One of the hardest things for us to do, though it is one of the most important things we will ever learn, is to accept ourselves for exactly who we are. But when you decide to take this on and make it a priority, it can be one of the most life changing thing you can do.
“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.”
— Marcus Aurelius
A few months ago, there was an incident that happened between me and someone that I care about very much. This person had hurt me very deeply, and I was not only furious, I was devastated. And even though they apologized it took me quite some time to let go of my anger. This got me thinking…why had this incident hurt so much? Why did the actions of this person have so much sway over me? It took me a while of mulling this over in my mind, until I caught a glimmer of an idea. I realized that my self-esteem was so wrapped up in my partner that if they thought ill of me, or did something that I felt hurt by, it was far more devastating than if it had been one of my friends.
So I decided to take back my self-esteem, since that’s where it should have been in the first place. Taking back your self-esteem when you have spent your whole life living by external validation is not an easy thing. I needed to make a plan, but it seemed impossible. I didn’t know where to begin. So I started reading about some possible areas to begin. I read about the idea of identity and what makes us who we are. I thought about the roles that we take on that we consider part of our identity. I read about the ego and the id. I read some Jung, Freud, and of course Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. All of these things were leading me to the right direction, but I felt like I was still missing something.
One of the first things that I did was to start a daily meditation practice. I had been listening to a podcast with Naval Ravikant where he talked about how about three years ago he started meditating for an hour each day. He said that after 60 days, he found that his level of anxiety in his daily life dropped dramatically, and that since that time, he continues the practice having only missed it maybe a dozen times in those 3 years. He said that it was though taking that time gave his brain the opportunity to sort through and process all the garbage that he had spent years ignoring, and that each time he did the meditation, he found that the first 40 minutes are kind of a mess, and his mind just kind of wanders around thinking about all kinds of random things, but that last 20 minutes are much clearer and relaxed and set the tone for the rest of the day.
So I committed to doing 60 minutes a day for 60 days, and it has been a key component for changing my life in a very dramatic and positive way. Has it been easy? No, it hasn’t. Sitting down and doing my best to pay attention to the fireworks going off in my mind is a challenge. I’ve missed one day, and have had to make do with some 30 minute sessions because I did not have the time for a full hour, but in doing so, I’ve also been kind to myself and recognized that I’m not striving for perfection, but trying to do the best I can, and to be sure to advocate for myself then I need that time and it may push off some other plans.
After a few days of this, I was finding that it was helping, but even so, I got into a fairly big argument with this person. After I cooled down, they asked me why I tried so hard to control how they thought of me. I realized that I was terrified that if they knew who I really was deep down, that they wouldn’t like me. They asked me what was so bad about me that I had to hide it. I paused as I tried to think of what was so bad about me. I said I don’t know, I guess I should figure that out.
So the next day I sat down and I wrote down all the things that I don’t like about myself. Anything that came tow mind, I wrote it down. I had about a dozen things, and as I looked them over, I realized that none of the things on my list were all that bad. In fact, they were things that my friends struggled with. And I thought, if my friends do these things and I still love and accept them, can’t I just do the same for myself?
And then it was like a lighting bolt hit. There was nothing about myself that I could not accept. I didn’t have to love everything about myself, but I could at the very least accept it. This simple exercise shined a light on all the things that I was so afraid to look at about myself. I realized that the fear of those things was far worse than the reality. It was like seeing the scary shadow of a monster only to see once the light is on that it’s just a tree branch outside your window. As Seneca said, “We we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
What I realized is that having grown up in an environment where my self worth and esteem was from external measurements of my church, all my validation and acceptance come from somewhere else, not me. So I took it back. I decided that I was in charge of my self-acceptance and self-esteem.
Kung Fu Panda
Have you seen Kun Fu Panda? It’s one of my all time favorite movies. I’ve watched it a dozen times or so over the years and will probably make it a yearly thing to watch and enjoy it. So what does Kung Fu Panda have to do with getting back your self-esteem? If you haven’t seen it, well there are going to be some spoilers.
