What Determines Our Self-Acceptance (or Lack of Same) in the First Place?
In general, similar to self-esteem, as children we’re able to accept ourselves only to the degree we feel accepted by our parents. Research has demonstrated that before the age of eight, we lack the ability to formulate a clear, separate sense of self–that is, other than that which has been transmitted to us by our caretakers. So if our parents were unable, or unwilling, to communicate the message that we were totally okay and acceptable–independent, that is, of our hard-to-control, sometimes errant behaviors–we were primed to view ourselves ambivalently. The positive regard we received from our parents may have depended almost totally on how we acted, and unfortunately we learned that many of our behaviors weren’t acceptable to them. So, identifying ourselves with these objectionable behaviors, we inevitably came to see ourselves as in many ways inadequate.
Additionally, adverse parental evaluation can, and frequently does, go far beyond disapproving specific behaviors. For example, parents may transmit to us the overall message that we’re selfish–or not attractive enough, smart enough, good or “nice” enough . . . and so on. As a result of what most mental health professionals would agree reflects a subtle form of emotional abuse, almost all of us come to regard ourselves as only conditionally acceptable. In consequence, we learn to regard many aspects of our self negatively, painfully internalizing feelings of rejection we too often experienced at the hands of overly critical parents. And this tendency toward self-criticism is at the heart of most of the problems that, as adults, we unwittingly create for ourselves.
In fully comprehending our current reservations about ourselves, we also need to add the disapproval and criticism we may have been received from siblings, other relatives, teachers–and, especially, our peers, who (struggling with their own self-doubts) could hardly resist making fun of our frailties whenever we innocently “exposed” them. At any rate, it’s safe to assume that almost all of us enter adulthood afflicted with a certain negative bias. We share a common tendency to blame ourselves, or to see ourselves as in some way defective. It’s as though we all, to whatever degree, suffer from the same chronic “virus” of self-doubt.
Accepting ourselves unconditionally (despite our deficiencies) would have been almost automatic had our parents conveyed a predominantly positive message about us–and, additionally, we grew up in a generally supportive environment But if that really wasn’t the case, we need on our own to learn how to “certify” ourselves, to validate our essential ok-ness. And I’m hardly suggesting that independently confirming ourselves has anything to do with becoming complacent–only that we get over our habit of constantly judging ourselves. If deep within us we’re ever to experience, as our normal state of being, personal fulfillment and peace of mind, we must first rise to the challenge of complete, unqualified self-acceptance.
The temptation of self rejection
We do not get to choose the content of our minds, but we certainly try. There are many things in life—inside and outside of us—we do not choose or control, and that fall short of our ideals of perfection, and we have a great deal of trouble accepting this. Our work with acceptance versus rejection of the realities that are beyond our control or outside our definition of perfection can help us build resilience but can also lead to emotional suffering.
Take, for instance, the lack of choice or control we have in how our minds develop: We do not choose to be born; we do not choose the parents we are born to; and we do not choose the point in their lives we are born to them. We do not choose the parenting style of our parents (or that of their parents); we do not choose the trauma they endured before and after our birth; and we do not choose how their trauma history impacts their parenting. We do not choose our parents’ strengths; we do not choose their weaknesses; and we do not choose the parenting style we learn from them. In that sense, we do not choose how our parents teach us to parent ourselves, how they teach us to relate to our needs, thoughts, and feelings.
It is especially hard to accept this when we find things inside our minds that we identify as “bad,” and as a result it can be tempting to construct the illusion of control over the “badness” so we can become our idea of “perfection.” We like to tell ourselves, “Don’t think that way,” or “Just be positive,” or “There’s nothing to be anxious about; just act natural.” We fancy that saying such things to ourselves can help us control the programming of our minds or make our habitual responses go away. We tell ourselves we can overpower our conditioning through force of will or through self-criticism We try hard to reject the things inside ourselves that we don’t like, to make ourselves “better” or even “perfect.” “It’s bad enough I can’t control when I was born or when I’ll die,” one person in therapy told me, “but I should be able to at least control my mind!”
Self-rejection can lead to some forms of change, at least temporarily. In the name of “self-improvement,” I can suppress a particular thought for as long as I have the energy to do so; I can force myself to like things I don’t like or to stop liking things I do like for as long as I can put up the necessary effort. I can use “logic” to talk myself out of what comes naturally to me. But for those of us who have lied before, we know it takes a great deal of effort and energy to suppress what is true and keep the lie going; the liar faces the truth more than anyone. In the cure through self-rejection, we have to perpetuate a lie to ourselves—“I don’t feel/think/need that anymore
Self-acceptance does not promise us the sense of purification, perfection, and control that self-rejection tempts us with, and in that sense it may be less attractive in moments when the need for change feels dire. However, if we’ve tried self-rejection, seen its results, and understand why we thought it was a good idea at the time, perhaps we can begin to accept ourselves and see what happens then.