you balance and reduce the intensity of whatever it is you're expressing. You also experience more choice, a greater sense of freedom, and an increase in self-confidence. True self-acceptance doesn't mean your higher self is not in charge! Have you listened to yourself today? Go for it!
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