Last Christmas, my brother gifted my family and I with a large crate of oranges. The sweet smell of citrus filled the room before I even opened the lid. “Umm,” I thought, my mouth watering for what was to come.
I tore off the crate’s top and reached my hand elbow-deep into the oranges, hoping to find the biggest, most luscious one there. To my chagrin, what I pulled out was not vivid and resilient, but pockmarked an ugly brownish-black color and squishy. “Yuck,” I said and immediately grabbed the crate, carried it outside, and stuffed it into the garbage can.
What would you have done? Throw out the whole crate, oranges and all? Or, only toss the one rotten orange and save all the rest for future pleasure? I suspect you'd choose the latter. To do otherwise would be foolish. After all, “One rotten orange doesn't spoil the whole bunch.”
I lied. I did, in fact, trash only the one spoiled orange and stored the rest in my basement refrigerator for future delight.
Here's the point to the story. Though most of us would make this sensible choice, damning the rotten orange to the garbage but savoring all the rest, we often do not do the same with regard to ourselves. We tend to damn both the rotten things we do – our mistakes, flaws, and failures – and also our whole selves. This pernicious proclivity to go from damning what we do to damning who we are accounts for more human unhappiness – anxiety, guilt, insecurity, jealousy, depression, and anger – then all other factors combined.
Many, many people have sought my professional help because of their self-damning: the despondent divorcee who concluded that, because she failed at her marriage, she was a failure; the young bulimic who thought she only had worth if her body was perfectly attractive; the professional writer who avoided paper and pencil lest he fail at his craft and be seen as the second rate artist he secretly perceived himself to be; the businessman who obsessed over every decision for fear he'd make a mistake and deserve eternal damnation; the promiscuous 20-something year old who connected her self-worth to the attention of men; the young man who used both drugs and apathy to alleviate anxiety over being rejected and facing what he thought to be his inherent sub-humanness.
Deep down, each of these individuals wanted to be happy. What they didn't know was that they brought their unhappiness on themselves by making the orange crate mistake. They judged their whole self by one orange.
The Enemy Within: Self-Esteeming
Most everyone desires to possess high self-esteem. They figure that if they can come to like or esteem themselves, they can be happy. But, alas, self-esteem is the problem, not the solution.
To hold high self-esteem, you must judge or grade your whole self as either good or bad, depending on your success or failure with some quality or performance. Thus, if you possess some admirable quality (e.g., physical attractiveness, high IQ, skill in art or sport) or if you succeed in some valued endeavor (e.g., a job, a relationship, or obtaining some treasured award), then you rate yourself as esteemable. You have high self-esteem. To the contrary, if you lack the same quality or fail at the same endeavor, then you rate yourself as invaluable or worthless. You have low self-esteem.
This is the same mentality you would have to hold to throw out all your oranges. One rotten orange makes all your oranges rotten; one fault or failure makes all of you worthless. Reflect back on the unhappy people I described earlier. Each of them rated themselves unworthy, worthless, or a failure based on some personal quality or performance. Their error: (1) they overgeneralized from one orange to their whole crate; (2) they did so with the underlying belief that it is logical and plausible to generalize from a single orange to the whole crate.
The Ally Within: Unconditional Self-Acceptance
There is, fortunately, an alternative to self-esteem. It is unconditional self-acceptance. Think of yourself as the crate and all your actions and qualities as the oranges. Your crate – you – contains hundreds if not thousands of oranges – discrete acts and traits accumulated over a lifetime. Many of your oranges (your good deeds and virtuous qualities) are ripe and luscious. But, some are bruised, puny, rotten – your mistakes and faults. When you run across a damaged orange, you may dislike it, even act to rid yourself of it but you never – ever – denigrate or damn your whole crate of oranges.
Imagine the divorcee thinking, “I failed with him, but that doesn’t make me a failure.” Or the bulimic concluding, “I want to look fit and sexy, but my body shape is just one part of me and hardly rates me as a good or bad person.” Or, how about the writer taking the stance, “The worst thing that will happen is that I’ll create something less than sterling, but that’s just something I do, not who I am.” Wouldn’t their lives be so much more peaceful and happy thinking this way?
This is the essence of Unconditional Self-Acceptance. You separate yourself from your actions and qualities. You accept that, as a fallible human being, you are less then perfect. You will often perform well, but you will also err at times. When you do perform well, you take pride in it, but you don't deify your whole self. When you act badly, you may prudently criticize your actions, but you stubbornly refuse to flog yourself. You always and unconditionally accept yourself without judgment.
When you practice unconditional self-acceptance, you solidify the ground of happiness under your feet. You:
• inspire a sense of peace since you can err without becoming an error, fail without becoming a failure, and act badly without becoming a bad person.
• prompt boldness and risk-taking, which can lead to adventures that provide the opportunity for pleasure and fun.
• give birth to a deep sense of peace and well-being.
Here are five suggestions to help you begin to practice unconditional self-acceptance.
1. Give yourself a letter grade with regard to the degree to which you live by the principle of unconditional self-acceptance. Are you satisfied with your grade? What grade would you prefer?
2. Name two situations in which you tend to judge your whole self. What could you tell yourself in these two situations to help you unconditionally accept yourself, despite any mistakes you may make or flaws you may possess?
3. Make a commitment to spend two minutes six times a day (breakfast, mid-morning, lunch, mid-afternoon, supper, and bedtime) drawing the distinction between your self and your performances. Remind yourself at these times to not judge yourself – as either all good or all bad – from that time till the next rehearsal.
4. Practice applying unconditional self-acceptance to others. That is, practice only rating their behaviors and traits as good or bad, but never them as a whole person. This is Unconditional Other Acceptance.
5. Identify one person you know that could benefit from learning about unconditional self-acceptance. Plan where and when you could meet this person to explain it. Teaching others a truth helps us to learn it ourselves.
Happiness starts with being happy with yourself. After all, you are the hub of your life’s wheel. But, you have to work to change from a self-esteeming to a self-accepting way of thinking. But, you are worth the time and effort it will take. Your happiness matters.
I will post my next Happiness On Purpose blog in early March. Till then, live with passion.
Russell Grieger, Ph.D. is the author of several self-help books, all designed to empower people to create a life they love to live. These include: Unrelenting Drive; Marriage On Purpose; and The Happiness Handbook (in preparation). You may contact Dr. Grieger for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.