Self-Acceptance: As You Are and As You May Be

Your mindful awareness of yourself will reveal many things: thoughts, feelings, images, urges, memories, plans, values, beliefs, nightmares and daydreams. They are all waiting for you just behind your eyes. In working to accept our mental world we are really practicing acceptance of the self. This is a skill that can only be honed over long spans of time.

Our challenge is to be who we are, letting go of any childish fantasy of becoming someone else, as if we could just swap masks with another at a masquerade. No, we are only given one role to play upon this stage. We can live inauthentically, or we can fully commit to the life we have been dealt.

Try, now, to accept yourself exactly as you are. As a thought experiment, consider what it would mean if there was no more hope of improvement. No way to lose 10 pounds. No new skills. No promotion. No fashion make-over. No new high score. Just you. As if you were, essentially, the person that you were going to be for all your remaining days. Could you embrace being that person? Is this life you have currently good-enough?

Difficult? This thought experiment brings us to a paradox: Self-acceptance must be unconditional, and yet, it is nearly impossible to conceive of the self as not changing. As long as we are ourselves, we will have some capacity to change and grow. In other words, awareness of the self also includes awareness of the power of the self to change. Acceptance of the self requires us to reckon with how we will use this power.

This paradox, as we will soon see, is the twisting force that creates the bend in the spiral path.

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The Observing Self

You are not your thoughts and you are not your emotions. You are the being that experiences thoughts and emotions. But much of these experiences are passive—they just seem to happen. And anything that just happens—that you are not in control of—is not you. You are the being that makes choices, that sets goals, and that acts. These actions are the work of the true self.

Spend a few moments just letting your thoughts come and go. Just sit quietly and let what happens happen. There is no need to direct. No need to produce any particular kind of mental state. This is not about being empty, or calm, or at peace. It’s just about being open and willing to experience what is there. If it helps, try to adopt a stance of curiosity towards your thoughts. Avoid judging the thoughts as good or bad, interesting or dull. They are just thoughts, and there are plenty more where they came from.

This may seem simple, but it will not always be so. Our thoughts have a way of overwhelming us especially when we are in the throes of anger or anxiety. At such times, we may feel virtually certain of things that later will seem trivial or ridiculous. In every case, we will benefit from creating distance between our observing mind and the thoughts we are having. When we lose that distance, we can seem to become defined by our thoughts and emotions. This will always be a reduction in what we are, and we are no better off for the loss.

This state in which our self and that which we are experiencing seem to merge, is the state we wish to avoid. We can strive not to lose the distance between the observer and the observed. So as you go through your day today, continually reflect on what originates from your true self, and what does not. Explore your experiences. Reflect on what you think and feel. But in doing so do not get lost in this abyss. Thoughts and feelings are not necessarily treasures to be discovered. They may be fool’s gold. It is our actions, decisions, strategies, goals, projects, and chosen values that we should cherish above all the other products of our mind.

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Read more about Mindfulness here. 

Trail Guide: Taking Stock

Every journey has a starting point. For us, our starting point is often home. Home. Such a simple word. “Home”  will be our metaphor—a stand in for acceptance of where we are in our process of change.

Home is where we make our start. Maybe you like where you live. Maybe you are content there. Maybe not. But before you can change, you have to know where you will be setting out from. When you look at a map is not your first instinct to find where you are? Therefore, the first part of any journey is to be where you are. Not just to be there, but to be there with curiosity and acceptance. We cannot accept any journey without such acceptance of where we will make our start. We do not have to love that starting point. We do not have to even like it at all. But we must acknowledge where we are.

Let’s take stock of that place now. Look around you. Just notice. Avoid the temptation to judge. It comes so easily, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t have to. You can learn to see things differently. Learn to notice the small seemingly insignificant details of ordinary life. Here are some questions that might help you with this process.

What do you hear right now?
What do you see that is blue? Or red?
Or Green?
Where is the source of light coming from?
How is light shaped or created in your space?
How does light cast its shadows?
How does the light change the color of your surroundings?
How does light fall on you?
How does your world smell? What objects are in reach?
Pick one up or lay your hand upon it. How does it feel? Is it rough? Smooth? Heavy? Think about where this object came from. How was it made?
Was it made by human beings?
Was it made by an artist? A craftsman?
Forged through time and nature? How did it come to be here?

Your world is complex it’s full or rich details and lush textures. The world is enough to hold your attention if you wish to lavish your attention on it.

