How to Accept Yourself

947908_92637448Have you ever heard one of those near-death stories where someone recounts an out-of-body experience? I just love them, especially when they include details I didn’t expect. For instance, I’ve heard several previously nearly dead women say that when they were ostensibly peering down at their bodies from a distance, those bodies looked unexpectedly pretty. The physical form they’d seen as less than lovely when it was “me” proved quite appealing when they saw it as “that lady down there on the floor.” 

Why is it that most of us, like these women, obsess about our own appearance? Even my most gorgeous friends feel depressingly imperfect, while the rest of us sit around contemplating either a makeover or suicide, depending on how far we stray from our physical ideal. 

These self-judgments can’t be mere aesthetics, or we’d evaluate ourselves and others on the same objective criteria. More likely, it’s a social impulse, born of every person’s longing for acceptance and fear of rejection. Something in the human psyche confuses beauty with the right to be loved. The briefest glance at human folly reveals that good looks and worthiness operate independently. Yet countless socializing forces, from Aunt Clara to the latest perfume ad, reinforce beliefs like “If I were pretty enough, I would be loved.” Or the converse: “If I feel unlovable, I must not be pretty enough.” 

Such thoughts are seductive because they relieve us of the responsibility of developing self-worth (turning it over to some longed-for or long-suffering lover). Inevitably, though, that someone—parent, friend, partner—doesn’t love us enough, or we somehow fail to sense their love. We feel rejected, abandoned, alone. It’s unbearable. Realizing that we’ve surrendered our self-esteem to others and choosing to be accountable for our own self-worth would mean absorbing the terrifying fact that we’re always vulnerable to pain and loss. As long as we think the problem is our bodies’ failure to meet a certain physical standard, we have something concrete that we (or our local plastic surgeon, who does a fabulous tummy tuck) can work on. 

And so we dive headfirst into the endless project of improving our physical selves. No cosmetic strategy ever fulfills our hopes, since what we hope for—the knowledge that we’re acceptable—is almost completely unrelated to physical appearance. We begin to think thoughts like If only someone loved me, I could accept myself. It’s a Catch-22: Before we can feel loved, we must feel beautiful, but before we can feel beautiful, we must feel loved. You can swim down that spiral for decades, maybe all the way to your grave (from which you can brood about your sudden realization that your looks were actually okay all along). There’s another way to go, and I suggest you use it.

You may have noticed that all the “defects” I’ve been discussing are located not in the body but in the mind. It’s the mind that mixes up beauty and acceptability, that misperceives the cause of emotional pain, and that sends us down the class IV rapids of self-loathing. Your mind creates a lot of your supposed appearance problems, and it can resolve them, almost instantaneously, if you’ll let it. 

The Big “If”

Our ideas about love and attractiveness are so primal, our need for belonging so intense, that most of us are loath to abandon our favorite beliefs on these issues. If you’ve ever let yourself feel lovable and lovely, only to be deeply hurt, you may see accepting your own body as a setup for severe emotional wounding. After all, you let down your guard before and look what happened! You’ll never go there again. I understand your resistance. That’s why the first step in changing your self-evaluation is careful, logical risk assessment. 

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? 
The strategy of feeling physically unattractive actually does preclude the pain of (a) naively trusting that we’re good enough, (b) being horribly wounded, and (c) feeling alone, unacceptable, and hideous. Believing we’re ugly cuts straight to the chase, making sure we feel alone, unacceptable, and hideous right from the get-go, and without reprieve. If you don’t believe me, you have only to look back at your own history. How many times have you told yourself you’re unacceptable? How many times did this lead to happiness, freedom, and perfect relationships? All right, then. 

Here’s a new hypothesis: There’s no risk-free way to love. The possibility of being devastated is always there, but the possibility of joy exists only when you put your battered heart right on the table by trusting that you’re lovable. I’m not asking you to do this all the time, or even in large doses—at first, anyway. I’d just like you to experiment with a new mind-set, a few minutes at a time. 

