The Most Important & Difficult Thing To Do: Learning to Love & Accept Yourself
Written by Lauren Helm, Ph.D.
Take a moment to pause and reflect on the relationship that you have with yourself. What is it like? My relationship with myself is.....
So many of us have difficulty answering this question because we are not even sure what it means. It may be the first the time that we’ve even recognized that we do, indeed, have a relationship with ourselves, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. We have had this relationship with ourselves since we were young children, and it has continued to evolve throughout our lives. However, as opposed to many other relationships that come and go, this relationship is here to stay whether we like it or not, and has the power to influence our lives like no other relationship may.
We are often powerfully affected when others respond to us with kindness, love, or acceptance, which can foster a fundamental sense of trust and safety in being who we are. We can be just as powerfully affected when others who play significant roles in our lives respond to us with harshness, criticism, judgment or condemnation, making relationships feel unsafe - the source of emotional pain. The ways that others respond to us (and we to them) have great power in affecting how we experience relationships in general. Consider, now, how you typically respond to yourself? In times of happiness or sadness, how do you relate to yourself and your experiences (your thoughts, your emotions, your behaviors)? Is it a supportive stance characterized by gentleness, soothing, understanding, and deep trust?
So often we automatically and in subtle (or not so subtle ways) respond to ourselves in times of pain in a cold, rejecting manner. We can even punish ourselves for feeling pain, for “being weak.” In times of success, accomplishment, or celebration, we might even block ourselves from fully opening to natural happiness or joy, perhaps because in the back of our minds lurks an insidious doubt or lack of trust in our deserving of success, or our ability to tolerate the possible loss of the happiness that we have worked so hard to “earn.”
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why is it so common to become our own biggest critic, so often undermining ourselves in the name of self-betterment? It is startling to come to a full realization of just how “normal” it is to engage in self-deprecation or of pointing out the validity of our flaws…whereas, if we were to do this in a relationship with another, we would (rightly so) consider this to be emotional abuse.
The relationship with self has been the subject of growing interest. Psychologists have begun to explore why it is so common to treat ourselves so harshly, and what we can do to shift into a more authentic, resilient, strong, and nourishing stance towards ourselves. Fortunately, psychological research is demonstrating that not only does our relationship with ourselves affect our well-being, it can also be healed and strengthened. You can learn to become your own greatest resource, cultivating a radically different relationship with the very valuable, authentic YOU.
Shame & Self-Criticism
Usually, the quality of our relationship with ourselves is undermined by shame and self-criticism, which go hand-in-hand and play an insidious role in our lives. Shame results from a global negative evaluation of one's self-worth, resulting in a cascade of associated cognitive, emotional, and behavioral experiences characterized by painful self-hatred or self-loathing. Shame is typically born from the belief that "I am bad" (or worthless, defective, unloveable, etc.), a conclusion that we often arrive at, in some form or another, during early childhood, when believe that we are quite literally the center of the universe, and that "good" or "bad" things happen in our lives because of US (e.g. "A bad thing happened, it must have happened because of me...therefore I must be bad."). It is also not uncommon to have also been literally told that we were "bad" in some way or another (e.g. "you are being so bad today, stop that!") by important figures in our lives, and (unintentionally or not) sent the message that we will only be loved and accepted for being "good." When these messages are repeatedly received, they are internalized, and set the stage for learning that love and acceptance are conditional based on who we are, and easily lost if we are not who others want us to be. In reality, we all make mistakes, and mess up, and this in no way means that we are fundamentally flawed, defective, or that we are unloveable. However, when we feel shame, however, it truly feels like we messed up because there is something deeply wrong with who we are. Self-criticism (or the "inner critic") then becomes the brain's attempt at trying to "fix" what is "wrong" with us, in order to avoid being fundamentally rejected or disowned by others, but ultimately leaves us feeling beaten down, and more miserable and isolated, because we are essentially rejecting ourselves. Depending upon our later relational experiences, the modeling of others, and society's unrealistic messages about who we should be, shame and self-criticism may continue to be reinforced, become more embedded, and more fully invade our sense of self. The hurt and shamed inner-child within us is typically carried forward into our adult lives, perhaps hidden underground beneath our conscious awareness, but still powerfully affecting how we lead our lives and whether we feel safe enough to show up (or not) fully as ourselves.
