Accepting the perfectly imperfect
January is often a time for self-reflection. We may be asking questions such as, "What can I improve about myself/my life, and what unhealthy habits can I change?" However, have you noticed that when we reflect on the things that we feel are ‘wrong’ with us, we begin to feel bad about ourselves? There’s often guilt that we aren’t ‘enough’ or doing enough. We might feel defective and ashamed. Oftentimes we aren’t even aware that we are judging ourselves. We just know that we feel ‘bad.’
Ask yourself truthfully, "What would my life look like and how might I feel if I accepted myself right here, today, for who and what I am?"
I know that I feel a certain sense of relief and a self-compassion towards myself. Go inwards for a moment and ask that question.
Each 1st January is the same:
- “I’m going to stop drinking.”
- “I’m going to start exercising.”
- “I’m going to start that diet. Again.”
The gyms are full. The plant-based foods are flying off the supermarket shelves. The yoga classes have waiting lists.
And then by February or March at the latest, we have reverted to old maladaptive ways and habits. Maybe we have developed a small habit that we enjoy in that time; meditation for 10 minutes each morning or a spin on the bike for half an hour at the gym. These are habit changes because we want to become healthier human beings and they are all fine to try to adopt. The difference between these is that they are behaviours, not actually who we are at our core.
"The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change."
- Carl Rogers
Accepting ourselves does not necessarily mean giving up on adopting healthier habits; if we are feeling unhappy about a certain habit that we have adopted and feel that a small amount of change would help, then we can make those changes. If we are talking about habit changes then yes, absolutely adopt a healthier attitude to food and exercise, for instance, but allow yourself a break now and then. Accept that there is no such thing as perfect!
We can find a balance in change and acceptance.
Moving away from the idea of habit change and more towards acceptance, let us now look towards other examples of where this might be useful.
We might feel that we don’t get along with a family member that we ‘should’ get along with. Maybe we blame ourselves and think, “It’s my fault. I’m wrong. It’s because I said/did....” Well, how might it feel if you accept that both of you have differing opinions, beliefs and personalities? What would that relationship look like if you accepted your differences, each other's flaws, and the imperfections within the relationship? After all, no one is perfect.
We often want to hide or reject parts of ourselves that we see as bad or flawed. When we see our whole selves as bad or unacceptable to others, we are rejecting ourselves. We can’t accept that part of ourselves because we see ourselves as so deeply flawed. When I suggest to my clients that there might be another way; that there might be a part of ourselves that we don’t fully like and that that part of ourselves might be a defence or coping mechanism, then we can begin to work with compassion and acceptance.
One of the clients that I have recently been working with around the idea of accepting who she is was surprised:
“You know, since I stopped trying to change who I am, I've been able to manage everything so much better. I allow that things are going to take longer because I’m not that organised. I leave for the train earlier and catch it on time. I allow that some days my desk is messy. I allow that sometimes my head is muddled because I haven’t slept. I accept that not every day I’m going to be at my best. And, like you said Sam, I relax when I accept myself. There is no self-judgement.”
Many of my clients struggle with the idea of accepting themselves for who they are. It somehow feels wrong to them to accept that we are all flawed, imperfect, human beings. They believe that what they see as being human needs to be changed.
When we consider ourselves imperfect or defective in some way, we begin to judge ourselves and this is what causes such suffering in our minds. We compare ourselves to others and feel like we fall short. This immediately makes us feel ‘other’ and we begin to feel bad about ourselves.
A life’s work
Accepting ourselves little by little is a slow process. It’s really our life’s work because we might often catch ourselves judging ourselves or telling ourselves that we are stupid, defective or unworthy. And when we do, then we can go easy on ourselves. Would you speak to a friend or loved one in that way?
There is a sense of peace and inner knowing in accepting yourself for truly who you are. I work with my clients on a step-by-step approach. The first thing is to notice how you talk to yourself. This is a crucial and mindful element in noticing that inner critic and when you are judging yourself. Then we can begin to challenge the unhelpful thoughts, noticing all of the time how we feel when we begin to be gentle with ourselves and more caring.
The story of the golden Buddha
In 1957, monks in Thailand monks made a beautiful discovery that illustrates perfectly the perfection within us all. At the monastery, monks were moving a statue of a clay Buddha when cracks began to appear in the plaster. The monks realised that what lay inside of the clay was a golden Buddha; the statue was made of gold, not clay.
Inside of us, we all have gold; before the world made us put on armour due to harsh criticism from parents, from traumatic experiences and feeling the need to be other than who we are. When we release the need to be something other to fit in, we can truly become ourselves; we can truly accept ourselves.