blog, Blog Posts

why you aren’t what you do

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.

As Dr. Russell Grieger discusses, unconditional self-acceptance can give you a sense of freedom.

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.

You can still be kind to yourself and accept yourself despite–or even because of– mistakes.

As part of OCD treatment, I have learned that I’m not my thoughts. Which is to say, my thoughts don’t define me.

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.

If your friend messed up, would rate their whole self or would you reach out and encourage them to fix what they’ve done?

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.

Rating our whole self is problematic.

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.

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