“Your god-self does not dwell alone in your being. Much in you is still man, and much in you is not yet man, but a shapeless pygmy that walks asleep in the mist searching for its own awakening.” – Kahlil Gibran, “The Prophet,” chapter 12 (“On Crime and Punishment”)
Self-acceptance is a concept I have heard over and over again and been confused about for quite awhile. Frankly, I don’t get it; I don’t get or know what most people mean by the term when they are using it. I don’t know what they are referring to—and, more often, what they are promoting and praising and championing.
To me, self-acceptance seems to be the modern day equivalent of what the term “self-esteem” was 20 and 30 years ago. In the 80’s and 90’s there was the self-esteem movement. Now we are in the thick of the “self-acceptance movement.”
(And come to think of it, self-acceptance, in the best sense of the term, sounds a lot like the “I’m OK” position in Thomas Harris’s classic self-help book “I’m OK—You’re OK“)
So what does self-acceptance actually mean?
And is it a good thing?—Is it (always, usually) a good thing?
I watched an episode of ABC’s “Extreme Weight Loss” the other night. The basic premise of the show is that personal trainer / transformation coach Chris Powell selects a person—and in the case of the episode I watched, a married couple—and coaches them over the course of a year, helping them work off—as in WORK their asses off—hundreds of pounds. I like the show, because like many of the other similar shows I watch on occasion—Restaurant Impossible, Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, MasterChef, SuperNanny, The Dog Whisperer, Restaurant Stakeout—it too shows the almost inevitable consequence of what happens when expectations and standards and demands become too soft, too low, too comfortable, and also what happens when standards and expectations and demands are once again corrected and set high again.
Compare the following blog post “When Your Mother Says She’s Fat” (and the level of self-acceptance it seems to be promoting) with the message from shows like “Extreme Weight Loss” and “Restaurant Impossible” and “Kitchen Nightmares” and even the gist of what Frankl is saying in the above clip.
Perfection is an ideal. And by definition, perfection is the highest ideal possible. And there are also other ideals that are also high, but just not as high. And while perfection and perfectionism and being a perfectionist may be getting a bad rap, the reality is, it’s usually not getting a bad rap from people who are really striving towards their perfectionistic ideals and making good progress, it’s getting the bad rap from people who are finding the ideal to be very very difficult and who are having *a lot* of difficult progressing towards it.
Reminds me of what Chesterton said about Christianity—
The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.
The biggest issue I’ve seen with perfectionistic people is that they can be positively brutal with themselves in terms of their self-talk and in how they chastise themselves when they don’t measure up. This negative self-talk is an issue when the ego is trying to write a check that they body will never be able to cash (thanks writers of the movie “Top Gun”!), when a person’s aspirations are so out of step with their potential. For example, a person of very modest talent and very modest coordination and very modest hand-eye coordination and stature desires to be a world-class athlete of some sort. If such a person is a perfectionist in the way most perfectionists typically are, then that person, when he or she is not measuring up to the standards and expectations of perfection that he or she has internalized, will usually either display temper tantrum-like outbursts, or will become very withdrawn, sag their shoulders, and look as if they are being castigated by a parent or teacher (which is in essence what the person is doing to themselves—castigating themselves, harshly telling themselves off, telling themselves that they’re no good, that their worthless, that they’re stupid. In short, criticizing themselves in a very global, unspecific, inaccurate, harsh, and un-encouraging way).
And before I leave this tangent, two things that I suggest to perfectionistic type people—both those who castigate themselves silently, and those who through externalize their anger and frustration in the form of outbursts and temper tantrums:
- 1. Try treating yourself—and in particular—talking to yourself, the way you (hopefully) would a 3 or 4 year old child. Try to be more encouraging, kind, understanding, patient. (Of course, don’t beat yourself up if you also aren’t perfect at doing this, because that just defeats the purpose of the exercise).
- 2. I tell the person, if you’re taking a test in school, I don’t care how hard you study, getting an A+, a perfect score, is not within your control. It’s just not. It may be within your possibility and your capabilities, but it’s not within your control. Too many other factors will come into play and determine whether the score you’ll get will be a perfect 100% or just a point or two or three shy of that. So getting an A is within your control, scoring very very highly is something worth striving for and is something you can control if you prepare properly—if you study hard (and the right material), if you get enough rest, et cetera. But perfection is not within your control. The point is to replace the ideal of perfection with that of excellence.
“Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.” – Harriet Braiker
“The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.” – Vince Lombardi
“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.” – Michael J. Fox
Returning to the episode of “Extreme Weight Loss” that I watched. At one point in the show, the husband, Jason, of the husband and wife couple who were the focus of the episode, states that he hates himself. Hates. I cringed when I heard this. I usually cringe this whenever I hear someone say that they hate themselves. Hate seems so extreme. Maybe dislike, maybe unhappy with, maybe disappointed with, maybe even ashamed of. All of these seem less extreme and harsh. But hate was the word he used. Clearly he didn’t like how much he weighed, and clearly he didn’t like himself for letting himself get to this point.
