“Self-Acceptance is my refusal to be in an adversarial relationship with myself.” -Nathaniel Brandon
Toxic shame comes from growing up in an environment where we are taught that there are parts of us that are so ugly, so despicable, so abnormal and so grotesque that they must by hidden and tucked away and never discussed, acknowledged or brought to light – ever.
So, we learn to bury these parts of us deep inside. We learn how to hide them and cut ourselves off from them, so that we can pretend they don’t exist, but they are always there, lurking and ever-present. They keep us from letting people get too close. Relationships that are arms-length are where we feel the most comfortable.
Self-acceptance is about bringing those parts of us to light. It’s about owning every part of us, even the parts that we feel we cannot let others see and that we cannot accept. Self-acceptance does not mean that we are okay with, content with, or even comfortable with, all aspects of ourselves. Self-acceptance means that we bring these parts of us to our conscious awareness, we look at them lovingly, with compassion, we understand where those feelings come from, we release the toxic shame associated with them and then we can have a starting point from which we can begin to improve, heal, grow and thrive.
Bring it to the Surface
One of the biggest goals of psychotherapy is to make the unconscious conscious. In the quest for self-esteem we have to stop being afraid of who we are. We have to get comfortable letting people get close enough to see those parts of us that we are most ashamed of. We have to let go of the fear and understand that this belief, that we are so imperfect and so defective, was not ours. The fear belonged to the person that gave it to us.
“You can’t love yourself and despise what you see in the mirror.” – Nathaniel Branden
When we are young everything seems so much bigger and important than it really is. This past Friday, I drove down the street where I grew up and everything seemed to be so much smaller. The huge front lawn we had, with the stone porch and the massive tree with the white flowers, seemed so small and insignificant to how I remembered it. The same perceptions are made about our flaws when we are children. Bring them to the light of day now and see if they pass muster.
Here’s an example: My mother taught me that there was something wrong with my metabolism. That a part of me was broken and that being overweight was the gravest of sins, that I should hide and be ashamed of. At nine years old, she told me that diets don’t work, that I needed a lifestyle change.
A lifestyle change at 9? Who tells a child that she is internally and irrevocably broken – unless she finds this magical lifestyle change? Wasn’t she responsible for my lifestyle at 9? And of course, she never told me what this magical lifestyle change was.
When I bring that to light now I can see just how flawed her thinking was and she passed it down to naïve, little, me. Perhaps if she didn’t feed me so much dessert, bread, potatoes, rice, pasta and sugar, there might have been a different outcome. If she had introduced me to any form of physical exercise, perhaps there would have been a different result. Instead of being something that was easy to fix, she ingrained in me, the believe that it was impossible to change my body and that there was something inside of me that just didn’t work right. Because of her belief, I spent much of my life hiding and being afraid to be me.
Be Your Own Best-Friend
When you are compassionate with yourself, you’re able to be understanding and forgiving of things you may have said or done in the past. When you can give your actions context, it helps to alleviate the shame that often follows.
Here’s an example: A client of mine kept finding herself being intimate with many different men. This was something she felt very embarrassed about and something she kept from her friends and family. She called her behavior whorey and admitted it didn’t make her feel good. When we got down to the how’s and why’s of why she was being so promiscuous, we found that she was seeking love from people who had no intention or ability to give it to her. All she wanted was love, but her behavior was counterproductive to achieving her goal. She admitted that she never felt loved as a child by her parents, or from anyone.
When we put her behavior in context with what she believed and what she was trying to accomplish, she was able to let go of the shame she was feeling and instead, she was able to give herself the compassion that she deserved.
Now that she understood why she did what she did and how it kept her from getting what she needed, the behavior stopped. The why’s of why we do things are important. They teach us where we need heal and they allow us to release the shame of our behavior and give ourselves the understanding that we so easily give to others.
There is something very empowering about embracing something that you were taught to be ashamed of, or when you realize that you actually can do something you were told you could not. A big part of self-acceptance is being your own champion and celebrating those individual quirks and qualities that make you – you.
Stop hiding your flaws – celebrate them – show them to the world. You’ll find that the more you put yourself out there, the more comfortable you get just being yourself. You’ll also see that the criticism you feared just isn’t there. No one will stand in judgement of you and anyone that does – you’ll know exactly what to do with them.
As you get further along your path, it gets easier and easier to exercise that middle finger and give it to anyone who tries to treat you like you have something to be ashamed of.
A great exercise is to stand naked in the mirror and look at every part of you and channel your inner Louise Hay and say, “I love and accept every part of myself.”
Whether it is the pain in your eyes, or that roll of back fat, keep looking at it and say to yourself – “You know what kid? You’re okay.” Do it daily and soon you will find that the shame you once felt is no longer there.
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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.com