The basic premise is that Po, a big fat panda with no real martial arts skill, is chosen as the one that will save the village from Tai Lung, the most notorious villain in all the land. As Po struggles to learn how to fight, he feels like a mistake has been made, that he is not the chosen one. He can’t fight like Tigress or Monkey or any others of the Furious Five who are the most celebrated fighters in the land. But as he learns to accept himself for who he is, a big fat panda, and not a Tigress, Monkey, Snake or any of the other Furious Five, he learns to fight like a big fat panda, and ends up defeating Tai Lung. He discovers that by being himself he is enough.
So why is self acceptance such a powerful tool? All of us want to feel accepted. It feels great when others accept us, so when we can give that gift of acceptance to ourselves, we are giving ourselves what we need. The interesting thing that I’ve found as I’ve talked to other about this simple and powerful tool, is how challenging it is for us to accept ourselves. We make all kinds of excuses of why we can accept others, but not ourselves. Doing so feels like an insurmountable task. And why do we find this so hard to do? Because we believe that we are not worthy of love. We believe that we are too flawed for that kind of acceptance. But I would bet that most of you, if you took the time to write down the things you honestly don’t like about yourself, there is probably nothing so bad that you couldn’t accept it if it was something do that your friends wrote down.
Acceptance is a gift that we give to others all the time, so we already know how to do it. We just need to point it at ourselves. The other reason why self-acceptance is so powerful is that we don’t have to love everything about ourselves, but we can at the very least just accept ourselves for who we are, both the things we like, and the things we don’t.
Write It Down and Think
This week, I want you to sit down and write down all the things you don’t like about yourself. Ever single thing you can think of. The reason I want you to do this is that in order to practice self acceptance, you need to know what it is that you are accepting about yourself. You need the whole picture, both the things you like, and the things you don’t.
After you have done that, I want you to look at those things on your list. I find that most things fall into a few categories: Facts, and opinions. The nice thing about facts is that they are just things that are. They are reality, so not accepting them is to deny reality. If you are 5’7” or weigh 180 lbs, they are facts. You don’t have to like them, but you can accept them because they are reality.
When it comes to opinions about yourself, those are subjective things, and are not things that are imperially true. The most common one is that I find is that we don’t feel good enough, which is such a nebulous statement. What are you not good enough for? What is good enough? Being human? Living? You are a living human so you are good enough to be a human. And since they are opinions and subjective, it is hard to prove them to be true, so simply accept the fact that you have that opinion about yourself.
If there is something on your list that you truly do find unacceptable, then that is something that you can work on accepting. If it is something that you have done in the past, then it is something that cannot be changed and is a fact. Remember, you don’t have to love everything about yourself, but you can accept that it is part of who you are. If it is some attribute about yourself that you don’t like, such as you think you are selfish or needy or judgmental, accept that it is part of who you are at the moment, but it is not who you have to be in the future.
As part of my meditation practice every day, I think deeply about how I can accept myself more wholly. As my mind wanders and I bring my focus back around, I think about just accepting myself for exactly who I am. I would suggest that you take the time to do this every day. I would also challenge you to meditate every day for at least 30 minutes. I know that can seem tough, but really it’s just noticing your thinking, and gently focusing your attention from time to time on something you want to ponder. That’s it. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Just give your minds some space to process what’s going on in your life.
For years now, I have been working hard on trying to manage my anger, with varying degrees of success. Since I’ve learned that the core issue that was causing so much of my anger was that I didn’t like myself, learning to accept myself for exactly who I am has changed my life. For so long I was trying so hard to work with the tools I had, but until now I was working on the wrong things. The strides I have made over the last few months have felt gigantic. I still have my bad days when I’m tried or grumpy, but when I fail, I pick myself up, make amends and keep on going. I feel more solid as a person, and I’m finally someone that I really like.