Find a Way to Change Your Mind 
Even though believing in your own adequacy is actually less risky than feeling unacceptable (haven’t we just proved this with the mighty power of logic?), this thought can still be terrifying—or, if you’re the cynical sort, impossible to get your head around, logic be damned. That’s okay. You just need to set clear, safe-feeling time boundaries within which to demo this idea. Find a place where you’ll be undisturbed for ten minutes. During this brief time, push your mind to attack its own protective strategy of self-denigration. Write down several examples of:

  • Occasions when someone loved or praised you, even though you didn’t look perfect.
  • People you’ve loved even though they didn’t look perfect.
  • Stunning people who act so awful they begin to appear ugly.
  • Famous people who are dazzling despite physical imperfections.
  • Artists’ work that reveals charm and grace in places many people see ugliness.
  • Women who are so perfectly at ease with themselves that they set a new cultural standard of goddessness.

If you’re deeply mired in self-loathing, it might take you a while to come up with examples for a given topic. Stick with it. You’re pushing yourself to make new associations, to jump the tracks of your habitual protective self-condemnation. You’re not just thinking new thoughts but actively unthinking the illogical, painful, imprisoning thoughts you’re used to. This is difficult. So what. Do it anyway—for ten lousy minutes. Tomorrow, do it again. 

Experiment with Dope (As In Dopamine) 
If you attack your preconceptions for just ten minutes at a time, you’ll eventually feel a subtle loosening, a little wiggle room as your mind begins relaxing its grip on the idea that you’re not so hot and not so lovable. Before moving on, it helps to add some psychoactive chemicals. Some people achieve social confidence only when they use alcohol or drugs. I can never remember to buy these things, but I always have a few mood-altering substances on hand—or rather, in my head—and so do you. 

For example, dopamine increases when we face something unfamiliar and difficult: working a crossword puzzle, knitting a complicated sweater. Epinephrine is released when we sustain moderate exercise. When we take a chance (for example, by expressing an unpopular opinion or displaying something we’ve created), we produce more epinephrine. All of these hormones can increase our confidence enough to help us release our old, supposedly protective thoughts and behaviors. 

So once you’re used to unthinking your physical self-image, give yourself a little chemical boost to compensate for the emotional shields you’ll be dropping. Complete a challenging task, work out until you sweat a bit, take a risk that makes your heart speed up, or all three. You’ll feel more confident for several hours. Use that time for real-world experimentation. 

Test-Drive a New Self-Concept 
With a head full of crumbling misperceptions and happy hormones, go out in public and pretend for, say, half an hour that you’re lovely enough to be loved. Now go to a coffee shop and have a tasty beverage. Notice how your body moves when you trust that you’re good enough. Not America’s Next Top Model good enough, just good enough. Feel the difference in your facial expression—or if you can’t get a handle on that, then try to gauge the energy you exchange with other customers or the barista. Most important, pay attention to how other people are reacting to you. 

If you’ve done the homework (steps 1 through 3), you’ll find something miraculous beginning, like the first tiny green crocus shoots emerging from snowy earth: Most people will accept you. They’ll be attracted to you in a variety of ways. The more you release your defensive, self-conscious inner critic, the more you’ll get smiles, courtesy, friendliness, all kinds of positive attention—not from everyone, but from most people. From enough people. 

Yet this connection between self-acceptance and attractiveness become an upward spiral, just as the conflation of rejection and ugliness has been a downward one. After some practice in coffee shops, try accepting yourself while chatting with a friend, then a colleague, then someone who intimidates you. One crucial caveat: Save your family of origin for last, possibly for never. Much protective self-criticism stems from growing up around people who wouldn’t or couldn’t love you, and it’s likely they still can’t or won’t. In general, however, the more you let go of the tedious delusion of your own unattractiveness, the easier it will be for others to connect with you, and the more accepted you’ll feel. 

Understanding and dismantling defensive beliefs about your own ugliness is a process that frees you to unreservedly accept yourself, your body, and other people. The resulting open heart is the one perfect feature that really will protect you emotionally by giving you a sustained sense of belonging. While not everyone will always love you, you will see abundant, observable evidence that you’re always lovable. That means the skin you’re in has always been, and will always be, beautiful enough.

29 replies
  1. Stu
    Stu says:

    This was a remarkable article; with such insight into the positive affirmations to obtain self validity. Ironically, I have been dealing with these issues on Facebook: Acceptance, fear of rejection(Friends), and ultimately self validity. Thank you for sharing this; it is exactly what I needed to hear at exactly the right time. Thank You.

  2. paula
    paula says:

    this morning I saw a woman crossing the street in front of my car. the part of my brain that is mean and critical, said, she’s not so pretty. Then she turned and smiled at me. The smile was radiant.

