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What acceptance looks like when you’re not in “doing” mode

Winter break.

The classic time for me to dread each year as the sudden shift in how I spend my time throws me off my routine. Not that I spent 2020 following a consistent schedule . . . but that’s for another post when I’m feeling more forgiving of myself. The stretch of days where I feel empty and disconnected. It even caused me to create this meme:

However, this year, winter break has provided me with insight about self-acceptance.

First, this break has let me realize that my identity can’t be bound up with doing and accomplishing. If you think of yourself based on just what you do, then a pivot in how you spend your time toward a vacation is going to derail your sense of self. At the same time, you’re going to be stuck in a mindset of celebrating accomplishments as a reflection of your self-worth.

Which means that when you’re not doing, doing, doing, you feel lost.

In addition, winter break has allowed me to take a step back and ask why I’m doing a lot of things in the first place.

Too often, I’m finding that I’m just acting either out of emotional reasoning—a sense of I feel, therefore I behave—or a belief of conditional acceptance. I’m only as good enough as my last achievement. Neither of these mindsets have been health for me, and you might relate to them as well.

For a lot of us, the language we use on ourselves about what we are or aren’t doing is (hopefully) lightyears away from what we would tell others. Would you tell a friend that was struggling with a project that they were less of a person to you, that they were unacceptable?

Yet I tell myself a lot of those messages on a near-constant basis.

Last week I listened to a podcast episode about self-respect. The host, Kimberley Quinlan, LMFT, does an incredible job discussing how self-respect often is about showing up for ourselves, even when it can be difficult.

I wanted to extend this concept to everyday tasks I face and how I think of those tasks.

One approach we can use is the concept of being endothermic (like a reptile that has to sunbathe to warm up). This seems to be the more popular mindset I’ve found in our society. We think that what we do affects how “enough” we are, and the more we do, the closer to being “enough” we will be. The less we do, though, when we’re unproductive for myriad reasons (people do get sick every now and then, but our culture doesn’t know what to do with it), we somehow become less acceptable, less “enough” as a person.

Or we can take an endothermic approach. Just as—under normal circumstances—a human is always 98 degrees even if it’s 45 degrees outside, we can recognize ourselves as already being enough, no external accomplishments required.

For instance, in writing this blog post, I can take either approach. I can view this as a do-or-die act of conditional acceptance . . . or I can think of it as just committing to a value of creativity. I’m going with the latter route because I want to follow my aim while also knowing that I don’t have a sense of acceptance to lose in the process. It’s a bottom-up mindset, whereas conditional self-acceptance would tell me that I have everything to lose, even my enough-ness, if this blog post doesn’t succeed.

What does accepting yourself look like to you when things, such as how you spend your time, change? How do you think of yourself, your whole self, during those times? Although a lot of our behavior might not change too much through unconditional self-acceptance, we can approach those behaviors from a more promising, respectful place. 

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What OCD treatment taught me about self-acceptance

You can stand it.

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.

Uncertainty is never fun, but self-acceptance can help you grow used to facing it.

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.