Why We Can’t Accept Ourselves — and Small Steps to Start
There are all sorts of obstacles that stop us from accepting ourselves. For starters, it might be a combination of scarce self-knowledge and wounds from our past, said Alexis Marson, LMFT, a psychotherapist who specializes in working with individuals, couples, families and children.
We often lack knowledge and awareness about our emotions. And the most damaging past wounds tend to stem from our caregivers. Marson shared this example: You feel angry and interpret your parents as disconnecting from you. You do everything you can to dismiss or ignore your anger so you can maintain the connection. “If we’ve cut off our ability to feel anger, we aren’t aware of that part of our self. You cannot accept something you don’t even know is there.”
We also might continue the negative narratives from our childhood or past. We may continue retelling stories about how we are unworthy or less than, said Raquel Kislinger, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in narrative therapy.
Another obstacle involves misconceptions about self-acceptance. And there are plenty. For instance, we’re taught that being hard on ourselves makes us better, said Joy Malek, LMFT, founder of SoulFull, which offers psychotherapy, coaching and workshops. We’re taught that self-acceptance is lazy.
And yet “self-acceptance sets the stage for growth motivated by curiosity, inspiration and self-care. That sounds a lot better than feeling motivated by self-rejection and shame.”
We also believe that our imperfections will stop others from loving and valuing us, Malek said. We believe we’ll only become worthy once we become perfect. Which is interesting because even though we might look up to someone who seems perfect, we love humanity and vulnerability in others, she said.
We worry that if we accept ourselves, others will see us as less attractive, as conceited and pompous. But in reality, “it’s our inability to accept ourselves that can cause us to use arrogance as a defense against feeling unworthy.” When we accept ourselves, it’s actually easier to be humble and kind. It’s actually easier to accept others, too, Malek said.
If you’re having a tough time accepting yourself, start with these steps:
Shift your beliefs.
“In my experience, self-acceptance involves a paradigm shift,” Malek said. You shift from the belief that you must be perfect and polished to be worthy of love and a good life to the belief that everyone is imperfect and human, and still worthy, she said. You can create this shift by:
- Being vulnerable with safe and supportive people. Share your struggles. Talk about the time you “failed.” Talk about when you felt embarrassed. Talk about something that brings you shame.
- Surrounding yourself with self-accepting resources. Malek’s favorites include this Ted talk from researcher and storyteller Brené Brown and her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Malek also created this wonderful meditation. It “teaches how to engage our natural empathy for others, and direct that empathy toward ourselves as a natural path to self-acceptance.”
Revise damaging stories.
“It is important to look at the stories we tell about ourselves, and ask if they reflect our hopes and dreams; if they bring us a sense of contentment and equilibrium; if they nurture our strengths; if they ‘work’ for us and are stories we’d like to carry forward,” Kislinger said.
Because if they aren’t, consider revising them. Find exceptions. Because they absolutely exist. Kislinger shared this example: A man holds a life narrative that he’s clumsy and can’t handle anything fragile. He’s also a bad teammate because he fumbles the ball. He’s never invited to events because he bumps into people.
“If we represent that person’s life as a long succession of events, we might, indeed, find ones that support his problem story of ‘clumsiness,’” Kislinger said. But we’ll also find exceptions, which help to create an alternate, supportive story, such as: catching a fly ball at a baseball game; receiving several invites to parties; safely transporting a glass vase during a recent move.
The key is to find life experiences and events that challenge and dispute your problem story. “The more we do that, the more we invite self-acceptance.”
Kislinger also suggested identifying one thing that encourages hope. “Even if you are wrestling with a problem story of depression and diminished self-worth, see if you can connect to something in your life that gives you a sense of possibility.” That might be the coworker who greeted you with kindness. It might be hearing a song that resonated with you. It might be taking a walk for the first time in weeks, which refreshed and soothed you. It might be catching up with a good friend. This is another way of shifting toward a supportive, preferred story about yourself and your life.
Let yourself feel all your feelings.
According to Marson, “True self-acceptance involves all emotions—joy, rage, terror, sadness, elation, etc.” Feeling all these feelings gives the process of self-acceptance more momentum, she said. And doing so starts by connecting to what’s happening in your body.
During her sessions with clients, Marson asks them to visualize a body scanner, and consider what areas stand out. Then describe these areas. For instance, maybe you’re feeling a tightness in your chest or butterflies in your stomach. Maybe you feel a heaviness in your legs. Maybe you feel heat in your face.
Other options include: practicing yoga, meditating or trying anything else that helps you get out of your head and into your body.
Self-acceptance is a process. No matter how you feel about yourself right now, you can start that process by trying the above tips. If you’re really struggling, consider seeking professional support. Because you are worthy of love and a good life, warts and all.
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Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Why We Can’t Accept Ourselves — and Small Steps to Start. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 6, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/why-we-cant-accept-ourselves-and-small-steps-to-start/