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Why Is Self-Acceptance So Hard?

We think if we punish ourselves enough, we'll change.

Greg Markway
Larry the Bichon resting comfortably.
Source: Greg Markway

I'm home sick today and as Greg leaves for work, he looks me intensely in the eyes and says, "Take care of yourself." He knows me. He knows that my hardest job in life is being nice to myself, and accepting myself just how I am at any given moment. He knows that I drive myself too hard and that I'm likely to think a sick day means catching up on ironing, cleaning out a closet, or writing a blog post (oops, I'm busted).

I've often said that shy, quiet people are some of the kindest people in the world. We're acutely in tune with others' feelings and willing to go out of our way to help someone. So why are we so hard on ourselves? Why do we find self-acceptance such a tough task?

In a previous post (Quiet Is Not a Four-Letter Word), I've written about the role of culture on self-acceptance: how accepting our quiet side is difficult in our Western world that values extroversion over introversion. Below are some other reasons I think self-acceptance is so challenging.

We think if we punish ourselves enough, we'll change. Accepting ourselves unconditionally is difficult because we must give up the fantasy that if we punish ourselves enough with negative thoughts, we'll change. It's as if we think we can whip ourselves into shape by saying things like:

  • I'm weak for feeling any anxiety.
  • I'm abnormal because I'm quiet.
  • There's something wrong with me if I don't have lots of friends and an "active" social life.
  • I'm a loser.
  • I'm weird.
  • I'm boring.

We cling to the belief that by berating ourselves, we'll transform into "social butterflies." But as I've learned from experience, this strategy doesn't work well. In fact, the more we yell at ourselves to "buck up," "snap out of it," or "get tough," the more anxious we become. The frightened little child inside of us doesn't respond favorably to such a mean dictator. Instead, we need to find ways to accept the anxious part of ourselves, to hold that part by the hand and gently say, "You're OK."

We don't believe we deserve self-acceptance. The messages we receive from our culture, others, and ourselves become deeply ingrained, in part due to sheer repetition. It's not that we hear "you're too quiet" once or twice; we hear it over and over again from many different sources. Because these negative messages bombard us, and because we never stop to question whether they're true, we internalize the feeling that we are, indeed, defective. We don't believe we're deserving of acceptance, at least not now. Similar to a woman who puts her life on hold until she loses 30 pounds, we put conditions on self-acceptance. We say to ourselves:

  • Maybe I'll feel OK about myself if I can go through with that presentation next month.
  • Maybe I'll feel OK about myself if I get up my nerve to ask that person in class out for a date.
  • Maybe I'll feel OK about myself if I get that promotion.

What types of conditions do you place on yourself? Do you accept yourself as you are today? Or do you feel you must change before you can accept yourself?

Remember, acceptance doesn't mean you're giving up and not trying anymore. In contrast, it means you're looking at yourself and your situation realistically. Of course, there are aspects of my life I want to work on. I'm always trying to be a "Better Barb." But as I keep relearning, it's much easier to work toward change if I'm not wasting energy criticizing myself for perceived flaws.

We believe we're giving up control. Another barrier to self-acceptance, and perhaps the most difficult to overcome, is the belief that we're exerting some sort of meaningful control when we fight against something. Again, this is a Western way of thinking: we must fight to conquer. In contrast, Eastern philosophy emphasizes "going with the flow," moving with, not against, the resistance. This shift in thinking can be frightening because it seems we're giving up control, and it can feel like a terrible loss. In reality, however, we're not losing; we're gaining tremendous strength. Instead of giving away our power by letting other people determine our worth, we're saying to ourselves, "I accept myself today, exactly the way I am." By relinquishing control, we gain it.

Well, I guess it's time to make a cup of tea and curl up on the couch with my two Bichons, Lily and Larry, who seem to have no trouble knowing just what they need.

Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you
 from doing all the things in life 
you’d like to.

–Ask, by The Smiths (Read how we named our blog.)

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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child.

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