I don’t know if I would have been able to get through the past ten months if I hadn’t stumbled upon some research last December by a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin.
From the micro (trying to figure out what path would be best for me after graduation once I earn my B.A. in psychology and English) to the macro (coronavirus cases are surging to new highs in the U.S., there’s, um, kind of an incredibly important election that is already going on), anxiety and stress have been pretty up there recently, although that’s been the case for almost the entirety of 2020. At the start of all the disruptions from COVID-19 back in March, I really thought it would be a testament to my resiliency. I would be able to cope in spite of all the shake-ups.
While I’m still here, of course, and able to write these words, I have to admit I’ve had moments where I’ve been deeply disappointed in myself. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, my tolerance for distress and frustration plummeted shortly after I stayed at home. I spent the vast majority of mid-March to mid-June at home, a quarter of the year that’s just a blur in retrospect, and even after some elements of my life returned to a new normal, I was still struggling. Doomscrolling took over my online habits on Twitter and Reddit, counterbalanced by spending way too much time on YouTube watching random videos for the sake of distraction. I spent, on average, just four hours each night sleeping, versus eight back in January and February.
The thing is, and it’s weird to think about, it could’ve been worse.
Back in December, back when I was still a fan of pursuing high self-esteem, I was flummoxed by the research that the concept wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Naturally, I was in denial mode for some time about it. How could self-esteem, so trumpeted by society and in my mind for quite a while, be so . . . disappointing? Not to mention, if it was used just to compare yourself to others, harmful, as the research was showing?
With that, I began looking at self-acceptance, but there was another aspect to alternatives to self-esteem that I stumbled upon: self-compassion. More specifically, I found the research of psychologist Kristin Neff, a pioneer in self-compassion.
Being kind to myself has never seemed all that normal to me, sad as that sounds. Even bringing up the less helpful theme of self-esteem in therapy had proven difficult for me to do, so in hindsight I’m surprised I ever came around to self-compassion.
Self-compassion has let me pick myself up after a lot of low points this year. In fact, the lows I had in 2020 are worse in some regards to what was going on in years like 2017 and 2018 when my depression was far more severe. Certainly part of the difference can be credited to cognitive behavioral therapy, which has helped me realize that what happens to me does not define me, that I can reframe what I believe and accept about myself. At the same time, I am indebted quite a bit to self-compassion.
As a result, I want to pivot these next few blog posts to exploring self-compassion in more detail. My first few posts spent a lot of time discussing self-acceptance, which can be a prerequisite, if you will, of being kind to yourself. Because after all, if you can’t accept yourself no matter what, it can be harder to extend compassion to yourself the same way you do others.
Of course in these posts, I’m going to be leaning a lot on the work of Dr. Neff, considering how much she has explored and researched this field. This week, I’m going be starting to regularly commit to what she describes as the self-compassion break, and next Sunday I’ll report on how it goes.
More importantly, I hope this allows you to at least entertain the idea that self-compassion might be for you. Rather than beating ourselves up about mistakes or comparing ourselves to others so we can feel good (or sometimes bad) about our behavior, self-compassion lets us commit to our values without hanging on conditions. I might also add that even if self-compassion somehow didn’t help us follow our aim, we would still be deserving of it considering the basic principles of self-acceptance–you’re okay enough to be kind to yourself.
I’ve seen the phrase on rigid plastic yard signs dotting my neighborhood, plastic cups that are soon tossed into overflowing trash cans, and t-shirts where the slogan is slapped across the back. Not to mention in countless #mentalhealth tweets I’ve stumbled across on my Twitter timeline.
Yet for all this prominence that the idea that “you are enough” seems to have earned in recent years, at least in the popular imagination, I still wonder if we really understand it in its entirety.
A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about how you don’t have to do anything to be enough, to be acceptable. That’s one of the core tenets of unconditional self-acceptance. After all, if we place conditions on how “enough” we are, that’s going to create a lifetime of futile striving where we will never find ourselves to reach a baseline where we can tolerate, much less be kind to, ourselves.
What about a different angle to this viewpoint, though? What I previously blogged about may have given you a sense of freedom considering that you no longer have to prove yourself to . . . yourself. It was a feel-good sort of blog.
