It’s hard to be kind to yourself. At least that is my experience, especially when difficult things happen.
Early on in my life, I discovered that there was a part of me that turned against myself when something unfortunate happened that l perceived to be my fault, perhaps a misstep or something that felt like a failure. The first time this became painfully obvious was when I was twenty-two years old and had just launched Sounds True.
It’s a long story, but the gist of it is that I decided it would be a terrific idea to produce and host a Soviet-American citizen’s summit for public radio as an extension of Sounds True’s conference-recording service. The broadcast was a chance for public radio listeners to hear Russian citizens in dialogue with Americans to illustrate how everyday people can become ambassadors of peace and goodwill. The broadcast itself was well done, and the content flowed seamlessly. There was only one problem, and it was a big problem: the translation feed did not come through to the broadcast audience. This meant when participants spoke in Russian (which was about twenty-five minutes of the hour-long production), listeners did not hear any English translation; they heard only the original Russian language. In other words, the live broadcast to tens of thousands of people was largely incomprehensible.
As producer and host, I was devastated and humiliated. People tried to console me: “It is good for people to hear a language that is unfamiliar. You provided a public service.” But inside, I felt like I wanted to die. Yes, end my life right there on the spot. I couldn’t take a full breath. I wanted to crawl under a rock and never come out. Instead, I crawled into my hotel bed (if there had been room under the bed, I would have crawled there), and l squeezed myself into a tight ball for about twentyfour hours. There was no comfort there, only a terrible voice inside that said things like “You should kill yourself now.” I made a decision at that time to never produce and host a live broadcast event again. The potential pain of that type of failure was too much for me to bear. I only wanted to work on projects that I could polish and make perfect (“perfect” being the operative word). It was just too painful to do something that carried with it the risk of public humiliation.
Years later, this event from my young life as a producer and host receded into the background, and with it, the pain. However, I was left with two important discoveries: first, that I was determined to design my life to avoid such “failures” at all cost, and second, that I had a terribly mean voice inside that responded to difficult situations by punishing me and declaring that it would be useless for me to continue living. To say this voice was self-aggressive was an understatement. This voice spoke to me in a way that I could never imagine speaking to another person, yet it lived in me and had the potential to turn on me if things didn’t go well.
As the years passed, I started to recognize this inner voice as a type of sub-personality (some people call it “the inner critic” or “the judge”) that seemed to have its own life. it would become active and vocal when something seemingly went wrong. This critical voice would even tear me to shreds over small and insignificant things, like cooking a meal for friends and putting too much salt in the food and then I would have a sleepless night listening to it berate me. “Really?” I thought, “Over something like this? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
With time, I started to take this voice less and less seriously, it was so out of step with the actual magnitude of situations. Through a lot of inner work, both in one-on-one therapy and on the meditation cushion, the voice gradually began to lose its power. I could still hear it, but it was no longer in charge of my state of being. Other capacities came on board, including the capacity to be kind to myself and offer myself comfort. I even became curious about this voice’s origin and purpose: What function might it be serving in the total ecology of my psyche? What were the emotions, and the accompanying physical sensations, that lay waiting for me underneath the voice? Could I turn toward those emotions and sensations with openness and curiosity?
I also became intensely curious about other people’s experiences with self-criticism and selfjudgment. How was it that some people made mistakes and viewed the entire experience as a learning opportunity? How could I become more like those types of people?
In parallel to my own growing curiosity about self-acceptance, I began working with people as a meditation instructor. In private meetings, people shared their innermost struggles with me. What often impacted me the most was how hard people were on themselves, how negative self-talk was more the norm than the exception. Very often, people had an overlay of self-judgment when they were in the midst of a difficult experience. Again and again, I heard people say, “I am suffering in this way, and I feel like I am a terrible person because I am suffering in this way.”
From those conversations, I saw that people judged themselves for so many different kinds of things for being too fat or too thin, for being too verbal or not verbal enough, for being closedhearted or too open and porous. People judged themselves about their past if only this or that had or hadn’t happened. People judged their sexual orientation or lack of a sexual orientation. People judged themselves for being too old, too this or too that, for not being “enough” of something or other. And people endlessly compared themselves to other people and mythic ideals. People had internalized voices of judgment about everything that they were and that they weren’t.
Working with meditation students, I also saw how self-judgment kept people from taking risks. It often felt like a lid that people used to keep themselves safe, small, contained, and underpotentiated. And this was painful to see how sensitive, good-hearted human beings often focus on what they supposedly lack instead of their beauty, strength, possibility, and power to create.
I started to see “unconditional selfacceptance”, being kind to ourselves no matter what is happening in our lives, as an immensely powerful life skill that most of us have not been taught.
