It isn’t that I was consciously aware of not liking myself during a period of my adolescence. I was simply angry, really angry. And I didn’t know what to do about it. “It” was several things actually. I turned into a tall skinny kid as I entered adolescence and got teased about being so skinny by peers, parents and others which made me terribly self-conscious. Then, my parents divorced when I was 14 which shook me to the core. That was followed within a few months by the death of my grandfather with whom I was very close. Shortly after that my family packed our bags and we moved from a small rural community, where I played varsity sports, to a big city. I tried out for sports in my new high school and found out I was not good enough to play varsity sports. My world had crashed and I felt abandoned, rejected, humiliated, isolated and like a complete failure. Like many adolescent boys, I did not know how to express my feelings. But, I knew how to express my anger verbally to my mother. I could see the helplessness in her eyes which only made me feel worse.
As I progressed through adolescence and into adulthood, I grew out of being the tall skinny kid. But, as I began to become more self-aware in adulthood, I realized that I was also carrying some of the negative judgments and beliefs about myself from my adolescence. And, I was still carrying a lot of the anger. It didn’t seem to matter whether I looked at my physical self or inside myself, there were parts of me that did not feel acceptable. The judgments I had about my physical appearance made me self-conscious. The negative judgments I held inside about myself felt, well, embarrassing and humiliating. They were things I wanted to keep covered up and buried. Things that felt huge to me at the time, but in reality, were mountains made out of molehills once they saw the light of day.
What part of me do I believe is acceptable now? All of me, some of me, none of me? It is a work in progress. I accept myself as I am each day and work on self-forgiveness and acceptance as I become aware of negative judgments about myself.
Acceptance is often confused with liking. To accept self is to allow it to be without criticism or judgment. It is a simple concept, but can be difficult in practice since our world is consumed by judgment. You’re not tall enough, short enough, weigh enough, skinny enough, happy enough, rich enough, smart enough, the right color, the right gender, the right age, loved enough, skilled enough, fast enough, tough enough, strong enough, pretty enough, handsome enough… I cannot imagine I need to go on.
Do you make the decision that you are acceptable or do you wait to be told that you are ok by a parent, a spouse, a friend, or some article or advertisement in the media? How much of your life is consumed with ensuring that what you do, what you say, what and how much you eat and how you dress will be acceptable to your peers and others so that you can be ok with self, at least for this day?
Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable. How much makeup must she wear in order to cover up the freckles or the new pimple so no one can see she is not perfect? How much time, energy, and money will she spend ensuring she looks “acceptable”? Are her teeth white enough? Did she just hear the bathroom scale groan because she dared eat a cookie or some ice cream? Is there any part of her that she simply ignores because she really doesn’t like it or perhaps even “hates it”?
“What is that wart on your nose” I ask? “What wart” you say? “I don’t have any warts on my nose” you exclaim! “The one right there on the end of your nose” I point out. “It’s the one that keeps driving your behavior because you keep trying to cover it up”. “The one you’ve been hiding from for... how many years” I ask?
Conversations like the one above are typically reserved for story books. But our experiences sometimes leave us with hurt feelings, negative judgments and self-criticisms. We carry those with us and they can negatively influence our feelings of self-acceptance, self-worth and drive our behavior. Our warts, so to speak. Few, if any of us, live our lives free of the mistakes and experiences which take a toll on our self-acceptance and self-worth. In my experience, it is a rare individual who makes a mistake and can immediately recognize it and forgive him or herself for the error in judgment and action. It is even more rare to discover the individual who accepts self without reservation, warts and all.
“But, but, but…I cannot accept myself until I lose weight” you say. “Then I will be ok. Then I will be able to accept myself” you cry, “but not until then”. “Until I lose the weight, I just hate myself, my body” you state angrily.
Our anger at, despair about, and even hatred of self or some part of self keeps the negative criticisms and self-judgments alive. We feed it and even grow it by focusing our energy on the “wart”. Change is made possible and easier by acceptance. When you stop feeding your negative judgments and criticisms about self with anger, despair, and hatred they wither and lose their power and then you can decide what, if anything, you want to change. But, making a change in self when you are constantly feeding it with negative and hurtful energy makes the change much more difficult if not impossible.
Allow yourself to be at peace with whatever “it” is and end the internal judgmental war. You simply start by recognizing the anger, judgment, or criticisms going on in your own thoughts and take your thoughts to something more pleasant without a fight or more self-criticism. Do this each time you recognize you are being self-critical and soon enough the criticism will begin to slow down and wither away because you are not keeping it alive.
The icy mountain of frustration and anger I felt as a teenager and young adult melted with each act of self-acceptance and self-forgiveness. The internal struggle is gone. The discovery and recognition of another “wart” is no longer met with fear, judgment and self-criticism, but instead with the actions of acceptance. Personal change is no longer driven by fear and criticism, but rather by a desire to become a better person, a healthier person, a more whole person. I hope you will join me in your own journey.