What if you really are perfectly fine just as you are? Hang on…what?
Could it be that you are completely acceptable without
- losing the last 5 kilos; or
- improving your downward dog; or
- getting a promotion; or
- becoming more mindful; or
- curbing your impatient nature; or
- driving a faster car; or
- going paleo; or
- perfecting your serve; or
- finding your true love; or
- throwing a better dinner party or learning a foreign language, or getting therapy, or reading the great philosophers, or completing a triathlon, or giving more to charity, or getting a bigger house than The Joneses…..
What if you are quote unquote perfectly imperfect?
Professor Kristin Neff of the University of Texas at Austin has devoted the bulk of her recent career to scientifically investigating the concepts of self-esteem verses self-acceptance. So, what’s the diff?
Well, traditional self-esteem is based on the notion that we get to feel better about ourselves by being better. We improve our self-esteem by increasing the size of our breasts, getting a better grade at school, flying business class, wearing designer clothes, having less wrinkles, and so on it goes.
Thankfully, Neff’s research has highlighted the dangers of this approach. These include a couple of small things such as the creation of a generation of narcissists forever striving to appear wonderful (as opposed to actually being wonderful) with a competitive and thus ultimately alienating social interaction style, and in most cases a lack of success. After all, there will always be someone better than us…and there will always be someone worse, though we rarely stop to consider that!
Conversely, self-acceptance asks that we improve our self-assurance by recognising and accepting our unique profile of strengths and weaknesses.
It is harmonious with the long-held idea that literally ‘no-one is perfect’ and it could be a wise plan to embrace this fact. Once we have made peace with our personal inadequacies, we no longer have ‘hot buttons’ that are available for others to press. And that can make us feel very calm and secure indeed.
But wait…do horrors await us? What if we become a bunch of self-satisfied complacent fatties forever doomed to binge-watching Netflix whilst munching food purchased under the Golden Arches? Or worse, what if people believe that it is okay to behave in unethical ways in the name of embracing their darker sides?
Interestingly, this outcome is completely unsupported by the research. Far from enhanced complacency, instead we find that people who approach their faults in a kindly manner actually tend to acknowledge and work on those faults. This is obviously far preferable to flat-out denying problems, as people who come from a self-esteem based perspective are likely to do. From weight loss to sports performance to people with schizophrenia managing psychotic symptoms, self-acceptance and its close cousin, self-compassion are showing great outcomes.
My client Rose was stunned when I floated the idea that she may be completely wonderful just as-is. The product of emotionally abusive parents and a narcissistic husband, she had been told her whole life that it was her fault if someone was critical or aggressive with her. So Rose set out on a lifelong journey to perfect herself. This was not ego-based, not at all. It was because she yearned to milk a little human kindness from the people in her life. It’s rather sad isn’t it? And yet many of us can relate.
As you have probably already guessed, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Rose. She is an accomplished, hard working, funny, multi-talented, kind person with whom I always enjoy spending working. Of course, it is true that part of the reason she has such a diversity of interests and has attained some heady heights is because it was part of her quest to become acceptable to others. However, the never-ending search has ultimately failed to be successful, since Rose has continued to be abused, and therefore to secretly believe that she is unacceptably defective.
The take home message is that we will never, ever become acceptable to those with an abusive nature. How else after all can they feel superior to you? Roll Elle MacPherson, Mother Teresa, and Richard Branson into one super-human and an abusive person will find a way to illustrate that the person is unattractive, unsuccessful and a bully. Really!
When Rose considered the literally thousands of things she had worked on to become acceptable, from constant dieting, to self-improvement courses, to keeping the house perfect at all times, to socialising with people she disliked, to learning Cantonese, to accepting the blame for all of her husband’s problems, she began to laugh wildly.
It dawned on Rose that she had danced to the tune of these abusive people her whole life, and would continue to do so until she threw down her self-improvement tools and did one simple yet super-difficult thing: accept herself. She had no terrible dark side. She had a tendency to be sloppy and indecisive. Hardly something to be tormented and abused about. She does not steal, set fire to schools, or abuse children. She is merely human.
Maintaining a tongue-in-cheek approach to the non-toxic faults humanity can help us to appreciate the unique quirkiness of each of us. I personally find this so much more loveable than bland perfection. We can learn to accept good-naturedly that our beloved partner who is such a wonderful father and good provider is also useless in the kitchen and far from a snappy dresser. And we can do this while also refusing to accept outright abuse.
What if we all stop trying to be better than each other and stop instead to look at the beauty of ourselves, as well as the good hearts and good intentions around us? What would happen? The research would suggest that we would be much happier, and way more effective at life itself. We would also be more willing to engage with one another rather than compete, and perhaps the modern lurgy of loneliness would be slowly strangled. What a sweet thought!
What are you willing to work on accepting about yourself rather than ‘fixing’?
If you are interested in more on this topic, check out Kristin Neff’s great TED talk ‘The Space between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion’. I believe that you will find it 19 minutes well spent.