What do you find hardest to accept?
Are you most troubled by grim facts of life? For instance, are you dismayed by the rampant cruelty and injustice in the world? Do you resent corporate interests for destroying ecosystems in the name of greed? Do you find happiness difficult in the face of inevitable death and tragedy?
Or are painful states of mind more challenging to embrace? Do you resist chronic feelings of depression? Do you shove anxious feelings out of awareness? Are you locked in a wrestling match with your despairing emotions?
Is it regret that plagues you? Do you obsess about the might-have-been’s that will never be? Do you hate how your life has played out? Do you wish for a less chaotic past and a more pleasing present?
Or are you in fact most dismayed by your own personality flaws?
If it’s your character that bugs you most, then you know how I’ve been feeling lately. Although outer tragedy and inner moodiness distress me, and although my past causes regret, my glaring character defects crush me the most. In particular, I’m utterly disgusted by my mind’s ceaseless criticism, negativity, and pessimism. Obviously, even this reaction to myself manifests the sort of mean spirited judgment I hate. And I detest that, too.
I try to accept the world as it is, I truly do. I work hard to embrace my setbacks and disappointments. I try to endure my lot in life without complaint. I endeavor to remain understanding and compassionate even toward those who harm others. Unfortunately, I fail often. I find myself discouraged by fate and dismayed by history’s alarming trends. I see problems everywhere I look, and this leads to chronic emotional malaise. Let’s face it; I’m a malcontent.
Today, after a discussion with my ACT therapist, I identified a fundamental flaw in my views on acceptance. I’ve been under the impression that if I learned to accept everything that my mind ordinarily resists, my criticism and negativity would melt away. But what I’m finding is that even as outward surrender to circumstance becomes my shining star, my inner criticizing shadow gains ascendance. The more I try to think generous and tranquil thoughts, the more my dark nature stomps its feet and complains about what’s ugly and unfair.
Clearly, I’ve underestimated the importance of self-acceptance in this work. In the end, it’s not that hard to lovingly tolerate the bleakness all around us, or the frailties and cruelties we see in others. We can’t change the world or our companions in any quick or substantive way, so acceptance simply makes sense.
Forbearance around our own flaws, however, is an entirely different matter. We feel responsible for our personalities, and we believe we should be able to mold our thoughts and behavior to our ideals. Unfortunately, we have much less influence than we think. Shadowy and unwanted tendencies always arise, and they do so more vigorously whenever we struggle to suppress them.
The painful truth is that in order to be a fully accepting person, I need to embrace that which is most hateful: my own darkness. I have to acknowledge as my own the negativity, judgments, irritability, and impatience that so alarm me.
I thought all those unsavory qualities would evaporate once I learned genuine acceptance. Today I understand that expecting surrender to erase my dark side is actually an insidious form of non-acceptance. It bespeaks an undeniable rejection of self. It seems laudable to battle negative traits, but it’s counterproductive. Better to honor the hidden destructive tendencies than to attempt to crush them through force of will or contempt. Accepting ownership allows one to influence the subterranean energy that otherwise might pop up and sabotage the more elevated self. There will be less chance of harming others through the rebellious acts of a repressed shadow.
So this afternoon I practiced allowing criticisms and negative thoughts to occupy my mind without wishing I could prevent them. From a slightly detached perspective, I monitored rather than wrestled with my least laudable tendencies. I found myself entertaining thoughts that sounded petty and immature, but at least I didn’t compound my distress by blaming my soul for its complexity and humanity.
The hardest thing to accept is that being human often means feeling shabby and small minded. It sometimes means hurting others and destroying situations we value. It can mean dissatisfaction in the face of abundance, and misery while surrounded by love. These qualities are just as characteristic of humanity as compassion and altruism.
True kindness can only blossom when the soul’s murky and mildewed qualities are welcomed into the heart along with our lighter and freer natures. Hopefully, once accepted, our dismal tendencies will cease being destructive, and will inform life in beneficial ways.
That’s my idealist vision, but the judgmental part of me is not as optimistic. In the spirit of genuine acceptance, I will do my best to acknowledge my doubt as a worthy partner to hope. Perhaps if I embrace my complaints and confusion, I will free my spirit to find gratitude and clarity.