It’s hard to imagine a feeling state that you haven’t ever felt. For instance, I have no idea what it feels like to win a Nobel prize or have chest hair. I can guess at it, I can ask people who have been there, I can decide that I don’t mind not knowing, or I can make changes in my own mindset and behavior to see if I can find out for myself. Some exploration can be interesting. It can also be helpful whenever there’s any kind of conflict or friction around a mysterious feeling state. One of these is the idea of self-acceptance. Where is the line between self-compassion and fatalism?
What does self-acceptance feel like?
It’s probably different for different aspects of the self. My guess is that most people are not bothered by certain parts of what they see as the “self” while being frustrated by other parts. Physical appearance, character flaws, intelligence, sense of humor, relationships, skills, talents... It’s easy to imagine someone who, say, is proud of being good with animals but feels unattractive. Maybe another person feels clumsy but smart, or friendly but bad at art. Probably most of us feel acceptance when our strengths line up with our values. It’s when we feel judged, shamed, or criticized by others that we tend to beat ourselves up and have trouble with self-esteem.
This makes sense, but it’s also funny. Anyone who has watched the first couple of episodes of a season of American Idol knows that plenty of people have strong self-esteem in areas where it may not be warranted. (I’m a terrible singer with a good ear, so I know better than to inflict my voice on an audience). There’s also no guarantee that we’re really as weak as we think in the areas where we feel more vulnerable or wounded. When it comes to ourselves, we lack perspective.
That’s the point of self-acceptance, of course. Ideally we’re learning to be more compassionate and patient with ourselves. What’s the point of shame, anyway?
The challenge is to learn how to reframe the inner work, so that it isn’t a battle over shame. It’s possible to view these challenges with a growth mindset, seeing areas for improvement without feeling less-than, rejected, or criticized, by self or others.
As an example, when I was in high school I used to spill milk in my lap all the time when I was eating cereal before school. It was really frustrating! The day I realized I could avoid this problem by eating at the table instead of sitting on the couch, it felt triumphant. AHA! I suppose I could have seen myself as clumsy or something. At the time it just felt like I was unlucky, because something was Happening to Me that wasn’t happening to other people. I realized it wasn’t Happening to Me, but rather that I was Doing It to Myself. I had the power to make a very simple change in my behavior and instantly get better results. I wasn’t judging myself or blaming myself, I was recognizing an unhelpful pattern and making my life easier.
This is why I think that self-acceptance can often be defeatist. There are so many common human foibles, things that many or most people do, and there’s no reason to “accept” them and continue to do them. We can change our behavior with an attitude of humor and affection. There I go again, looking for my sunglasses when they’re already on top of my head! Oops, I just came back from the store with everything except the thing I went there to buy. Me and everyone else.
Probably, though, we already know how to laugh off our silly mistakes. It’s the bigger stuff that catches us up.
In my work with hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization, there are a lot of contradictions. My disorganized clients tend to beat themselves up quite a bit, punishing themselves as though being scattered were some kind of moral flaw. They almost always refer to themselves as “hoarders,” even though they have little or no emotional attachment to their stuff. Squalor clients, on the other hand, don’t really believe in germ theory, and they have no hang-ups about truly unsanitary conditions, mold, vermin, insect infestations, or even the occasional dead rodent. My true hoarders tend to feel entitled to hoard, not just their own but others’ possessions, not just their own personal space but that of roommates, relatives, friends, neighbors, and the general public. Hoarded homes tend to look extremely similar, yet they got that way through wildly different emotional and cognitive states. Maybe there’s some irony here. Those whose behaviors are the most frustrating to others around them tend to be the least concerned about it, feeling like “that’s their problem, not mine.” Those who feel the most guilt and shame about chronic disorganization will often adopt a new behavior or structure the moment they learn about it.
The ultimate questions are ethical concerns about how much our behavior impacts others, and straightforward evaluation of our results. Is what we’re doing on a routine basis fair, interesting, efficient? Does it make our lives or others’ lives easier, better, more fun, more meaningful?
In our current cultural moment, when billions of digital images are so instantly accessible at all times, people seem to be struggling more with accepting their physical appearance than anything else. This has always felt very puzzling to me, because why should that matter, of all things? What does how someone looks have to do with their personality, intelligence, character, or contribution in this world? Why on earth should someone’s body or face, both of which change decade by decade, feel like a bigger deal than how they act, what stories they tell, how they treat others, or what they do with their time? What the heck does the physical vessel have to do with the legacy of a lifetime? What will we leave behind after our time on this earth, other than a bunch of photographs?
Maybe that’s the most defeatist idea of all, the premise that appearance is first and foremost, the most important trait and the single quality that defines us. The time we spend on the outer work takes away from the time we could be spending on the inner work. What if we just redirected our focus? What if, whenever we started focusing on our body parts and wishing for external approval of our externally visible traits, we simply paused and decided to go further in?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.