Self-acceptance versus self-esteem

Dr. Purushothaman
August 23, 2013

Some people hate life the way it is and try to change the world and themselves so they will feel better. Those of us who have been around the block a few times realize that we can’t change the world. This is a given; it is as easy to change the world as it is to hold back the spring flooding of a river’s delta! All the energy that goes into changing something that is most likely impossible; whether it is the world or our lives’ dismantling events is really wasted energy. If we can relax (use less energy) into accepting life as it is and ourselves just the way we are, we have more energy at our fingertips to engage in areas of our lives that have more potential of change. Another common waste of energy is the belief that it is helpful to push our pain away or try to get rid of it, Rather than pushing the pain away, what if you put that energy into being your authentic self which is inclusive of being congruent with your standards of integrity?

Why don’t we easily allow acceptance to be our priority attitude? When we allow acceptance to be our primary attitude there is little or no room left for what Angeles Arrien calls our ‘cloaks of insufficiency’ and brings our spirits out of shadow and into the brightness of our authenticity. It feels too whole and we have no more excuses to hide from our fear. When we live from an attitude of acceptance it has a requirement to take responsibility for everything in our lives; the ugly the bad and the good. Believe me, when we are used to resisting acceptance, taking responsibility for the good in our lives is harder than taking responsibility for the bad that happens. Resistance to the pathway of acceptance appears to be based on a need to blame. This can bring up the idea of our buy-in to the workings of the Victim paradigm or archetype. This need to blame is not only blaming others or our society for our painful experience of our lives; it is also inclusive of our blaming of ourselves.

My spiritual guidance practice has become more and more filled with people willing and wanting to embrace the quality of acceptance. This exploration is a fascinating one for me as a practitioner, as well as a participant! Here are a few case studies from my work and, at the end of this article, there are a few tools to help you navigate the path of acceptance…

Carol is a middle aged woman who has been doing her personal work off and on for decades now. She has reached great awareness of her life management patterns and knows that she continues to see the world as a ‘cup half empty’. Her personal inquiry into why this belief is so persistent arrives at the request, “Please tell me that if I discipline myself to see the world as ‘half full’ that the painful experiences will go away!” When I tell her, “Sorry, I can’t tell you that” she responds with a frustrated, “It sucks and I hate it!” I have the utmost compassion for her. One of the hardest things to accept is that the painful events of our lives don’t go away. What I can tell her is that she can change her response to the resultant discomfort. She can change her hating how much it sucks to accepting that which she can’t control sucks and doing what she can to provide herself with a life that is filled with joy as much as it is with pain.

Jack, a fiercely independent 71 year old active man, has been having a time of it because he is having trouble with balance in walking for the past 10 months. He has been running the gauntlet with the healing arts professionals and there has been no specified diagnosis available to him. He is realizing that his growing older and moving into the elder chapter of his life has some consequences that are alarming his commitment to his standard of integrity of life-long independence. He realizes that acceptance for him is a feeling of defeat; the beginning of the end and he won’t allow that to be ok. For Jack it is learning that accepting his limitations doesn’t mean that he stops actively exploring solutions or ending his active life. He is one of many folks who have the belief that settling into his limitations means that he has to give up. He is learning to include options into the polarized belief that acceptance only means resignation to his fate. He can accept his limitations and be proactive.

Janie is a dynamic woman in her late twenties. She has been living a focused life having spent her childhood years in competitive downhill skiing and reaching for the gold, literally, by making the Olympic team…..almost. After accepting that she wasn’t going to finish that huge goal, she courageously threw herself into business school at a prestigious west coast college and has just graduated with honors with an MBA. She has a guaranteed job waiting for her at an excellent company at the end of the summer. She calls me wanting guidance on how to manage her relentless pattern of making choices that are totally colored by what she should do rather than by what she wants to do. She is becoming increasingly aware of how that pattern is leaving her joy of life in the dust and she is having trouble changing the pattern. Through our exploration of her internal landscape, not only does she find the perspective of acceptance is working by placing her well honed skill set of focusing into her current life, she is experimenting with identifying and addressing her wants first and then addressing her ‘shoulds’ or obligations rather than fulfilling others’ and society’s desires first and then indulging her desires…if there is enough time and energy to do so! She is embracing the idea that if she gets clarity internally the external piece of fulfilling obligations will be consequential.

It’s a big step to turn a core rule of behavior on its heels like holding your desires as a priority and then, from that clarity, addressing your obligations. Living life by your own rules can fly against everything you’ve been told is right all your life. Exploring this shift, along with many others, calls for a cultivation of an attitude of curiosity and experimentation. It is also very important to have asking for help and support be a valid option when you are pioneering your internal landscape. Signing on for a series of sessions with a spiritual director or connecting regularly with supportive friends and family can be a necessary help to pull the shift off.

Here, summarily, are some tools for walking the path of acceptance:

Commit to viewing life through a lens of both/and rather than the dualistic one of bad/good or right/wrong.
When you take responsibility for the negative aspects of your life make sure you are vigilant in taking responsibility for all the positives in your life as well.
Make the concept of acceptance or ‘settling’ a desired attitude state. Rid yourself of thinking that it is a resignation to your fate.
Know that you are in full relationship with the Divine. It is not a 50-50 relationship; rather you are 100% invested and the Divine is also 100% invested.
Concentrate on getting clear of what you want and be vigilant on heading in that direction. After you address what you want address your obligations or your ‘shoulds’.
Become aware of how much of your energy is put into wasteful trajectories; like feeling guilty, pushing your pain away, or trying to rid yourself of unwanted and unchangeable events, physical limitations, or personality traits. Be curious and pro-active in redirecting that energy into an attitude of gratitude for the everyday beauty in your life and into areas that you are able to have a constructive affect.

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