“Self-acceptance is my refusal to be in an adversarial relationship with myself.” ~Nathaniel Branden
Have you ever thought that you accepted yourself fully, only to realize there were conditions placed upon that acceptance?
There was a point in my life when I realized I had stopped making tangible progress with my emotions, self-esteem, and habits. I’d made some profoundly positive shifts that remained with me, like eating healthier, practicing yoga, and phasing out negative friends. You could say I was “cleaning house” in a sense—getting clear on what I wanted my life to look like and discarding the rest.
I began my first truly healthy relationship in years, had a small freelance business that was thriving, and even became a certified yoga teacher. I was no longer a slave to self-doubt and social anxiety like I was in college. However, I didn’t feel like I could vulnerably bare all like other yoga teachers seemed to do so effortlessly.
I was still experiencing some of the same old negative feelings I always had, like dreading social situations and feeling somehow “behind” in life despite all my progress.
I would still slip into self-sabotaging thoughts, mentally talking down to myself when I didn’t teach perfectly. I would still compare myself to other women my age, coming up with stories as to why they were “better” or “further ahead” than I was.
Despite knowing how critical it was to stop doing this, the sense of self-doubt seemed overwhelming and inevitable at times. Upon realizing that these issues were still present, I promptly abandoned myself. Rather than practicing self-care, I “relapsed” into shame. I was ashamed of feeling shame.
“I’m a yoga teacher. I’m not allowed to get in these moods anymore. I should not still struggle with these feelings,” I thought.
During this period, I dwelled hard. I didn’t reach out to anyone. I felt a nauseating fear in the pit of my stomach that made me want to give up on everything. The light at the end of the tunnel had all but flickered out. Convinced that I was alone in these feelings, I stubbornly forgot that other people went through these same emotions all the time.
“I’m not normal. I’ve learned nothing after all this time. I’m foolish and completely hopeless. Who would even want to be around someone like me?”
These may seem like words from the journal of a severely depressed, or maybe even suicidal person. When you read these words you might think, “Eek. I can’t believe she shared that publicly!” Or you might wince and turn away in discomfort, briefly recalling your own dark and “ugly” thoughts. But in truth, these are just two of the sentences I spewed out into a Word document on a particularly bad day.
I no longer buy in to the belief that these kinds of thoughts make me “bad” or a “failure” as a teacher. Years ago, I wouldn’t have admitted to such heavy thoughts. However, I’ve learned not to restrict myself when I’m venting onto a blank page. I dig deep into the negativity I feel, because if I don’t, I truly don’t know what emotions lie beneath the surface—or why they exist.
Writer Flannery O’Connor once said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” I know this is true for me, and I’m sure it probably applies to many of us. Sometimes we don’t really know how we feel until we start expressing it, whether it’s through writing or speaking. We can surprise ourselves with beliefs and emotions we didn’t know existed within us.
This practice of exploring the darker thoughts led me to the realization that I still wasn’t completely showing up for myself. In other words, I needed to consciously support myself and engage in positive self-talk more often.
As a self-proclaimed self-aware person, this realization initially caught me off guard. I thought I knew myself inside and out. But as shadow work practitioners would say, nobody really knows their shadow—not until it is carefully lured out into the light.
It takes time, effort, courage, and brutal honesty to get acquainted with your darker emotions. Our instinct is to run, but we need to dedicate ourselves to our shadows rather than condemning them.
Whether you work through heavy feelings in a blank Word doc like me or with a trusted friend or coach, it’s important to stop shying away from the “ugly” stuff, like anger, jealousy, fear, and judgment.
These things shouldn’t be off limits. Furthermore, these things don’t make you bad, they don’t make you worthless, and they don’t mean you’re crazy. They are simply the heavier, unacknowledged sensations waiting to be heard and healed—waiting for their moment in the spotlight.
In addition, it’s crucial to realize that this self-awareness process never ends. You will never get rid of all the negative you experience, and frankly, wouldn’t life be boring if you did?
Dark emotions rise up not so we can feel ashamed, but so we can integrate them and forgive ourselves. This process is the foundation of healing, self-care, and self-acceptance.
A good way to tell if you are conditionally or unconditionally accepting of yourself is to look at your expectations and attitudes.
- Do you only cheer yourself on when you feel positive and/or accomplish external goals?
- Are you “allowed” to have an off day or an unproductive week without lapsing into self-judgment and self-loathing?
- Do you stand up for yourself when others discourage you?
- Do you give yourself the benefit of the doubt in difficult or confusing times?
Answering these questions will reveal if you accept yourself only conditionally. Conditional acceptance means you only love yourself when you’re performing well. (Spoiler alert: In this case, it’s the achievements you love rather than your actual self.)
This is an incredibly easy trap to fall into, especially in the beginning of any self-acceptance journey. For many of us, self-acceptance is a foreign path that we only embark on after years of self-rejection. A lot of the things you must allow yourself to do will seem counter-intuitive, like expressing dark thoughts or letting yourself surrender to pain rather than fighting it.
So what can you do if conditional self-acceptance is the only kind you know how to practice?
For one, don’t berate yourself for it! Any berating or negative judgment just keeps you in the vicious cycle. Think about it: Yelling at yourself for yelling at yourself? Not effective.
Secondly, admit to any feelings that oppose unconditional self-acceptance. Don’t deny them or refuse to look at them. Instead, explore them. Let them coexist with the positive stuff until they have taught you whatever they needed to teach you.
And lastly, incorporate self-care when it is easy. When your mood is light and you are full of energy, use these periods to wholeheartedly implement self-care routines. I like to implement self-care through everyday sensory experiences, like lighting some incense, taking a hot shower when it’s cold, or taking the time to cook a really good healthy meal.
The momentum of positive habits will make your lows less treacherous. Having that stable found of self-respect already built into your daily life will remind you that it’s ok to struggle.
Struggle is temporary. Struggle makes you human. And it certainly doesn’t make you any less whole.
About Brianna Johnson
Brianna runs Exist Better, a blog that delves into the nitty-gritty of mental health, exploring emotions, beliefs, and cultural constructs to help readers reach self-empowerment. Subscribe for new insights and guidance every Wednesday at existbetter.co.
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