Lately, I keep running into the same advice: “You need to engage in self-acceptance.” Now, I have to be honest with you. This feels pretty counter-intuitive and so the advice has been driving me crazy. “I’m trying to change here!” I keep thinking. “How am I supposed to change if I accept myself as I am?” It feels like a paradox. Turns out, I’ve been thinking about it all wrong.
My big mistake is that I have been viewing “acceptance” as condoning how I am. That is not what is meant by self-acceptance. Nathaniel Branden, in his book “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem”, defines self-acceptance as “my refusal to be in an adversarial relationship to myself.” I see this a bit like the mother who says to her kid, “I’m not mad at you. I’m disappointed by what you did.” It is a softer stance that opens the way to compassion and forgiveness. This gentler approach isn’t just about being nice to myself because it feels better. It is the path to moving beyond the situation. Without self-acceptance, I’m in a state of resistance. Resistance thrives on opposition. It fuels the fire. Think of what happens in a game of tug of war. As long as both parties are fully engaging in the struggle there is a little movement. But if one side drops the rope what happens to the other side? They fall on their butt. They were being sustained by the struggle.
Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. —Lao-tzu
The Down Side of Self-Improvement
I engage in a lot of self-improvement explorations. One nasty side effect of these endeavors is that I get a lot of insight into my behavior, and I find that I’m not always proud of what I discover. Recently, I was exploring some old resentment toward my family. We’re talking stuff that happened when I was maybe seven years old. For example, at one point my eleven-year-old brother decided to frame me by writing my name in big letters on the wall. My parents fell for it. I couldn’t believe it because I hated my name. It was too weird; no one could spell it or pronounce it. I wanted to be called Kathy. If I was going to write something on the wall, the last thing I’d pick was my name. Plus, even at seven, I wouldn’t be so dopey as to make a self-incriminating move like that. And yet my parents fell for it. It was at that point I decided I was being raised by gullible fools.
Hanging on to Resentment
I’ve been pissed about this incident for over 40 years! Getting in touch with these resentments has been liberating because I’ve learned to see where I can take responsibility: maybe not in the situation itself, but certainly for hanging on to my feelings about it for such a long time! It’s embarrassing. This represents one of my major self-acceptance challenges: how to forgive myself for the damage I’ve done to my relationships by holding on to petty resentments for decades. While it may have made sense for my seven-year-old self to be upset, it is mostly hurting me to cling to my righteousness all these years later. The thing is, I can only move out of this sticky place through self-acceptance. Without that gentle regard toward self, I become like Br’er Rabbit fighting Tar Baby. Remember that old Uncle Remus story?
Tar Baby is Not the Enemy
Br’er Rabbit’s nemesis, Br’er Fox, decides to trap Br’er Rabbit. Br’er Fox creates Tar Baby, a doll covered in tar. When Tar Baby disrespects Br’er Rabbit by refusing to answer him, Br’er Rabbit becomes incensed. He punches Tar Baby, only to find his fist stuck to the doll. Infuriated, he lashes out more, only to find his other hand, and then his feet stuck to the Tar Baby. Now he is easy prey for Br’er Fox.
When I fail to engage in self-acceptance, I flail at my problem like Br’er Rabbit lashed out at Tar Baby. Pretty soon, I’m completely stuck with no options. When I accept the situation — including my frustration at myself for striking Tar Baby in the first place — I can create the conditions where the inner conflict begins to melt away. Tar Baby loses its hold on me. Self-acceptance is not just a good move. It’s the only move. Everything else just perpetuates the resistance that keeps the system locked in place. Self-acceptance opens up the space for new possibility. When we are in a state of non-accepting, we are trying to kick our way through a problem. But we are using a particular kind of energy, a particular kind of coping mechanism, and that energy is rooted in the problem itself. We have to shift energy. Self-acceptance is the way out.
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