The cultivation of mindfulness is just one crucial step in our journey toward greater balance and peace. Through mindfulness practice, we train the mind to pay attention non-judgmentally – but there is more. We must also develop the capacity to face ourselves honestly and compassionately – to befriend ourselves so that we can look into the mirror unflinchingly and see what is clearly reflected there. The practice of radical self-acceptance can help us to do so.
By radical, I mean a complete departure from tradition. Our culture teaches us that only certain qualities are acceptable in human beings. The rest are to be relentlessly scrutinized and eliminated – or at least shamefully hidden from view. When we hyper-focus on personal qualities that are celebrated in our culture and reject unwanted truths about ourselves, we fail to see reality as it is. This makes it very difficult to respond with wisdom.
Self-acceptance means allowing our whole selves to be in awareness, the good, the bad and the ugly, without ignoring or bypassing the parts we don’t like – without reactivity. Tara Brach calls it “...an agreement with ourselves to appreciate, validate, & support ourselves as we are, knowing that we are also free to change things if it makes sense.“
It takes courage to fearlessly face the inconvenient truths about ourselves. When we do, we often realize that just because we are suffering it doesn’t mean that something is wrong. Pain is woven into the fabric of life, but it can be hard to accept this as part of the human condition. There is a strange type of self-tyranny in our culture’s rejection of average. Specialness is such a lonely place, whether it’s a high pedestal or a deep pit. If we dare to venture into the realm of ordinariness, there is surprising relief and contentment to be found there.
In addition, self-acceptance is directly related to our acceptance of others. According to Pema Chodron, “What we reject out there is what we reject in ourselves… To the degree that we have compassion for ourselves, we will also have compassion for others… As we learn to have compassion for ourselves, the circle of compassion for others, what and whom we can work with and how – becomes wider.”
… we have to have trust in ourselves first. We have to see that whatever others offer us, we have the inner tools to take it on. – Stephanie Van Hook, Metta Center
If we conceptualize happiness as a state in which we aren’t wanting to be in another state, then radical self-acceptance promises to bring greater happiness than the constant striving to be someone or something other than we are. We tend to make ourselves unhappy when we:
- place ourselves at the center of every experience
- think that we can control most things
- believe that we should be completely self-reliant and separate
- replace the present moment with the dream of a better “future me”
Self-acceptance helps us acknowledge ourselves as we are and then get out of our own way. A helpful exercise can be to ask yourself, “What are the parts of myself I don’t accept? Are there characteristics, thoughts, feelings, behaviors I reject?” Try bringing to mind someone you like and respect, but don’t know well. How do you want them to see you? What do you not want them to see in you? What comes up for you in these mental exercises?
When we encounter aversion and obstacles in our practice of self-acceptance, Dr. Bruce Hubbard’s CRAFT for Meeting Resistance model, adapted from his treatment for tinnitus distress, can be a handy tool. He defines a CRAFT as a vehicle that takes us from one place to another as well as an acronym that can help carry us through our resistance:
- C= catch your resistant response
- R= remind yourself this response only maintains or increases suffering
- A= accept, apply a new response
- F= follow up with repeated practice
- T= take heart – remember that opening to experience tends to help over the long term
A final helpful strategy may be to set an intention of zero negativity (Harville Hendrix) in our relationship with ourselves. We can do this by, as best we can, noticing and setting aside all negative speech and behavior from our interactions with ourselves and pausing to think about how our self-reflective thoughts and words might cause harm before committing to them.
Radical self-acceptance allows us to bring our whole selves to our experience so that we can respond skillfully to what is here. It encourages us to face facts, have an honest and direct relationship with ourselves and our lives, and ultimately become the lamp that guides us along the path to greater peace and freedom.