Ever wonder why it’s so hard to just accept yourself?
Do you feel like other people reject you?
Having read many articles and self-help books over the years (for research purposes only I might add!) it seems that they often come from the angle of “accepting yourself”, as this is seen as the key to having a happy and successful life.
I can understand how this appears to make sense, and how ‘accepting yourself’ is a modern-day mantra, something that promises happiness and good mental health. Many of my colleagues and a myriad of different professionals state the importance of accepting yourself, because without self-acceptance, other people can never accept you.
So, I’m going to sound controversial here, but what’s new? Firstly, what on earth does “accepting yourself” actually mean? Secondly, why should you accept yourself? Thirdly, if ‘yourself’ was so worthy of acceptance then wouldn’t it be easy to solve our life’s woes by simply just accepting ourselves? Fourthly, does it follow that other people should also accept us, just as we are? I might be misunderstanding the issues here so I’ll have to work through this using examples from my own clients over the years.
Hiding from ourselves
Steve came to me due to years of struggling with sexual attraction towards young boys. He had never committed any offences, but he was worried that he might in future and he was acutely aware of the damage this would cause to the victims as well as to himself. He told me that he had been “in therapy” since he was fourteen, which was twenty years of his life. During that time, he had married but later divorced when he realised that his relationship with a woman at that time was not satisfying to him in the slightest. He had been fired from three jobs due to either accessing pornography at work or being late or absent from work due to spending all night watching porn at home. He told me he had “skirted around” discussing his problems with therapists in the past who either told him they were unqualified to help him, or they inaccurately assumed he was homosexual and was simply struggling to accept this. Steve found that he could at least access some support if he reframed himself as being homosexual, as dishonest as that was. His years of therapy therefore focussed on him accepting himself as a homosexual man and hoping this self-acceptance would impact positively in his life. He said he tried to do this, adapting it to take into account the knowledge of himself as a man who was attracted to small boys. However, as there is no acceptable outlet for this in society, he was acutely aware he was living a lie.
Not giving or hearing the real message
Sadly, when he eluded to this fact with therapists who thought they knew him and his difficulties, he was discouraged from opening up to them about his real difficulties. All the time, he said the mantra he was told was “just accept yourself as you are.” You see, the therapists had formed their own opinion of Steve’s difficulties and they had spent years using the “just accept yourself” mantra. They did not hear his statements to the contrary, albeit these were subtle. He was told various strategies, such as writing this mantra on notes throughout his home, telling himself this in the mirror each morning, planning ways of telling people who he was (clearly that wouldn’t have gone well!) and he said he almost started to believe that this was enough to help him get through life. He knew he should not accept himself, yet he felt he had to argue with therapists about this.
So what happened? Steve met a new friend, Joanne who had two little boys aged four and seven. He found himself wanting to spend more and more time with Joanne, who was rightly flattered that an attractive, kind, funny, single man was interested in her and her boys. However, Steve knew his intentions towards Joanne were not entirely honourable so he distanced himself from her, realising what could happen and eventually came to see me.
Our sessions focused on many things, but I had to spend considerable time undoing twenty years of “just accept yourself as you are” mantras. Clearly, Steve should not accept himself as a man who wanted to have sex with young boys; this would never be accepted in the community and this was causing him considerable distress. No, his sessions instead focused on him changing himself, his desires, needs, aspirations and hopes for the future. It was finally a relief for him to be heard and to be pointed in the direction of change, not of staying as he was.
You may be wondering what Steve has to do with you. You may think “Clearly, I’m not like that so there’s nothing wrong with accepting myself as I am, because I am a XXX [fill in the blanks] which is acceptable in society.” Well, let me give you another example.
It’s OK, I’m an introvert
Jenny came to see me because she felt that she had “failed at life and I just want to be able to accept myself as I am.” She felt that this self-acceptance would be the key to solving her problems. Jenny was 45 years old and she had never had a stable relationship, or many friends who she could count on to be supportive to her. She had struggled with keeping jobs and she was currently signed off from work with depression. She came to see me after years of on/off therapy which she felt was unsuccessful. Jenny said “I know you’ll tell me that I need to just accept myself and that’s what I need help with. I’m not a very sociable person so I can’t make friends or keep people entertained like everyone else can.”
I reflected back to Jenny the following; “you say you don’t have friends and you would like some. You don’t have a partner and you would like one. You say you are unsociable, struggling at work and feeling very depressed.” She agreed that I had accurately heard what she told me so I then asked “why on earth would anyone tell you to accept yourself like that? You feel lonely and unhappy – your worst enemy might want you to accept that’s your lot in life but I think things can be very different for you. But first you should be absolutely clear that you will not accept yourself as you are.”
To say that Jenny was surprised by this would be an understatement. This was certainly not what she expected to hear, nor what she had been told before. Yet, it was the key to her changing her life for the better in remarkably few sessions, going back to work, making friends, improving her mental health and importantly for her, becoming the type of person who was attractive to future partners.