However, I don’t really consider unconditional self-acceptance to be on the same dimension as your feelings or emotions, although as I’ll explore in future posts, it can help with emotional awareness and regulation. There is another aspect to this view of doing and being in unconditional self-acceptance that may seem strange, alien, even uncomfortable because it goes against quite a bit of our cultural “coding,” as it were, the programming that society gives us: you are not what you do.
Or, to put it another way, just for the sake of grammatical variety and clarity, what you do is not who you are.
I’ll let you think about that for a second, just to formulate an initial reaction to it.
I admit that it still sounds weird for me to say it or even write in WordPress, but there it is. I want to point out that with this statement and discussion of it, I’m intending to go beyond the dangers of “work-ism,” which has been mentioned in far more interesting articles. (In case you don’t know, work-ism is basing a major share of your identity or even all of it on your job; fun fact: that’s not going to be good for your mental health.)
Instead, by “you are not what you do,” I’m claiming that you are not the same as your behavior, and vice-versa.
I’ll use myself as an example because I’m willing to pick on myself, and I don’t think anyone else would want to volunteer for this. Although parts of my obsessive-compulsive disorder make me fear being a bad person, I really don’t know if I’m a good person or a bad person. I just don’t know. I have done good things, at least “good” as defined by my values and generally those around me, and, unfortunately, I’ve done my share of bad things.
My first disclaimer here is that I’m not saying that your behavior doesn’t reflect at least a part of you. I’m not making any excuses, and too often we look for excuses when we’re afraid to accept ourselves. Psychology tells us that our behavior can come from numerous sources, including our emotions, our core beliefs about ourselves and others (the Beck model of depression is an elegant representation of this idea), and our values. As a result, we can say that what you do is informed by aspects of yourself. The opposite isn’t true, though: your whole self isn’t dictated by your behavior.
As part of depression treatment, I realized that it’s more accurate to say that I feel empty, I feel like I’m worthless, I feel like I’m a burden (because of those thoughts telling me just that) rather than drawing the arrow down to a core belief of I am empty, I am worthless, and I am a burden. Therefore, I am not what I feel.
What makes it so radical to extend this concept of separating one’s sense of self (and, thus, acceptability and enough-ness) from thoughts and feelings to include behavior?
I’m a huge Psychology Today fan, so I feel compelled to share with you two articles that will give you more insight into what I’m talking about before I give examples from my own life: Beverly Flaxington’s post “You Are Not Your Circumstances” and Dr. Russell Grieger’s brilliant “Unconditional Self-Acceptance”, both of which I researched prior to writing this article so as to better understand this topic.
The former article discusses the role in situations and our perceptions of those situations in influencing our behavior, rather than that behavior defining us. The latter post uses a beautiful metaphor of a crate full of fruit (trust me on this) to explain to readers how it is your traits and behaviors do not translate back to your entire self.
Now, about myself.
In no particular order, I recognize within myself problems with overconfidence, a sense of entitlement, mediocrity in my reading and writing abilities despite my wishes to believe myself otherwise, a tendency to compare myself to others at the worst moment, this nagging idea that I’m somehow special (even though, of course, I’m not), and active listening and emotional intelligence still aren’t quite my fortes even though I’ve read so much about them as a psychology major. This isn’t some sort of confession, it’s just realization and recognition that there are issues with some of my behaviors.
Part of self-acceptance is coming to a curious, non-judgmental awareness and tolerance of those behaviors, no matter how hard it might be to look at them clearly. I don’t think a year ago at this time I would ever have realized, much less admit, that I have problems with entitlement.
I still think of myself, I’m still aware that I’m acceptable. I accept these behaviors and at the same time I accept myself as being more than them.
Numerous articles on unconditional (and conditional) self-acceptance, including the one by Dr. Grieger, discuss the problems with global self-ratings based on a singular aspect, quality, or behavior of ourselves.
Dr. Leon Seltzer’s Psychology Today article “Does Conditional Self-Acceptance Keep You From Being Happy?” warns of how we often think of ourselves as only as good as our most recent behaviors, using our fickle, volatile self-esteems as barometers for judging our entire selves. One moment we’re feeling great about ourselves because we just donated to a homeless person on the street near a gas station, the next we’re hating ourselves because we got a case of road rage and gave the finger to a driver leaving said gas station who we thought was trying to cut us off. Did our overall value just skyrocket and then suddenly plummet within those moments? Did our acceptability change? Did our sense of being enough go anywhere?
Of course not.