I started to see that being kind to ourselves is actually a human capacity that changes everything. It changes how we treat ourselves day to day, how we take risks, how we love, how we create, and how we make space for what seems “unacceptable” in others.
Over time, I came to see being kind to ourselves as quite an advanced practice. I call it an “advanced practice” because I found myself in conversation with people who had been on a path of personal growth for decades, people who had been meditating or in therapy for years who still found it quite challenging to treat themselves with kindness when confronted with certain situations. And I wanted to know more about what makes self-acceptance so difficult for so many of us and, more importantly, how we can develop this capacity widely and broadly, individually and collectively, as a way to release waves and waves of kindness.
The Self-Acceptance Project was born out of this inquiry. Originally created for online broadcast hey, I started doing live broadcasts again! The Self-Acceptance Project originated as a series of interviews with psychologists, dharma teachers, neurobiologists, writers, and educators on the essential keys to being kind and compassionate toward ourselves, especially on the spot in difficult situations. The book you are reading now is derived from this original series of interviews.
The very good news that The Self-Acceptance Project delivers is that there is a lot to learn about self-acceptance that can be intensely and immediately helpful: accepting the part of ourselves that is not self-accepting, understanding how our brains are wired to look for what is wrong (known as the negativity bias), learning to immediately respond and talk to ourselves in selfloving ways when in the midst of a challenge, and more. The Self-Acceptance Project also helps us realize that feeling inadequate at times is not something unique to us; it is a feeling that many, many of us share.
When the broadcast of the original interview series was complete, I received hundreds of letters from people who listened and found the interviews extraordinarily helpful. What I learned from these letters is that people were immensely grateful that some of their favorite authors and teachers were not just offering their advice and techniques for cultivating self-acceptance, they were sharing their own struggles and journeys that had unfolded in their lives to help them develop self-acceptance first hand. The series was tremendously normalizing for listeners, and I hope this book will have the same impact on you. When we learn how our difficulties are shared, even by the people we admire (and sometimes “pedestalize”), we embrace our humanness. We see that our struggles are shared human struggles, part of the human condition. We have the opportunity to relax with being human.
I am convinced that the more accepting we are of ourselves, the more accepting we will be of other people. If there are parts of ourselves that we disown, push away, and deem unacceptable, then we will be unwilling and unable to make room to receive and embrace those aspects of other people.
Ultimately, the work of The SelfAcceptance Project is not just about you and me learning to work with ourselves in a loving and kind way. It is about learning how to relate to, and be with, anyone and I mean anyone in a loving and kind way. When we are able to be with our own difficulties and intense experiences that are seemingly unwanted, then we can be with other people’s difficulties and their seemingly unwanted experiences.
The Self-Acceptance Project is about having the bravery to open our hearts to ourselves and to everyone and everything.
When we develop a strong sense of selfacceptance, we become capable of such bravery. We may still hear critical inner voices, but they no longer hold power over us. We move forward anyway. We develop the courage to take risks and to stand in our truth because we become more confident that we can handle it if our risk-taking leads to disappointment or disapproval. We so thoroughly befriend ourselves that we can risk receiving criticism, looking like a failure, or suffering loss.
Brave people create, brave people speak up, brave people call bullshit “bullshit,” brave people bring their hearts forward and put their hearts on the line, brave people love outrageously.
May The Self-Acceptance Project help you become such a brave person!
WAKING UP FROM THE TRANCE OF UNWORTHINESS
Building a true sense of self-trust comes from making contact with the deeper parts of our being, such as the truth of our loving, even when we sometimes act in ways we don’t like.
Many years ago, I began to focus on the urgent need for self-acceptance. In fact, I called it radical self-acceptance, because the notion of holding oneself with love and compassion was still so foreign.
It had become clear to me that a key part of my emotional suffering was a sense of feeling “not enough,” which, at times, escalated into full-blown selfaversion.
As I witnessed similar patterns in my students and clients, I began to realize that the absence of self-acceptance is one of the most pervasive expressions of suffering in our society. We can spend huge swaths of our life living in what I call the “trance of unworthiness,” trapped in a chronic sense of falling short.
Though we’re rarely conscious of it, we continually evaluate ourselves. So often, we perceive a gap between the person we believe we should be and our actual moment-to-moment experience.
This gap makes us feel as if we’re always, in some way, not okay. As if we’re inherently deficient. A palliative caregiver who has worked with thousands of dying people once wrote that the deepest regret expressed by her patients is that they hadn’t been true to themselves. They’d lived according to the expectations of others, according to the should, but not aligned with their own hearts.
That speaks volumes. We can move through our days so out of touch with ourselves that, at the end, we feel sorrow for not having expressed our own aliveness, creativity, and love.
