The Second Noble Truth

My path of acceptance.

That's Just How I Am

Everyone can be more like their ideal self through conscious effort.
How many times have you heard, uttered, or thought the words in this title? At times when one is confronted because of behavior another finds off-putting, he or she might reply or think, “It’s just how I am.” Lately my posts have been focused on becoming more conscious, and this post will continue that trend.

The reason we are how we are is explained by numerous, often conflicting, theories. There are well over twenty major theories of personality development.  Whether you are who you are because of genetics, your caregivers attitude toward potty training, the fashion in which you internalized objects, drives toward self preservation and / or self-actualization, simply because certain behaviors have been reinforced (or not) over the course of your life, or a combination of everything, you might want to begin to delve into what has led to being who you are. The goal of therapy is insight; to understand oneself, according to many philosophers, is the goal of life.

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But is having the understanding sufficient, or even necessary? Understanding why you do certain things is certainly helpful. Explanations or terms explaining why one behaves in certain ways are comforting. It is nice to know that people put thought into explaining human behavior. However, simply understanding others are like you, and that you are this way for a particular reason doesn’t solve the issue. Is the way you are behaving how you want to be?

There is a lot to be said for self-acceptance. Recently I was with my grown children and my daughter’s boyfriend’s thirteen-year-old brother. While discussing something in line I mentioned I was trying to talk less. The little brother asked why I don’t just accept myself as I am. This is beautiful and sound advice. Often in therapy a goal is self-acceptance. One would be hard pressed to find a self-help book that doesn’t advocate self-acceptance, if not loving oneself. Again, self-acceptance is a worthy goal.

When someone says, “this is just how I am”, what is really being said? It could be posited that it is an excuse. These words have even been prefaced by, “I can’t help it…”. Some might view it as a cop-out. In other words one might be saying, “I don’t have the motivation to change this aspect of myself.” Or, perhaps, one has attained some level of self-acceptance and simply knows he / she is this way, and accepts it (even if others don’t). Any and all of these explanations are fine, if there is sincerely no desire to change.

Lately my focus has been on how automatic we behave most of the time. It is estimated by neuroscience that 95% of human brain activity is adaptive unconscious. To demonstrate this, simply consider how automatically you do most of your activity, including having a conversation. Much of what is said in casual conversation comes automatically. How many times have you wished you hadn’t said something? Or started to say something, got into the sentence, and realized it a bad idea? Much of what we say is simply triggered by our current interaction tapping into our historical interactions. This is our conditioning. Everyone has been conditioned throughout life through interactions with others. Even when a conversation is initiated it is done so out of conditioning. How often do we consider the origins of what we are saying? Or whether it is necessary? Or what purpose it serves? Any of these questions would bring about further understanding of oneself and one’s conditioning.

One of the goals of existential therapy is to overcome conditioning, and what most call their history. This is more than simply resolving feelings from the past. It is also the understanding that everyone has the ability to choose in every minute. If acting out of conditioning, you are responsible for that. But if you want to begin to overcome it, to be truly whom you choose to be, you have that power.

Becoming self-created takes a great deal of effort. As I stated in a recent post, short of monks or clerics no one will expend this type of energy around the clock. But progress, not perfection, is a worthy goal. Likely a balance of self-acceptance with wanting to be a better person is the healthiest mindset.

To begin this endeavor one needs to become more conscious, and to act more consciously. This is easier said than done. Everyone has a default setting which is returned to when a mindful, thoughtful, deliberate state is forgotten. And it is normal respond to life automatically more than it is to be deliberate. So the first step is to become more conscious. 

Becoming more conscious can be done in several ways. A client recently used an analogy he read when studying Zen: meditate with the same level of concentration if your hair were on fire. This mindset can be brought into daily awareness. One can simply engage in each activity as if his hair were on fire (not literally of course, that would simply be panic). Simply attempt to have the same level of attentiveness to the moment you would in a dire situation. When the mind wanders from deliberate action, remind yourself to be conscious.

Another way to begin making progress in this area is to pick an aspect of personality you want to change, and remind yourself multiple times a day to be the change. For example, perhaps you want to be more serene. Before acting consider how you want to present. Breathe and remind yourself to “be peace”. Regulate breathing and contemplate more than react. Combining these two interventions can lead to a more serene feeling and presentation.

It needs to be kept in mind that the goal is progress, and it can be slow. By being more conscious of who one wants to be, one is better able, through concerted effort, to be that person.  It is a worthy cause. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Life is not about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” It is also important to remember to accept yourself along with the desire to be better. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Copyright William Berry, 2012

William Berry teaches at Florida International University and Nova Southeastern University. His area of interest is substance abuse and individual happiness.

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