What you do is not who you are; therefore, what you do does not define your enough-ness, your ability to accept yourself no matter what. (Um, that’s kind of the point of what “accepting yourself no matter what” is, anyway.)
You are who you are. That’s enough. You were, you are, you will be. You were enough then, you are enough now, and you will be enough down the horizon. To rate your whole self, and then reject yourself or pump yourself up because of that rating (although, let’s be honest, most often it’s rejection) just doesn’t make sense in this framework of the self.
Another part of OCD treatment is coming to face the core fear behind the obsessions that lead to so many, many compulsions to try to reassure the sufferer. My core fear isn’t easy to explain. Sometimes I think of it as being afraid everyone hates me. That’s not quite the truth, though. It’s more . . . what if absolutely no one accepts me? Everyone thinks I’m garbage, I’m nothing. It’s beyond hatred, and to some part of my brain it’s worse than that. My core fear is that of universal isolation, rejection.
I have to ask myself, though, couldn’t I stand that? My OCD tells me that I wouldn’t. I’m in ERP (Exposure and Response Prevention) treatment, though. From ERP, I’ve learned that I can tolerate a flood of anxiety and fear. Those chemical and psychological responses after all, are not myself. Not my whole self.
With my core fear, too, even if that were to come true—which it could, sense ERP is all about tolerating the possibility and uncertainty of those fears—from something I did or will do, I know that I wouldn’t rate or reject my whole self from what others see in me. It would be awful to be disconnected and isolated from everyone and anyone, but I could still accept myself unconditionally.
If you were okay enough to exist as-is, then you are okay enough to be. If you were valuable enough just as yourself starting out in life, then you don’t need to attach anything to your sense of value, to your sense of you.
This is why, time and again, self-esteem just doesn’t cut it (a common theme as you’ll see in this blog). As Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps discusses in her article “Self-Acceptance: More Substance Than Self-Esteem,” relying on self-esteem means avoiding so many aspects of ourselves and instead focusing on doing what we consider to be good things so we can think of ourselves as good people.
Self-esteem is the fair-weather friend that abandons us as soon as we slip-up behaviorally. Using self-esteem would’ve been disastrous for me in facing OCD, because there’s no way I could stand myself if I had to both face my core fear and still seek reassurance that I’m a good, highly esteemable person. Self-esteem loves the idea that you are what you do, so long as what you do follows what is deemed beneficial, as Dr. Seltzer further discusses in his post. But whereas self-esteem falls apart as soon as your behavior errs, self-acceptance doesn’t root itself on such a faulty connection. Your whole, global sense of self and the enough-ness and acceptability that comes inherently with it exist independently of whatever it is you do.
If anything, that’s the singular message I tell myself whenever I’m facing challenges with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
For those of you who might follow me on Twitter, you know I’ve been diagnosed with OCD since October of last year; my symptoms from it, including compulsions that were becoming out-of-control, had been worsening throughout the spring and summer.
A huge part of what I’ve done in terms of treatment in the past twelve months has been Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), a subset of cognitive behavioral therapy and the gold standard treatment for OCD. What I’ve found through my challenges and success with ERP is a new way of understanding unconditional self-acceptance. Which is to say, while OCD has been an awful experience for me, I’m grateful for the ways the treatment for it has given me insight on how to approach self-acceptance and self-compassion.
Concerning OCD, something I have to keep reminding myself is that progress isn’t linear. (I even printed out an inspiring illustration saying just that, but it’s lost somewhere on my desk . . . oops.) This past Friday, I had a significant wakeup call that I want to be more consistent with doing ERP. I had an unexpected trigger (or exposure) to a long-standing OCD theme that I had assumed was old business. After all, I had made leaps this past year with doing the planned exposures and resisting the compulsions to it. The sheer frequency of the intrusive thoughts from this theme had plummeted. Something that used to take up my headspace as soon as I woke up and continued throughout the day was now extinct. Or so I thought.
We often use the word “rude awakening,” but, if anything, the setback I had on Friday afternoon was more of a kind awakening. The incident informed me that it would be a good way to commit to my values if I were to do some more planned exposures on this theme and to write down some ways I could avoid giving into the compulsions. I do want to emphasize that the way I framed my self-talk in the aftermath of this unplanned trigger was so that I wasn’t pressuring myself into doing more ERP homework just to be enough, to accept myself; that would go against the mindset of this blog.