So much of the time we’re simply unaware of just how pervasive that sense of something’s wrong with me is. Like an undetected toxin, it can infect every aspect of our lives. For example, in relationships, we may wear ourselves out trying to make others perceive us in a certain way smart, beautiful, spiritual, powerful, whatever our personal ideal happens to be. We want them to approve of us, love us. Yet, it’s very hard to be intimate when, at some deep level, we feel flawed or deficient. It’s hard to be spontaneous or creative or take risks or even relax in the moment if we think that we’re falling short.
From an evolutionary perspective, a sense of vulnerability is natural. Fearing that something’s wrong or about to go wrong is part of the survival instinct that keeps us safe, a good thing when we’re being chased by a grizzly bear! Although this sense of vulnerability of being threatened is innately human, all too often we turn it in on ourselves. Our self-consciousness makes it personal. We move quickly from “Something is wrong or bad,” to “I’m the one who’s wrong or bad.” This is the nature of our unconscious, selfreflexive awareness; we automatically tend to identify with what’s deficient. in psychological parlance, this scanning for and fixating on what is wrong is described as “negativity bias.”
For most of us, our feelings of deficiency were underscored by messages we received in childhood. We were told how to behave and what kinds of looks, personality, and achievements would lead to success, approval, and love. Rarely do any of us grow up feeling truly loveable and worthy just as we are.
Our contemporary culture further exacerbates our feelings of inadequacy. There are few natural ways of belonging that help to reassure us about our basic goodness, few opportunities to connect to something larger than ourselves.
Ours is a fearbased society that over-consumes, is highly competitive, and sets standards valuing particular types of intelligence, body types, and achievements.
Because the standards are set by the dominant culture, the message of inferiority is especially painful for people of color and others who are continually faced with being considered “less than” due to appearance, religion, sexual or gender orientation, or socio-economic status.
When we believe that something is inherently wrong with us, we expect to be rejected, abandoned, and separated from others. In reaction, the more primitive parts of our brain devise strategies to defend or promote ourselves. We take on chronic self-improvement projects. We exaggerate, lie, or pretend to be something we’re not in order to cover our feelings of unworthiness. We judge and behave aggressively toward others. We turn on ourselves.
Although it’s natural to try to protect ourselves with such strategies, the more evolved parts of our brain offer another option: the capacity to tend and befriend. Despite our conditioning, we each have the potential for mindful presence and unconditional love. Once we see the trance of unworthiness, how we’re suffering because we’re at war with ourself, we can commit to embracing the totality of our inner experience. This commitment, along with a purposeful training in mindfulness and compassion, can transform our relationship with all of life.
It’s helpful to understand that when we’re possessed by fearful reactivity, we can be hijacked by our primitive brain and disconnected from the neuro-circuitry that correlates with mindfulness and compassion. We become cut off from the very parts of ourselves that allow us to trust ourselves, to be more happy and free. The critical inquiry is what enables us to reconnect to regain access to our most evolved, cherished human qualities.
The gateway is the direct experience of the suffering of fear and shame that have been driving us. Not long ago, one of my students revealed that she felt as if she could never be genuinely intimate with another person because she was afraid that if anyone really knew her, they’d reject her outright. This woman had spent her whole life believing, “I’ll be rejected if somebody sees who I am.” It wasn’t until she acknowledged her pain and viewed it as a wake-up call that she could begin to stop the war against herself.
Once we recognize our suffering, the first step toward healing is learning to pause. We might think, “I’m unworthy of my partner’s love because I’m a selfish person.” Or, “I’m unworthy because I’m not a fun or spontaneous person.” Or perhaps, “I don’t deserve love because I always let people down.”
We might experience feelings of shame or fear or hopelessness. Whatever our experience, learning to pause when we’re caught in our suffering is the critical first step.
As Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl famously said: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” When we pause, we can respond to the prison of our beliefs and feelings in a healing way.
The second step toward healing is to deepen attention. It’s important to ask, “Beneath all of my negative thoughts, what’s going on in my body, in my heart, right now?” When we begin to bring awareness to the underlying pain, I sometimes call that the sense of “ouch.” You might even ask how long it’s been going on and realize: “Wow. I’ve been feeling not enough for as long as I can remember.” If that happens, try placing your hand on your heart as a sign of your intention to be kind toward yourself and your suffering. You might even tell yourself, “I want to be able to be gentle with this place inside me that feels so bad.”
TAMI SIMON founded Sounds True in 1985 as a multimedia publishing house with a mission to disseminate spiritual wisdom. She hosts a popular weekly podcast called Insights at the Edge, where she has interviewed many of today’s leading teachers.
The Self Acceptance Project. How to Be Kind and Compassionate Toward Yourself in Any Situation
by Tami Simon.
get it at Amazon.com