Today is National Psychotherapy Day, a day that aims to demystify therapy and celebrate it. I interviewed one of its founders, psychologist Ryan Howes, about how therapy can help us cultivate self-acceptance.
“Self-acceptance is setting aside what we’re not, or what we ‘should’ be, and accepting who we are, right now,” according to Pasadena psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D. Self-acceptance is not a destination we reach and simply stay. Rather, it’s a “a moment-by-moment phenomenon,” Howes said.
That is, there are days when we accept our “flaws” and imperfections. And there are days when we are self-critical, when we are embarrassed of our thoughts, feelings, actions, appearance, mistakes. But, when we start cultivating self-acceptance, these days become fewer. And instead of being cruel and careless with ourselves, we’re able to access self-compassion a bit more easily. We’re able to notice what we’re doing and gently quiet our inner critic. We stop seeing the mean thoughts as cold, hard facts, as proof of our brokenness, and see them for what they are: thoughts. Thoughts that we can get curious about and question and revise.
Accepting ourselves is vital because “life is too short not to,” Howes said. “To put it another way, we can use up a great deal of time and energy in life trying to change the unchangeable, preventing us from enjoying who we are and what we have. Some people spend years dwelling on what they’re not while precious time passes them by.”
Sometimes, no matter how much we try, no matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to accept ourselves. Most days we berate everything from our bodies to our behaviors. Most days we feel ashamed and annoyed. Most days we struggle with seeing ourselves in a positive light. Which means we need extra support. We need a professional.
According to Howes, therapists can help us cultivate self-acceptance in these ways:
- They can help us understand why we are who we are. For instance, exploring your childhood can help you understand and accept that your current fears, insecurities and skills are a response to your early environment. “This knowledge helps you accept who you are today and identify areas for growth.”
- They can help us to challenge distorted beliefs. “Therapists are trained to be accurate mirrors.” Often we are not. Often we develop distorted beliefs about who we are and what we are capable of. These may be beliefs that we internalized from our childhoods, inside our homes or inside our schools, or other experiences. For instance, “A woman who believes she is weak may find that she is actually quite strong in certain situations. A man who thought he was dull might discover that he is actually very interesting and creative. A woman who was told she is cold and detached may find that her work at the animal rescue is a very loving and intimate practice. ”
- They can help us practice being ourselves. Howes likened therapy to a laboratory. It’s a safe space to practice any parts of ourselves that we’d like to further develop. This might mean being assertive and setting boundaries with difficult people (i.e., thereby taking care of ourselves). It might mean learning to practice self-compassion, even when it feels impossible.
- They can help us become more curious and self-aware. Therapists are curious about who we are, and how we became the way we are. “And this curiosity becomes contagious. After a few sessions of self-exploration, you’ll probably find yourself noticing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and asking why you respond as you do.”
You might not be able to accept yourself exactly as you are right now. But maybe working with a therapist can change that. Sadly, there’s a lot of stigma about seeking therapy. But what we tend to forget is that seeking therapy makes us strong (not weak). Remind yourself of this.
And remind yourself that you deserve to savor self-acceptance. You deserve to live a life where you feel comfortable in your own skin, where you spend most days focusing on what matters to you, on what brings you meaning and laughter and joy, and less on lashing out at yourself for your supposed shortcomings. After all, life is simply too short.
More about National Psychotherapy Day:
Psychologist Ryan Howes and several psychology graduate students started National Psychotherapy Day because they believe that psychotherapy as a profession has an image problem. Therapy takes place behind closed doors, so the public relies on movies and TV to tell them what therapy is like, and those depictions are rarely accurate.
They’ve set out to demystify therapy, educate the public about what real therapy looks like and how effective it can be, and create a fun day to celebrate therapy, rather than hide it.
You can find more information on their website https://nationalpsychotherapyday.com and on their Facebook page. They’ve also held two storytelling events, called “Moments of Meaning,” which are especially powerful. I encourage everyone to watch the videos here.