One of the biggest, and simultaneously easiest, ways I can keep in mind while facing OCD—and what any of us can use when anxious or frustrating or distressing situations come up—is not only that I can stand this moment, no matter how awful it feels, but also that I’ll remain at the same baseline of acceptance, of being enough, as I was before those emotions and as I will be afterwards.
Going through countless sessions and homework practice with ERP has given me a hands-on view of self-acceptance in action—sometimes just talking about self-acceptance can be too philosophical, too abstract. Every time I’ve made myself face my obsessions and not act on the compulsions to reassure myself, it wasn’t just trust in the ERP process that was helping me, it was recognizing unconditional self-acceptance.
Living with uncertainty (who’s going to win the election in November?), dealing with anxiety or intrusive thoughts (like with my OCD), and facing a frustrating situation (I had to take three attempts at a psychological statistics test yesterday because the first two times, my grades were disappointing) are never fun. But self-acceptance allows you to cope with them in a way that doesn’t lead to safety behaviors or distractions and instead empowers you to understand just how much it is that you can, after all, stand while still being enough as a person, just like everyone else.
That’s how long our world has been turned upside down because of COVID-19. Here in the U.S., that topsy-turvy feeling is probably going to extend well-into spring of next year, with cases and, tragically, deaths expected to surge into the winter months.
There has been absolutely nothing good to come out of this pandemic—and I always cringe when I read tweets or articles trying to spin this awful event into somehow positive terms—but the side effect of having to stay at home for about two months (late March through late May) did prompt in me quite a bit of reflection. Nothing too existential, considering that with my depression, those sort of meditations unfortunately can lead to suicidal thoughts.
I did, however, realize something so simple it’s kind of stupid when I say it out loud: you don’t have to do anything to be enough.
Now, this being a blog about self-acceptance (and self-compassion), that should be pretty inherent. That statement is analogous to the heartbeat of this blog.
What I want to emphasize in this post is the word “do” in that sentence.
I’m an American, and specifically a Midwestern American–a big part of the culture here is doing. If you aren’t doing, you are nothing. In this way, you become what you do. Until what happens when you can’t do that anymore?
That’s what we faced in lockdown this spring.
We couldn’t do the things we were used to doing. Now, of course any time a routine is thrown out of whack, it’s normal to get cranky about it. But I think what we went through in the spring, at least for me, touched deeper than that. A lot of what I had enjoyed doing pre-pandemic (reading, writing fiction) that I still could do under lockdown (thank goodness for ebooks) . . . well, those got chucked out the window as well. In hindsight, it’s as if I went from doing less to doing nothing at all.
This was in no way a pleasant period of time. My grades were on a shaky basis, my sleep cycle was beginning to be a trainwreck (hello midnight doomscrolling for updates on COVID-19), and my junk food intake levels jumped way higher than I had ever thought they would.
That said, I came to understand what a lot of the researchers and experts on self-acceptance (like Tara Brach) had been telling me and others all this time: you don’t have to do anything to be enough. Even outside of the basic psychology of not having to always be doing, doing, doing, articles like these have helped shift perceptions away from trying to be productive amid unprecedented times.
Maybe you’re like me. Spring was a blur spent staying inside and just let each day go by without writing that next Great American Novel, or teaching yourself basics of graphic design, or anything else society and social media have pressured us all into thinking we must do if we want to be enough, if we want to be acceptable.
Other than coursework, honestly the only “productive” thing I did that I can remember was rearranging the order of apps on my phone about once a week so I could get the aesthetic just right.
At the end of it all, though—the end of staying inside all the time, I mean—I can see that I was still, at core, the same Ethan that I am now writing this out. Did I somehow during that hazy stretch of spring become less than enough? Or unacceptable? Did you? Did anyone else?
As I mentioned earlier, a lot—I might argue a vast majority—of our identity is tied down in what we do. But doing isn’t the same as, well, being, as any good article on mindfulness should tell you.
What you do is what you do. But if it defines all of you, your entire sense of self, than you risk feeling like you’re less than enough when you aren’t doing just that. For instance, pre-pandemic, I used to define myself in terms of numbers of words bashed out on Word and pages that I had read; if I didn’t meet those goals, I was beyond disappointed—I honestly felt that there was something wrong with me and that I needed to meet those targets each day if I wanted to accept myself.
