photo credit: Love Yourself by Viri G
by Glynis Sherwood MEd
The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change
~ Carl Rogers, Self Acceptance – The Foundation of Mental Health and Positive Relationships
Nobody contacts me for counselling complaining that a lack of self acceptance is a problem for them. Instead, people say things like “I lost my confidence”, “I have problems with stress”, or “I have low self esteem”. What’s often lurking beneath the surface however is a deep seated belief that there is something fundamentally flawed about themselves. When a person believes they are flawed, this leads to feelings of shame, doubts about self worth and fears of unlovability.
It’s critical to become aware of beliefs that make you feel inadequate or defective, as it’s self acceptance that’s the key to a mentally healthy self image. Self esteem can be a feature of self acceptance, but tends to be transient and conditional, dwelling more on the surface of life, and based on external validation or accomplishment.
Self acceptance is built on a foundation of understanding that to a large extent we are the architects of the thoughts and feelings that create our own reality. When we see ourselves as ‘agents’ in our own lives, rather than ‘reactors’ to what life throws at us, we realize we can choose to believe in ourselves. When we accept ourselves, we stop judging ourselves by the shifting standards of the world. We see ourselves as part of the bigger picture of life, as a process not a destination, rather than a success or failure. We can reduce anger towards ourselves and the world, while at the same time remaining accountable and assertive. Aligning our beliefs with valuing ourselves leads to lasting peace of mind.
When people first start counselling they are often unaware that negative beliefs are interfering with their lives. This is because these beliefs tend to operate on a subconscious level, just outside of conscious awareness. You can tell that deep set beliefs are running you by what you are thinking and how you feel. If negative ideas have taken hold, you will likely struggle with recurring painful judgments and emotions about yourself and/or the world.
Counselling helps people pull back the curtains so they can see how these harmful beliefs are sabotaging them. They can then begin the valuable work of redefining themselves from a more positive – and more accurate – perspective.
Lack of Self Acceptance Undermines You
People who believe there is something inherently wrong with them struggle with chronic self doubt at best, or feelings of shame at worst. Sometimes they were raised to believe that they were ‘trouble’, or came to assume they were bad for having problems or needs of their own. If a child’s needs for love, connection, self expression, and safety remain unmet, this gets misinterpreted as evidence of worthlessness. Childhood abuse or neglect are particularly devastating threats to self worth, and the experience of being devalued, ignored or punished for having needs can lead to ongoing feelings of inadequacy.
The inability to accept oneself is usually propped up by one or two core beliefs: 1/ I’m not good enough; 2/ I’m too much. Either way, you can’t win, as the common denominator is that you feel unacceptable and inadequate. So you end up being convinced by these beliefs that you are inferior – at least in some respect – and holding yourself back, as you are afraid to show your true self. In fact, you may not even know who your true self is.
Lack of self acceptance can either be compartmentalized, occupying only a corner of oneself, or more pervasive, taking over your view of your whole self. You may think that a part of you is OK, while other part(s) don’t measure up. This leads to inconsistent or chronic low self esteem. If you feel this way you will not feel sure of yourself around other people. You may struggle to accept and trust your emotions due to the undermining influence of negative self assessment. Intimate relationships also suffer if you constantly worry about whether you measure up, as fear of abandonment controls the relationship rather than love.
In its most deadly form, lack of self acceptance is caused by a belief that you are fatally defective as a human being. If you think you are a ‘mistake’, you are much more vulnerable to feelings of shame. Shame is a like psychological quicksand, as it keeps you trapped in the assumption that you are unredeemable. Many people who struggle with shame have their lives stunted, either by never experiencing personal satisfaction or peace of mind, being isolated from others, not living up to their potential, or falling into addictive behavior.
Paradoxically, as Carl Rogers noted, when we accept ourselves it lays the foundation for positive change. I take this to mean that when you are no longer at war against yourself, you can relax, stop worrying about not being perfect, and accept becoming the person you are meant to be.
You Can Learn to Accept Yourself – Here’s How:
- Dig deep – identify what you believe that’s making you view yourself negatively. For example, a thought like “Why bother trying, I’ll just mess things up”, might be traced back to a core belief that you are incompetent.Or you feel frustrated and sad, and working backwards realize you are thinking, “Nobody truly loves me”. The belief behind that could be “I’m unlovable”.
- Work to uncover all of the negative beliefs that are running interference in your life. Usually there is more than one. Understand how these beliefs are affecting your thought processes, emotions and moods.Think back to where these negative beliefs came from. Get a clear picture. If you were a child who was neglected, abused, shamed or unloved, realize that you did not possess the ability to see your self as valuable in the face of adult – especially parental – disapproval. Feel empathy towards yourself as someone who was taught or convinced to not believe in yourself.
- Challenge those negative beliefs. Just because you are in the habit of going along with them doesn’t mean they are true. They just shout louder and have dominated the room of your mind for a long time.Negative beliefs are stereotypes not truths! What else do you know about yourself that’s both more hopeful and – most importantly – a more truthful reflection of who you really are? What redeeming qualities do you have? What have you done in your life that says to you that you are – a decent, worthwhile human being? Do not short change this process.
- Practice, practice, practice. It took years to build up negative beliefs about yourself, so it’s important to understand that it will take time to overcome them. Even if you feel uncomfortable, or the positives seem small, it’s essential to identify the upside, so you can get both a more realistic and optimistic view of yourself.
It takes hard work, dedication and discipline to take your life back from shameful beliefs and start accepting yourself. You are on a vital journey to discover ways to help yourself overcome painful, limited and false ways of seeing yourself, so you can achieve the optimistic view of your life you want and deserve. Cultivate patience, and focus on what you can do to shift your perspective today. This may feel unnatural or unbelievable for a while as it’s unfamiliar.
Remember, just because standing up to negative beliefs feels unfamiliar, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Give yourself a chance to ‘practice’ having more faith in yourself, and your right to have needs and feelings that don’t put others ahead of yourself. Gradually this practice will start to pay off, you’ll start to believe in yourself more and more, and it will become part of the fabric of your life.