Carl Rogers, one of the founding fathers of modern counselling, said:
“the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then change happens”
Many of us struggle to accept ourselves as we are. We think we should be different. We often think we should be “more”:
- More patient
- More strong
- More clever
- More wise
- More organised
- More social
- More articulate
- More able to cope
- More calm
The list goes on and on. It usually involves values that we have picked up as children. Children are vulnerable and their very survival depends on the adults around them. As they develop their identity they may unconsciously pick up negative messages that they are not enough. They learn to adapt themselves to their environment to make themselves acceptable and safe.
In adulthood we can be just as vulnerable. Humans are wired to seek safety in numbers and from an evolutionary perspective survival depends on acceptance by our tribe. Referring to the internalized messages from childhood, we use self-criticism to avoid rejection. We reason that if we criticize and control ourselves we will be acceptable to other people. Our lack of self-acceptance is a safety mechanism to keep us within our tribe’s acceptable limits. We often feel this safety mechanism in terms of shame and guilt.
It is therefore very difficult to accept ourselves especially if we behave in ways that break our internal rules. We think we can only accept ourselves when we manage to behave in ways that we believe to be right. Yet Carl Rogers talked of accepting ourselves as we are – and how do we manage that when we feel a sense of guilt or shame about our actions and the way we are?
I believe there are two thoughts that can help us in this regard.
The first is that we are human. It is part of being human that we will make mistakes and act in ways that are not helpful to us or to others.
The second is to hold in mind the context in which we find ourselves. We did not choose the circumstances into which we were born nor the influences on us as we grew up.
Paul Gilbert, a psychology professor who writes and lectures extensively on compassion, talks about us having a “tricky brain”. Our brains have evolved over time and the thinking, human part of our brain is relatively new in evolutionary terms. There are parts of our brain that are wired to deal with threat and these parts react before the threat has entered our conscious thought. Therefore we can find ourselves reacting in ways that we do not really understand nor like. This is especially true if we have suffered some type of trauma.
It is so easy with our conscious, rational brain to berate ourselves for the mistakes we make and set expectations for ourselves to behave in certain ways. It is also easy to think how other people should behave from a conscious, rational perspective – and shake our heads in disbelief when they are unable to do so.
Yet if we accept that part of our humanity is that we have “tricky brains”, and that we have not chosen the circumstances of our birth nor lives, we discover a freedom to let go of our expectations and to accept ourselves as we are.
Within this freedom we discover a new way of being. There is no need to defend our ego against the notion that we are less than perfect. We find ourselves more able to accept the times when we have failed: to forgive ourselves, and to reach out to others to make amends and seek forgiveness.
Our rules become softer. Rather than having rules that constrain us and keep us captive, we develop values that inspire us to grow in our lives and our relationships. In accepting that we are less than perfect – that it is OK to be
- not coping
– we focus less on our shortcomings and more on our potential. We grow in confidence. We find ourselves more able to be ourselves. As Carl Rogers says “change happens”.
I spoke about this on my video this week. If you're reading this blog by email and can't view it, you can visit it at thegoodenoughmum.com/videos