Any move to improve your life, or anything else, must begin with a good understanding of what is true right now. Not how you would like it to be, but how it actually is.
Psychologically, this is called self-acceptance.
If you wish for your life to be different, whether in terms of action in the world, or in terms of internal emotional and psychological experience, you must first accept that you are as you are right now.
This is a step that people often try to skip, since what they want is not what is true right now, but an ideal that they hold for themselves, a vision of what they would like to be true.
Idealism involves envisioning something as you would like it to be, as you think it should be, according to an idea that you have. There is a useful role for idealism: it employs our imagination toward what could be; it gets us to look in a direction toward which we would like to head. This is essential to any sort of growth or progress.
But there is also a danger to idealism: it can get us to ignore reality in pursuit of an imaginary world – an idea. In so doing it disconnects us from the world as it is, with all of its wonders and tragedies, and from which we draw the very real resources we need to improve.
Part of what I am seeking to do in these columns is to offer skills and techniques that can help you to improve your relationships, your effectiveness, and your overall well-being – not in some wishful, grandiose fashion, but in very real ways, moving you toward a better life in fact.
The most important ingredient to any of this is to accept what is true about yourself and the world you live in right now.
I do not mean by this that you should resign yourself to the way things are. I mean by this precisely what Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) meant in his quote that forms the title of today’s column.
To move something in the world, you must first see it as it is. In order to make changes in your life, and in the world around you, you first have to understand and accept yourself as you are, and to see and accept the world as it is now.
It is from that foundation and vantage point that effective and benevolent change can be pursued.
Let’s start with accepting yourself as you are. You might have goals you are striving for; you might want to have a life that is more joyful, less painful, more expansive, less fearful; you might want to improve your relationships or change your work so that it is more satisfying to you. The most important step you can take is to acknowledge and accept the truth of your life as it is now.
If you get scared easily, you get scared easily. That’s the truth.
If you have a temper that troubles you, you have a temper that troubles you. That’s the truth.
If you find it hard not to be sarcastic with your mate or your kids or your friends, then accept that this is so.
If you are sensitive and take things too personally, admit it, look that fact in the eyes, and accept that this is so.
If you have skills and abilities that you are not using, and it’s difficult to acknowledge that you’ve been resting on some laurels for a while, acknowledge it, and accept it.
If you love your mate, your kids, your friends so much that it’s overwhelming sometimes and you zone out to the Internet or get too involved in other things for fear of the intensity, then accept that.
You have to start there. Otherwise there is no chance of making any movement toward the sort of changes you would like to bring about in your life.
Change is like one of those maps you find in malls or campuses that show you all of the possible destinations, but also include a big arrow pointing to a spot that says, “You Are Here.”
Without that arrow, you would not know in which direction to proceed. Could be left, could be right, could be just behind you. In order to orient yourself toward your goals, you have to have some idea of where you are in relation to those goals.
If you try as best as you can, and you just cannot acknowledge and accept the truth of what is so right now, then start by accepting that you are not willing or able to accept the truth right now. That will give you some foothold on what’s true. Sit with that for a little while, and you may be able to take a step closer to more truth.
You can also use the following sentence stem to explore this: “It is difficult for me to admit…”
Write that down at the top of a sheet of paper, and then without thinking much, or editing or repeating, quickly write down ten endings. Don’t mull them over, just write. Do the same thing each day for a week, and I think you’ll find you have more awareness of what you’ve been unwilling to accept about yourself.
But self-acceptance also involves another element: a quality of being friendly toward yourself. Be kind to yourself, be understanding of yourself. Remember that you are human, and do not fall into the dangerous side of idealism that tempts you to see what you want to see, and not what is. To do so will get you nowhere.
It is not effective or useful to berate yourself, to nag yourself, to beat yourself up over how you are. You might be angry with yourself, you might feel disappointed with yourself, you might want very much to be different in some ways, but you will not make changes for the better unless you have a spirit of friendship toward yourself.
Think of that mall or campus map. You will get to the destination you are looking for because you wish to go there, not because you hate where you are. Hating where you are will just get you to run from where you are, but not toward anything in particular. And in your haste, you’re likely to miss the opportunities and resources all around you, like a blur of shops or rooms at that mall or campus.
Hating yourself, or some element of yourself will likewise simply spur you to want to get away from yourself, or some part of yourself you do not like. But you cannot actually get away from yourself, any more than you can step outside of your physical body. You need yourself, with all of your shortcomings and disappointments, to go toward what you would like.
It is the resources within you now, whatever they may be, that will carry you forward.
This is why you need to nurture and develop a sense of kindness and friendship with yourself, a sense of understanding of the difficulties of your life and gratitude for the blessings of your life.
To help this part along, a few more sentence stems – same instructions as above:
“Something that it’s difficult for me to accept about myself is…”
“If I were to be 5% kinder to myself…”
“I am becoming aware…”
Find out what is true about yourself first. Search for the places that you avoid seeing in yourself and look them in the eye, kindly, gently, as a friend who holds you to your deepest strength and goodness.
Obey reality, your personal, subjective reality. It is in conversation with what is true that you can reach for the kind of life you would like. You must first accept your own nature in order to move it.