“No amount of self-improvement can make up for any lack of self-acceptance.” ~Robert Holden
In our culture, we are constantly bombarded with the newest and best things to improve ourselves and/or our quality of life. Unfortunately, this leads to the belief that we need to obtain some sort of thing before we could accept ourselves as we are.
When I was a child, I constantly battled with my weight. By the age of fourteen, I was 225 pounds (mind you, I am 5’2,” on a good day).
Fortunately for me, a doctor pointed out the concern of childhood obesity. She kindly let me know that I was at the perfect time to lose weight before it began to have significant health complications. I was able to quickly learn how to eat better and engage in physical activity. I dropped about eighty pounds within a year, and the attention I received was overwhelming.
I quickly developed a conditioned response of self-improvement, attention, and ultimately, love—meaning I began to see that altering myself would gain me recognition. But come on, who doesn’t want to be loved and accepted by others? Well, this attention introduced a whole different concept.
I realized I was not receiving that positive attention before, as people usually chose to pick me apart for my weight. Therefore, as I grew older, I became addicted to this notion of self-improvement because it brought upon the positive attention and affirmation I had lacked. Furthermore, I had a hard time just being me without trying to change something about myself.
For me, self-acceptance is hard to conceptualize on a good day. On a bad day, it can be in shards of glass on the floor. Through my trials and errors, I have learned that self-acceptance is a skill we can practice. It is not an innate trait that we either have or don’t. It is something that can be nourished and nurtured.
With practice, I began feeling at peace with who I am—with all my strengths and my weaknesses. However, this didn’t just happen overnight.
I had struggled with a lack of self-acceptance for many years. I felt like I needed to be a certain way or look a certain way to be accepted. Immediate access to media and social media fed right into this concept. I fell into the comparison trap, and I fixated on what I didn’t have by putting my attention on what everyone else seemed to have.
I’d think, “Well, she looks a lot better than me,” “Man, their family seems perfect,” or “My career doesn’t seem to be that successful.” These thoughts would consume me, and have a negative impact on my mood and self-esteem.
Let me be clear, I have to be mindful of this trap every single day, multiple times a day, as self-acceptance, love, and compassion issues are deeply ingrained.
When I was a little girl, I consistently received the message that I needed to change parts of who I was to fit the mold of society. Peers would consistently comment on my weight and appearance. Teachers would constantly criticize my work. Coaches would often compare to the “better, more capable” players. I am sure some of these messages came with good intention, but they had a destructive impact on my self-worth and value.
As I have gotten older, I have learned that having a good relationship with myself is one of the most important things I will achieve in my life. However, because I didn’t want others to see my bad stuff, I tended to project an outward image of having it together, or striving to get it together.
I was not as open about my consistent struggle with depression, anxiety, and body image. I would deny some of those internal battles, and in doing so was never being who I truly was. More so, I struggled in knowing who I was and I developed a conditional relationship with myself.
For a long time, I also struggled with self-forgiveness, which was a huge barrier to self-acceptance. I struggled because I was ashamed of my choices and wished I had done things differently. By twenty-six years old, I had a failed marriage, filed for bankruptcy, and was facing some legal consequences due to my irresponsible behaviors.
I began trying to perfect myself in any way possible. I was constantly looking for a new health fad to follow. I purchased several self-help books, always looking for what was wrong with me and finding a way to fix it. Clearly, I had no concept of self-acceptance. I just believed who I was at my core was bad and I needed to change it. I was never comfortable with just being with me; I needed to be improving something.
Soon I began to see that true self-acceptance has absolutely nothing to do with self-improvement. I was always trying to achieve things, which may have helped temporarily, but it was a poor substitute for true intimacy with myself, which is what I needed.
When I set out to improve myself, I attempted to fix something about myself. I couldn’t possibly feel secure or good enough if my worth depended on constantly bettering myself.
I struggled with what I like to call the “destination happiness” illness. It implies “I’ll be okay when…” or “as soon as I accomplish this one thing, I’ll be happy…” With that mindset, I was never happy because I was always looking forward to the future, missing the present. I was also just checking off the boxes in life, never fully embracing the moment.
A turning point in my life was when a friend of mine said, “I feel you are always looking for something wrong with you. What would it take to just accept yourself for who you are?” This was a true epiphany for me. I was always finding fault in myself. So, I began to reflect on this statement and started to make some active changes toward self-acceptance.
I began to celebrate my many strengths.
I started to make time to honor what I brought to the table.
I worked hard to take in praise from others without doubting their statements.
I cultivated a positive support system. I knew I naturally become similar to the people I chose to be around. So, I built a support system that is inspiring and fulfilling, not discouraging and depleting.
I made a commitment to stop comparing myself to others. I could acknowledge others’ strengths without disregarding or belittling my own.
I began to understand and quiet the inner-critic. I didn’t shut this voice out completely, but I worked on it being constructive as opposed to hurtful.
I made a conscious effort to forgive myself. I let go of the regret and began to learn from my past.
Finally, I began to practice self-compassion and kindness. If I wouldn’t say it to someone I love, I didn’t say it to myself.
With all of these steps, I began to understand who I am and know what I want, while being comfortable in my own skin. I value myself and have gained respect from others. I am able to face challenges in my life head-on. I embrace all parts of who I am, not just the good stuff. I recognize my limitations and weaknesses.
I must say, though, that it is possible to accept and love ourselves and still be committed to personal growth. Accepting ourselves as we are does not mean we won’t have the motivation to change or improve. It implies that self-acceptance is not correlated with alterations of who we are at our core.
Nathaniel Branden stated, “Self-acceptance is my refusal to be in an adversarial relationship with myself.” Many of us live our lives resisting ourselves—comparing ourselves to others, pushing ourselves to be perfect, and trying to fit a certain mold of who we think we are supposed to be. I hope that by shedding some light on the notion of acceptance, I have helped you find courage to let that all go.
We will never know who we are unless we discard who we pretend to be. And it would be a shame not to find out, because we are beautiful and worth knowing, just as we are.
About Lauren Impraim
Lauren is a therapist specializing in co-occurring disorders. She helps people process their shame and their pain, aids in stopping self-defeating patterns, and helps others build resilience and hope. You can find her on Psychology Today here.