For most of my life I have alternated between an admired version of myself, and a version I would rather disown. I was never sure which one I truly was. In times of accomplishment, I was exactly who I wanted to be, yet in times of stagnation, I wished I could be someone else.
The cycles were always the same. They began with dissatisfaction with who I was and a rejection of the parts of myself I disliked. Then I invested my inner resources in personal development. As I moved closer to the admired self, I felt I had finally solved the problem of being me. But in the peak of self-admiration, a perceived flaw would abruptly come into conscious awareness, and the veil of false actualization would fall away. Once again I was who I did not want to be. No matter how hard I fought to better myself, I could not defeat the enemy living inside.
The majority of us have a divide within. We create this divide unknowingly. We disown negative aspects of ourselves and embellish our positive aspects. We claim we want to be our true selves, but keep dividing ourselves further by pushing the admired self to the surface and the condemned self to the depths of our subconscious. This only increases the divide.
Self-help compounds the problem. Its very premise implies a scarcity of self that we must fill with novel strategies on how to solve the problem of being human. Feel like you’re not enough? Good, now listen to my advice on how to make yourself better. But we happily play along because we are invested in forever becoming the admired self. Self-help tells us emancipation from our loathed self is a real possibility. Are we being fed lies?
When you’re building a house, you need strong foundations to make sure it doesn’t collapse. If personal development is building the house of the self, then self-acceptance is the foundation on which it is built. But how many of us truly accept ourselves? And when does self-help ever ask this question before offering us house-building techniques?
True self-acceptance is the essential first step in any journey toward personal development. Without it, the house you are building lies on a rickety foundation that is unlikely to stand the test of time. But this step is often not considered. Instead, self-help ushers us to just start building, bigger and better.
Each time I focused my inner resources on personal development, I was building a bigger, more magnificent house. But I didn’t know what I was building it on — I was too focused on getting the damn thing built.
Self-acceptance is hard. It’s not as easy as saying “I accept myself” and moving on to the next step. To accept yourself, you must understand who you are accepting. To truly accept yourself is to truly understand yourself, which is why so few of us do. Deep introspection is difficult and is clouded with a heavy fog of biases.
“Who am I?” is up there as one of the most frequently asked questions of the Homo sapiens. As an obsessively introspective person, I would ask myself this question every day. The old cliché “you are whoever you want to be” was what I ended up going with. If parts of me I didn’t like surfaced, I would tell myself that we would soon do away with them. In reality, I knew exactly who I was. But my ego’s defense mechanisms would not allow me to acknowledge the truth.
You probably know exactly who you are, but your ego has placed blindspots in order to obscure the truth and present you with a more palatable reality. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung coined the term “shadow self”, referring to those aspects of our personality that our conscious ego chooses not to identify with. The ego creates the shadow self to protect us from harsh truths about ourselves. But paradoxically the more we draw attention away from our shadow self, the more powerful it becomes.
“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” — Carl Jung
The good news is that self-acceptance can reconcile us with our shadow self, which in turn leads it to have less power over us. Self-acceptance is important not only to our happiness in life, but to the sustainability of our personal development. By reunifying our divided self, we can build our house on stronger foundations.
The pathway to reunification
The aspects of our shadow self that have the most power over us are those we reject most strongly. What aspect of yourself leads you to ask the question “what is wrong with me?” This is often where the strongest resistance, and thus the biggest divide is.
In my case, it was that I was an introvert, but I saw my being drained by social encounters and need for solitude as pathological. Because my role models were always outgoing extroverts, I couldn’t accept that my social energy was so finite. But once I finally accepted this as a part of who I was, I found more comfort in my own skin.
Personal development does not hinder the capacity for self-acceptance. The issue lies in trying to develop yourself because you don’t accept fundamental aspects of who you are. So we must first focus on accepting our less favourable traits before we look to develop our more favourable ones.
Being able to accept our deepest insecurities is one of the most powerful things we can do. Openly admitting the character traits of our shadow self to others, even joking about them, can be very therapeutic. When confronted, the shadow self suddenly becomes a lot less threatening. By taking ownership of your flaws, you avoid spending your life being chased by them.
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True self-acceptance isn’t something you can tell yourself, nor something you can express through words. True self-acceptance is a feeling that no matter what happens, no matter who is around you, no matter what you have or do not have in your life — you feel you are enough. You already have everything you need by default, anything and anyone else is a bonus.