Accepting ourselves, particularly the traits we’re insecure about, the traits that feel like massive weaknesses and flaws, is really hard. It’s much easier to berate ourselves. The insults, the cruel words, seem to come so naturally.
Maybe they stem from societal standards or messages within our families or school or work or somewhere else we’d spent a substantial amount of time.
“It can be quite innocent,” said Doreen Meister, MA, MFT, a mindfulness-based, expressive art and depth psychotherapist in Oakland, Calif. Maybe you’re an introvert who grew up in a family of extroverts. Maybe you were the only one who didn’t play a sport and instead read for hours and hours. Maybe it was the reverse. Maybe you wanted to become an artist but a teacher criticized your work. Maybe your mom was hyper-focused on dieting and losing weight—and made sure you were, as well. Or maybe she only made mean comments about herself, which made you worry, Is my body bad, too? Maybe you never fit in or felt like you belonged in middle school, high school or college.
“In a child’s mind, there is a simple way to understand: polarized thinking ,” Meister said. This turns into thoughts like: “I’m not accepted, and therefore something is wrong with me.” As such, our minds unconsciously look for ways for us to feel safe and connected. Which involves cutting off a part of the self that isn’t accepted, she said. Because, at the core, we fear “that we won’t be accepted or loved by others.”
Meister defined self-acceptance as the “ability to be aware of all aspects of our humanness…with compassionate seeing and understanding.” Which doesn’t mean giving up on traits we’d like to work on or change.
Rather, “it is a compassionate knowing of the truth: This is the way I am right now.'” There’s a real freedom and energetic release in accepting ourselves in this way, Meister said. After all, denying certain parts of ourselves or fighting them is exhausting, she said.
What also isn’t helpful is relying on the external—as in “If I do _________, then I am good. If I don’t, I am bad.” If I lose weight. If I place first in the competition. If I get the job or the promotion. If I find a partner. If I get a bonus. If I get that car. If I get that house.
But the moment might never come. Or it will merely change, because these things always change. We lose the prominent job. We don’t get the bonus. We gain weight. We break up. We can’t afford the mortgage anymore.
Again, what is helpful is cultivating self-acceptance right now. Wherever you are. As you are. Meister suggested these three wonderful creative ways to start.
Create a collage to a poem. Meister regularly does this activity with her art therapy groups at a residential treatment center. “Here people with addiction and mental health issues are in their first 30 days of sobriety. They are facing aspects of [their] inner experience and external impact of their behavior while using. It’s a time when they are faced with shame and emotional challenges.”
She suggested finding a quiet spot and gathering these materials: different magazines; card stock; scissors; glue stick or mode podge; and other colored paper. Take several deep breaths, and read the poem “Can I Love the One Who” by Leah Pearlman. Another option is to read the poem aloud while you record yourself. Then you can close your eyes, listen to the recording and focus on the imagery that arises.
Afterward, browse your magazines and cut out images that call to you. Cut away any unnecessary parts of each image. Then start arranging your collage. “The resulting image can be a visual representation of aspects that you love and are learning to love about yourself,” Meister said.
Talk to your inner critic (i.e., the critical voice, the judger). Our inner critic—the voice that “tells us we are bad, or doing something bad or wrong”—can stand in the way of self-acceptance, Meister said. It also tells us “the aspects of ourselves that are needing loving, compassionate attention.”
Find a time to tune into your inner critic and identify what it says. Start looking at your inner critic as having its own identity, as sitting beside you. Close your eyes, and ask yourself: What does it look like? What does it say? How does it talk? Once you see the image, open your eyes, and draw it on the page.
According to Meister, “Once completed, you can look at the image and ask, ‘What is your purpose? What are you interested in? What do you need me to know? What are you afraid of?’ Often we find out that the judger is actually trying to help in a misguided way.”
See yourself through the eyes of the “benevolent other.” The “benevolent other” is a person who’s kind and loving and someone you trust. It might be someone who’s alive or passed away. It might be a teacher or spiritual being. It’s someone you don’t have a complicated relationship with. “Allow yourself to feel the presence of this being, and let the image of them come into focus. Feel how it is in your body to be in the presence of this being, feel their kind and loving acceptance toward you,” Meister said.
“Imagine that for a moment you can step into this being, and turn to see your self through their loving eyes. Notice how it feels to be loved and accepted. Notice the sensations in the body. Notice if there is a color or image that matches this experience.”
When you’re ready, express the sensations, the color on the page. For instance, you might draw a circle that’s filled with this loving presence, and is expressed through certain colors or images, she said. You could use this “holding circle of acceptance” as a reminder of the love and acceptance. “You could deepen this experience by placing aspects of yourself—visual representations or words into the circle—while imagining how the benevolent other would see them.”
Accepting ourselves, all of ourselves, can be hard. It can feel so hard it feels impossible. But we can take small steps. We can try different activities, like the above. And, if we need a bit more support, we can turn to a therapist. After all, life is too short to spend endlessly striving and fighting with the only person who’s with us. Always.