“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” – Brene Brown
How do we begin reversing the damage that entrenched shame and self-criticism can cause? We can start by practicing self-validation. Self-validation is all about acknowledging and making sense of your experience. To state that something is “valid” does not mean that it is “right” or “justified.” Validation is not about judging or evaluating ourselves or our experiences. Validation is simply about recognizing that our experiences, on some level, make sense. There is a logical reason that things have come to be the way that they have if we consider the larger picture. Even more intense emotions that others may deem “excessive” or “inappropriate” are valid; it makes sense that you are feeling the way that you are because of many intertwining factors that have caused things to be the way that they are (your history and past experiences, the current conditions, current coping skills, beliefs, etc all lead to the events that occur).
This does not mean that we should or shouldn’t change our experience (“should’s” and “oughts” are judgments that imply the superiority or inferiority of whatever is judged). Dr. Linehan asserts that all emotions are valid (not necessarily justified or condoned), but that this has nothing to do with whether or not acting on the emotion is effective, or whether the intensity of the emotion matches the facts of the situation. Acknowledging our emotions (even those we believe are “overreactions”) is a vastly important prerequisite for change. When we make sense of our emotions (as opposed to denying, resisting, or struggling with them), and acknowledge how it is that they have come to be, we also can validate that WE make sense.
Why is this important? So many of us grow up or live in invalidating environments – environments that send us the message that what we naturally feel and who we are doesn’t make sense in some way. This is invalidation – being told that your authentic way of being and experiencing the world is wrong in some way.
When we receive the message that there is something “wrong” with who we naturally are, it can be extremely painful and confusing, leading to a growing distrust of our own experiences and ourselves. We often (consciously or unconsciously) come to the conclusion that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, and thus, we need to change who we are.
It typically feels awful to believe that you don’t make sense, that you are “crazy” for feeling a certain way, or can’t trust your own experiences. Sometimes we run away from believing that there is something “wrong” with us by chasing an idea of perfection, in the hopes that one day we will be wholly acceptable, loved, and “make sense.” As many know, trying to run away from who we truly are is a never-ending battle that often creates significant pain and suffering.
Because so many of us learn that who we are does not “make sense” or is in some way “wrong,” we begin to develop a self-invalidating relationship with ourselves. It is not too surprising, then, that an “inner critic” appears to grow within and take on a life of its own.
The “inner critic” and its counterpart, self-compassion, have been extensively researched by Dr. Kristin Neff, a research psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Neff has done a great deal of work to bring the concept of self-compassion to the Western psychological field. A rapidly growing body of research is discovering just how key self-compassion is to our well-being, and may be the antidote to the musings of the inner self-critic. Dr. Neff breaks down self-compassion into three core components:
- Self-Kindness: Self-kindness refers to the ability to be gentle or kind with oneself during suffering, as opposed to Self-Judgment, which is the tendency to be harsh or critical towards oneself.
- Common Humanity: Common humanity refers to the recognition that we are united in our suffering – all human beings experience pain, and this is actually something that connects us. This is the opposite of what she terms Isolation, which is when we feel very isolated or alone in our pain, perhaps believing that we are the only one to be going through this painful experience while most others are happy.
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness refers to the ability to be aware of and allowing of emotions, as opposed to Over-Identification, which is when we fixate on, overly-identify with, or “grab onto” negative emotional states.
The seeds of self-compassion can be planted and cultivated in our lives, “combating” the harsh or invalidating fashion that may currently characterize the way we currently relate towards ourselves (often based on past conditioning as mentioned above). Dr. Neff provides free meditations and self-compassion exercises for just that purpose. Learning how to effectively self-soothe and fully embrace yourself through the up’s and down’s of life is an invaluable skill. It can be likened to building a steady foundation upon which you can rest when things get rough, and a launching pad from which to leap when you are ready to soar.
Researchers are currently investigating the specific ways that self-compassion interventions affect us. Though more research is needed, what is being discovered is that when we adopt a more accepting, compassionate response towards ourselves (as opposed to a harsh, unrelenting stance), we are able to perform better (yes, we actually achieve more when we are kind to ourselves versus harsh towards ourselves!) and are more psychologically resilient in many regards. Building the ability to generate and direct a compassionate, warm, soothing stance towards ourselves may also help to regulate our threat-detection system. Paul Gilbert proposes that a compassionate, soothing, and affiliative stance towards oneself improves an individual’s ability to regulate difficult or threat-based emotions. Self-directed compassion is thought to reduce sensitivity to threat and also improve the individual’s ability to access, tolerate, and effectively express emotions by creating a sense of safety, as opposed to reactively or avoidantly responding to distress (Gilbert, 2013; Gilbert & Procter, 2006). We can learn how to be a resource for ourselves, better able to soothe and regulate painful emotions, and thus be able to more effectively manage the tasks of living.