So my question was and is this: what would those who preach and promote “self-acceptance” have had to say to Jason when he said that? Would they have said that he’s okay as he is? That this is how God meant for him to be and that he needs to stop fighting his weight and just accept it?
This is what confuses me about the term “self-acceptance” and how so many people seem to use it.
If I’m a piss-poor parent, should I just embrace my piss-poor parenting and celebrate it and exploit it and claim that this is how God made me and so this is how God wants me to be?
Or should I reject myself—that version or at least that part of myself—and wage a worthy struggle to become a better parent? Should I submit myself to something similar to “Extreme Weight Loss”—some sort of intervention and complete lifestyle reworking designed to instill in me those traits and characteristics that are characteristic of good parents?
If someone wants to be a collegiate golfer or tennis player, but every time the going gets tough he or she faces difficulty or adversity or is challenged, he or she quits or throws a tantrum, should that person just accept that he or she is a quitter and move onto some other endeavor—or just lead a life of minimal challenge and difficulty and instead one that is high in comfort and ease and immediate gratifications? (The path of least resistance)
When I hear people speak of self-acceptance, and speak of it with such end-all be-all panacea-like fervor, it makes me think of these words from C. S. Lewis—
[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.
To be the one kind of creature is heaven: That is, it is joy, and peace, and knowledge, and power.
To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.
Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other. (“Mere Christianity,” pg. 87)
And this story—
A Native American tribal elder was speaking to his grandson about violence and cruelty in the world and how it comes about. He said it was as if two wolves were fighting in his heart. One wolf was vengeful, resentful, and angry, and the other wolf was understanding and kind.
The young man asked his father which wolf would win the fight in his heart.
And his grandfather answered, “The one that will win will be the one I choose to feed.” (Pema Chödrön, “Taking the Leap,” pp. 3.)
When it comes to self-acceptance, it seems clear to me that it’s always a question of which self—which version of ourselves—to accept—how high or how low to set the bar: do we go for the ultimate, the best of the best, and only desire to accept our most perfect self? Or do we set our sights just a tad lower and go for creating and accepting a very optimal and excellent (and actualized) self—a version of ourselves that is the result of our having courageously and judiciously struggled to make the most (or at least much) of ourselves—to develop our good and noble and worthwhile potentials, the better angels of our nature? Or should we set the bar lower, likely much lower, and just start accepting ourselves as we are, let water (and our passions) just run where they may, with not much interference or guidance or correcting, just let the chips fall where they may?
We all have a path of least resistance / path of comfort and ease and not too much stress and strain and not too many burdens self—we all have this version (or versions) of ourselves (depending on how easy we take it on ourselves, and how lax our standards are).
We also all have a path of greater resistance self—the self that are capable of becoming if we set high standards for ourselves, if we try heroically to live in tune with sound principles and lofty & worthwhile ideals and goals.
And with every passing moment, with every choice and every action we take, we are progressing towards one version of ourselves or the other—something more godly and or noble and stronger and healthy and virtuous, or something much less godly, much more vice-filled, weaker, erratic, undisciplined, unable to control and direct and govern ourselves.
“At every moment you choose yourself. But do you really choose your self? Body and soul contain a thousand possibilities out of which you can build many I’s. But in only one—which you will never find until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy out of curiosity or wonder or greed or comfort or need for security, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life—is your true ‘I’.” ( – Dag Hammarskjöld, “Markings,” pg. 10)
If by self-acceptance, what some people mean by the term is not living in denial of or blind to who and what we are and what we’re like as a human and how we act, our tendencies and patterns and personality traits, then self-acceptance seems like a worthy thing, insofar as it is a stepping off point to process of personal growth and transformation—to bigger and better things—and not as a final resting place.
There will be time for sleep when we’re dead. Similarly, there will be time for self-acceptance when all of our cards have essentially played and it’s time to die and to reconcile ourselves with who and what we’ve become and who and what we’ve made of ourselves with the time we had / were given.
“There is no doubt that the most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be at every moment what they already are, without imposing upon themselves any efforts towards perfection—mere buoys that float on the waves. . . . The decisive matter is whether we attach [to] our life . . . a maximum or minimum of demands upon ourselves.” – Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, pg. 15
. Related articles:
Self-Acceptance – What Is It? (SuccessConsciousness.com)
Self Acceptance – Accept Yourself First! (Authentic-Self.com)
Motivating Yourself to Change: I Don’t Like This About Me; I Want to Be Different. (SelfCreation.com — self improvement for smart women & savvy men)
How Self-Acceptance Can Crack Open Your Life (Oprah.com)
The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance (PsychologyToday.com)