Last weekend I went to see the musical Wicked and found myself thinking about perception and self-acceptance. The show, based on a book of the same title, is the story of The Wizard of Oz as told from the perspective of Elphaba, the wicked witch of the west. From the beginning, the reimagining of this story questions the power of how we see things, and what happens when that perception is shifted. Our heroine is now the vilified underdog who was born with green skin instead of the sweet, young girl from Kansas.
In the play, the wizard himself speaks at great length about the power of perception. He acknowledges that the only power he really has is that other people believe he is powerful. His entire identity relies on the power of perception. The film version of the wizard is exposed by Toto to be just a man behind a curtain. Fallible and even a little bit tacky, his identity is based not on an internal sense of who he is, but on how others see him. When we actually meet the great and powerful Oz, he feels inauthentic.
We all have inside of us a “person behind the curtain.” For some, it’s an internal voice that doles out judgments aimed at others or internally at ourselves. From behind the curtain, we watch to see how people see us and if it matches the version of ourselves we want to put out into the world. Our internal wizard feeds on fear and anxiety. What will people think? How do I compare to others? It can be exhausting, working so hard to not feel rejection or judgment. In all of the hustle and bustle, it’s easy to lose track of our authentic selves.
The practice of radical self-acceptance provides an alternative perspective from which to view ourselves. It’s a way to interrupt the voice of self-judgment that comes from the “person behind the curtain.” Clinical psychologist Tara Brach writes that “wanting and fearing are natural energies. … But when they become the core of our identity, we lose sight of the fullness of our being.” (2003, p. 20) Brach points out that having feelings or fear, anxiety, jealousy, and envy is natural; it’s part of being human. Experiencing these feelings is not something that we need to be ashamed of. In fact, when we judge them and try to push them away, we can become stuck in a cycle of self-judgment. From a perspective of radical acceptance, internalizing these feelings into our identity can inhibit our ability to fully be ourselves, our ability to be authentic.
In the story of Wicked, Elphaba spends her life as an outcast because of her green skin. This experience of suffering impacts her view of the world and who she grows up to be. Because of her differences, Elphaba cannot live behind a curtain as easily as the wizard. By accepting herself and the things that have happened to her, she is an example of the practice of radical acceptance. Elphaba never tries to be perfect or to be someone who everyone likes; instead, she tries to be her whole self.
Accepting our whole selves is not a cop-out to justify not making changes in our lives. Carl Rogers points out, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” (p. 38) The act of acceptance is a powerful one, and a difficult one. The practice of radical self-acceptance acknowledges and holds lovingly our whole selves. This includes the parts of us that we don’t like, the parts that we’re ashamed of, and the parts that we don’t want to share with others. What if it were OK that we’re not perfect? What if we strove instead to be whole?
How a story is told changes the meaning of what we hear. In Wicked, we’re asked to see things from a different perspective, and we learn things about the villain in the story that change everything. Suddenly, good and bad are harder to determine. Real life is like that, too; it can be messy, murky, and beautiful all at the same time. In our own lives, we are the authors of the story. We get to decide how we want to see ourselves. Challenging our self-judgments and accepting all parts of ourselves can help us stay connected to our own authenticity.
Brach, T. (2003). Radical acceptance: Embracing your life with the heart of a buddha. New York: Bantam Bell.
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