You see, Jenny had tried to ‘accept’ herself as an ‘introverted’ person who was in fact, somewhat distant from those around her and had been that way since childhood. So a “shy” little girl had developed into a “quiet” young woman in her twenties, to an “aloof” woman at 45. Her self-perception was that she was introverted, and if she worked hard to simply accept this, she would be happier and so people should accept her as she was too. This was not the case, as she had discovered over the years, regardless of the amount of books she had read and tips she tried to put into practice. She was unhappy and people were not accepting her as she wanted them to.
Is self-acceptance really the key?
Jenny felt that by simply understanding that she was an introvert, this meant she could now accept herself and just be the person she was meant to be, rather than try to change herself. Unfortunately, this hadn’t worked out for her in life and she had become more and more remote from those around her. When she sought help for this from counsellors over the years, she was told “it’s not you, it’s them.” What did this achieve? The fact that Jenny was in my room seeking help suggests that this way of framing her life did not help her in the slightest. We all have to live together in the same world, so we have to find ways of sharing the same spaces that are satisfying for us all.
Jenny needed to be supported to understand how her personality had formed, in all its strengths and weaknesses, to consider how she related to and interacted with other people as well as her role in her different social spheres, and to reflect on how she should adapt the aspects of her functioning that were maintaining her ongoing difficulties.
Now, before people recoil in horror that I am suggesting that introverts need to change into extraverts, be rest-assured that I do not buy into the introversion-extraversion industry* in any way. I work with people, not labels and if a so-called extravert came to me with similar difficulties to Jenny, I would take a similar approach with them. This is the topic of other articles. When people describe themselves in ways which are limiting, the objective should be to open them up to a healthier perspective.
An example that Jenny and I worked on was her reaction to colleagues when she was invited out for a drink after work. She said she disliked the sorts of things they all talked about and that they were loud and overbearing. There was a group of seven other women who worked in her office and initially they attempted, at various times, to include her in their conversations and social invitations. However, she said this stopped over time and she felt ignored by them as conversations seemed to stop when she entered the office. We spent time exploring her perceptions about those women and questioning the accuracy of them (seven people could not possibly all be the same), as well as her own reactions to them over time. Jenny came to the conclusion that she was likely to have been perceived as rude and boring at times (she said she would roll her eyes when certain conversations developed or leave the room) and she distanced herself from “the group” as a whole, rather than taking the time to get to know the women individually. When she started to do that through the social experiments we would set, she soon found that she actually had things in common with many of them, childhood trips to the same places, an enjoyment of classical music etc and she could discuss these things with them. This made her more interesting to the other women, and she also found she liked them more too. It increased her confidence that she would have something to talk about with them when she was next invited out, which happened quite soon after she started taking steps to get to know them as individuals.
By all means, feel free to call yourself shy, quiet, aloof or loud, gregarious and outgoing if this works for you. Invariably, labels have not worked for my clients so they certainly should not accept themselves as they are, as this will potentially reinforce a lifetime of problems and things will not change for them in future. As Jenny said in her last session “I just thought I was supposed to act in a certain way because I had always been like that. People expected it of me and I thought it helped me to understand myself better but it actually kept me stuck in a rut.”
Finally. . .
When my son was six, he told me that school-friends wouldn’t let him play with them that day because he was annoying. I asked him what he had done and he said “nothing, I just picked up their toy and ran away with it for a joke so they would chase me.” I replied, “well, if I was playing happily with a toy and you did that, I wouldn’t want to play with you either, and I’d think you were quite annoying too. What should you do differently?” He took the point and stopped running away with their toys, and they let him play with them again.
How different it would have been if I had agreed with him that he was just playing a funny game, he wasn’t trying to be annoying so they just needed to lighten up and join in with his fun!
- Before you think you should “accept yourself as you are” ask whether being “as you are” has worked for you in the past. Is it likely to work for you in the future?
- Be honest with yourself about what other people find difficult about you. This is all useful feedback, and if you’ve heard the same messages or had the same reactions from many different people in different contexts over the years, consider whether there is truth in their responses. However, much this stings at first, it helps us all to grow
- We all change over time. If you were a certain way as a child, there is no reason you should still be the same at 45. If people try to keep you locked into certain unhelpful characteristics or roles, that is what needs to change
- If you are keeping yourself locked into those unhelpful roles, be brave enough to actively move away from them, perhaps with professional support
- If you have professional support from anybody who suggests that you don’t have to change and instead, those around you do, STOP PAYING FOR THAT SERVICE! It is unhelpful and damaging
* if you doubt that an introversion / extraversion industry exists, a quick internet search will reveal how many books, articles, TED talks, motivational speakers, coaches etc there are in this area. People now base their whole careers on mentoring, coaching and supporting introverts to “accept themselves as they are.” This makes great business-sense as there is a market for this, but who benefits? Certainly none of my clients have over the years, despite spending thousands on these books and self-help seminars.
All names and identifying details of clients have been changed to protect confidentiality