    I stared after her, realizing she had something..and thinking, that’s what my dad meant when he said I was beautiful when I smiled. I thought it was rubbish.

    But I saw her beauty this morning.

  3. Karen
    Karen says:

    Martha! Thanks for giving me a “laugh out loud” moment this morning! I was amused to read your contrasting phrase: “thinking about a make-over or suicide?!”
    This phrase, however absurd, very well has been reality for hundreds of thousands of females raised under social forces: no one will like(love)you if you don’t look good, or if you are not thin! We have spent decades, (and thousands of dollars), on thousands of products that promise to give us “the look!” I also have spent over 4 decades analyzing and evaluating myself. After all this time, I have learned, I am likable, and loveable, and it has nothing to do with my looks! The ideas listed in: “Find A Way To Change Your Mind” are insightful ways that can help us “turn the upside-down CD” in our minds “right side-up!” This will enable us to acquire confidence in remembering the goals we have accomplished, which will fuel our challenges yet to come. It is not based on Looks! This is based on… Who We Are!

  4. Emmy van Swaaij
    Emmy van Swaaij says:

    What a beautiful well written article that I read at the right time. Last friday I spoke my thoughts that went counter to those of a mentor and I was surprised about the amount of energy that was released in me afterwards. Now, reading your article, I understamd that by saying my honest thoughts I released my own drug.
    Thank you Martha for sharing these important thoughts!

  5. Linda
    Linda says:

    One thing I have always been puzzled over – in Oprah Magazine, you share coaching space along with Dr. Phil and Suze Orman. They both have huge photos, and yours is always quite small. Is it just a matter of two over-sized egos, or what? Your decidedly authentic self shines every month, and I think your smiling face could be at least a bit bigger (and theirs a whole lot smaller).

    I greatly enjoyed your article. Having just turned 60, I am well aware of the aging process. For three years, I kept an attractive, polished photo as my profile picture on Facebook. Back in December, I starting showing more authentic photos of me, eye wrinkles and all. Realized that I am fine with how I look, and that I still look pretty good.

  6. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    What I love about this action plan is that it is so highly adaptable to a myriad of other ways we think we are not good enough. I walked away (mostly) from the beauty myth years ago but the intelligence and competence myths/monsters still linger and taunt. Thank you for sharing.

    Linda – I think the relative size of pictures in the O magazine has to do with layout and word counts. Martha always has much more to say that the other two columnists – she often treats us to a seven course meal of insight, rather than a snack. But I might be biased! 😉

  7. Heather Irwin, MA
    Heather Irwin, MA says:

    A wonderful and insightful article. I will print this and use it with clients. In the past I have asked my friends to send me positive affirmation emails and then kept them in a folder and read them as needed. It helped so much and I also journal positive self love and acceptance to myself; and I don’t use negative language about myself.

  8. Julie
    Julie says:

    Wow… that’s all I can say -just ‘wow’. Thank you so much, Martha, for these hits of insight and wisdom!

  9. Linda
    Linda says:

    Regarding the magazine, I had not noticed the comparison between Martha and the others photographs so much as that Martha’s articles always come with interesting and beautiful art that adds to the depth and meaning of the article. In my mind, it is another way of showing the difference between the kind of writing Martha gives us and the “advice column” style of writing from the other columnists. Thank you, Martha.

  10. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Great article, and the most important detail that applies to me is the crucial caveat of leaving family for last, possibly never. Difficult situation as an adult, the lack of compassion and love from divorced parents and a sister growing up is only magnified as an adult. I repeat to myself that as a woman, as a single parent myself to the most beautiful and intelligent young lady God could have ever blessed me with, that I am strong, beautiful, and soooo worth loving. And I project that onto my daughter as well. I have found the positive words and wisdom from God, Martha and others have given me the inner strength to let go of family because I have realized that they will never change their negativity, controlling and anxiety ridden ways no matter how positive of a light I live my life and raise my daughter. Just because they are family doesn’t mean I live my life and raise my daughter according to their standards…that’s between God and I not them. Thank you Martha for your words and wisdom!

    • Diana
      Diana says:

      Bless you Rachel. You are raising your daughter in a healthy environment. I finally let go of my entire family over the last year. All the lies, denial, fear and everyone avoiding the elephant in the room are no longer things to be endured. True freedom – PTL!

