I’ve been outlining the chapter in my book on mindfulness and self-acceptance (Did I mention I’m writing a book?!) and it occurred to me that many people have the wrong idea of what acceptance and self-acceptance really mean.
I hear people say all the time, “I should love myself more” or “I should just accept my job/relationship/life and be grateful for what I have.”
That is not the right way to do acceptance.
Any thought about your life that starts with “I should” or “I need to” isn’t self-acceptance, it’s self-abandonment. It’s pushing aside your own feelings, desires and intuition for the sake of trying to be happier.
Let me suggest another way.
Acceptance (or self-acceptance) is when we accept or notice what’s coming up for us right now, without creating a story about how it should or shouldn’t be. It’s also accepting what comes up without any ideas of how or why it should be any different.
It’s like a combination of noticing, acceptance and embodying. It’s thinking, “This is what’s happening right now” with no further commentary or evaluation, just embodying the feeling, sensation or thought that’s coming up and being in it.
Here’s an example:
Many women I know (and some men) don’t like the look of their bodies for one reason or another. I’ve heard so many well-meaning people talk about body acceptance as learning to love your body just as it is. While I don’t disagree with this in theory, if we try to jump straight from “I don’t like my body” to “I accept my body as it is” we’re going to be bypassing a lot of important feelings and thoughts for the sake of how we “should” think about our body.
Here’s what I propose instead. When you have a thought or a feeling along the lines of, “I don’t like my body” just notice that you are thinking that. That thought isn’t bad, or wrong, nor should it be any different. Simply notice and accept, “I am having a negative thought about my body.”
When you’re able to have a thought like that without a judgment that you should be thinking something different or feeling another way about your body, when you are able to be who you are right now, without any judgment that you should be thinking any other way than you are, it opens the portal for true healing.
Not bypassing healing or “should” healing, but real healing. Compassionate healing.
When I think the thought, “I don’t like my body” and accept that I am feeling shame, I then can tend to and care for that part of me that feels bad. I don’t need to change it, I just need to care for it. I can sense into what I need to hear to comfort myself in that moment and say the exact right thing to myself. I can say, “Well of course you don’t like your body, Megan, there’s a billion dollar ‘beauty’ industry and a whole patriarchal culture invested in you feeling unworthy. They lie. They make money and retain power off of those lies. You are amazing and your beauty is so much more than the shape of your body. Anyone worth their salt will see that, and you should, too.” (That’s just what I needed to hear in that moment — your version of comfort and validation will sound different. But feel free to steal mine if that works for you!)
In that moment, I start to genuinely feel better about my body. It’s not bypassing or platitudes, it’s a genuine shift in what I think about not only my body, but the world my body exists in.
I’m not accepting my body, I’m accepting the thoughts about my body and through that acceptance, I can find what I need to think or hear to heal that shame I feel.
Let me give you another example. I recently moved to a new city where I don’t know many people. It takes time to develop friendships and create routines and I’m still in that process. Even though I know that’s true, I still feel lonely sometimes. This week I had a friend visit for a few days and after they left, I found myself alone in my apartment and my feelings of loneliness got intense. Rather than try to change it or think of all the good things about my new situation in this place I’ve wanted to move to for years, I simply accepted the feelings of loneliness.
“Okay, I’m lonely.”
I sat with the loneliness for a while. I observed it, noticed what it felt like in my body, where it sat and where it moved to. I kept thinking, “Here I am, I’m lonely” or, “I am feeling loneliness right now” without trying to fix or change it. And eventually, I was able to bring some love and compassion to myself. I thought, “This is okay, I just moved here. This loneliness is signaling to me that I need connection, I need community. I’ll find it. It’s important to me, so I know I’ll keep making small movements towards caring for myself this way.”
In that moment of sitting with the loneliness and accepting it, my view towards it shifted. It’s not that I felt any less lonely, but I saw it as a signpost for what’s important to me — connection and community — and I then felt the peace of knowing myself and the pride of making moves towards caring for myself and meeting my vital needs.
Only after pure acceptance can we crack open the door for compassion. If we jump to judgment or a “should” statement, we leave no room for self-compassion. And the door to true healing is compassion, both for ourselves and others. So I invite you to accept what comes up for you, even if it’s not pleasant. Sit with it, don’t try to change it, and accept that you are a human being having this thought or feeling, that’s it. Pure acceptance, just being in the moment of what’s arising. After a while, you’ll sense into what you need to know from that. What message is important to heal you and bring you even closer to that beautiful state of self-knowing and self-acceptance? There’s no greater love than knowing, accepting and validating where you are, right now.