Self Acceptance

Self acceptance  . . . is a path or a direction. It is not a goal and it is never completed. In a sense it is a form of meditation, an attitude toward life, toward yourself, and toward the world, that you cannot hold onto but can return to again and again.
–Dick Olney

I’ve lived most of my life as if an invisible string were pulling me out of the picture. The picture was what most would call a normal life—a profession, a house, a spouse, a family, good friends, travel—all the things one needs to be happy. But when I acquired all of those things happiness did not follow. The problem, it turns out, rests with me. The things I had acquired and accomplished were enough to bring happiness to the right person. I wasn’t the right person—not for that life.

Success and happiness are not the same thing. I had more than my share of success, was slapped on the back by movers and shakers, broke bread with brethren, and shared a backyard fence with the powerful. I paid others to mow the grass and clean my house for so long I forgot how to do it myself. I had leather seats and tinted windows, went on vacation, and entertained myself along the way. There were moments of happiness but they didn’t stick around. I was dragging a burden basket larger than the accomplishments, and I finally stumbled under its pressure.

I used to think that self-acceptance was just being okay with myself, especially the parts of me that made life difficult, and by that I mean the parts that kept me from fitting into thenormal life I had built. I need solitude over the company of friends and family, and I need to spend a good portion of my life outside. These things are not luxuries for me; they are not preferences. In the past, they were my means of survival, and in the present, they are my means of balance. So I bargained with myself. I told myself that if I were to get enough of who I truly am, I could then become who I’m supposed to be. I was wrong. I had the will to survive, but I thrust myself in all the wrong places. This was my grand vision of self-acceptance—holding myself together by baling wire until the rust makes it permanent.

I grew up with a great deal of shame. I learned it at a young age, and I’ve worn it every day like a leaded jacket. The heaviness of it compels me down the path of weariness and sucks life energy. It forces me into a defensive position when what I want is freedom to move ahead. The shame I carry makes me believe an ambush is around the next corner. Whenever it has approached, my body has known what to do even if I didn’t. It found ways to hide, did a disappearing act and only came back when the storm had passed. The body never lies and mine was no exception. Shame forced me to guard myself closely and develop a hyper-vigilance usually reserved for life and death situations. It taught me that I was on my own and instigated the notion that I could not be vulnerable. Never.

Somewhere along the way, I adopted the perception that the normal life would protect me from the shame I carried. I would fulfill the expectations that others had for me, fit in, and become respected and loved. But shame will hunker down and look for any opportunity. It jumped at every misstep along the way, and self-disappointment will rot you from the inside out if not contained.

You cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that created it. That’s what Einstein said, and I believe him. I have forever been trying to fit into a solution grounded in the place where the problem was created. When happiness was not immediately forthcoming, I kept trying, believing that if I managed to raise myself a rung or two further it would produce happiness, contentment, and security, three things I was in need of. When it failed, self-blame and discouragement nipped at my heels. Instead of dispelling the shame of my youth, my normal life had invited it to move in permanently. The further I rose in our meritorious system the darker things became. Reaching a summit is only half the journey. The descent must follow.

I have logged many miles running through the foothills above Salt Lake City. It has been my place; I know it like the bottom of my feet. Even overlooking the city below, it feels wild and free, which feeds an essential part of me. It has been my place of solace and has held me when the pain of existence boiled over. One winter day, a day that seemed like any other as I ran the familiar trails, I was hit by an internal explosion. It felt like a mirror shattered in my head, and I had a sudden awareness that I didn’t have to be anything other than what I am. I don’t have to fit in. It sounds like a simple thing, but it took me years to get there. At that moment, a tension in my body that I never knew existed disappeared, and I knew immediately that a shift had occurred. The shame retreated, and before thought and reaction came self acceptance. I sat down and cried in the bosom of Red Butte Canyon.

As I age, I find it impossible to hide from the reality of who I am. It encroaches into every cell of my being, infiltrates my thoughts and dreams. The normal life temporarily feels better than it delivers in the long run. For a while, it numbed my senses, took the edge off, and lured me to sleep. But what felt like a lullaby one day was bondage the next. I get lost in thenormal world. I am the square peg. The times I tried to fit ended badly, and repetition did nothing to change it. So I surrendered to fate—and to self acceptance. Fate sees to it that I remain outside the normal life in a world of my own making because to make sense of the world, I first have to make sense to myself.

I’ve lately been revisiting Dick Olney’s teachings about self-acceptance. “You may think there are only two rooms to be in,” Olney teaches, “approving of yourself or disapproving of yourself. There is another possibility though, and that is experiencing yourself without judgment in the here and now.”

The inner critic is its own entity, working independently from the conscious mind. Though it exists only in the immaterial world of thoughts and images, the inner critic demands more attention from people than they know. I spent many more years conversing with my inner critic than with my spouse or child. I took it to bed with me, shamelessly allowing it to violate me all night long, waking to that sinking feeling and wondering why. I had breakfast under its cruel gaze and went to work with it on my shoulder. I returned from work carrying the burden and got up the next day hoping for something new. The inner critic knew better. It is the evil twin indeed.

I do not have a strong angel on the other shoulder. I live by refutation of the critic rather than by inspiration of the angels. I am on constant alert for a hostile takeover by the evil twin and dare not venture far without looking back. Establishing a daily practice of mindfulness is essential.

To accept yourself you must accept the whole package. That was my problem—pushing away parts of me that were uncomfortable, refusing to look for fear of finding what I didn’t want to see. Experiencing myself as I am was painful—peeling off one illusion after another, throwing fear overboard and watching hope pulled out right behind it. But experiencing myself as I am is also freeing.

As a child, somewhere beyond my personal awareness, I vowed never to be hurt again—a protective barrier that worked for me then. As an adult, like a vet returning from combat, I’ve found it difficult to let go of what saved me in the past. Going back to the familiar is reflexive; it is easier than change. Like the hopeless sap trying to get out of an elevator only to have the door suddenly stop his exit, I developed a defense system that never let me escape. The doors closed every time.

Mindfulness is being present to what is. It is the conscious choice to keenly observe myself instead of others. I can only change my reactions to the world and not the other way around. It is an act of courage in spite of the resistance to change, and it is the only leverage I have. Vulnerability is my strength. It’s okay to get hurt. Holding that in mind is my claim to mindfulness. I am mindful of whence I came and the clever tricks my mind uses to close the door before I know it is open. I keep track of old tricks and learn new responses every day. I check in with myself like a good friend and remind myself that I am equal, lovable, powerful, capable, and valuable. I drop the pretense of pride for the reality of peace. I tell myself there is no one coming along to save me so I might as well get going. I look to the past now as inspiration for today, acknowledging the pain as a spiritual awakening and letting go of all energy attached to wishing it were different. I accept the past as teacher and the present as its gift. I know I can live today in peace. Mindfully.