  11. Heather
    Heather says:

    Martha, Thank you. You are a true peacemaker, healer, and gracious teacher. I appreciate being able to access your articles – you speak to the heart of the matter and offer practical technique and application on so many subjects. A couple days ago I felt a weight lift from my shoulders like a heavy coat. I have been cleaning my attic, and came across some treasures, especially a book of poetry and writing that spans from ages 12 – 28. Revisiting my writing was a birth this time. I’ve heard versions of it thousands of times but this time I know it for myself: Being abandoned and unloved as a child was not my fault. My parents are wonderful human beings; so very human, whole and flawed. But as a child, because my parents ignored, belittled, and abandoned me, I decided there must be something wrong with me. This idea became a cornerstone in the foundation of my life! Today I understand that just because my parents were operating from deeply wounded systems doesn’t mean I was born with some kind of flaw that made me unloveable and unworthy. I am loveable. I am enough. My life and my body are gifts to me and to this world. It is my honor to accept my human role on our precious Earth. PEACE!

  12. Pam
    Pam says:

    I made a lot of progress with this stuff when I watched the TED Talks by Brene Brown, about vulnerability and shame. Very important pieces of the puzzle.

    Then, go on to watch the YouTube videos of her with Ophrah on Super Soul Sunday, as well as every other video of her you can find!

  13. margo
    margo says:

    Lovely article thank you …………..i will be sending this to a few people who will hopefully resonate with your words. The seeds will be planted.

  14. Jane
    Jane says:

    “SPOT ON!” You wrote this one for my birthday,
    Thank you for reminding me!
    By the way, no need for near death experience, I just have to remember my size at 20, gorgeous and acceptable, BUT STILL I found myself ugly and unacceptable back then… It makes it nice to get older hey? 🙂

  15. danny jones
    danny jones says:

    well the thing is we are only loved for our appearances. physical attractiveness is what draws us to each other, like it or not, its human behavior. people are judgemenal, they know what they view as beauty and not beautiful. im physically fit 30 year old male but dont have an attractive looking face and that is something we as humans are attracted to. we all are judged on facial appearances it becomes our identity not who we are personlaity wise but the look of the growth on your neck determines how people see you. ive hardly had friends and never even dated the only few girls i liked are scared of me, even though im a really nice guy. looks win over personality. even though im beautiful on the inside i will always be ugly because of the outside. and thats why people commit suicide because you dont really get that normal life when your constantly judged and you start to really start to judge yourself.

    • Amy
      Amy says:

      There is always somebody for everybody in this world.Danny you are right 99% of people will judge you for your looks, i.e. facial appearance. But don’t give up, if you are religious, trust in your higher power, he/she has a plan for your life and you have to have faith. Keep radiating your inner attractiveness and someday that special girl will see it and look beyond your physical and see the beauty inside. Women like that do exist, I have been told I look like a model but I feel unworthy inside because of my childhood/abandonment issues. I trust in my God to give me what I need and I wait patiently for the person who will be what God intended for me, and I will not base it on physical appearances but how he makes me feel and if he is a good person.Just tell yourself you are worthy, because you are!

  16. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    “One crucial caveat: Save your family of origin for last, possibly for never.” I absolutely love that you acknowledge that dealing with family is a whole other beast to contend with. And I love that open up the idea of giving ourselves permission to let those family entanglements be pushed to the side in the beginning, or forever. Because let’s be honest, trying to revision yourself is hard enough with strangers and friends- but a dysfunctional family is just,,, ugh. Thank you.

  17. Angelita
    Angelita says:

    This was like drinking pure cleansing healing water – thank you – I sent it to daughters, friends, sisters….

  18. Lynne
    Lynne says:

    Love this! When I am in that place of unconditional love of myself and others, I am not even thinking of my body or physicality. Only when I get triggered by “old stuff” Do I go into contempt of myself. I imagine at those times how I would feel without those thoughts….it’s liberating.

  19. Nicole Lewis-Keeber
    Nicole Lewis-Keeber says:

    So much value in this article…your wisdom and actions are what led me down the coaching pathway. I can use these insights for myself and my clients. Thank you for always being so giving of your talents.

  20. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    Yes YES YES OH MY GOD YEEESSS! (This article makes me want to go full Meg Ryan restaurant scene from When Harry Met Sally!!!)

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