This relentless pursuit of conditional acceptance through the aura of “productivity” has reached a point where we have to be busy if we want to, well, be in the first place. (For more on our suffocating culture of busyness, I’d highly recommend checking out what Dr. Lissa Rankin wrote about it in Psychology Today.)
So, from the perspective of accepting ourselves unconditionally, we can be kind to ourselves for not achieving all that maybe we had thought we would have during those months spent at home, or in any moments in our life where it feels like we must do X if we want to one day think of ourselves as enough. Because that day is already here.
The title won’t be much of a hook. Or it will be too clickbait-y.
Some of my paragraphs will be too long, the lines wending on and on, swallowing up more of the screen than I had planned. Your eyeballs will wander when they see how much text I’m throwing at them.
Or my paragraphs won’t be long enough, and all your eyes will focus on is the vast swaths of white on the webpage background until, irritated, you decide to click away.
Those are the worries I’m having about this blog post before I even get to the actual content.
I keep writing, though, in spite of my awareness of the relative mediocrity this post will fall into. I’m not a professional blogger, nor do I have any special credentials when it comes to creating outstanding online content. I’m just a typical internet user.
What helps me keep going through all these obvious fears, doubts, and not-so-appealing realities of writing this blog is . . . the point of this blog itself–the ideas of unconditional self-acceptance and self-compassion. (Although I wasn’t expecting my introductory post to be quite so meta.)
Imagine you’re growing a plant. I have a succulent staring back at me as I write this, so let’s say it’s a succulent. Now, instead of watering this plant and giving it sunlight and ensuring that it’s planted in the right kind of soil, I yell at it. 24/7. In addition, I decide that if the succulent doesn’t reach a certain height within a ridiculously short amount of time, I’m going to cut it down and search for another plant.
The succulent is doomed.
Hopefully this sounds pretty absurd. Unfortunately, though, this is what us humans have to put up with–from ourselves.
We put contingencies on our acceptability, our level of “enoughness,” and promptly attack ourselves, believing this is the best strategy for personal growth and wellbeing. (In the opening chapters of her book Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach drives a similar point home in much more eloquent language.)
This blog will look at an alternative: looking at yourself as being unconditionally enough, and also allow yourself without condition to be compassionate and kind towards yourself.
You don’t need this blog. At least, in the sense that you don’t need anything to ensure you’re acceptable, including a blog saying you’re acceptable, because your self-acceptance can be present all the time, throughout your life. Nothing this blog offers or suggests is something you must do.
By no means am I saying you shouldn’t do anything with your life.
That would, after all, be imposing another “should” on your life. I can attest that, because of my depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, I have spent spans of multiple days doing nothing but eating junk food, sleeping, showering, and Googling various phrases as a compulsion to (in vain) relieve my obsessive thoughts. Those have been miserable experiences I hope to never re-live. But did they at any point make me any less than enough? Did they somehow mean I no longer deserved compassion from myself, just because I wasn’t being productive or committing to any of my values?
Indeed, using the concepts of unconditional self-acceptance and self-compassion are what helped me get back on-track with my values after having those troubles with OCD and depression. Renowned psychologist Carl Rogers once spoke on the seeming contradiction between accepting yourself and wanting to change and grow as a person.
This blog will explore all the aspects of life–and there are too many of them to list out here without exhausting your eyes–where shifting the paradigm towards self-acceptance and self-compassion would make such an impact for you.
None of the ideas presented in this blog are coming out of a vacuum. Indeed, I owe most of this blog to a single post from 2008 in Psychology Today by Dr. Leon Seltzer called “The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance,” and on the research of self-compassion pioneer Dr. Kristen Neff, whose website I can’t recommend enough. With all my posts, I’ll be citing the research of experts in psychology. It’s not like I would trust one random internet user’s opinions on these topics to be acceptable. Rather, what I’m hear to do is to bring awareness of these ideas to more people and to share my experiences with those concepts so that you’re able to get a more concrete look at them in practice.
Again, you don’t need this blog.
But if you’re ready to start a fundamentally new way of looking at yourself, one that gives you a sense of no longer being afraid to, well, live, then read on.
(P.S.: for another incredible examination of the basic philosophy behind unconditional self-acceptance–with some aspects of self-compassion present in it as well–I absolutely can’t recommend this article by cognitive behavioral therapist Dr. Russell Grieger in Psychology Today enough.)