Self-Acceptance

[Caveat: Again, I make no claim to prescience, wisdom or mastery of any of these life-observations or lessons. They simply reflect goals to which I aspire and pass along to loved ones and other interested souls.]

There is no one more difficult to accept than one’s self.

No matter how false our view may be, most of us see ourselves as inferior at some, material level; we judiciously guard that secret from others, but, deep down, we know this truth. The more ego and arrogance we evince, the deeper seeded our inferiority generally is. There are exceptions among us, but not many. I learned this universal fact from a psychiatrist to whom I went in my early twenties. My half-dozen or so monthly sessions, as I could afford no more, were most beneficial, and I have always believed that most of us could benefit significantly from ten to twenty such objective sessions – to chase away our congenital demons.

The saddest part of our inferiority complexes is that, the less that we accept ourselves, the less that we can accept others; and the less that we accept others, the less we accept ourselves, a vicious cycle that can catapult us into the depths of despair. Until we can accept ourselves as “okay”, there can be no lasting mental peace in this life.

What precipitates self-doubt, self-flagellation and even self-emasculation? Our misperceptions of ourselves: in our mirrors, we see distorted versions of ourselves, exaggerating our short suits, seeing ourselves as too short or too tall, too fat or too thin, too pale or too dark, too bashful or too aggressive, too talkative or too quiet, too cocky or too uncertain. We may even see our families as too this or too that. Our feigned conceit masks latent inferiority; we may grow less and less kind to others, alienating friends and creating enemies. Some of us may silently cheer the failures of others, as we erroneously believe that the lower others fall, the more elevated we will appear.  We doubt our ability to succeed at many or most things; we are tempted to allow negative thoughts to dominate our waking hours; we may sometimes think of self-extinction (as the psychiatrist said that most do), but, at other times, we fear death. Above all, we know how truly inferior we are; we may even wish that we were someone else. As the sage, comic philosopher, Pogo, presciently quipped,

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Sound like anyone you know? We may cleave to the incredibly wealthy or notably famous, ludicrously feeling that some of their luster may appear to be ours by association; but, the irony is that many of the most prominent have long histories of mental suffering, often including inferiority complexes. There is guilt by association but fame and fortune don’t transfer.  Life is a solo journey, and our lives can never be more than we make them, and the first step is self-acceptance.  It may well be the most daunting challenge of life, but it doesn’t need to be.

We must take solace in this observation from the late psychiatrist and author (Helping Yourself with Psychiatry), Frank D. Caprio, M.D.:

There is no good or bad thought that you have ever had that has not been thought by most others. We are substantially the same.

As such, the “shame” is not in having a bad thought; it rests in failing to pluck it from our minds and to supplant it with positive, loving thoughts. Why not take overt actions to shape and re-shape our thoughts on a daily basis?  We have the ability to dictate our own thoughts.  The mind, like any garden, is full of weeds which we can pull, and we have the option of planting flowers in their place. As in any garden, the job of pulling weeds and planting good seeds is a daily, hourly and minute-by-minute job, but we can do it.  It’s really just a question of the degree of our resolve and the extent to which we act on it.

Our bodies [and minds] are our gardens -- to which our wills are gardeners. Shakespeare

Self-acceptance does not mean self-adulation, of course, but, if we are doing our best, truly doing our best, we can and should accept ourselves, our efforts and the degree of our progress, whatever it is. There is no end-point in this process; that is, every day is a new day, a day in which we must “prove” ourselves to ourselves, again.  Again, to achieve this, we must work on it hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute, a daunting task but a richly rewarding one.

In one of the best self-help books ever penned, the Autobiography of Ben Franklin (1706-1790), the inventor, printer, entrepreneur, and American statesman, outlined the techniques and systems that he used to make his name a household word for over 200 years. One of his most impressive techniques was the systematic way in which he re-shaped his own character. He attacked his character flaws with mathematical precision, using a chart in which he listed the 13 qualities that most wish to master (patience, kindness, frugality, etc.), and he daily recorded his offenses against each, until he reduced them to zero, removing the conquered trait and replacing it with a new one. He thus pulled his mental “weeds” every day and planted good “seeds”, and he counted his “offenses”, statistically grading his mental-garden, making it quantifiably better and better, day-by-day. Franklin was far too wise to ever see himself as perfect, but he surely had good reasons to claim to have re-made himself into a much better person. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Self-acceptance is not a genetic implant or a gift that anyone can give us. We must earn it for ourselves. We can be a much better person, if we choose to be – if we will reject negative thoughts and inject positive ones. In the early 1990’s, there was a hilarious character on TV’s Saturday Night Live, Al Franken, who created the dysfunctionally lovable “Stuart Smalley”, a character who had an ingenious way of teaching himself to be self-accepting. (Click to see Stuart Smalley.) “Stuart” sat in front of a mirror, in a hilarious pose, looking uncertain and frightened, and lectured himself, as the audience guffawed, and his principal and unforgettable instruction to himself (and his viewers) was, in tones that made the self-admonition almost a question at first, but, the more that he repeated the instruction, the greater grew his inimitable conviction:

“I’m okay; and you’re okay!”

What better synopsis of what we need to think: “I’m okay; you’re okay.” Yes, exactly! If that doesn’t say it all, I don’t know what does. He also frequently admonished himself:

“You’re good enough; you’re smart enough, and, doggone it, people like you!”

If only more of us could take Stuart’s advice, self-acceptance would explode planet-wide. (In real life, Stuart later took his advice seriously and briefly became a U.S. Senator, a great loss to the comedic stage.)

To expedite our own self-acceptance, the more understanding, sympathy, empathy and, above all, charity, that we can feel for others, the more of same that we can, and will, feel for ourselves – and vice versa: the more that we accept ourselves, the more charity we will feel for others – a snowball worthy of our most sedulous efforts.  Even unpleasant people often can be won-over by a panoply of kindness, and, when they aren’t, they will still chafe us less (as we will refuse to barb the arrows of their intended negativity);  we steadfastly take the highest road of conduct of which we are capable. To be trite, what we throw against the wall (good and bad) does bounce back, eventually.  It's simply physics: cause and effect; it works.

As much as we want others to think well of us, that, by itself, will not make us self-accepting. We must earn self-acceptance one day at a time, for ourselves, by ourselves. We may never be 100% self-accepting, and that’s probably a good thing, as humility helps, too. However, of this I am certain: there can be no lasting happiness without self-acceptance, and we’ll never be self-accepting unless we take control of our minds and of our conduct, dictating positive thoughts and actions which, in the aggregate, will earn us the reality of a reasonable degree of this magical key to inner peace.

As with life, the road to self-acceptance never ends. We will always be journeymen on that road.

Every day is a good day to begin anew on this richly rewarding journey.

Let us accept ourselves.