And now let us peel this metaphor back. How much more complex are you than your surroundings? You’ll find layers of thoughts, feelings, sensations, postures, urges, memories, dreams, values, regrets, and fears. These layers flow backward into time. You are the font of experience. Your first challenge is to let your experience unfold and just be aware of it. Accept the thoughts as they come. Notice the feelings. Again apply your curiosity and accept what you find there. Resist the temptation to judge. Resist the tendency to be like a gardener pulling weeds or an editor correcting text. Just take a few more moments and accept whatever comes without condemnation or praise. Just let it be.

Next>>

 

In the end, all that matters is that you lived with and for virtue. Because there is only virtue. 

The final idea in my series of the 12 ideas that can change your life.

Your mind will tell you that your worth comes from without—that your value as a person is reflected in how others judge you. As such, you should always do what will increase your estimation in the eyes of others. This gets it all wrong—in multiple ways. Your worth would not come from your achievements, your status, or the admiration given to you by others. These things are beyond your control, and therefore cannot be indications of your worth.  But why do we even need to know what we are worth? Are we for sale? Do we ever get to cash in on our worth? No. ‘Self-worth’ is the wrong concept. What really matters is our virtue—how we are fulfilling our unique potential to live according to our values.

Virtue is the only thing really good in life. It is the only thing that cannot be corrupted to serve evil ends. The central idea here—the genius idea at the core of Stoic philosophy is that the purpose of our lives is to do good AND that good can only come from what is up to us. Those may sound like simple ideas, but together they are powerful. Yes, it is true that much of what happens to us is beyond our control—losses, sickness, tragedy, bad luck, faulty genes, people slandering us, betrayal, nasty relatives, natural disasters, war, and death can all happen to us—and most of these will happen to us. But these things are absolutely powerless over our virtue because they are not the product of our free choice.  This means that if you accept that the purpose of your life is to live with virtue, nothing can stop you from doing so. Living for virtue yields a kind of invincibility. 

Virtue requires living according to your values. So what are those?

No one can truly tell you what your values must be.  Others can only tell you what values hold meaning for them. The Ancient Greeks recognized four primary values:

  • Courage—the ability to endure the fear and difficulty that would stop us from achieving our goals.
  • Temperance (or self-control)—the ability to resist excesses.
  • Justice—the ability to treat the people we interact with fairly and compassionately.
  • Wisdom—the ability to make effective decisions in response to practical problems.

Now, it is up to you to define what your values are, but you could certainly do a lot worse than these four. Notice that these values provide direction in how you would try to live your life, but they are not goals unto themselves. For example, you never get to say you have achieved Self-control and can cross that off your to-do list. Alas, there is always another batch of warm cookies on the horizon. Also notice that no matter what your life circumstances—even if you are in a prison cell, exiled to a foreign land, lingering on your deathbed, or (gasp!) have to wait three minutes in line at the deli counter, it is still possible to live according to your values.

In a Nutshell: Virtue means making the most of your human potential—living according to the values you have chosen rationally. Virtue requires choice. Fate, fortune, luck, the actions of others and everything else you can’t control are irrelevant. If you choose to make virtue your purpose, nothing can ever get in your way.

How to Use This Idea:

Your task, if you choose to accept it, is to live the most excellent life you can live. There are three parts to doing this: Values Clarification, Responding to Problems, and Reviewing Your Progress.

Values Clarification. Spend some time evaluating what your values are—what you would consider the essential characteristics of a life well lived to be? One tried and true (if a tad morbid) method of doing this is to imagine your own funeral (or at least a party given in your honor years from now) and ask yourself how you would like to be described and remembered.

Responding to Problems. Whenever you encounter a problem, focus only on the part of it that you can do something about. As you consider your options, ask yourself what kind of response would be consistent with your values. If you confront a problem that you cannot do anything about, accept it, or use the classic Stoic response, “This is nothing to me.”

Reviewing Your Progress. At the end of every day (or week, or whatever timeframe works for you), think back over your actions and evaluate how well you did at living according to your values.  If you did well at something, acknowledge it, and encourage yourself to continue in that fashion. If you did something that was not in line with your values, accept that, but also recommit yourself to living according to your values going forward.

