We do not get to choose the content of our minds, but we certainly try. There are many things in life—inside and outside of us—we do not choose or control, and that fall short of our ideals of perfection, and we have a great deal of trouble accepting this. Our work with acceptance versus rejection of the realities that are beyond our control or outside our definition of perfection can help us build resilience but can also lead to emotional suffering.
Take, for instance, the lack of choice or control we have in how our minds develop: We do not choose to be born; we do not choose the parents we are born to; and we do not choose the point in their lives we are born to them. We do not choose the parenting style of our parents (or that of their parents); we do not choose the trauma they endured before and after our birth; and we do not choose how their trauma history impacts their parenting. We do not choose our parents’ strengths; we do not choose their weaknesses; and we do not choose the parenting style we learn from them. In that sense, we do not choose how our parents teach us to parent ourselves, how they teach us to relate to our needs, thoughts, and feelings.
Our earliest experiences and the echoes of those experiences—the ways of thinking, feeling, and being that now exist inside our minds—were not installed by us nor elected by us. Much of how we think and feel is an accident of whom we are born to and when; as a result, much of our mind is there by accident. We do not choose our psychological strengths, and, perhaps more regrettably, we do not choose our neuroses.
This is an uncomfortable reality to face, especially in this age in which we strive toward images of perfection and pride ourselves on feeling in control. Sigmund Freud joked that his theories were rejected mostly because they suggested people are not fully in control of their minds, and it is not surprising his theories remain unpopular. You may be tempted to stop reading this for the same reason. We humans do not like accidents, especially ones that happen to us. We work hard to prevent them. So it is hard to accept that much of what is in our minds is there more by accident than by some careful plan that we intentionally laid out.
It is especially hard to accept this when we find things inside our minds that we identify as “bad,” and as a result it can be tempting to construct the illusion of control over the “badness” so we can become our idea of “perfection.” We like to tell ourselves, “Don’t think that way,” or “Just be positive,” or “There’s nothing to be anxious about; just act natural.” We fancy that saying such things to ourselves can help us control the programming of our minds or make our habitual responses go away. We tell ourselves we can overpower our conditioning through force of will or through self-criticism. We try hard to reject the things inside ourselves that we don’t like, to make ourselves “better” or even “perfect.” “It’s bad enough I can’t control when I was born or when I’ll die,” one person in therapy told me, “but I should be able to at least control my mind!”
We try and try to suppress our “bad” thoughts. We come up with “techniques” that help us avoid the “bad” feelings or behaviors and “get better.” We think these acts of self-rejection will remove the “badness” from ourselves. But this “badness”—this confluence of thoughts and feelings that are inside us that we do not want—remains there despite our efforts to reject and banish it.
So, what then? What can we do when we find things inside ourselves that we didn’t choose to put there, that we don’t want there, that we identify as “bad,” but that are there anyway? Must we go on forever trying to cast out something “bad”? If we accept the “badness” we identify in ourselves, is that just complacency, giving up? What are the benefits of accepting our reality and giving up our fantasies of control and perfection? Let’s explore these questions around the emotional impacts of self-rejection and self-acceptance.
Why We Turn to Self-Rejection
In a certain way, we are all therapists. Each one of us has a unique style of self-help that we have learned and cultivated through our development. “Cure through self-rejection” is a common way to attempt self-therapy. Now, no one ever calls it that—we have fancy cover words for cure through self-rejection, such as “self-improvement” or “making progress,” and we do it with the best of intentions. When we analyze our thinking, however, we find many of us approach self-improvement, a seemingly benevolent endeavor, from a starting point of self-rejection: “I have identified something inside me as bad; I did not put it there and I do not want it there, as it challenges my fantasy of becoming perfect. Now I must ‘improve myself’ by finding some technique to rid myself of this badness to regain perfection. Immediately if not sooner, please!”
Self-acceptance does not promise us the sense of purification, perfection, and control that self-rejection tempts us with, and in that sense it may be less attractive in moments when the need for change feels dire. However, if we’ve tried self-rejection, seen its results, and understand why we thought it was a good idea at the time, perhaps we can begin to accept ourselves and see what happens then.
