The Art of Developing Self-Acceptance

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Alan Watts, a famous philosopher and spiritual writer, defined self-acceptance as the acceptance of yourself, just as you are right now, before you do anything to make your self more acceptable.This acceptance requires a nonjudgemental attitude toward any trait, quality, characteristic, failing or fault that is deemed negative, troublesome or objectionable. This includes this accepting attitude that accepts even to your inability to do this. Acceptance doesn’t mean that you were in denial of them or that you can’t dislike them and want to change them, only that there is not a harshly critical denigrating self-evaluation because of them.

Total self-acceptance is only possible when there is the understanding that none of these apparent defects are really your fault. They arose from early interactions with significant others who were themselves unsure of their own acceptability and couldn’t recognize their own inherent goodness and beauty. Therefore they couldn’t see and mirror the child’s so that it could be internalized and identified with.

This lack of affirmation is very painful to the child and they soon grow to take it personally that they were not appreciated or loved simply for being. And if in addition to not being seen, the child was repeatedly criticized, abused, or neglected, the feeling that it must be their fault (if only I wasn’t deficient, then I would be loved) becomes even more deeply ingrained. In this way, shame and the feeling of not being good enough infiltrates and pervades the sense of self. A Buddhist psychologist John Welwood points out that shame is so painful because it denies the reality of the beauty and goodness of our basic nature. Welwood further states the idea that our basic goodness has been directly experienced by Eastern and Western sages “as a natural purity of heart from which all positive qualities flow: love, caring, courage, humor, wisdom, devotion, strength. As an inherent quality of our nature, this good heartedness is more fundamental than any notion we have about being good or bad based on our behavior or acceptance by others. And unshakable sense of our intrinsic value can only developed through coming to experience and know the essential purity and nobility that exists at our core.” When this essential purity and goodness of heart is not experienced, the shame associated with its lack or absence is so painful that it must be warded off by any means.

Sometimes it can’t be warded off, and some individuals simply succumb to its demoralizing feelings of hopelessness, depression or despair, which can lead to suicide. Others try to manage or overcome the shame. The strategy of coping that is used determine the specific negative states, feelings or actions for which we or others will eventually condemn us. Distraction can lead to obsessive or compulsive behaviors. Numbing ourselves to the pain of shame often results in substance abuse or various forms of addiction. Denying the pain can lead to an emotional over- reaction of anger or rage. Denial of the sense of inadequacy or deficiency can result in an egocentric grandiose image formations expressed as self-centeredness and entitlement.

All of these coping mechanisms eventually fail because the shame is never vanquished and returns in some form or another, which further reinforces or confirms the original sense of inadequacy, insufficiency and unlovability. The reason that these attempts are always unsuccessful is because the cause of the shame is never addressed. That said, there was never really anything fundamentally wrong with us to feel shame about. We were only told that there was and came to believe it or we inferred there was something wrong with us when our innate goodness and beauty wasn’t recognized or affirmed. Unless we see that the basis of the shame is totally mistaken and illusory, we will continue to believe in its validity, suffer the damagingly consequences and continue the futile struggle against this imaginary nemesis.

However, if we begin to understand the roots of shame and deeply appreciate our own innocence in the matter, there can arise a sense of tolerance and compassion for ourselves with our faults and limitations. This attitude of compassion may even extend to others, as it is realized that their impediments are also reactions to their self-doubt or lack of affirmation. It is important to emphasize that this openhearted understanding is not intended to excuse or condone our disagreeable or harmful behavior, only to explain it’s inevitability and alleviate any self-blame.

While freeing ourselves from shame and blame are important steps in reawakening our innate acceptance and lovability, by themselves, they don’t ensure it’s reemergence. We still suffer the consequences of never having the deep experience of unconditional acceptance and love. The pain of that loss is still powerful. Certain residual adverse dispositions and tendencies associated with our historic self denigration still remain that must be managed in a sensitive matter that mitigates any pain and still respects the wholeness within the present experience.

When a disturbing thought or feeling enters our consciousness, how is it treated within the context of acceptance? First, we try not to resist it in anyway. We make no attempt to change it or get rid of it. If a thought appears, we repeat the thought silently and hold it in our awareness or we can imagine the words of the thought written out on a blackboard. We simply notice the thought and watch what happens. The thought will usually disappear and, if it does, rest in that open space. Soon another thought might arise. Notice that thought in the same manner. Often when that the work disappears, we become aware of underlying feelings, emotions or bodily contractions that have the coexisted with the thoughts. Sometimes we might become aware of body sensations or feelings before thoughts. Whether before thoughts or underlying them, we are to bring our attention to the actual physical sensations of our emotions or contractions as they are experienced in our bodies and feel them as palpably as possible. If these sensations are very intense, thoughts will arise to distract us from feeling them. We are then to simply acknowledge the thoughts and return to the actual physical sensations. A further step in the process is to bring our awareness right into the center of the sensation and become one with it. Then all that remains is the energy of the sensation with no “you” to be bothered by it. Often this results in a complete cessation of the sensation, leaving a sense of relief and openness to whatever life brings forward next as present experiencing: the sound of the wind, the movement of the breath, the sight of the trees, the thoughts of what next to do.

Thus, without any deliberate changing, when our symptoms of disconnection are compassionately understood, fully accepted and experienced, we are able to return to that sense of prior sufficiency and wholeness of our original nature.

The information contained in this article reflects the wisdom of numerous spiritual and psychological sources acquired over many years. I want to especially knowledge the writings of John Welwood, Scott Kiloby, and Jeff Foster whose books respectively Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships, Natural Rest for Addiction, and The Deepest Acceptance were especially influential.