Self-Acceptance is Freedom Found
Carl Rogers authored the beautiful quote: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” A foundational aspect of the work I do with clients encompasses this succinctly profound sentiment. When a person accepts those unwanted aspects of their personality, then and only then, can they begin to alter their behavior and perceptions to create the life they want.
How does this paradox work? Take for instance an introverted person who suffers from mild social anxiety. We’ll call her Sue. Every time Sue anticipates attending a social gathering she experiences some form of dread, nervousness, or anxiety. While these feelings are uncomfortable what transforms them into something unbearable and potentially debilitating (she doesn’t’ attend a party) is the secondary feeling originating from the self-judgment made about her anxiousness. This secondary feeling is shame. Once Sue experiences the familiar sense of anxiety her immediate interpretation is self-deprecating. “Why is this so hard for me when it is so easy for others.” “There is something wrong with me.” Most likely this self-talk will deteriorate into language Sue would never utter to another human being but tells herself with remarkable ease.
I often ask my clients to imagine they are directing their negative self-talk towards another person and if they believe these words would motivate that person to change. The answer is an unequivocal “No, of course not”. Why? Because this is emotional abuse and we know this is not the way to encourage others, rather it is a surefire way to keep them right where they are at or make matters worse. While these folks would never think to abuse another person, the abuse they inflict upon themselves goes unfettered.
Shame has the opposite effect of change, it seals the deal. It seals the deal we make with ourselves that says,” I am the way I am, I am flawed, I will forever remain this way, therefore change is futile.” If you want to make sure your behavior never changes administer large doses of shame around that behavior.Now what would happen if Sue eliminated shame by taking a non-judgmental and objective view of her social anxiety? What if Sue were to say to herself, “Social situations can be difficult for me so my response is to feel dread, nervousness or anxiousness. This is me. This is what I do.” It is after this statement of acceptance that she can now follow up with positive affirmations such as, “Once I get there I’m usually okay.” “After I go I am usually glad I went.” However, without this initial self-acceptance these affirmations will be experienced as hollow. For example if her first interpretation of anxiety is “I’m stupid and broken” following this with “I’ll be glad I went to the party” is pretty meaningless. If Sue is stupid and broken why should she even bother leaving her house?
So, the paradox works this way: Once Sue accepts her response to social interactions she no longer experiences the intensity of shame. Rather than be debilitated by shame and canceling the engagement, she attends the party and re-affirms “I am glad I went”. With this positive outcome, the next social event may be experienced with decreased anxiety.
Self-acceptance means Sue accepts that she may always experience some social anxiety, but with time and positive outcomes these feelings can be diminished. In doing this she acknowledges both who she is in the here and now and her ability to make positive changes in the future. Through self-acceptance she experiences freedom from the perceptions which bind her to shame and prohibit change.