Self-rejection can lead to some forms of change, at least temporarily. In the name of “self-improvement,” I can suppress a particular thought for as long as I have the energy to do so; I can force myself to like things I don’t like or to stop liking things I do like for as long as I can put up the necessary effort. I can use “logic” to talk myself out of what comes naturally to me. But for those of us who have lied before, we know it takes a great deal of effort and energy to suppress what is true and keep the lie going; the liar faces the truth more than anyone. In the cure through self-rejection, we have to perpetuate a lie to ourselves—“I don’t feel/think/need that anymore. I’m perfected/fixed now”—even when we see how the “bad” thought or feeling we try to reject continues to pop up.
We approach our efforts at “self-cure through self-rejection” earnestly—we really think self-rejection will help us! We fantasize that self-rejection strategies will remove from us the burdens that were accidentally placed upon us by our early experiences. We think self-rejection will produce the self-love and sense of perfection we all long for. Many of us come to find, however, that in the end practicing self-rejection only helps us get better at self-rejection, which can lead to self-hate, depression, and other forms of suffering. Faced with that new knowledge, what do we do then?
We may be tempted to reject this self-rejection we have come to recognize in ourselves, as though rejecting our self-rejection will help us stop rejecting ourselves. It sounds silly on paper, but you might be surprised just how tempting this approach can be! Then therapy can become like a never-ending home improvement project in which we keep finding new self-rejections to “fix,” but our tool for fixing (self-rejection) keeps making us feel more broken. This inevitably leads us to feel like we are failing at therapy and at life; some people quit therapy as a result. But what if we are not the problem? What if self-rejection is the problem? If so, what then?
Why Self-Acceptance Offers More
We are then left with a question: Can I accept the rejecter that I am in this moment? Can I accept that it is tempting to reject the rejecter I see in the mirror right now? Can I accept that it has just felt natural and important for me to reject the real me that I find when I look inside? That it has been habitual for me to hate me when I find I don’t match a fantasy of perfection? Can I accept the strategy I have tried for self-therapy has failed, even though it felt so smart and useful all this time?
These can all be hard to accept. It can be hard to accept that there are things inside us that we do not like. It can be hard to accept that things are inside our minds that we did not choose to put there, that are there by accident. It can be hard to accept that the best strategy we had learned was a doomed, failed strategy. It can be hard to accept that we are not and cannot be fantasy people, just real people. Can we accept that the truth is sometimes hard to bear? Can we embrace that it has been important to become proficient at rejecting the truth and that there must be some good reason we got so good at rejecting the truth of ourselves and our lives? That it has been important and necessary in our lives to learn to compare our reality to an impossible fantasy of perfection, and call ourselves “not good enough,” “failure,” etc. and reject our real selves? Can we wonder about why learning to self-reject was so necessary and important?
Self-acceptance is not guaranteed to cure anything or to even feel good. All self-acceptance guarantees is we will be in touch with the clearest and most realistic picture of ourselves in this moment, beyond our fantasies of how we “should” be.
We may believe self-acceptance will lead to stagnation or complacency or that self-acceptance is like giving up on changing. But what if self-rejection is what has been leading to stagnation? What if continued self-rejection will require you to become complacent with the stagnation that self-rejection has been inducing? What if we need to give up on the fantasies of perfection and control that have been keeping us stuck if we are ever going to achieve realistic change based on a realistic assessment of ourselves and our lives?
Self-acceptance is not guaranteed to cure anything or to even feel good. All self-acceptance guarantees is we will be in touch with the clearest and most realistic picture of ourselves in this moment, beyond our fantasies of how we “should” be. Accepting our real strengths and resources and our real hurdles can give us a starting point for realistic change based on the facts of who we are in this moment, rather than based on the fantasy that if we just reject ourselves long and hard enough we will somehow become purified and perfected.
Self-acceptance does not promise us the sense of purification, perfection, and control that self-rejection tempts us with, and in that sense it may be less attractive in moments when the need for change feels dire. However, if we’ve tried self-rejection, seen its results, and understand why we thought it was a good idea at the time, perhaps we can begin to accept ourselves and see what happens then. And if we need to go on rejecting ourselves for now, which we might, can we accept that, too? Can we let go of the fantasy self who is perfect and in control, accept who we are right now, and see how that feels? We may not be able to choose the content of our minds and the events of our lives, but perhaps through self-acceptance we can come to choose how we relate to our reality.
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