The Fine Print:

You might as well accept this now: You are never going to live according to your values, at least not perfectly. We humans are flawed creatures, capable of doing good only by constantly pushing back against our irrational tendencies. But this shouldn’t stop you. Virtue is about the journey—it’s something you move towards, slowly over time.  The ancient Stoics sometimes employed the idea of a Stoic Sage—a being who could have perfect virtue. It wasn’t that they believed that he really existed or should be worshiped.  Instead, the Sage was a useful concept, one that allowed them to ask ‘What would the Sage do’ in any given circumstance? This provided them with a model that they could seek to emulate, even though they would never attain the status of a Sage.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

A mis-lived life. Humans waste a great deal of effort obsessing on and making futile demands about what is not up to them. Making Virtue your purpose will ensure that you do not live your life focused on trivialities. By setting our sights on goals that are not up to us, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Living for attainment, achievement, wealth, or status will, for all but a lucky few, lead to a life lacking in some essential quality.

What This Will Help You Gain:

Self-Actualization. Making the most of your human potential means doing what you can to live according to your values. Over time this will lead to your flourishing.

The Source of this Idea:

This idea is old. It is the core of Stoic Philosophy, a school of thought that originated in ancient Greece and later spread to Ancient Rome. It is most associated with the philosophers Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. My understanding of Stoic philosophy has been shaped primarily by two modern writers, William B. Irvine and Massimo Pigliucci.  Some of the treatment I gave to Values also reflects principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, associated with Steven Hayes. The critique of the view of self-worth given at the beginning of this post, and indeed many of the ideas that run throughout all of the 12 ideas comes directly from Albert Ellis, the creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).  Ellis saw REBT as an application of ancient and modern philosophies including stoicism.

 

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (so far)

Idea #12: In the end, all that matters is that you lived with and for virtue. Because there is only virtue.

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.

 

You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 11)

Your mind will tell you that  your good work is not good enough. Do good work anyway. Avoid striving for perfection at all costs. Perfectionism is the idea that no standard other than flawlessness is acceptable. But it rarely stops there. Hidden within our demands for the perfect performance is the desire to be perfect ourselves. Indeed only such a perfect person could achieve the level of perfect performance that the perfectionist demands. You need not concern yourself with that. Perfection is an illusion.  It is like a light that seems to be atop the next hill—distant but attainable—but which is, in fact, a star rising in the evening, hopelessly out of reach. Excellence, by contrast, is in the here and now. It occurs within the moment of action. It emerges only from doing with intention.

Perfectionism is a trap. Once you allow your goal to be tainted with it, you will become paralyzed by the expectation that your work could—and should—be flawless. Perfectionism will force you to immediately confront the possibility that it might not be so (in fact it definitely won’t be so!). And if it isn’t? That would be horrible! You would be a failure! And you just can’t take that can you? The result? Doing nothing.

Well let’s climb out of that particular bog. Your goal is to do good work. This will take effort, but it need not be a herculean endeavor. Moderate effort sustained over time will lead to the completion of achievable goals.

Perfectionism will call for the rejection of the achievable goal. But large goals are only attained by the successive completion of small goals. Achievable goals—those that can be executed within minutes,  hours, or the working day—are the only goals that matter. It is in the completion of these stepping stone tasks that we fulfill our potential and flourish.

The Fine Print:

Achieving your potential doesn’t mean living up to some arbitrary standard imposed from without. No one—not even you can know  what your potential truly is in advance. Potential is revealed only in the doing. You don’t have to win that golden medal, sell the most widgets, or claim the corner office. You must set the goal for yourself and it must be measured against yourself. If life is a race, the other runners are irrelevant. Their speed  is an arbitrary measure based on an accidental sample. Fulfilling your potential may mean just running any part of the race at all or completing it with a faster time than your last effort—even if you come in dead last! Your excellence is not borne of besting others. It is not forged in the fires of competition. Competition may inspire you to push yourself, but it must never be a measuring rod of your worth.  Excellence is borne of your intention to do good work, and forged in the fires of your own effort.

In a Nutshell:

To strive for perfection is to be stagnant. Instead, seek to do good work by putting forth moderate effort over time to complete achievable tasks. Seek to fulfill your unique potential without resorting to comparison with others.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

Stagnation. Nothing will destroy your productivity and fulfillment faster than perfectionism. Perfectionism will turn your successes into perceived defeats and your ability to accomplish into seeming helplessness.

What This Will Help You Gain:

Mastery. Here mastery is a personal value—the preference to work to attain proficiency at a skill. Mastery follows from effort put forth over time. Your failures will not destroy your resolve (as they would if your goal was perfection) but rather you will learn from each one, honing your skill ever more. In time, you will be able to accomplish tasks of such difficulty that you would once have thought them impossible.