Ultimately, when the “inner critic” takes a backseat, and we listen instead to the inner “compassionate friend,” we free ourselves up from the draining, undermining nature of self-criticism. We also can begin to learn to trust ourselves again – learning, on a deep, experiential level that we CAN make it through life’s challenges. We can be our own greatest resource by learning to provide ourselves with the comfort and loving acceptance that all human beings long for.
Vulnerability & Authenticity
"The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination" (Rogers, 1967, p. 187).
Establishing a deep sense of trust in yourself in no easy task, and shame creates unseen hurdles along the way. Importantly, shame is an emotion that differs from guilt. Whereas guilt is a feeling that arises from perceiving that you did something bad, shame is a feeling that YOU are fundamentally bad. All of us experience shame in various ways and to differing degrees. Shame often provokes us to hide from ourselves; to “omit” or remove aspects of ourselves that we believe are unworthy and unacceptable. This “disconnecting” from parts of ourselves can be thought of as akin to putting a blindfold on, or even more extreme, trying to cut off a major limb because we judged this limb as being undesirable or “bad.” This approach usually does not serve us very well, and just makes things more painful and challenging in the long run.
Attempting to hide from ourselves creates a major disconnect. If we are not truly in touch with the fullness of who we really are (ALL of the “good” and the “bad,” who we really are vs. who we think we “ought” to be), how can we have a solid, healthy relationship with ourselves? How can we be self-aware enough to connect with a sense of wholeness, if we are hiding from ourselves on some level? Trusting in yourself can be thought of as rooted in self-awareness (for example, fully owning what your true preferences and dislikes are, what your strengths and what areas you are still developing and growing in, what you really want for yourself versus what you believe others think you should do, etc). How can you really rely on and believe in yourself to navigate life effectively when you cannot really see who you are with clarity?
A commitment to authenticity, daring to be freely and truly YOU (all of who you are, exactly as you are, imperfections and all), can be quite a liberating experience. It can also be excruciatingly vulnerable. When we are authentic, and truly open to who we are, it can feel vulnerable and as though we are “exposed.” There is no hiding ourselves away as a form of self-protection.
Dr. Brené Brown discusses her theory about the power of vulnerability and authenticity, along with what she calls “Wholehearted Living,” in her famous TED talk. Her research led her to discover that shame was one of the strongest barriers to vulnerability and authenticity, and short-circuited fulfilled and connected living.
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” – Dr. Carl Rogers
How can we successfully open to authentic, whole-hearted living? Radical acceptance of the self may be an option. In her book, Dr. Brach discusses the power of radically accepting oneself. Self-worth is no longer contingent upon the ways that we often define ourselves (such as our relationships, roles, achievements, etc.). It is a radical letting go of judgment of ourselves, and a practice of recognizing our inherent worth – just as we are in this moment. For many of us, that truly is a radical idea.
This does not mean that we give up on growing and developing – on the contrary, this level of self-acceptance supports us in being fully who we are and want to be. It is like allowing yourself to finally take a deep breath of relief, knowing that you can release any self-protective masks or defenses that have long weighed you down – and that even without these layers of protection – on a truly fundamental level, you will be okay. In fact, you may experience being freer and more alive than ever before, connecting with what is truly vital and meaningful to you.
Righting Your Relationship with You
When we can rest in a deep knowing of our own self-worth, trustworthiness, and resilience, we are free to explore life in an entirely different way. Ultimately, trying to force yourself to be other than who you truly are, and beating yourself up when you are not who you think you “should be,” can dramatically drain and wear you down. Vitality naturally comes from connectedness. Why not make a commitment to connect with yourself in a radically different way today? It is essential to remember that this is a process, and by no means occurs overnight. Each moment is an opportunity to practice awareness and acceptance of yourself, or to judge and reject yourself. Treat yourself as you imagine your closest friend or loved one would want to be treated, and you may be amazed at the results.
Brach, T. (2004). Radical acceptance. Bantam.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Penguin.
Brown, B. (2013). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you're supposed to be and embrace who you are. Hazelden Publishing.
Gilbert, P., & Irons, C. (2005). Focused therapies and compassionate mind training for shame and self-attacking. Compassion: Conceptualisations, research and use in psychotherapy, 263-325.
Linehan, M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. Guilford Press.
Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and identity, 2(2), 85-101.
Rogers, C. R., Stevens, B., Gendlin, E. T., Shlien, J. M., & Van Dusen, W. (1967). Person to person: The problem of being human: A new trend in psychology. Lafayette, CA: Real People Press.
Blog edited and reposted from original post on Center for Stress and Anxiety Management Website