The Source of this Idea:

Many have sited the dangers of perfectionism. One thinker who articulated the problems that result from the “should’s” and “must’s” that compose perfectionism is Albert Ellis, whose views on the subject can be seen here.  His thoughts on perfectionism might provide a clue to how he was able to author or co-author over 75 books (no stagnation going on there!).

[Alright!  I am one idea away from completing my list!  This has been a very interesting project for me.  These ideas are usually pressed as negatives. Trying to phrase them as positive ideas has been a very useful exercise. Please let me know what you think! ]

 

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (so far)

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.

 

People suck sometimes. Accept them anyway.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 6)

Humans by their very nature are fallible, imperfect creatures, capable of inflicting great pain on one another. And yet they are worthy of our compassion. We can, with a little practice, develop a mindset of unconditional acceptance of others. While their behaviors may be flawed, we can still distinguish between a person’s actions and their being. Accept that others have as much right to their existence as you have to yours (and vice versa). Accept that humans—all humans—are entitled to live with dignity.

You might be asking, why? Why are all people entitled to dignity? What is dignity based on? One approach would be to consider that dignity as arising out of a person’s unique humanity. Another approach would be to consider humans as deserving of dignity simply because they have the capacity to be rational. You might see it as being an intrinsic gift of their supernatural creator. Alternatively, you can decide that dignity comes from the potential that each person has to live a life of meaning and purpose. Finally, maybe we are worthy of dignity just because we are thinking, conscious beings—tiny pieces of the universe that have woken up and can know themselves.

Seeing others as having dignity is sometimes difficult because we are often dissuaded from doing so by our tendency to evaluate their worth. We have a nasty habit of seeing others as either good and deserving or foul and deplorable. On a daily basis, we are inundated with messages about how we can improve our status and seem better than other people by collecting possessions and accomplishments—as if all of this will be added up on some end-of-life score card. But deep down we know that these things do not mean we are truly better. The whole enterprise of rating the worth of the self or others, at best, is so difficult and complex task that it is near impossible and, at worst, an affront to human dignity. Consider simply declining to rate any person as a whole but instead to grant them dignity by default.

In a Nutshell: We can respect the dignity of all people, accepting them as they are, simply because of their unique humanity.

The Fine Print:

Unconditional acceptance does not mean unconditional approval. You will certainly not approve of all human behavior. But accepting others unconditionally means that you acknowledge and respect them as individuals. You are still going to disapprove of much of their behavior. Sometimes that disapproval will be quite strong. Accepting another person doesn’t mean not condemning their actions when they are immoral. It doesn’t mean being a doormat. It doesn’t mean staying in a relationship when you are being mistreated. And it doesn’t mean not subjecting others to the law of the land. But it does mean acknowledging that they are free, capable of making their own choices.

How to Use This Idea:

You can use this idea by reflecting on the dignity, potential and good characteristics of even the most difficult people in your life. When you see someone struggling, imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes, and offer what help you can. When others disappoint you, don’t damn them. You can criticize their behavior, but avoid labeling them or calling them demeaning names (even in your own head). And don’t forget this applies to yourself as much as anyone else. Avoid labeling yourself, even if you disapprove of your own behavior. At every opportunity work towards accepting yourself as you are and others as they are.

What This Will Help You Gain:

This idea will help you gain compassion. Your connections with others will flourish when you see them as having dignity and when you respect their individuality. Love grows when we can embrace the other for who they are. On a broader scale, this idea will help you strengthen connections in your family, friendships, and community. When you apply this idea to yourself it will help you gain self-acceptance, which is an important protective factor in warding off unhealthy emotions.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

This idea will help you avoid two things, alienation, and depression. Alienation results when we lose the ability to recognize our connections with other people because we are too focused on our differences. Without having compassion and respecting the dignity of others, we will wither in isolation—humans need to be connected to a community. Depression often results when we don’t grant ourselves the same dignity—when we make global evaluations of ourselves and put conditions on what we must be.

The Source of this Idea:

Many philosophies and religions advocate some form of love towards your neighbor, and the idea of hating the sin but loving the sinner is certainly a very old notion. But this particular conceptualization comes from Albert Ellis’s writings relating to Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Ellis advocated the idea that placing conditions on our self-acceptance brought us misery, and any external justification for our worth would be fragile, temporary, and ultimately futile. He advocated a position of “USA” (Unconditional Self Acceptance) and UOA (Unconditional Other Acceptance).

Next: Whenever it seems others must change. Accept that they don’t.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (So Far)

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that others must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.